We who ran The McGill Daily

Uncovering McGill’s history of Black student activism and journalism in the ‘90s

Written by Matthew Molinaro, Editor-in-Chief
Design by Design Editor, Drea Garcia

In the summer of 1993, Bajan student Melanie Newton was on break, keen to take up a new post as Culture Editor at The McGill Daily. Newton, who studied German and British imperial history after switching majors from French and Spanish, wanted to get more involved in highlighting Black struggle, both in the classroom and across the world. 

Newton knew intimately how white supremacy took shape at McGill. Before running to be an editor, she wrote her first piece for The Daily in 1992, “Realism or Racism?” critiquing her psychology professor and his decision to stand by a racist and infantilizing film of Black Americans that he showed to the class. After confronting the professor with some classmates, Newton ran into her friend David Austin who told her to write for The Daily. She never looked back.

The politics of Newton, Austin, and the number of Black writers taking the pen would be meteoric. The day that she ran for an editor position, two protests broke out: One at Montreal’s South African consulate after Chris Hani’s assassination, the second from Zionist students angered by The Daily’s stances.

Fresh off the semester and her successful run for editor, Newton had picked up a copy of Guyanese anticolonial intellectual Walter Rodney’s 1969 The Groundings with my Brothers. Rodney’s manifesto recounts the 1968 Congress of Black Writers, held in McGill’s Union Ballroom. Around Thanksgiving, Montreal and Canada very briefly became the centre of Black Power in North America. Yet, the media offered no substantive coverage, reproducing the white imperialist distortion of Black radical thought—with one exception.

“Of course, the white press of Canada did not see fit to talk about those points,” Rodney wrote. “I think I saw it only in The McGill Daily.”

Newton learned then that no other paper but the one she and her collaborators worked for had reported on this piece of Black history. Austin, by this time an incoming Features Editor, took it further, poring over bound volumes of The Daily to read about the connections between campus journalism and Black radical activism. 

The Daily’s reporting in the 1960s, however, was not without its controversies. In a letter two days after the Congress titled “We used to get along so well,” writer Barry Katz compared Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) to Hitler, igniting debate about the role of white liberalism in Black movements. The following day, reporter Ed Horka’s news piece, “Black nationalism has white roots,”covered Robert Hill’s lecture on Frantz Fanon. It concludes, “Ultimately, [Hill] said, the Black man will succeed where the white man has failed.” 

A week after the Congress, The Daily covered the Jamaican government’s decision to bar Rodney from returning to his family. Reporter Robert Wallace interviewed Congress co-chair and future Prime Minister of Dominica Rosie Douglas, who said, “We have a crack in the system now. We must do everything possible to widen it not only on the student level but on the mass level.” 

Wallace’s journalism is crucial, but it reveals the limits of an editorial board that waits to report on colonial and racial violence rather than taking a stand against it. How might Black editors and anti-oppressive journalism have changed the story and this history? How did they ‘widen the cracks’ in a white journalistic system? 

Fast forward 25 years to 1993: Black McGillians saw no hope in deliverance by white editorial boards. The 25 years since Rodney praised The Daily did not see Black liberation spurred through the paper’s progressive politics. Unable to take race and culture as foundational to politics, campus papers would not serve Black students, Indigenous students, diasporic students, and students of colour. Alongside massive global uprisings, racial violence in Montreal, the end of the Cold War, and settler colonialism from Kanehsatà:ke (Oka) to South Africa to Palestine, the rediscovery of this piece of The Daily’s history emboldened a cohort of Black editors, writers, and contributors to speak truth to power. This group of Black McGill students were poised to usher in radical change. 

Like Newton, Coordinating News Editor for The Daily Cherie Payne was a student of the history of social movements, and was no stranger to making history herself. In 1982, in her hometown of Vancouver, Payne was the first Black person to attend her school.

