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A final fireside chat with Students’ Society President Ivan Neilson

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What were your biggest accomplishments this year?I was happy with the style of management that we had this year. The individual vice-presidents started new initiatives and new projects, assisting one another. I’m also thrilled that we were able to reform the committee structure. That’ll be a big improvement next year.

What advice do you have for next year’s SSMU President-elect Zach Newburgh?First, continue to build on the successes that we’ve had this year. Too often, a new executive will come in and reinvent the wheel. In some cases, this is necessary. Obviously I’m biased here, but I believe a lot of the work we’ve done this year can only be improved upon. Beyond that, it’s important to solicit as much input from as many different members as possible – whether that’s advice from the big student groups on campus, or finding different ways to reach out to individual students.

What are some of the challenges that next year’s executives will face?Free speech on campus will be an issue at McGill next year. Right now, as we saw at the University of Ottawa with Ann Coulter, there are two different camps on campuses across Canada. There’s one group that wants to maintain the university as a place of learning where students can come and not feel barraged by other ideas. Then, there’s the opposite groups, who says that universities are the final bastions of free and open expression and dialogue.Next year, we also have several leases coming up in the building. It’s really an opportunity for us to decide what type of services we should be offering. And then, of course, in the face of imminent tuition hikes, it’ll be important to represent a solid and unified front to the university and the provincial government.

Do you have any concerns regarding next year’s SSMU executive?They all have strong backgrounds in their respective portfolios. Individually, they’ll be able to handle certain challenges, but it’s going to depend on how they work together as a team. None of them have worked together before. Their success will depend on whether they can come together. In particular, their success will hinge on Zach’s leadership and the vision that he will promote. But it’s also going to depend on their willingness to work together. Again, once you let egos and personalities get in the way, it’s really hard to maintain that sense of collective vision.

Has the Salman Rushdie lecture become more controversial than you thought it would be?Yes. When we brought this to Council, we were given no indication that this would be an issue. I was surprised by the negative reaction. Of course, this was an executive initiative, though it was by no means a done deal when it was brought in front of Council.

What did you think of Council this year? Is it simply a rubber-stamping body that serves as a check on the executive?Council is the body that runs the Society. The trend has been, in the last couple years, for different reasons, that Council’s quality has declined. The number of initiatives being presented by councillors has decreased, the level of interest at Council is dwindling, and the committee activity and participation have fallen off the map. Perhaps it simply wasn’t a good year for individual councillors. But as it’s set up right now, it’s supposed to be the body that runs the Society.

Do you think this year was just a bad year for Council? Or is reform needed?A lot of it depends on the individual leadership of the executive. This year, [the SSMU executive] has been strong. In past years, if there’s less confidence in the executive, councillors see more of a need to step in and intervene. However, many factors play a role, so it’s hard to justify sweeping reform from one bad year.

What action do you recommend taking on General Assemblies?I recommend that the executive look at it and take it on as a project. They’re going to have to look at it and make some tough decisions. Whether that’s firmly entrenching the GA as an institution and accepting its shortcomings, or, in turn, deciding that GAs have no place in the society – thus getting rid of it altogether.

SSMU REPORT CARDS: JOSE DíAZ – VP Finance and Operations

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Vice-President Finance and Operations Jose Díaz began his term in the most difficult position of any of the executives. Tobias Silverstein, his predecessor, had resigned midway through his term, leaving the rest of the executives to handle his portfolio. Despite this initial disadvantage, Díaz stepped confidently into his position and has handled his portfolio well throughout the year.

Díaz’s major success this year has been the revitalization of Gert’s Bar. Thanks in part to the increased number of successful events held in the bar, Gert’s has been become a watering hole for regular students – in addition to its usual crowd of drunken SSMUshies and newspaper editors.

SSMU’s renegotiated beer contract provided approximately $6,000 in sponsorship money from the beer companies, which Díaz used to create the Gert’s Life Fund. The money from the fund was used to subsidize various events – a key factor in boosting the bar’s popularity.

A number of smaller initiatives have also helped to put Gert’s in the black this year. Díaz invested in two new pool tables and instituted a new pricing scheme, which has netted about $6,000 in additional revenue. Thanks to a new lease with Al Ta’b, Gert’s now uses its ovens to serve pizza after-hours, as well as an assortment of fried appetizers. And Díaz is currently in talks about renovating the bar after a successful redesign contest.

