McGill Residences Need Harm Reduction and Anti-Oppression
McGill Residences Need Harm Reduction and Anti-Oppression
McGill Floor Fellows (upper year students who live in Residence and support First years) are currently negotiating a new Collective Agreement with McGill. Floor Fellows are bargaining for a number of things that will improve not only their working conditions, but the wellbeing of all students who live in Residences. One such proposal made by the Union was to include the “Statement of Principles and Values”, a document intended to hold both Floor Fellows and McGill to a set of ethical practices that will make residences safer, into the collective agreement. McGill refused, so the Union changed its proposal to instead request that McGill commit to some key values. These values include:
- Role Modelling;
- Peer Support;
- Student-centered approach;
- Harm Reduction;
- Anti-oppressive approach;
McGill has refused this proposal.
In particular, we are concerned by McGill’s disregard for anti-oppression and harm reduction, the lack of which we believe is actively harmful for staff and students.
Anti-oppression refers to a commitment to counter oppression in all its forms. For Floor Fellows, this means thorough and meaningful training around anti-racism, LGBTQIA+ resources and support, a commitment to increasing accessibility, and tools to combat all oppression wherever it may exist in residences. Anti-oppression benefits all students, so why won’t McGill commit to it?
McGill is also refusing to commit to harm reduction. Harm reduction is a widely proven theory and practice where substance use is met with compassion and support rather than judgement and punishment. Basically, drug and alcohol use will happen either way, but an environment that centers harm reduction will result in safer use and better outcomes for users. Harm reduction and anti-oppression are deeply intertwined. Punishment for drug possession or use disproportionately targets racialized, disabled, queer and working class or low income communities. 
In the residence context, harm reduction looks less like punishment and more like supporting students to make healthier choices around drug and alcohol use. Harm reduction promotes open communication and education on safer ways to use, and a non-punitive approach when help is needed. If a student experiences an overdose but fears “getting in trouble,” they may hesitate to call for help - which can be life threatening.
Safety Issues on Campus:
Workplaces without adequate anti-oppression training are less safe. Floor Fellows need the tools to combat oppression in residences and use their positions of influence to model better behaviour for impressionable first years. Reducing oppressive behaviour in residence will have ripple effects throughout the entire McGill community.
Over the past few years, harm reduction has been eroded from McGill residences. Floor Fellow training barely mentions harm reduction, and access to life saving tools like Naloxone and drug testing kits has been increasingly restricted for staff and students in residences. Despite McGill University’s current claims to promote harm reduction[2,3],recent changes to the Code of Community Living contradict this. Student Housing and Hospitality Services now police how much alcohol students may possess in residence, and mandate that residence employees take detailed records of residents’ drug use.  The university deleted their web page previously dedicated to harm reduction. When questioned by the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU) Legislative Council, the McGill Senate offered no response. 
Larger Context and Support:
There is an urgent need for harm reduction in Canada. Canada faces an opioid epidemic that has taken 17,602 lives between January 2016 and June 2020. Top public health officials like Theresa Tam, the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, have called for increased work based on harm reduction to save lives. 
In April of 2021 SSMU that represents all 25 000 undergraduates, unanimously approved a new SSMU policy on harm reduction. The motion explains the context for the policy, “in response to the recent discontinuation of harm reductive practices within Student Housing and Hospitality Services and Student Services, this motion seeks to formalize and strengthen the SSMU’s commitment to harm reduction through the adoption of a Harm Reduction Policy.” This policy was approved following numerous calls from student advocates in support of these principles and practices. 
For years, students across Canada have called for better mental health care. The mental health of university students and young people has now suffered even more due to the pandemic, youth reporting the greatest decline in mental health of any age group. [10, 11] People living with mental illness are twice as likely as other Canadians to experience problematic substance use.  By adopting harm reduction we prioritize the mental health of our communities.
McGill claims that these values do not impact work conditions, but we disagree. Harm reduction is not only a public health issue, but a workplace safety issue too. By including these values in the Collective Agreement, the employer cannot unilaterally remove them from residences, which they have been attempting to do over the past few years. A collective agreement that includes Harm reduction protects Floor Fellow’s working conditions, and the health and safety of the entire McGill Community.
- McGill University must endorse and apply harm reduction and anti-oppression in its student services
- McGill University must include the “Values and Principles” including harm reduction and anti-oppression in their Floor Fellow Collective Agreement
- McGill University must ensure material and educational support for harm reduction, namely the availability of naloxone training and supplies to all residence buildings and staff as well as other key campus partners.
- Like other Canadian universities, McGill must adopt a policy that supports evidence-based harm reduction principles aligned with the 8 principles outlined by the National Harm Reduction Coalition.
 For instance “The War on Drugs” initiated by President Nixon targeted Black and communities of colour at every level of the criminal justice system. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 2010.