Lillian Robinson, troublemaker extraordinaire

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With courageous stands, Lillian differentiated herself from other Concordia administrators. She earned her status as a troublemaker.

Dr. Lillian Robinson passed away on the morning of September 20, 2006, at the age of 65. She was the Principal of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, the home of Concordia's Women's Studies Department. This gave Lillian the official status of a Department Chair, but it has always been hard for me to think of her as a Concordia administrator. As every Montreal social activist knows, Lillian was different — one of us, not an administrator but a troublemaker.

Lillian came to Concordia in 2000 along with sparks from the “battle in Seattle” and the second Palestinian Intifada, re-igniting the activism our university is known for. She jumped right in to what were at the time distinct streams of progressive politics at Concordia — anti-globalization and Palestinian solidarity activism. Lillian has left such a large mark on the Concordia community because of her astounding capacity for bringing these two movements together, and bringing a feminist perspective to both of them.

It has been my privilege to have known Lillian for the last six years and to have been at the receiving end of her boundless generosity. The protagonist of my novel, North of 9/11 (Cumulus Press, 2006) calls Lillian her “hero.” She is my hero too. Lillian has touched the lives of many real people at Concordia much like she influenced the fictional Sarah Murphy in the spring of 2001:

    In the course of their activist adventures, Sarah and her friends met women who talked about how feminism was central to the struggle for human liberation. One of those women would have a decisive impact on Sarah's academic future: Lillian Robinson. Sarah met Robinson at a teach-in on the FTAA held at Concordia a couple of months before the protest. The Principal of the University's Simone de Beauvoir Institute showed the future Concordia student that her studies could go hand-in-hand with her activist work. Theory and practice were not opposites. There was even a word to describe the unity of the two: praxis.

    Sarah was not only struck by the knowledge of working class and feminist history that Robinson demonstrated at teach-ins and conferences, but also by the depth of her personal commitment that led her to take difficult political stands. The old Jew from New York was also a militant and increasingly visible supporter of the Palestinian liberation struggle. She was the main reason Sarah decided to go to Concordia to do a degree in Women's Studies. The angry reaction that it provoked in her father simply confirmed for her that she had made the right choice.

In the fall of 2001 a leftwing Concordia Student Union produced a student agenda with articles denouncing Concordia corporate partners in the aerospace industry that supply the Israeli military with tools of death. B'nai Brith called the agenda “the blueprint for Osama bin Laden's youth program in North America” and asked students to rip out certain pages so as not to expose their impressionable young minds to the terrorist propaganda. Concordia administrators fed the flames of post-9/11 hysteria by calling for three government ministries to investigate the CSU and put it into trusteeship.

Lillian Robinson, who had herself authored an article published on one of the pages B'nai Brith was asking students to rip out, came out in defense of the publication and the student troublemakers who produced it. She spoke to the media as a Jew, saying “We are the People of the Book. Jews don't burn books.”

With courageous stands like this one, Lillian differentiated herself from other Concordia administrators. She earned her status as a troublemaker.

It was Lillian the troublemaker whom I visited in the hospital on the morning of September 11, 2006. In her last hours of lucidity she was still able to relish the worldwide publicity generated by Concordia's attempts to silence my fifth anniversary reading of the novel she inspired. It was a privilege to share my 15 minutes of fame with her in the little time she had left, to bring a smile to her face in that arduous period.

Genuine Concordia administrators were not as enthralled with the publicity as their troublemaking colleague. The controversy has annoyed the University's PR department to no end. It wants to shed the “Gaza U” image the school has been saddled with ever since boisterous protests brought former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Asper-sponsored pro-Israeli rally to a hasty conclusion. The PR sanitization plan is to brand Concordia with the peaceful harmony of a Benetton ad while avoiding the conflict of the real world.

I know this because I sat through the PowerPoint presentation on the University's branding strategy that was made at the Board of Governors Communications Committee last year. It was part of my job as President of the Graduate Students' Association (GSA).

But professors like Lillian have always known that Concordia will never be Benetton. Troublemakers will not let it happen. And, believe it or not, that is a good thing.

Troublemakers like Lillian are what have made Concordia great, even if conflict and controversy have also been an inevitable part of the bargain. Although we have lost her to cancer, Lillian's legacy lives on in all of her fellow Concordia troublemakers — students, faculty, staff and other members of the larger Concordia community.

Concordia's security establishment seems intent on crushing the troublemakers by shutting down controversial events through risk assessment committee directives or by shutting down the very spaces where troublemakers meet. Formerly public spaces where student information tables and public exhibits once thrived are being taken over by Tim Horton's kiosks and credit card vendors. Our campus, like many others across North America, is rapidly turning into a shopping mall.

Because she supported “controversial” stands, Lillian was one of the many event organizers negatively impacted by the risk assessment committee. As Principal of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, last February Lillian Robinson co-sponsored an Israeli Apartheid Week event with Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) that was to have criticized the establishment of Canada Park on occupied Palestinian land. Although the booking had been approved weeks before, the event location had to be changed at the last minute because of vague “security concerns.”

Draconian administrative actions only made Lillian fight harder for what she believed in. And Lillian has inspired many of us to continue in her footsteps. We will not let the risk assessment committee or Concordia administrators silence dissent.

At my September 11 reading from my novel, held without Concordia security approval on the sovereign territory of the student co-op bookstore, we showed a speech Lillian gave at the book's launch back in May (part 1, part 2). She was troublemaking from her hospital bed. She will continue making trouble even from beyond the grave.

The reading was dedicated to Lillian Robinson. Every reading I do from now on should be taken in the same spirit.

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