The most significant decision Díaz made this year was to shut down Haven Books, SSMU’s financial fiasco of a bookstore. Haven Books, purchased in 2007 by former VP Finance Dave Sunstrum against the advice of SSMU’s auditors, had racked up losses of more than $200,000 by the time Díaz delivered a 40-minute speech to Council in February arguing for its closure. According to Díaz, he and Ben Paris, the bookstore’s manager, examined various solutions to Haven’s woes before deciding to close its doors. The Tribune has editorialized in favour of closing the bookstore several times, and we’re glad that Díaz made the difficult decision to give up on it.

Díaz’s competent management of the operations side of his portfolio – breaking even on Gert’s and other operations – aided the financial side, giving the executive more money to work with later in the year. Events like the Girl Talk concert and this week’s lecture by Salman Rushdie were largely financed by these funds.

Overall, Díaz has successfully picked up the pieces of his portfolio, solving previous mistakes like Haven Books while improving Gert’s and tabling a successful budget. Though Díaz’s frequent late nights out meant that he didn’t make into the office until the afternoon some days, his hard work on the portfolio will put Drew in a strong position when he takes over this summer.

SSMU REPORT CARDS: ALEX BROWN – VP Internal

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The Tribune applauds Alex Brown for her work with the VP Internal portfolio this year. Brown has been consistently visible and knowledgeable on Students’ Society projects and events since September.

Frosh is always a major undertaking for the vice-president internal, and Brown handled the year’s opening event successfully, generating profits to support other SSMU endeavors.

She has also been innovative and receptive to recommendations with her event planning. Brown made the difficult decision to cancel SnowAP, an event that likely would have lost SSMU over $15,000. In its place, Brown held the inaugural Week 101 in Gert’s, a successful replacement that generated profit for SSMU.

In addition to the SSMU mainstays, Brown sought out creative ways to utilize her portfolio, particularly with the leftover funds that would have gone toward SnowAP. This included smaller events such as the first – and hopefully annual – SSMU Iron Chef cooking competition, and a SSMU-subsidized ice skating outing in the Old Port, not to mention the sold-out Girl Talk concert at Metropolis.

Finally, not being one to slow down as the year comes to a close, Brown recently booked Salman Rushdie to speak to McGill students on Friday.

One criticism of Brown’s year was her lack of engagement with Athletics, an area that past VP internals have done better work in.

In Council sessions, Brown has been an outspoken contributor and never hesitates to exercise her knowledge of Robert’s Rules.

Brown has also worked to revamp the website and communications side of her responsibilities. Under her watch, the Students’ Society established the French-language version of its website.

A former VP internal once said that the main purpose of the portfolio is to make memories for McGill students – with a concentrated, yearlong effort, Brown has served this mission exceptionally well.

SSMU REPORT CARDS: SEBASTIAN RONDEROS-MORGAN – VP External

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Without a “sexy” issue like defederation or tuition hikes during his tenure, Students’ Society Vice-President External Sebastian Ronderos-Morgan has spent much of his time working behind the scenes to establish student representation and bolster community relations. And though our political views don’t always align with Ronderos-Morgan’s, the Tribune feels he has done a competent job representing students’ needs and has set the table for his successor Myriam Zaidi to fight tuition increases.

Ronderos-Morgan’s biggest achievement has been finalizing bylaws and financial practices for the Quebec Student Round Table (TaCEQ), a nascent association of Quebec students’ societies, and for that we applaud him. TaCEQ is still in its infancy and has yet to accomplish anything of note, but the Tribune is cautiously optimistic about its future prospects.

Bad luck and government bureaucracy sidetracked Ronderos-Morgan’s efforts to prmote TaCEQ this year. A plebiscite question that asked undergraduate students whether TaCEQ should continue lobbying the government to receive bursaries was declared invalid after it didn’t appear in its entirety on the winter referendum ballot. Meanwhile, the provincial government has continually stalled TaCEQ’s attempts to get official recognition.

Ronderos-Morgan has also focussed on improving relations with the Milton-Park community. He helped found the Community Action and Relations Endeavour – which brings together representatives from the university administration, SSMU, and the Milton-Park community – and has had some success planning events such as the Holiday Fair. While community outreach shouldn’t be the main focus of the VP external, we were glad to see Ronderos-Morgan make a concerted effort to patch the damaged relationship between students and Milton-Park residents.

