From Alpha to Zeta: Investigating the dark side of Greek life

The good, the bad, and the ugly of McGill’s fraternities and sororities

Written by Abby McCormick, Student Life Editor
Design by Sofia Stankovic

Content Warning: Mentions of suicide, sexual assault, eating disorders, racism, antisemitism, homophobia, and xenophobia

McGill boasts a reputation as an independent university, where no one holds students’ hands. Imagine if you were in a collaborative community with similar values, missions, and visions for the future of the campus and the world. Is that community Greek life?

Since the creation of McGill’s first fraternity in 1883 and the first sorority in 1886, Greek life has become a prominent aspect of student life at the university. From vibrant house parties to cancer research fundraisers, Greek life organizations offer a wide range of activities to cater to their members and the broader student body. 

Greek life at McGill comprises seven fraternities and five sororities, totalling some 500 members—or 2 per cent of the undergraduate student population. McGill’s sororities are governed by the Panhellenic Council (Panhel), though the fraternities do not have an equivalent governing body. These fraternities and sororities are united by the Inter-Greek Letter Council (IGLC), which aims to “[bring] together students of leadership, friendship, and scholarship, who are continuously active on campus and in the greater Montreal community.” 

Unlike the IGLC, the McGill administration has no relationship with Greek life. By contrast, other universities, like the University of British Columbia, have documents outlining the relationship between the university and Greek organizations on campus.

In recent years, students and activists alike have criticized Greek life for its discriminatory recruitment, hazing, and sexual violence. This has led to the Abolish Greek Life Movement, which argues that Greek life must be discontinued due to its roots in an outdated system of racism and misogyny.

To investigate the current state of Greek life at McGill and the effects of the Abolish Greek Life Movement on the community, The Tribune conducted interviews with current and former members. During this investigation, The Tribune verified that source allegations were known to other members through internal communication, and also interviewed policy stakeholders. 

The Tribune can reveal that Greek life still provides many with a sense of community and feelings of acceptance. However, others have reported negative experiences, including racist comments and difficulties speaking out over sexual violence. 

Issues with Greek Life at McGill

Sam* joined a sorority in their first year. What began through the pursuit of friendship and community left them with memories of bullying and a mental health crisis. 

“Being in [the organization] was affecting my mental health to the point where I was experiencing extreme suicidal ideations,” Sam said in an interview with The Tribune. “I had no choice but to leave.”

During their time, Sam said that they were the survivor of a sexual assault at a fraternity party, perpetrated by another McGill student who was not a Greek life member. Sam was extremely disappointed in IGLC’s lack of action following the incident.

Sam asked that IGLC blacklist the student who assaulted them so that they would be banned from all future Greek life events. However, an IGLC member informed Sam that they were unable to blacklist him without further testimonies, confirmed by messages between Sam and an IGLC executive seen by The Tribune. As a result, Sam had to reach out to every Greek organization on campus to ask them to blacklist the perpetrator, with most choosing to do so. 

When Sam mentioned the sexual assault to members of their Greek organization in a group chat, instead of supporting them after the assault, the sisters were upset that Sam had not included a trigger warning prior to mentioning the incident. The messages about content warnings amassed numerous likes from sisters, while Sam’s message received none.

The IGLC did not respond to The Tribune’s request for comment before the publication deadline. 

When Sam was in the Greek life community, they also attended numerous parties and fundraiser events that they felt created an uncomfortable environment. One event auctioned off members of their organization under the guise of philanthropy—a practice rooted in Trans-Atlantic slavery.

“[My organization] decided that it would be a great idea to have a website where sisters are bidded on to go on dates that match [the first letter of] their name,” Sam said. “Anyone could bid and you would have to go on the date.”

Sam is a person of colour. They said they experienced racist comments during their time in the organization, which led them to feel excluded from the rest of the largely white Greek community.

As a result, Sam ultimately left their organization in their second year. 

Alex*, a former member of a McGill fraternity, had a largely positive experience in Greek life. However, they saw first-hand some of its downsides, such as instances of sexual violence occurring at Greek events. 

“I had to deal with sexual violence and harassment within my fraternity. Luckily, I was also in SACOMSS [The Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society] for a while and was able to apply that training, which ended up being life-saving,” Alex said. 

Alex joined Greek life as a first-year McGill student hoping to expand their social network. During their time in the Greek community, Alex served in a management position in their fraternity. 

Alex points out that due to McGill fraternities’ lack of a governing body, there is no McGill-specific policy for dealing with sexual assault and harassment. Instead, the school’s fraternities follow an international headquarters’ policies.

“We are attached to a headquarters in the U.S. that puts a lot of stringencies on us,” Alex said in an interview with The Tribune.

All of McGill’s Greek organizations are governed by an international headquarters, primarily based out of the U.S. These headquarters are responsible for determining the organizations’ internal policies, such as their code of conduct and policies regarding issues such as sexual violence. 

Even when such policies are outlined, instances of reported violence occur in fraternity rituals, such as hazing. 

“There’s hazing in fraternities. [...] We really tried to cut it down. Where my fraternity is now, I wouldn’t call our rituals hazing,” Alex said. 

Sam also believes that many initiation rituals, particularly in fraternities, border on hazing and create an uncomfortable environment for prospective members. 

