The Students’ Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) Equity Policy will undergo review in the upcoming weeks, following concerns regarding the processing of a complaint against Vice-President Internal Brian Farnan filed in October last year.
The issue arose after councillors raised concerns regarding the stages of the policy that led to Farnan’s Jan. 27 public apology in response to allegations of racial insensitivity. The apology has received widespread attention, much of it critical.
“The reaction on social media has been overwhelmingly negative, anyone who suggests otherwise is in denial,” said Arts representative Benjamin Reedijk.
On Oct. 17, Farnan sent out a weekly SSMU listerv that included a link to a .gif file of United States President Barack Obama kicking down a door, originally a clip that was manipulated and aired by The Tonight Show.
“There was a complaint issued; [and] the process was followed—the public process as equity complaints are done,” Farnan said.
According to the equity policy, a submitted complaint can undergo either an informal resolution or a formal resolution, which Farnan explained as the cause of the three-month delay between the submission of the complaint and his apology.
“When you add the informal, the formal, getting both sides to respond—each side has X amount of days—it just starts to add up,” Farnan said. “The goal is to solve it in an informal process. If it’s gone to a formal process, usually one can deduce that the informal process was not sufficient.”
Under the formal process, the complaint in question was forwarded to a SSMU equity officer, who made a recommendation upon investigation of the complaint.
“Depending on the nature and severity of the harassment, the remedies for policy violations may include, but are not limited to: letter(s) of apology, suspension of the respondent from their position within the SSMU, and […] dismissal of the respondent from their position within the SSMU,” the policy reads.
The recommendation was then brought to the confidential session of SSMU’s Dec. 5 Legislative Council meeting, where, according to the policy, it required two-thirds opposition to be overturned. Equity recommendations at this point cannot be revised.
According to Reedijk, an issue with this process is its reliance on the equity commissioner’s judgment.
“I question the power given to the equity commissioner,” Reedijk said. “[Farnan’s] case demonstrates that there are issues with the decision-making that occurs.”
Due to the policy’s confidentiality clauses, discussion of the issue is held in Council’s confidential session. Some councillors, however, have expressed concern with this stage, saying it lacks transparency.
“I’ve personally had people […] come up to me and say, ‘Why was this decision made; can you justify it?’” Science representative Devin Bissky-Dziadyk said. “The only thing I can say is [that] the equity policy was followed; we did what we were supposed to do, [and] everything was very, very official.”
Arts representative Kareem Ibrahim stressed the importance of protecting anonymity in this situation.
“A lot of the information would probably change the views of a lot of the people who are so quick to judge the situation and be critical of the decisions that were made,” he said. “[But] a lot of that information is confidential due to the nature of the process in order to protect those who have filed the complaints.”
However, clubs and services representative Elie Lubendo said the current system should be changed.
“The only thing that should be confidential is the identity of the [complainants],” he said. “Anything beyond that we should be allowed to say.”
Bissky-Dziadyk said deciding what could breach confidentiality would take longer than drawing an absolute line.
“SSMU has an obligation to be as open as possible; if that means a bit of extra work on our part, we should go through with it, as much as possible should be made public,” he said.
An overhaul of the policy had already been planned since the beginning of the academic year, according to SSMU Vice-President University Affairs Joey Shea, and will coincide with these recent concerns as a topic for upcoming Council sessions.
“At the beginning of September, we hired three researchers to do three equity research projects that were comparing SSMU’s equity policy with other universities’ equity policies, and those just finished,” Shea said. “It’ll be a consultative process, because there are a lot of people with a lot of different ideas about what’s wrong with it now.”
Bissky-Dziadyk emphasized the importance of creating institutional changes, such as the ability to revise equity recommendations to Council in the future.
“There needs to be a more dynamic process—that’s the reality of the world, a lot of decisions need a bit of back and forth,” he said. “We need to recognize that, as a group of students, [the policy] is just as malleable as any others.”
Changes to the equity policy are passed as motions at Council. Ibrahim said that despite negative response to the apology, the conversation is an important one to have.
“In reality, SSMU has gotten a lot of backlash […] from this complaint,” Ibrahim said. “I don’t think that there’s really a problem with how things have gone. It obviously could have gone a bit smoother, but I think it’s essential that the conversation that we’re having does happen.”
—Additional reporting by Abraham Moussako