The Tribune is concerned, however, that the VP external seems to have a lighter workload than the other VPs. While we understand that successful lobbying campaigns require some year-to-year continuity, we question the need for a VP specifically tasked with lobbying and community relations. The external responsibilities could be folded into the presidential and university affairs portfolios – with assistance from the political affairs coordinator and external affairs committee – while the VP internal could handle community relations with assistance from a student coordinator.

Despite this, Ronderos-Morgan was a vast improvement over his predecessor, Devin Alfaro, and he did well within the limitations of the role.

SSMU REPORT CARDS: COUNCIL

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SSMU’s Legislative Council has had, by many accounts, a disappointing year. Although it’s difficult to evaluate the performance of a body of this type, the Tribune feels that this year’s Council deserves a below-average grade. Although there were some councillors who were proactive, well-informed, and contributed in a constructive manner to debates, there were too many councillors who seemed to revel in making mountains out of molehills, and speaking mainly to hear the sound of their own voices.

One of Council’s most important functions is to act as a check on the executive. However, councillors must adequately inform themselves about issues, instead of simply arguing with executives for the sake of it, as councillors sometimes did. For example, there was no valid reason to block the bylaw changes proposed by President Neilson, which were eventually passed in a student-initiated referendum.

Yet another important function of Council is to put forward meaningful motions, and to contribute to the running of the Society .. However, Council this year spent too little time debating important issues, and too much time discussing trivial ones.

On the bright side, attendance at Council was excellent this year, and good work was done in many of the committees. Motions to eliminate styrofoam in the Shatner building, explore vegan food options, and to advocate for paid practicum for education students, were among the worthwhile Council initiatives.

It’s unclear whether Council’s disappointing performance this year is due to its composition, or whether this points to a need to reform the body. But either way, Council didn’t do its job as well as it should have – something that SSMU will have to consider going into next year.

SSMU REPORT CARDS: SARAH OLLE – VP Clubs and Services

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Although her portfolio has quieted down in the second semester, Sarah Olle has had an extremely successful term as vice-president clubs and services. The Tribune had high expectations for Olle, who came into the position after serving as interest group coordinator last year. She has proven herself to be more than capable.

Olle’s biggest strength is her ability to handle the day-to-day issues that arise with various clubs and services. Olle is thorough, organized, and knowledgeable about countless facets of the Students’ Society. She has made herself readily accessible to both clubs and student journalists, keeping regular office hours and always answering emails promptly.

This year, Olle was able to accomplish many things that previous VPs have long discussed, including putting room bookings online and changing activities night to a two-day event. Olle has also taken on significant new projects. The Ambassador Fee, which fills the void in funding for clubs like the Debating Union that attend off-campus events, was largely her initiative. She helped to coordinate a long-term plan for proposed renovations in the Shatner Building.

In addition, she was calm, rational, and fair when dealing with the Choose Life controversy throughout the year. She is a strong, vocal presence at Council, contributing to discussions on a wide variety of issues.

The nature of the clubs and services portfolio means that most of the work occurs during the first semester. However, this year, Olle played an important role in securing independence for the Tribune during the second semester, helping to craft budgets and negotiate various other aspects of the transition. We acknowledge our bias – Olle was the executive we worked most intimately with – but if the dedication she showed to Tribune independence was typical of her work with other clubs and services, then Olle fully deserves an “A.”

In fact, there is only one thing the Tribune can fault Olle for this year: closing down Motion to Blog.

Day of fasting held to support world’s poor

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Twenty McGill students went hungry for a day at Macdonald campus in an effort to raise money for impoverished countries. The McGill chapter of Engineers Without Borders held 24 hour famine to educate the community on world poverty and to help send two McGill students to work with NGOs overseas.

"This has never been one of our larger fundraisers before. Generally, what we try to do is get money from faculty and from sources outside of school," said Chapter Co-President Debra Cohen, who was one of the junior fellows sent to Ghana last summer. "The events we do have on campus are generally geared more towards education and less on fundraising."

The students who will be volunteering over the summer will take part in a variety of projects.

