As self-isolation affords us all with more time to reflect, eager high school students everywhere are beginning to decide where to attend university come fall. If you are an American parent of one of these future First-years, you may be shocked to find out that your child wants to go to the Francophone tundra that is McGill. You may have expected your child to go to some state school with the standard 21+ drinking laws, so seeing your child depart to Montreal – where they are essentially given full control and are legally allowed to drink – can be daunting. However, despite the lower legality age, the attitude towards drinking at McGill, and by extension, in Montreal and Quebec, leads to a safer drinking culture than the attitude towards alcohol at most American universities.
This culture is enabled by a lower drinking age that allows most students to partake in drinking events legally as soon as they get to campus.
Yes, the rumours are true; McGill’s social culture does heavily involve drinking. While there are also many opportunities and events at McGill that don’t involve alcohol, but most McGill students would agree that drinking during social events is the norm here. Drinking—and, in its most extreme incarnation, binge-drinking—has become a staple of McGill culture through easily accessible clubs and bars, as well as university-wide events like Frosh, Carnival, and Fac-O. This culture is enabled by a lower drinking age that allows most students to partake in drinking events legally as soon as they get to campus. Although excessive drinking is undoubtedly dangerous and unhealthy, it is generally understood that undergraduate students will take part in it anyways. And yet, I believe that McGill’s social attitude and Quebec’s lenient drinking-age laws foster an environment that promotes a safer approach to drinking than its counterparts in the United States.
For one, McGill’s “party scene” most often occurs in controlled environments like bars and clubs. In these environments, there are almost always sober adults around to keep watch and take care of wasted youth, such as bartenders or security guards. This contrasts with drinking culture at American universities, which mainly takes place in fraternities or at large house parties (depending on the location of the school and how relaxed bars are about fake IDs). The presence of these adults not only curbs the possibility of any violent drunk behavior, but it also sets an expectation that students still have to behave appropriately in a public setting, even when they are drunk.
Within McGill itself, legal drinking promotes better awareness regarding drinking-related dangers and more comprehensive sexual assault, consent, and bystander training. Examples of these safety measures include the aforementioned Frosh, Carnival, and Fac-O, which include measures reminding participants to pace themselves when it comes to alcohol consumption. These initiatives also continuously stress the importance of consent in sexual situations. Sexual assault still happens at McGill, and although there could always be more awareness regarding alcohol and sexual assault in any environment, McGill boasts a consent culture that is recognized by most of its undergraduate societies.
…students may not report such incidents out of fear of being scrutinized for underage drinking.
As opposed to students who attend schools in the US, being able to drink legally may also make McGill students more comfortable asking for help when they or a friend is drinking too much. Although many US universities have medical amnesty policies that protect underage drinkers in these dangerous situations, there is still an unhealthy reluctance when it comes to asking for medical attention, which occurs because in doing so one is also admitting to a crime. This may also have serious implications for the underreporting of sexual assault incidents (which often occur in drinking environments), as students may not report such incidents out of fear of being scrutinized for underage drinking.
The nature of McGill’s relaxed, laissez-faire drinking culture has larger implications than defining our university’s social culture. It yields effects on sexual assault prevention and reporting, as well as the physical dangers of drinking, which are important consequences to consider when judging the ethical implications of such a culture. It’s time we move past antagonizing the drinking culture at McGill as a threatening danger and instead view it as an integral, oftentimes positive component of our community.