The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) vice-president (VP) Internal Affairs Sarah Paulin sent out a mass email on Sept. 28 containing a written statement entitled “Enacting Change Within SSMU.” The statement comes after an article published by The McGill Daily on Sept. 22 exposed accounts of past and ongoing experiences of gender-based discrimination within SSMU. Paulin’s statement claims that SSMU is addressing issues of “toxic behaviour” as alleged by members within the Society, while past and current executives report the statement lacks transparency.
The accounts from past and present SSMU members included in the Daily article range from a lack of confidentiality and accountability surrounding women’s reports of harassment by other SSMU executives, to male executives taking credit for women’s work. Paulin, who wrote the statement on behalf of SSMU’s Executive Committee, said the executives were aware of faults in the current system for some time.
“The issues outlined in the statement have been discussed by executives for a while,” Paulin told The McGill Tribune. “It was a general consensus among the current executives that it was […] time to address them. We wanted to work on the issues that we have been hearing about and that have been raised, just to ensure that the processes that SSMU enacts are reflective of its values.”
Former internal SSMU member Skylar* said they were frustrated with the statement’s ambiguity in an interview with the Tribune. The former member also felt it ran counter to SSMU’s purported survivor-centric approach to reports of gender-based discrimination and sexual violence.
“I think the more times I have read through it, the more I have started getting upset with how little I think the statement actually accomplishes, both in the length and the lack of detail and […] transparency within it,” Skylar said. “For an institution that has prided itself [on its] […] survivor-centric approach in everything it does, I feel like the statement honestly did the opposite of that.”
In an email to the Tribune, SSMU president Darshan Daryanani, acknowledged that more profound changes than the ones alluded to in the statement are necessary.
“Institutions become oppressive spaces without strong training initiatives, conscious and unbiased decision-making, proper consultation and consideration (instead of unilateral decisions), and action-oriented frameworks and plans,” Daryanani wrote. “As such, a statement does not answer the concerns about the environment and culture that has been fostered, ‘change’ must be intentional, forward thinking and proactive [….] The people who have been part of the system should not have the say on what change is needed, specifically when the issues disproportionately affect marginalized communities.”
In Skylar’s experience, the current Gendered and Sexual Violence trainings that SSMU’s members undergo have been unsuccessful in reducing sexual violence and gender-based discrimination within SSMU.
“It seems that SSMU’s reactions are always going to very much continue to foster the status quo,” Skylar noted. “And [the reactions] are going to be ultimately things that do not make change. One extra mandatory training is so often the [reaction] of SSMU, but just the idea of confidentiality is really going to put any meaningful change into question and serve to block any real progress.”
The decision to comment about experiences within SSMU anonymously is not a choice Skylar takes lightly. They explain it reflects a real fear those affiliated with the Society have about going public—rather than working within the current system to bring to light gender-based discrimination in SSMU.
“The fear [is why] we have chosen anonymity,” Skylar said. “Because ultimately we are more concerned […] for the individuals who are elected. That it is going to have political repercussions for them if they were actually to say something public, and for us who are employed by the SSMU, that it is going to have impacts on our future employment.”
*Skylar’s name has been changed to preserve their anonymity.