Ottawa-raised Patricia Harewood felt personally and politically enriched upon coming to McGill, where she joined the Black Students’ Network (BSN) and the Shakti womanist collective. Her older brother, Adrian Harewood, was a soccer player turned Daily contributor. For a short time, he also did the layout for (and recommended Payne to) The Tribune. The Harewoods’ parents were educators who regularly wrote for the Black Canadian newspaper Contrast

The very friend who encouraged Newton to join, David Austin, had moved between England, Canada, and Jamaica. A competitive basketball player, he eventually settled on McGill. These were ordinary students who would take extraordinary actions.

Speaking with these five alumni reminded me of the 90s’ uniqueness. The cohort I spoke to all mentioned one another and fondly remembered each other’s work. Each uplifted the bold voices and auras of their many collaborators—Mebrat Beyene, Astrid Jacques, Ahmer Qadeer, Azim Hussain, Rima Banerji, Audrea Golding, Ted Runcie, Chantal Thomas, and Mariame Kaba, among others. These students inherited Rodney’s struggle in Montreal. As I look 30 years ahead to 2023, we still have significant work to do on campus to write for liberation. I joined The Tribune in 2020 as the only Black writer and editor. Canadian journalism has a white supremacy problem, and campus journalism must do everything in its power to combat it. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 60s, the 90s at McGill show us the need to maintain our history and seize every opportunity for change. But, to practice anti-oppressive student journalism was not so simple, as Culture Editor Patricia Harewood explained to The Tribune.

“The hours that were put in to produce what was produced and the fact that it was so constant, right? There was so much copy. And the reason why I say that is the work in and of itself was not easy,” Harewood said. “The issues that we were tackling in the paper were not issues that [were] easy, and people read the paper. So there was no consensus on campus [....] You know, people today talk about, ‘oh, we have to be comfortable in our uncomfortable conversations.’ We were way past that, way past. The paper sat in what I would call discomfort and disruption all the time.”

Harewood and Newton were vocal participants in McGill campus politics, especially surrounding the Shakti womanist collective’s multiracial, feminist coalition politics, student democracy, and tuition hikes. Austin recalled to me the urgency of mobilization from the BSN’s perspective a few years before The Daily’s transformation.

“After my first year of being a [BSN] coordinator, we started to feel that the environment that The Daily had was not always very welcoming. There was this alternative kind of anarchistic left-speak, but in practice, there was a lack of understanding and appreciation of the issues that were being raised around race and politics. [....] So a few of us got together [...] and we showed up through the elections. The same thing happened at CKUT. We had organized under the auspices of the Black Bloc, established by Richard Iton,” Austin said. “So we conspired, it was planned and orchestrated. We had lots of conversations about it. We were in a climate where it would have been difficult [...] but it turned out that the face of The Daily changed dramatically.”

We must remember how those who preceded us asserted their place, how they infused their content with the hope and possibility of Black life, and how they moved from the page into the world. I have read dozens of issues of The Daily from this time. Haiti was a beacon of their content, as were African and Caribbean politics, both here in Montreal and abroad. This broader cohort gathered together, wrote, edited, and organized crucial work, all amid police killing Black Montrealers, rising student debt, questions of Quebec sovereignty, and the antiapartheid struggle. Harewood situated how those issues were on the agenda. 

“To be broader, when I say that there was a desire to have more voices, I don’t mean that in the narrow ‘equity, inclusion, and diversity’ way—I mean, in fundamentally having different worldviews, different ideas, different ways of seeing issues, reflected in the paper, so [it] wasn't just ‘Okay, let's, let's find somebody who's from the Caribbean,’ or ‘let's find a couple of racialized people,’ ” Harewood said in an interview with The Tribune. “The McGill Daily was a very progressive paper. It was a paper where there was room for discussions around what kind of society we want. Questioning, for example, capitalist ideologies, talking about socialism and incorporating that into articles, and sharing those kinds of ideas. [...] [T]he cohort that I'm talking about, not everybody was homogenous, but they would have also been progressive in exploring those issues.”

Campus was in transition during those years. The moment created a horizon, an open future, a blueprint for Black students. As Adrian put it, “it was a time of possibility here, a time of movement […] a Black Renaissance.” Many of the students who wrote overlapped at the BSN, socialized together, cared for one another, and knew each other’s families. 

