Talking leadership 25: Suzanne Fortier on supporting refugees and addressing racism

The vice-chancellor of McGill University reflects on her nine years leading one of Canada’s top universities as she prepares to step down

May 10, 2022
Suzanne Fortier, principal at McGill University
Source: McGill University/Owen Egan

Suzanne Fortier believes the big issue coming down the line for universities is how they can support young refugees and displaced people. The principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University steps down in August this year and here, in the latest in our Talking Leadership series, she reflects on the future of the sector, as well as the highs and lows of her nine years leading one of Canada’s top institutions.

“We all know that there are smart young people with aspirations and dreams, and they have no way of realising their dreams in the situation they’re in. And then the question is: what can we do for them?” the professor of crystallography says.

McGill, which has students from more than 150 countries, runs several scholarship schemes for overseas students. One of these, a programme run with the charity World University Service of Canada (WUSC), enables young people in refugee camps to study at the university via financial sponsorship and social support. It is funded by a C$4 (£2.50) levy collected from all McGill students every semester. In the past 10 years, the programme has supported more than 30 refugees from Somalia, Congo, Malawi, Syria, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda and Sri Lanka. In the coming year, the institution will take seven more, with two of the spots reserved for students from Afghanistan.

McGill is also part of the University of the People, which offers free online education for those in refugee camps or other difficult situations. Students start a course online, then attend McGill for two years to finish it.

Since Russia started the war in Ukraine, the university has been preparing to support Ukrainian refugees when they are ready to attend university. It is offering immigration advice for Ukrainians outside Canada, as well as free dental, legal and financial support to refugees living in the city.

Fortier has participated in the global university leaders’ forum of the World Economic Forum, and via this work she says she has come to realise that casting a wider net for social inclusion is the way forward.

“The big, big issue in front of us is to realise our role as the motor of social inclusion,” she says. “Many of us have really done a lot of work in this area locally. It’s much more difficult to do it globally.”

The challenge is not simply bringing such students to the university; it is enabling them to flourish once they get there. “You’ve got to support them fully. Everything, they need everything, they don’t have any money, they don’t have anything,” she says.

The associated costs mean the number of such students that institutions can enrol is limited. “You get the feeling this is a drop in the bucket,” Fortier says. But if all universities contribute, she continues, they can have more of an impact.

Fortier admits that supporting refugees involves a supportive government and she is clearly enormously proud of Canada’s approach to refugees: “We [Canada and McGill] are still places that are able to open their doors to people, regardless of their socio-economic situation. Each university has to look at their own networks, their own friends and supporters and alumni to figure out how to do it.” 

Some might argue that the job of the university is research and education, and that supporting refugees should be left to governments. Fortier is clear that “the job of the university is to provide a learning experience that will be a great one for the rest of your life. And that is true for any person in the world”. This must be done in partnership with government, of course, “but our job, which is education, is absolutely crucial”.

Job ready, life ready

Having spent nearly a decade at the helm of McGill – where she received her BSc in 1972 and a PhD in 1976 – which initiative is Fortier most proud of?

After the university’s approach to supporting refugees, she cites her work preparing students for the world of work.

“We want people who come to our university to be both job ready and future ready,” she says. “Sometimes universities, with good reasons, will make the case that we’re not vocational schools, which is true. However, I do think that many people come to university to have a good situation in life, to have a way of earning their own living, and so on.”

Along with other Canadian universities, McGill has taken part in a work-integrated learning programme, the purpose of which is to get graduates ready for a job but also ready to relearn when they need to. “The jobs are changing at such a fast pace,” Fortier says, “so it’s very important to have both in mind, to think about them being job ready and future ready.”

She tells students that the best thing they can get from McGill is knowing that they’re good at learning: “That is so important because they’ll have to keep on learning for the rest of their lives. So it’s a great gift to be good at something that you have to do for the rest of your life.”


Fortier’s time at McGill has not been without controversy. Students of colour have accused the university of a lack of support following racist incidents, and representation of ethnic minorities among faculty is low.

“Across our country, in fact, we have dealt with issues about discrimination and racism, black people, for sure, as well as the Indigenous community. And I say that this criticism from people who belong to these groups is warranted, and one that we have really accepted with a great deal of humility,” Fortier says.

She also points out that in Canada people of colour make up a much smaller proportion of the population compared with the US, which means “when you arrive at the university as a black person in Canada, it is almost certain that you will feel different, you will feel maybe not in your own community”, she admits.

She says McGill has developed a new action plan to admit more students and hire more professors of colour and to widen curricula to include the work of more black scholars.

“My experience is in no way, I think, comparable to a person who is black. But nevertheless, I can tell you that when I was a student there were very few women. And it took time. We are there. We’ve achieved it, but it takes time,” she says.

Love of learning

Fortier’s own upbringing was somewhat unusual. Her parents ran a hotel in a small village in Quebec. The hotel bar was frequented by locals and she says she spent a lot of time around smart people who never had the opportunities that education provides. This inspired her to work hard, and her love of learning was born.

While her area of expertise is crystallography, which deals with the arrangement and bonding of atoms in crystalline solids, her interests are wide-ranging. She speaks French, English, Italian and some Greek. Each year she attends several classes at McGill, from political science to religious studies, linguistics and jazz composition.

Although Fortier says she “failed at retirement” several years ago, when her term ends in August she won’t be taking up another presidential position. “I have McGill stamped on my heart,” she says. “It’s a permanent tattoo.”

Quick facts

Born: Saint-Timothée in Quebec, 1949

Academic qualifications: BSc and PhD in crystallography, both from McGill University

Lives with: Her husband; she has a grown son

Academic hero: Brenda Milner, a neuropsychologist

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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