I’ve been working at the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) in various capacities for almost three years. During this time, I have seen the vital role that SSMU plays in improving student life, and the potential of the Executive team to truly affect change on campus. So, when my colleagues encouraged me to run for the Vice-President (VP) Finance position, I agreed. I assumed, somewhat naively, that with the right mindset of hard work and integrity, I would not fall into the same patterns that led to past difficulties within SSMU.
However, I have learned that as a SSMU Executive, working hard is not enough: Interpersonal conflicts within SSMU and individual Executives’ efforts to advance personal agendas have prevented me from fulfilling the mandate I wanted to achieve. Ultimately, I made the difficult decision to step down from my role primarily for my mental and physical health.
As the Fall semester progressed, it became increasingly difficult to use my time productively and meet my broader goals of supporting marginalized students. I was burdened with numerous tasks outside of my portfolio, I was let down and targeted by the leader who was supposed to support me, and I was attacked by the Board of Directors (BoD) for prioritizing due process and student consultation over personal political beliefs and exerting unnecessary power over the membership.
To be clear, SSMU’s problems extend beyond my personal experience. Over the past few years, the Society has become polarized to the point of impeding its functioning. Meanwhile, well-intentioned endeavours, such as advocating for a more democratic BoD, have been quashed, turning instead into political debates.
The self-serving political climate within SSMU troubles me, and it should be of concern for students as well. Student fees and Executives’ time are being used to attack other members of the Executive team, rather than to further the student initiatives that SSMU exists to support. This year, the President’s unwillingness to resolve internal conflicts led the Board to approve the use of student fees —$15,000, to be precise—to professionally mediate between her and other Executives. In fact, the funds were later used for her to launch an investigation against the rest of the Executive board, including myself. Student funds should be used to better the student experience at McGill, not for self-fulfilling inquisitions.
The SSMU Executive needs to operate as a functioning unit, regardless of inherent personal and political differences. This year’s executive team has achieved a lot so far: We broke a record with Activities Night attendance; we published the Our Turn Action Plan to end Campus Sexual Violence and held forums to develop our own Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy; we introduced a pilot program for unlimited counselling services; and we had the most successful Halloween event in the past three years. Unfortunately, these achievements have been overshadowed by interpersonal conflict and public scandals.
In 2016, the current University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU) President, Mathias Memmel, wrote an article, asking, is the UTSU worth saving? Memmel argued that when a student association runs into trouble, it has two options. The first is “to hide what’s going on and become progressively more authoritarian,” and the second is “to throw open the doors and let the members see the corruption.” As Memmel concludes, “A [student union] that exists only for the benefit of a small clique of student politicians isn’t worth anyone’s time.”
Our current system allows a small faction of career politicians to pad their resumes at the expense of the average student, by working through undemocratic structures like the Board of Directors to promote their personal ideologies and suppress dissent. This year, I watched a Board composed of mostly unelected members make controversial decisions without proper consultations, undermine our General Assembly, harass and suspend me without due cause, and extend their own tenure past their term limits. Left unchecked and unbalanced, the Board of Directors this year has used its disproportionate power within SSMU to to embrace positions which alienated a significant proportion of the membership.
To do better, and truly work for the student body’s interests, SSMU first needs more democratic leadership, and an Executive team that prioritizes mandated day-to-day responsibilities over personal agendas. To that end, decisions need to be made with adequate student consultation, and we need more rigorous standards for internal procedures. Second, complaint mechanisms need to be created and adhered to, with specific accountability mechanisms to deal with cases where student representatives no longer abide by their mandates. Third, student leaders must make all of their decisions public at democratically accessible forums, with sufficient and accurate reporting. SSMU would benefit from restructuring its constitution and governing bodies to be directly accountable to the average student. This would entail directing more of the decision-making power to the General Assembly, and reaffirming the primacy of Legislative Council as a body which facilitates direct participation from the membership.
I leave SSMU hoping that the Executive team will be able to move past current divisions to continue the projects they have planned. SSMU must continue to champion the wellbeing of McGill students, both through providing essential services and through supporting advocacy for marginalized communities. Additionally, I urge the student body to take part in critiquing governances structures when they are unfair and unaccommodating of the student body’s needs. Recent history at SSMU has shed light on its failures: a lack of oversight, and blatant abuses of power. SSMU can be better, and it should be better. By speaking out and holding their representatives accountable, students can make SSMU the representative, democratic institution it was always intended to be.