“The four years [of undergrad] were an amazing time of joy, a feeling that you were really reaching your full potential. And also, just the way you're 30 years removed from the 90s, we were 30 years removed from the 60s. And so we really felt like, ‘Okay, this is the fruition of all those civil rights fights.’ They really laid the groundwork, and we are here to capitalize on the foundation that they built,” Payne said.

The office was more than just a workspace; it served as a lively centre of deliberation, peace, and planning. Writers like Payne fondly remembered the joy and the music playing as the editorial team handcrafted each daily issue. Austin recalled casual gatherings, and Newton noted how the hazy air from nearby Gerts would occasionally invade the space. The collaborative and interdependent culture was crucial in forming this generation. 

The fight for Black studies and the expansion of African studies raged on campus as Black artists, intellectuals, and thinkers graced the pages, the collegiate life, and the experiences of these writers. Patricia discussed her coverage of George Seremba’s play Come Good Rain and her interest in the conditions of the Black diaspora, while Austin and Adrian brought up influences like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and visits from Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Julius Garvey at McGill. Even if the students did not agree with speakers or their commitments, campus conversations propelled, framing this cohort’s critical understanding of politics. For Austin, this atmosphere required that journalists properly engage with all forms of media and activism. 

“It didn't feel like work, it felt like we were bringing the world that was outside the walls of McGill into the newspaper that was then going back out there in the world. And I have to tell you this that, you know, we had people that were not students picking up copies of The Daily, regularly to read during that time. I don't mean just the Black History Month issue.” 

History palpably entered the room with these students, who were among the first Black editors at a McGill campus paper. 

“There was really a sense of it being a moment, we were quite aware of that. It was just a couple [of] years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, you know, and it was this moment of transformation. That felt fragile, as well, but also quite extended,” Newton said in an interview with The Tribune. “It wasn’t so clear what the world was going to be like. The end of apartheid in South Africa. The Peace Accords in Israel-Palestine, when there was this real sense of a window of possibility that doesn't feel the same now.”

Payne also sensed this transformative change. Her realization came when Newton, then Coordinating Editor, observed that they might be the first two Black women to run a paper in the country. “That's when it hit me that, actually, this is quite huge. This is quite huge,” Payne said. “The way it manifested in the paper is that during Black History Month, we would dedicate an entire issue where every single story had to do with Black issues, politics, culture, as a celebration of Black history. But also, we were aware that that was an artificial and [...] a little bit insulting sort of segregation. And so we had a lot of Black writers at the paper. [We] interspersed stories throughout the year as a natural way to tell stories, because why wouldn’t you? You’re telling human stories, and Black people are part of it.” 

This period, as Patricia described, was marked by fluid engagement with BSN and a harmonious integration of activism and journalism, not just about diversifying content. Newton emphasized embracing activism “in the most capacious ways,” warning against taking progress for granted and stressing the history of struggle and reversal. 

Adrian, who is now a professor at Carleton’s Journalism and Communication school after a 20-year career at the CBC, underscored the sentiment. We should not equate, he explained, advancing a particular position as a journalist with asking questions, making informed journalistic decisions, and framing stories in ways that allow the reader to make up their mind.

“I came to journalism from activism. [...] Journalism was about trying to change the discourse. It was about bringing light to dark spaces. [....] It was trying to counter a lot of the misinformation and also disinformation,” Adrian said. “So we entered journalism to disabuse people of certain misconceptions that they might have had about people who look like us or people who talk like us or sounded like us. We were trying to also show that another world is possible, trying to imagine different ways of being [...] where, as C. L. R. James would say, every cook can govern, right, that everyone has a place at the table, that regardless of your station, that you have a story to tell.”

Thirty years on, their efforts still resonate—and the work continues. We are not past this history; it is a call to action. These students’ radical imaginations shifted McGill, Montreal, and Canadian journalism. Their collaboration created Black worlds, put anticolonialism on the front page, and indexed activism, community, and change. The responsibility to uphold and advance this legacy is ours. Our campus and future depend on it.