People & Culture

Our Country: Heather O’Neill on the McGill University campus

The award-winning author recalls her past and recent adventures around the McGill University campus

  • Published Oct 17, 2022
  • Updated Oct 20
  • 374 words
  • 2 minutes
Illustration: Jacqui Oakley/Can Geo
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The McGill campus always stood out to me, growing up in Montreal. It was so noticeable, the way it opened up through these big gates into what seemed to be this strange, Victorian world. I would think, “When I grow up, I’m going to study English literature there.” When I became a student at McGill, the campus was a sort of bubble in the city that was so magical. I love that as soon as you get there, there’s this river of young people and conversation and laughter. I remember being a student and thinking, “I want to be an old lady and still come here with my books and be surrounded by young people.” I always had this dream that McGill would bequeath me one of the large old houses on campus, so I could just live there and read. I mostly grew up in tiny little apartments, so the houses there are so marvellous to me.

I recently met up with an old friend from McGill. Both of us had come from working-class backgrounds, and we reminisced about how the university was a place where we were able to escape this poverty and to mix with middle-and upper-class kids. I loved just sitting on the steps of the Arts Building with all these other students who were so fascinated by literature. I felt like I had finally met my people. Every time I go back, I feel like I’m entering this strange little kingdom again, where people read books and talk about them and are somehow able to escape the problems of actual life.

                                                                                                                     – as told to James Ivison

McGill University (Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal) is located on the traditional territory of the Kanien’kehà:ka (Mohawk), a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst many First Nations, including the Kanien’kehá:ka of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Huron-Wendat, AbenakiandAnishinaabeg.


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This story is from the November/December 2022 Issue

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