On April 7, 2016, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Services Review Committee changed the status of Organic Campus, the Players Theatre and other student services within SSMU’s structure. In a similar restructuring move on May 24, 2016, SSMU revoked the club status of the McGill Outdoors Club (MOC). These changes—ratified nine months ago—have had profound implications for the functioning of the affected groups, specifically for those given Independent Student Group (ISG) status. Yet it was not until January 2017 that VP Student Life Elaine Patterson’s addressed the transition process for new ISGs. SSMU’s silence on the matter has left these groups stranded in managing their new responsibilities. SSMU’s detached—or, in the case of the MOC, seemingly unilateral—decision-making process that yielded these changes, as well as the lack of guidance through their immediate aftermath, fail the society’s mandate to support its student groups.
While the distinction may seem innocuous, there are important differences between a club or service and an ISG vis-à-vis the group’s relationship to SSMU. Clubs and services fall under the legal and financial oversight of SSMU, whereas ISGs exist independently from the society. Unsurprisingly, independence increases a group’s responsibilities. In addition to obtaining legal status as a non-profit organization in the province of Quebec, ISGs must acquire their own insurance, and file their own taxes.
These are substantial and often expensive requirements, which unprepared student groups may not be able to accommodate. The Services Review Committee, which was reinstated in 2015 for the first time since 2011, has a legitimate mandate in evaluating the existing services’ structure and compliance with the internal regulations of student groups. However, while the April 7 report concluded that Organic Campus and the Players Theatre did not meet these criteria, it offered little as to why or how these groups would operate better with the ISG status that they were given. Part of SSMU’s mandate is to offer services to improve the McGill student experience—this means ensuring that the student groups that provide these services are viable and functioning. When the Committee enacts changes to student groups in the future, it must consider whether they are sustainable for the group in question.
The MOC’s transition from club to ISG had a more concrete rationale. Former VP Clubs and Services Kimber Bialik argued that operating as an ISG makes sense for the group, given its external bank account and independent insurance. SSMU has been negotiating the switch with the MOC for the past two years.
However, this does not justify the way the decision was finally made. The Board of Directors and last year’s SSMU Council not only changed the MOC’s status without the group’s knowledge or consent, but waited until the last meeting of the 2016 school year to do so. Minutes from the the May 24 meeting suggest that concern over how MOC’s finances would appear to new auditors motivated the last-minute decision, rather than the best course of action for the club. Moreover, General Manager Ryan Hughes raised the question of possible ‘media flak’ in response to the decision. The minutes of the meeting are, notably, not accessible on the SSMU website—an unacceptable breach of accountability and transparency.
With the exception of former SSMU president Kareem Ibrahim and director Kahli Douglas, who abstained from voting on the decision, the lack of transparency and hastiness of the MOC decision falls on last year’s SSMU executives. However, it is equally unacceptable that this year’s team has been so slow to extend support to the student groups forced to change their structure. The Players Theatre remains in transition to its new status, while Organic Campus no longer exists as of January 2017. The MOC, meanwhile, is actively appealing the decision to revoke its club status. Patterson plans to aid transitioning groups, with the goal of having all ISGs stable by the end of the Winter 2017 term. Specifically, she intends to assist new ISGs with their application for legal status in Quebec. This is a positive yet retroactive step.
SSMU is itself a student-operated body. Like the clubs and services that it supports, it faces the challenge of finite resources and manpower. Overburdened executive portfolios and the stringent 2016-2017 budget necessitate strategic and sometimes unpopular decisions for the society’s student groups, as has already been demonstrated by the moratorium on new clubs. When these decisions are made, however, they must be made transparently—in consultation with affected parties, and with regard for their consequences.
The McGill Tribune has been an ISG since 2010.