"We do a lot of different projects in a lot of different domains, like water projects and a lot of agricultural and farming projects in a sustainable way," said Vice-President Media Patrick Janukavicius. "For example, we have gone and built wells, but we use local material that they have available, and we'll make sure that some of the locals know how to repair this well in case anything ever breaks."

Cohen added that the community receiving the volunteer will usually pay for a portion of the project, giving them a sense of ownership and motivation to maintain it and keep it sustainable in their community.

Participants were supportive of the cause and the fact that a portion of the money they raised would be going to the volunteers' plane tickets and administration fees, as opposed to going directly to poverty stricken countries.

"I actually approve that it's going to volunteers, because I know that if you try to go with other organizations it can be expensive," said Sheree Spencer, U0 Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "This way, we know that our money is going to people who will help contribute and cause a change, whereas with giving aid to Africa, there's a lot of barriers because of political regime and you don't know if the people are getting the money or not."

Laura Mislan, U2 Chemical Engineering, agreed.

"It's a means to an end, because you're paying for a mind to get to where it needs to be," she said. "It's a learning experience for the people who go and it's also a big bonus to have somebody who's knowledgeable and has the ambition to work, because that's half the battle; it's getting somebody to initiate change, you can't just pay for it to happen, you need somebody behind it directing it," she said.

The EWB executives tried their best to keep the students' minds off of food by organizing various activities such as a scavenger hunt, educational presentations, movies and games. A new community service component was also added this year; on Saturday morning, students helped with the fall cleanup at the EcoMuseum in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue before breaking their fast with a lunch prepared by Happy Belly, a group that prepares vegan meals at Mac.

Organizers were pleased with the turnout, but would have liked to see more students from faculties outside of Engineering.

"It's a major stigma about the group," said Janukavicius. "The reason why it's called EWB is because the two co-founders were both engineers, but it's really open to everyone and a lot of people can be scared if they're not engineers."

Cohen stressed that the group's connection to engineering is more ideological than technical.

"There really is not a lot of technical engineer work that EWB does, a lot of it is just communicating and working with other people," she said. "The engineering mindset is that there's a lot of analytical and technical thinking that is bred through the engineering curriculum, but it's not specific to engineers."

 

All GA motions pass

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The Students’ Society held its first semi-annual General Assembly of the year last Thursday. Required once a semeseter after an ammendment to the Students’ Society constitution made last spring, the GA is designed to provide a way for students to take part in active democracy on campus. 

The Shatner Ballroom doors opened at 11:30 a.m. and students poured in to vote on issues put forth by fellow undergraduates. Roughly 170 students attended, exceeding the necessary quorum of 100 students and making any GA decisions binding. 

The agenda contained three motions. The first two, submitted by the Grassroots Association for Student Power, committed SSMU to take a stand against rising corporate influence on campus and to support workers in their struggles with McGill administration. A third motion was submitted by Midnight Kitchen to guarantee the group access to the third floor kitchen in Shatner, which they claim belongs to the organization after a verbal agreement made with SSMU during the 2003 renovations to Shatner.

The issue of kitchen space for Midnight Kitchen, a SSMU service that provides free vegan food to students, was the first to be discussed.  

The motion called for guaranteed access to the kitchen in the form of a key ensuring that members could get into the kitchen at any time. Problems were cited with the current agreement in which other organizations were using the kitchen, interfering with Midnight Kitchen’s operation. 

“We’re bringing this to the GA because the relationship [between SSMU and Midnight Kitchen] has disintegrated, and the SSMU has not been able to accommodate the discussion,” said one supporter during debate.

The motion to allow Midnight Kitchen full access to the third-floor kitchen was passed to bouts of applause from Midnight Kitchen supporters.

“It wasn’t our last resort, but it was a step along the way and we needed it to show that we had student support,” said Josh Pavan, Midnight Kitchen participant. “It shows that we have a student mandate.”

Corporate influence on campus was the next issue discussed. The motion suggested that SSMU would “condemn corporate invasion of public space and interference in academic life, actively oppose increasing negative corporate influence on campus and support the publicly-owned and funded nature of the university.”

Supporters of the motion cited the fact that one third of McGill’s budget is from corporate sponsors and questioned whether the money was funding student interests or those of the corporation.

Dissenters asked students to look at the loss of educational freedom that would come with the cut funding that the university would suffer if corporate sponsors were done away with. They also noted that the loss of funding would most likely result in higher tuition.

