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(Ceci Steyn / The McGill Tribune)

Culture Shock funding dispute reveals deeper discord within SSMU

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In August, the Union for Gender Empowerment (UGE) published an open letter condemning the Students’ Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) decision to cut funding for the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG) McGill’s free, annual Culture Shock and Social Justice Days events. UGE is a SSMU service that offers an alternative lending library, anti-oppression workshops, and resources for women’s and queer/trans-friendly healthcare. QPIRG-McGill is a student-run organization independent of SSMU that has a broad mandate to research and take action on social justice issues at McGill and in Montreal. Culture Shock and Social Justice Days aim to educate students on a range of issues, including white supremacy, colonialism, and xenophobia. The conflict over the funding arose from a continued difference of opinion over which organization holds responsibility for the events.

SSMU started Culture Shock, initially titled “Culture Fest,” in the early 2000s. Yet after finding the programming tokenizing of minorities, QPIRG-McGill approached SSMU and offered to help improve the programming in 2006. The events have been treated as a collaboration between the organizations ever since. In previous years, Culture Shock was funded through both QPIRG-McGill’s application for one-time SSMU Funding subsidies and SSMU’s own annual operating budget—the former requiring annual reapplication, the latter serving as a consistent and reliable source of financing. Last year, SSMU provided QPIRG-McGill with $2,040 from its operating budget and $2,682 in grants, as well as logistical support, for Culture Shock and Social Justice Days. SSMU also financially supports other QPIRG-McGill programming, including Rad Frosh.

According to UGE’s open letter, SSMU opted to defund Culture Shock this year due to financial difficulties. Yet, SSMU Vice-President Finance Arisha Khan clarified that while SSMU is no longer setting aside a portion of their operating budget for Culture Shock, the executive committee hopes to continue to support the program financially through other means. Khan and the rest of the executive committee hope QPIRG-McGill will apply for the full amount of event funding this year through the SSMU Funding pot, which serves to support any student group that applies, and often holds a surplus.

“It’s not an irrational thing we’re asking to do because there are specific funds set aside for programming that we can’t use for operations,” Khan said. 

Lucie Lastinger, a member of both the UGE and the QPIRG-McGill boards, found it unreasonable for the SSMU executive team to request that QPIRG-McGill go through the funding application process for an event over which SSMU has historically held partial responsibility. Lastinger also explained that the open letter was the sole initiative of the UGE as a token of solidarity for QPIRG-McGill’s events, but that QPIRG-McGill played no role in drafting the letter.

“Over the years, SSMU has been pushing [Culture Shock] more and more onto QPIRG-McGill, now to the point where it seems like SSMU doesn’t even remember this was their programming,” Lastinger said. “Now it’s like it’s […] somehow unfair that SSMU is helping [QPIRG-McGill].”

Raphaële Frigon, Outreach Coordinator at QPIRG-McGill, expressed disappointment over SSMU’s decreased sense of responsibility for Culture Shock. Given that SSMU contributes $2,040 of their operating budget while QPIRG-McGill contributed $6,500 last year, Frigon was primarily concerned about the implications of the loss of support and partnership from SSMU.

“They don’t want to claim ownership of [Culture Shock],” Frigon said. “Really, what we want is not $2,000. What we want is a partner [in SSMU]. Of course money is good […] but room booking and having the support of the execs is important.”

In Khan’s understanding, ownership of the Culture Shock events was fully transferred to QPIRG-McGill in 2006, and as such, she feels it is most logical for SSMU to switch to a system in which QPIRG-McGill is held accountable for financing and organizing Culture Shock, albeit through SSMU’s funds. She also emphasized SSMU’s continued public support for Culture Shock and Social Justice Days, and hopes to find common ground with QPIRG-McGill.

“We’re working to figure out what a relationship means, for us as well as them, knowing that we’re going through a precarious time in terms of finances,” Khan said. “A relationship does not mean just SSMU gives you a bunch of money when you ask for it, and then gets nothing in return. So we’re trying to piece those together but so far those conversations are going well.”

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