During their time in Greek life, Alex felt that the contracts eager first-year students were asked to sign were overly coercive, and they later observed how these documents made these students feel trapped in the organization.

Potential members sign Greek life contracts following the recruitment process, where students get to know members of different Greek organizations. Then, through a process of mutual selection, members are assigned to an organization and sign their contracts, which keep them financially obligated to their organization for four years.

“The thing you don’t realize when you’re 18 and you’re just coming in, is it’s a financial commitment and it’s a legal commitment,” Alex said. “You’ve signed contracts and you’re locked in for those four years and it can be a real mess [to get out of them].”

(Mason Bramadat)

Finding a sense of community

Despite the issues surrounding Greek life, many students continue to rush in the hopes of meeting friends and making a positive impact on their communities.

Jenna Dube, BA ’23, was in Greek life from 2020-2023. In their time, Dube served as VP of Community Relations and Panhellenic Delegate. Dube initially joined a sorority to find a sense of belonging during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“During that first COVID summer, I was feeling pretty isolated and I became interested in doing something I had never considered doing before,” Dube explained in an interview with The Tribune.

For Dube, partaking in Greek life was a great way to form social connections with other McGill students at a time when classes were largely online. 

“My closest friends are from my sorority and I made connections with people I never would have met otherwise,” they said. “I feel like I made an impact on the greater McGill and Montreal community through being in a sorority.”

Similarly, Robin*, a current McGill student, joined a fraternity in 2021 to expand their social network and create positive change in the community.

“Being in a fraternity really added to my life,” Robin said in an interview with The Tribune. “I got to plan really fun events, I raised a bunch of money for [a native women’s shelter and a wildlife conservation club], and I met some really important people in my life.”

However, Robin recognizes that joining Greek life is not possible for everyone given financial and time restrictions, as well as institutionalized racism. 

“Systematically, there are quite a few barriers to Greek life,” Robin explained. “You have to have a decent amount of disposable income [and time] to participate fully. There are also historical issues with marginalized communities; the population of [Greek] organizations are not wholly representative of McGill.”

Part of this comes from the gendered divide and the assumptions of normative femininity and masculinity these groups can foment. As a queer and non-binary person, Dube was initially unsure about fitting into Greek life at McGill but was met with open arms by their sorority.

“My sorority was nothing but accepting and supportive of me and never asked me to be something I wasn’t,” Dube said.

The Start of a New Chapter

Dube believes that their sorority is doing significant work to address issues of discrimination and harassment through regular workshops.

“My sorority has always been on top of [diversity, equity, and inclusion],” Dube said. “We always had workshops about [combatting] racism and antisemitism, but also eating disorders and sexual violence.”

However, Dube does not feel that their sorority’s sense of accountability is present in all McGill fraternities, largely due to their lack of a governing body.

“I think the [fraternities] could make more steps to unify under one organization like Panhel and that would hopefully [increase accountability] and prevent DEI and sexual violence issues,” they suggested. 

For Robin, changing the protective nature of Greek organizations is key to preventing sexual violence.

“Once you’re in [a Greek organization], it’s a right, not a privilege to be in there,” they explained. “A lot of people try to defend the behaviour of their friends and [they] can use internal organizations’ policies to protect people. If anyone is making anyone in the community feel bad, [...] we don’t need to have this person in [the organization].” 

(Mason Bramadat)

Sophia Garofalo, U2 Arts, is a current member of a McGill sorority and an Arts Senator for the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). In her role as an Arts Senator, she is working on creating policies and procedures to govern the relationship between SSMU and Greek life organizations on campus—a relationship that is not currently outlined by any official documentation. 

“Right now, I’m working with the heads of IGLC to create an independent agreement where they can access some resources from SSMU to better themselves, their understanding, and their preventative abilities [for sexual violence],” Garofalo explained. 

The new agreement between the IGLC and SSMU, which is currently being finalized, will allow the IGLC’s equity committee to reach out to SSMU for help with investigations. It will also include stricter requirements on sexual violence and harm reduction training for McGill’s Greek organizations, including a mandate that all McGill fraternities have at least 50 per cent of their members, including new members, the VP Social, VP Risk, VP External, and President attend a 2-hour active bystander sexual violence prevention workshop every semester. Should a fraternity not comply, the IGLC will prevent its members from participating in social events. 

However, such an agreement would not include the university itself, which has traditionally taken a hands-off approach with Greek organizations.

“McGill does not have an agreement with any Greek-letter organization and is not in any discussions for such an agreement or a three-way agreement with SSMU [...] because they are entirely independent [of] McGill,” McGill Media Relations Officer Frédérique Mazerolle wrote in an email to The Tribune.

Despite previous instances of sexual harassment and assault in McGill’s Greek community, Garofalo is optimistic that with proper education and policies in place, these issues will no longer occur on our campus.

“There’s a bit more of a proactive attitude from IGLC, [and] the frats have been very receptive to that, which is really nice to see going forward,” she said. 

Alex echoes Garofalo’s hopeful sentiments but believes more work needs to be done to recuperate the needs for community on campus, without the roots of Greek life.

“I think Greek life has the potential to be a really beautiful and positive experience for university students,” Alex said. “[We] need to burn it down to the ground and start again.”

* Sam, Robin, and Alex’s names have been changed to preserve their confidentiality.