Some also took issue with the broad nature of the motion’s wording, requiring SSMU to take a stance against any form of corporate funding, regardless of the circumstances.

After almost half an hour of debate, the motion was passed.

The third and final motion up for discussion was the issue of Workers Solidarity. The motion moved that “the SSMU support, by whatever means at its disposal, the workers’ struggles affecting our campus and the greater McGill community” and that “when the rights of students anywhere are under attack, the SSMU use whatever means at its disposal to defend said rights.” 

This issue seemed to generate much less controversy than the previous two. By the time this motion came up, many students had left and after a short debate, the motion passed.

Students’ Society Vice-President External Affairs, Max Silverman acknowledged that the GA could be improved.

“The biggest problem I saw is that everyone came with their minds made up and didn’t have a desire to work towards something more acceptable for everyone. There’s no point having a debate unless you’re going to change peoples minds or change the motion to be more acceptable.” 

The low attendance was also an area of concern for the GA, which in ideal circumstances is supposed to be representative of McGill’s student body.

Silverman placed the blame of low attendance on SSMU, claiming that while the event was well advertised in the week leading up to it, better organization would have been beneficial.

“I think we could have started earlier and then we might have had more diverse conversation,” Silverman said. 

He went on to say that students have a responsibility to come out and vote.

“If you choose not to vote, or not to come to the GA, then you’re abandoning your right to have a say in that. I do think that’s problematic and I’d love to see a GA with 18,000 students, I just don’t think its going to happen.” 

Students had varying reactions to the results of the GA. Mike Jancik, U3 Political Science, was critical of the Assembly. 

“[The fact that] fewer than 200 students can bind SSMU to broad positions is a clear sign that GA’s are not democractic, but also that the only way for reasonable McGill students to get their government back is to attend these meetings and prevent the SSMU from being hijacked,” he said.

Other students weren’t as concerned with the possible results of the GA.

“There are a lot of restrictions on [the motions themselves] and I think that it really acts as a balance,” said Alix Stoicheff, U1 English and History, who was pleased with the results.

Silverman cautioned those who were worried about the implications of 170 people binding SSMU to a policy by pointing to the minimal impact that the resolutions would have. He said the motions passed mandate policy and a general framework, but do not require any specific action.

“None of them mandated any sort of course of action,” he said, “but rather broad sentiment and policy, and so it will be up to the executive to interpret the mandate given to them.”

However, many students were unaware of the GA and were therefore unable to make their voices heard.

John Menzies, a member of Conservative McGill, helped to mobilize students who were opposed to the motions at hand.

“The GA was very poorly publicized right up until it happened. When SSMU sent out the email for the GA they never put the resolutions in them. So a group of friends and I got together and said, ‘you know these two motions are radical motions, we disagree with them strongly, and the student body has not been informed about them. And further, the majority of the student population will not be able to voice their opinion.'”

Both Liberal McGill and Conservative McGill were involved in the movement.

“[Liberal McGill President] Simon Bessette and I had never met before, a friend introduced us. We got talking about this, and we were both on the same page. So we talked to our execs, and our execs agreed and so we sent out a message on our listservs,” Menzies said.

Though organized by two political groups, the opposition to the GA and the motions was non-partisan according to Menzies.

“The posters had no political party on them, it was not officially endorsed by any political party. It wasn’t even our execs that came up with the idea. Of course people from the executives came out and helped, but it wasn’t just Liberal and Conservative. It was non-partisan and it was from people of all ends of the political spectrum,” he said.

Menzies felt that the problem with last Thursday’s GA was its execution, not necessarily it’s concept.

“I think [the GA] is a very good forum for debate. Some very good points were brought up for both sides. But I still believe that this is incredibly undemocratic that this is held during class time, when people have to choose between the GA and going to class. I think it was a very poor decision to schedule it during that time. I think a better way of making it more democratic would be to, if a motion passes through the GA, then put it through an electronic vote.”

Menzies believed the GA in its current form was not in accord wit
h students’ expectations.

“Nearly 80 per cent of students voted for the GA [last year]. They did not vote for one during class time, unpublicized, during midterms, before thanksgiving weekend and almost under the radar.”

