Make your student union work for you

Reflecting on the debates, internal tensions, and potential of the SSMU

By Juliet Morrison, News Editor

The first time I learned about the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) was during a Zoom meeting for The McGill Tribune’s news section in January 2021, nearly five months into my first year. As an intimidated newcomer, I joined the meeting thinking I would just test out the vibe and refrain from picking up a piece. Yet, upon hearing that somebody needed to look into the new investigation that SSMU had just published about its collection of student fees—a number totalling upwards of $2,600,000—I was immediately intrigued.

My lack of awareness about SSMU prior to joining the Tribune might have stemmed from the fact that we were in the throes of the pandemic, with virtually no campus activity. Although, in talking to students today, it seems like the lack of awareness about what SSMU is, or even does, persists.

“Literally, I found out what it was the other day. I’d never been into the building [....] We saw a building and everybody was like ‘Oh S.S.M.U’. I’m like, oh, I didn't even know. I went to the Brown Building the other day, for the first time,” Maria Eugenia Areizaga-Garcia, U0 Science, said.

But students interact with SSMU all the time. If you’ve ever been to Open Mic Night at Gerts, visited clubs at Activities Night, or even used a free charging station at McLennan Library, you’re engaging with an aspect of McGill that SSMU administers, paid for by your student fees. Even matters like the new Fall reading break or 24-hour library access at the start of midterm season are the results of advocacy efforts from SSMU.

SSMU was established in 1908 and is the accredited student association for the approximately 25,000 undergraduates pursuing degrees at McGill’s downtown campus. Each spring, the undergraduate student body elects six students as “executives”a to serve a one-year term and fulfill the society’s mission—“To represent and advance the diverse needs of McGill Undergraduate students by improving the quality and accessibility of education, providing outstanding services, and promoting social, cultural, and personal opportunities.” They work full-time alongside permanent staff to run services, organize clubs, and advocate for students, often directly to the McGill administration. Along with the student executives, SSMU also has a political decision-making body, the Legislative Council, and a dispute resolution body, the Judicial Board.

Despite SSMU’s pervasive presence in student life, only 12.9 per cent of eligible undergraduate students voted in the elections that ushered in this year’s executives. This reflects a broader trend across Canada of low engagement in student associations, but also students’ disillusionment with SSMU.

Particularly after the events of last year, which saw the overturn of a democratically elected policy and a lack of transparency regarding internal turmoil that gutted the executive team with one impeachment and two resignations, SSMU’s reputation of being an environment that attracts students wishing to pad their resumes and debate trivial matters seems to have become stickier.

What is SSMU?

A lot of student mistrust can be traced back to a disagreement and lack of clarity over what SSMU’s role should be. Though tasked with advocating for a diverse, large student body, it is also fundamentally a corporate not-for-profit.

The not-for-profit structure is common at other Canadian university student unions, says Justin Patrick, a PhD student at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education studying the politics and history of student government. As he explained, student associations began incorporating as not-for-profits in the 1960s and 70s to skirt the university’s control.

“Before they were incorporated [as not-for-profits], the student unions were controlled directly by the university administrations,” Patrick said. “This meant that if the students wanted to pass something in their constitution, the university could veto it [....] So in the mid-20th century, there was a big push toward making the unions independent.”

After corporatization, Patrick explained that student unions began expanding to meet their reporting obligations—the accounting needed to comply with provincial laws around not-for-profits. Unions started to hire permanent non-student staff, and their annual operating budgets increased exponentially as a result.

In 1992, SSMU brought in $857,174 from student fees. In 2021-2022, it brought in $2,685,111, according to current vice-president (VP) Finance Marco Pizarro.

Current VP University Affairs Kerry Yang told me that, in addition to just being formally corporatized, SSMU must also function as a corporate entity with a sizable and expanding budget as it fills a void of services that the McGill administration refuses to offer.

“McGill doesn't provide any services in terms of student life, such as clubs, room bookings, and it doesn't hold any student life events,” Yang elaborated via email. “This is because the University says it does not have the funding or capacity to support these services [....] McGill has provided nothing. McGill often says it has budgetary constraints and thus passes on a lot of workload and costs to other organizations, such as SSMU.”

Compared to other Canadian student unions, SSMU is burdened with a higher workload in providing services. Yang pointed to the SSMU Menstrual Health Project as an example of this imbalance. The University of Toronto offers free menstrual products themselves, while Western University is providing $800,000 to their undergraduate student association so it can expand its menstrual hygiene program.

