Equity policy needs more clarity, transparency

a/Editorial/Opinion by

The Students’ Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) Equity Policy has come under sustained criticism from both students and members of SSMU Council in the wake of its application against SSMU VP Internal Brian Farnan, resulting in a public apology. As was reported Feb. 4, changes to the policy—some of which had been in the works before this controversy—are on the way. As various proposals are considered, the priority must be to make the policy clearer and more accessible to students.

One of the major issues regarding the equity policy arose this past Wednesday at the Winter General Assembly (GA). The final resolution debated that night was on the “Guarantee on the Freedom of Dress in the SSMU Building,” which proved mostly to be a stalking horse for settling a longstanding dispute between the Plumbers’ Philharmonic  Orchestra (PPO) and SSMU. Based on an executive decision, the signature lab coats of the PPO had been banned from the SSMU building on grounds derived from the equity policy.

One of the many issues that were debated was the extent to which the SSMU Equity Policy even has jurisdiction on the matter. The current policy specifies applications to staff, executives, and clubs that are of, or funded by SSMU, plus activities and events hosted by SSMU and affiliated clubs and services, as well as any events, activities and promotions in the SSMU building itself.

Those clauses left the PPO lab coats in a sort of jurisdictional no-man’s land. As a non-SSMU organization, it was not directly accountable to the Equity Policy. However, the coats were deemed by members of the SSMU executive to contain writings that were in contravention of the Equity Policy, leading to both their ban in the building, and a host of other sanctions against the group as a whole, such as prohibition from booking rooms in the SSMU building. One change to the Equity Policy that would improve its application in these kinds of situations is to clarify how it can be used in relation to a student group that is not actually under the umbrella of SSMU.

In addition to jurisdictional issues, the Equity Policy also suffers from a general inaccessibility to students. The actual policy­­—at most recent revision—weighs in at 22 pages. While that may be a necessary level of detail to include in a full-form document, there is currently no simpler way for a student to become acquainted with the policy. The landing page on the SSMU website that discusses Equity lists “Read the SSMU Equity Policy” as the first step to resolving an equity-related situation. Though the page contains a bare-bones outline of situations that could be equity-related, a better service to students would be an “executive summary” of the policy. This­—in a page or two at maximum—would outline both what the policy can remedy and what it prohibits in a form that allows a student to easily decide whether their situation falls within the policy.

In addition, a complaint cited by several SSMU Councillors in the wake of the Farnan situation was the inability for council to suggest changes to the recommendation once it is brought to their attention. The take-it-or-leave-it nature of the remedy presented can cause issues in which the original incident is deserving of a resolution different from that which is suggested by the Equity Commissioner.

The last, and perhaps trickier question that should be asked in reevaluating the equity policy is what even constitutes an equity violation. There is a possible tension between resolving a wider scope of situations  using the policy, and having a definition and scope of the policy that is actually taken seriously by the student body. More to the point, much of the backlash that emerged from the Farnan apology focused on the seemingly insignificant nature of the complaint itself. Continued application of the policy in such a way might make a mockery of the policy, defeating its purpose of educating students, and detracting from cases in which it is truly needed.

The SSMU Equity Policy, while imperfect, is a necessary part of fulfilling the association’s obligations to the student body. However, as recent events have shown, substantial changes are needed to allow it to adapt to the current realities on campus and keep it relevant to students.

Erratum:  A previous version of this editorial contained several factual errors regarding the SSMU Equity Policy. These errors were caused by our reference to a previous (March 2012) version of the policy. The Section 11.5 to which we had referred exists in the new document as Section 9.4, and has been updated to address the concerns we had raised regarding abstentions. It is also worth clarifying that the Equity Policy itself is 11 and a half pages long; the editorial’s previous quote of 22 pages includes appendices and represented the total document length of the previous policy. The Tribune regrets these errors.

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  • Anonymous

    Solid editorial piece, pretty well-researched.
    Not contentious or ridiculous enough to spark a discussion though, sadly.