Learning from the successes and failures of AVEQ

Following years of apathy and disengagement, the announcement that the Association for the Voice for Education in Quebec (AVEQ), a provincial student union, had dissolved generated little attention on McGill’s campus. While students are passionate advocates for causes like greater access to mental health services at McGill and the upcoming changes to McGill’s sexual violence policy, they often fail to recognize that provincial unions like AVEQ are responsible for generating such change. Now that AVEQ is dissolving, it is uncertain what new federation might take its place, leaving a void in student representation at the provincial level. 

AVEQ and the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) had a complicated relationship: SSMU executives and Legislative Council members have debated whether to affiliate with the group for years, and it was even put to an unsuccessful referendum in Winter 2016. While some students will remember AVEQ for its alleged financial misconduct and general disorganization, it would be a mistake to dismiss the idea of SSMU affiliating with a provincial student federation. Coordinating with other student associations to advocate for our mutual interests is essential to effecting positive change at the provincial level.

Financial mismanagement played a key role in AVEQ’s dissolution. According to former AVEQ employee Sophia Sahrane, in the organization’s final months, its board paid her $1,000 to drop legal claims of late pay and harassment; she has also alleged that AVEQ executives used the organization’s credit cards for personal expenses. The mouvement des associations générales étudiantes of l’université du Québec à Chicoutimi (MAGE-UQÀC), an association representing the university’s undergraduate students, withdrew from AVEQ in Oct. 2018 when the organization failed to pass a balanced budget. AVEQ’s 2017–18 budget ultimately ran an approximate $66,700 deficit.

AVEQ’s voting system also contributed to discontent among some of its member organizations. The association operated on a ‘one-member, one-vote’ principle, meaning that the Concordia Student Union (CSU), which represents over 35,000 students, had no more influence in AVEQ’s decision-making than the organization’s two other members, MAGE-UQÀC and the Association générale des étudiants du campus à Rimouski (AGECAR), despite representing more students than both associations combined.

Nonetheless, AVEQ had its share of successes in lobbying for students’ interests. The higher profile that comes with being a student federation meant it could participate in the ministerial consultations regarding Bill 151, a Quebec law regulating post-secondary institutions’ sexual harassment policies. The federation also met with then Minister of Higher Education Hélène David in Sept. 2017 to discuss the health insurance issues that international students face, a topic on which AVEQ has produced excellent research.

This kind of high-level activity is the goal of student federations. By pooling their resources, university-level student associations can gain more recognition than they could alone. SSMU is currently without a vice-president (VP) External, leaving students with less influence over the issues that matter to them. Just this year, a provincial organization, les Comités unitaires sur le travail étudiant, organized protests against unpaid internships that attracted widespread media attention and a response from Quebec Minister of Education and Higher Education Jean-François Roberge.

With AVEQ gone, SSMU and the CSU are both without provincial affiliation. SSMU has a unique opportunity to fill this gap in representation and take a proactive role in organizing a new, more functional student federation that aligns with McGill students’ interests. This would involve learning from the examples set by groups past and current. Issue-specific campaigns, like the Our Turn National Action Plan, have succeeded in bringing about change by combining a narrow focus and high media visibility; the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) has full-time staff who regularly engage with groups in the federal government. With the proper strategies, effective student advocacy is achievable and worthwhile.

University campuses have long been sites for social change where student associations are especially influential: In Quebec, the 2012 Maple Spring student protests resulted in the government rescinding plans to increase tuition. Letting this influence wane due to AVEQ’s mismanagement would be self-defeating. Government decisions influence nearly all student issues, from the cost of education to mental health. With SSMU elections approaching next month, the incoming executive board, especially the VP External, has the opportunity to help build such an organization from the ground up and make sure it represents McGill’s needs. McGill students deserve to have a voice in governmental decisions—and affiliating with other students is the best way to get there.

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