Running services like the University Centre and Gerts Bar and Café requires staff and a human-resources department. The six SSMU executives are salaried employees, earning approximately $32,000 for their work, which is supposed to average 40 hours a week, but can easily become 60 to 90 hours instead.

SSMU’s corporate architecture undergirds healthy student life on campus, but can sometimes become a barrier to the union’'s political advocacy role. The SSMU constitution notes that the Quebec Companies Act takes precedence over both its Letters Patent, and the constitution itself in “the event of a contradiction” between them.

SSMU’s corporatization is also why its highest governing body is the Board of Directors (BoD)—an entity whose job is to ensure SSMU acts in the best interest of its business and legal affairs.

Last year’s events highlighted the precedence of SSMU’s corporate responsibilities when it overturned the Palestine Solidarity Policy that students had passed with a 71.1 per cent majority via referendum. The McGill administration had threatened to sever its ties with SSMU if the Policy were approved.

Just hours after McGill’s public announcement, the Legislative Council convened for a scheduled meeting that quickly turned into a discussion about what the society’s immediate reaction to the threat should be: Should SSMU issue a statement standing by the policy and Palestinian students? Or should SSMU hold off to weigh the legal repercussions it would face if McGill carried out its threat, which included the potential loss of student spaces, such as the University Centre? They opted for the latter.

For the members and supporters of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill (SPHR) who created the policy, it seemed like even when they did everything right, including initially getting approval from the Judicial Board, it still wasn’t enough to bypass the BoD’s ultimate power.

“The BoD, in this particular case, had an objective which was defending the interests of the McGill administration—not the democratic will of the student body,” a representative of SPHR told me. “The Palestine Solidarity Policy last year essentially showed that no matter what students want, and despite the democratic nature of the referendum and the SSMU constitution, which presents democracy as a priority in our student life, the Board of Directors has powers to overturn the desires of students, even though they might conform to constitutional norms.”

From everyday actions to large-scale change, the balancing of not-for-profit interests and advocacy interests often clash dramatically. Former VP Internal (2021–2022) Sarah Paulin believes that SSMU faces a fundamental tension whereby its corporate responsibilities hinder its potential to advocate for students freely.

“SSMU plays a very interesting part where it has like two faces, it has the company part, but it also has the advocacy part,” Paulin said. “And those two don’t really align sometimes [because] every decision SSMU makes, it has to think about the laws that it abides by, the people that it’s [employing], as well as advocating for students.”

Paulin noted that SSMU is also hindered in its ability to freely advocate for students due to the Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) it has with McGill, which she told me favours McGill to the extent that it can easily shut down SSMU if it does anything deemed too controversial by the university.

“There [are] a lot of statements that can’t be put out because [SSMU] can get sued for it,” Paulin said. “So that's why there’s this sometimes silence from SSMU because they simply cannot publish something.”

Former SSMU president (2019-2020) Bryan Buraga also told me that the MoA is constructed in McGill’s favour. However, he believed the Board of Directors “folded too early” in overturning the Palestine Solidarity Policy and could have gone further to defend SSMU’s democratic processes.

“I’ve seen [SSMU’s] so-called corporate responsibilities used as an excuse to push aside student activism and advocacy,” Buraga said. “[T]here’s a really big leeway in which fiduciary duty can be applied and how far you can push the boundaries before you’re getting into the point where you're not acting in the best legal interests of the Students’ Society.”

Debating what SSMU should be

Many of the people I spoke to, including students and former SSMU executives, had conflicting ideas about what changes SSMU should or shouldn't make so that it can best address students’ needs.

Paulin believes that SSMU should move away from advocacy, get rid of the political VP External position, and focus instead on supporting clubs and services. She told me that SSMU’s practice of trying to be a “porte-parole” (spokesperson) for students often alienated the wider student body and contributed to “tension” between the student union and McGill.

“You can [engage in activism] on your own, you can find political parties within Montreal, but that should not be the student organization’s job, because it takes away from what I think is the true purpose of SSMU, which is having space for students and being able to support clubs and services,” Paulin added. “Who cares about what six students have to say? SSMU will not represent every single student. So it should not try to.”

