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Unions fighting to save McGill’s Conservatory of Music

Raad Jassim expected 30 people to join him on June 28 to protest McGill University's decision to close its Conservatory of Music. Instead, more than 100 supporters showed up carrying signs and musical instruments. Jassim, president of the McGill Course Lecturers and Instructors Union (MCLIU), was moved to tears recalling the spontaneous jam session that erupted at the rally outside the Schulich School of Music.

"Everybody showed up," Jassim said of the rally that he timed to occur at the same time as the Dean's town hall address announcing the closure.

"They didn't go to his town hall because in the town hall [the Dean] will say 'You're fired, we have no space, we don't have money and you're costing us money.'"

"Those are the skills that we are teaching," said Jennifer Bell, who taught jazz at the Conservatory for over 30 years and played her saxophone at the rally said. "We're teaching our students to get up and not necessarily have a sheet of music in front of them and to be able to make music in community." Bell also created the Save McGill Conservatory Facebook page, which quickly racked up more than 800 followers imploring McGill to reconsider the closure.

Housed within McGill's Schulich School of Music, the Conservatory of Music is a community program that has provided students of all ages with private music lessons since 1904.

In its June 20 announcement, McGill cited space constraints, high operating costs, and declining enrollment as reasons the program was shuttered at the end of August. Approximately 100 MCLIU instructors lost their jobs due to the closure and, according to Jassim, there was nothing in the collective agreement to protect them. Members of the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) and the McGill University Non-Academic Staff Association (MUNASA) were also affected.

In an email, Debra Yee, MUNACA's Vice President of Communications called the university's decision to close the Conservatory "shameful."

"By abruptly terminating the Community Program of the Schulich School of Music, many future Montreal students will be denied affordable access to musical education and employment opportunities—for committed teachers in need of steady work—will be lost," she wrote.

An ongoing petition has garnered more than 2500 signatures from students, faculty, lecturers, instructors, parents, and community members who oppose the closure. But so far, the McGill administration is refusing to budge.  

"The Schulich School of Music will be forming a working group to look at sustainable ways of furthering our commitment to community engagement in the future," wrote McGill media relations officer Claire Loewen, in an email. In the meantime, instructors may continue teaching privately, she said, and the School will help facilitate communication with prospective students by creating a web page containing the names of past Conservatory teachers.

MCLIU is now reaching out to public figures like Montreal mayor, Valérie Plante and Quebec Minister of Culture, Nathalie Roy and is planning a meeting with Suzanne Fortier, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill to discuss the closure. When a date is agreed on, the union says it will organize to present her with the petition.