SSMU prepares inaugural year for Faculty Olympics

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Have you always known that your faculty could beat the crap out of any other faculty on campus? You might have to put up or shut up this winter with the introduction of the first ever Faculty Olympics.

Although the idea has been around since at least last year, the Faculty Olympics have never been realized. However, SSMU has been persistent this year in making the Olympics a reality, working with organizers Aneerudha Borkotoky, U3 Finance and Marketing, and Sheera Gendzel, U3 Marketing, to launch the event.  

“We’re still in the preliminary stages, but we already have a lot of ideas formed,” said Students’ Society Vice-President Communications and Events Gill Prendergast. “Now we need to select the best ideas and realize them.” 

There are many possible events already and more to come.

“One idea is to have one activity within each faculty that is naturally inclined toward that faculty,” Prendergast said. “For example, we could have lighthearted scientific experiments for Science and similarly styled trivia for Arts. Another example would be to have one huge immersive activity for all the faculties. Then again, it’s certainly plausible to combine both examples.”

The Olympics are hoped to create camaraderie between McGill’s faculties rather than competition.

“The main goal is to increase faculty interaction,” Prendergast said. “A lot of times, students unconsciously interact chiefly with other students in the same faculty. What we’d like to do is to promote more interaction between the faculties, to stimulate more out-of-faculty relationships. Ultimately I think it’ll be a really productive event.”  

The Faculty Olympics has been tentatively scheduled over a four-day period in mid-winter, possibly January and all the faculties have received invites.

The location of the event has not yet been decided, but everyone involved is working hard to make it a success.

“I hope the event gets a warm reception,” Prendergast said. “If we could get a strong start in the initial year and make this an annual event, all the hard work put in would have been worth it.”

CAMPUS: SSMU Flying Squad getting its wings

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Students’ Society Vice-President External Max Silverman is looking to make some noise on campus with his latest initiative, the SSMU Flying Squad. The group, which is still in its early stages of planning, plans to make it easier to mobilize students for issues that require support. According to Silverman, this may range from campus protests to educating the student body on a number of issues to be decided at a later date.

Drawing from his experience during the 2005 student strike, Silverman is proposing the squad be modelled on the strike unions in order to facilitate the mobilization of SSMU in a more timely manner. The new initiative had a table at Activities Night, where those supporting the idea of a mobilization committee asked students to attend their first meeting the following week.

Roughly thirty students attended the meeting late Wednesday evening in the Shatner building. Silverman took a passive role in the first meeting and said he was eager to listen to others.

“I don’t want it to be Max Silverman’s Flying Squad,” he said.

Attendees attempted to flesh out the club’s mandate and voiced their opinions of how the Flying Squad should be structured, what positions should be created and how the group would operate.

Several different ideas were put forward concerning the group’s structure: becoming a loose network of activists who meet on a need basis; the creation and maintenance of a moderated student list-serv for mass emails; and the assignment of permanent publicity coordinators.

The Flying Squad faced its second challenge later in the week at SSMU Council, where it was decided that the only autonomy the Flying Squad would have is that of organization. The members of the Flying Squad would be allowed to mobilize on campaigns within the SSMU mandate which SSMU doesn’t have means to mobilize for. However, this also may mean that council has purview over the squad and can veto causes adopted by the squad.

SSMU President Aaron Donny-Clark, who chaired the council meeting, felt that councillors reacted positively.

“The issue of the Flying Squad came up during Max’s report,” he said. “There were a few questions about it from council, notably on the procedure,” he said. “It seemed to be quite well received.”

However, not all councillors were as supportive.

One SSMU councillor, who wished to remain anonymous, disagreed with Donny-Clark’s impression of events.

“I’ve been talking to a few people, and councillors are concerned about the level of autonomy, but overall think it is a good idea. We’re in favour of a mobilizing body, but these kinds of decisions on issues should be made by elected bodies.”

The councillor also added that these concerns were brought up during council, but not heavily.

“We’re going to wait and see how it goes before taking any further action,” the councillor said.

The issue of autonomy was also raised during the initial Wednesday meeting. Arts councillor Rachel Abs explained there that she was confident that SSMU would be on the same page as the Flying Squad and would not quash any of their initiatives. Silverman added that if a protest was blocked by SSMU, students can still act outside of the group and participate regardless of their affiliation.

-Additional reporting by Kate Spirgen

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