U3 Science student and former Legislative Councillor Lucas Nelson thinks that SSMU is best for collecting and distributing student fees to important services, such as DriveSafe. Although he acknowledged SSMU’s advocacy as important, he feels that it often struggles to represent the student population accurately.

Rather than a complete rejection of advocacy, he wishes SSMU would “deliberate more as an institution” and try to seek out additional points of view from students, given those who typically participate in SSMU’s debates are “not representative of the student body as a whole.”

“Whenever there are sensitive social topics, I feel sometimes SSMU is pretty quick to take a side on issues when maybe some of the facts aren’t fully available, or when they don’t consider that side or that stance might harm part of the student body,” Nelson added.

Buraga thinks that increasing student engagement should be the main concern, rather than SSMU washing its hands of advocacy.

He maintains that SSMU needs to abolish its current structure and institute direct democracy at all decision-making levels to improve student engagement. These ideas were built into a political campaign he co-created, which spurned the ‘McGill Student Union Democratization Initiative Policy.’

Although it passed in SSMU’s Fall 2021 referendum, the policy was controversial for many at SSMU and seen as simply unfeasible considering its calls to completely reform the operations of independent faculty associations and abolish the Board of Directors. As of yet, none of its structural recommendations have been taken up.

“If people see that they get more tangible results in their time and effort through external activism, or getting involved in a service that provides direct services to students, they might put their time in that versus having to deal with admin BS or Legislative Councils that lasts for hours and hours for no good reason,” Buraga told me. “Unless there's some sort of massive foundational change to the way that SSMU runs itself, you’re just gonna keep this getting the same issue year after year.”

The plight of student engagement

But there are other voices that are largely absent from the conversation—those of students who don’t vote or participate in the SSMU’s affairs.

The decline in voter turnout is more severe at larger campuses where the student body is more dispersed, Patrick told me. The voter turnout for the University of Toronto Students’ Union most recent executive elections was a mere 6.6 per cent.

This trend of low turnout requires student unions to “show [students] that it’s worth getting involved in the student union and making their voice heard, voting, and taking part in the political life on the campus,” Patrick said. “It all kind of comes back to how many students you can mobilize, right? Because you have to show the students that it’s worth caring about this and that it benefits them.”

However, barriers to student engagement can also be huge. In speaking to students, it’s clear that a lack of awareness hinders their ability to get involved in SSMU. Participation can get costly and Legislative Council meetings typically average around three hours long.

On the other hand, the lack of student engagement makes it difficult for representatives to understand what the student body wants from them and how to best address their needs.

Drawing on her VP Internal experience, Paulin explained that “execs will come in with a mission and try to do everything we can to fulfill that mission. But when trying to reach out to students, there’s no response [....] We can say ‘SSMU doesn't do a good job of reaching out to students,’ but when there’s a lack of interest, there’s nothing you can really do.”

Corporatization, lack of student engagement, McGill’s ceilings to advocacy, and general disconnect between the student body and its union seem to mutually reinforce each other.

In the face of these overlapping issues, it can be easy for students and those involved in student associations to choose apathy and think of themselves as temporary community members. Students whose issues are deemed “controversial”––women, students of colour, disabled students, neurodivergent students, 2SLGBTQIA+ students––are in turn most disempowered if SSMU and community members just give up. As one SPHR representative puts it, SSMU’s actions last year were “very harmful to student activism because it leads to many students thinking ‘oh, why even bother?”

At a setting like McGill, university decision-making is concentrated in the hands of a few senior administrative officials who repeatedly dismiss students as stakeholders. However, there is tremendous value in an association tasked with representing roughly 25,000 students.

“At the end of the day, student associations are supposed to be beneficial to students,” current VP External Val Masny told me. “And if students believe they're not, then they're able to change the way they work. If you think SSMU shouldn't be doing this, and it should be doing something else, then say something and find other students [....] I invite people to basically, like, make their student association theirs.”

Everyone has different ideas about what student unions, or any form of political body, should be. Conducting interviews for this piece has confirmed to me that there is no individual or straightforward solution to SSMU’s issues—maybe it needs a more democratic governance structure, or a better MoA, or for McGill to take on the work of providing services or no changes at all.

Most importantly, though, we need to have these conversations—SSMU influences so much of our student experience. The more we see it as a site for possibility and engagement, the more it can come to reflect us.

Illustrations by Drea Garcia, Design Editor