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SSMU

Student committee to advocate for fall reading week

McGill/News/Private/SSMU by
(Arshaaq Jiffry / The McGill Tribune)

The first major steps are underway for the implementation of a fall reading week and a restructuring of the Student’s Society of McGill University (SSMU) Board of Directors. Following the 2018 SSMU Winter Referendum, in which over 96 per cent of electors voted in favour of a fall reading week, conversations have begun at the administrative and student level with the creation of an ad hoc Fall Reading Break Committee and a subcommittee under the Enrolment and Student Affairs Advisory Committee (ESAC).

Among the leaders of the reading week committee is McGill Arts and Science Senator Bryan Buraga, who researched the implementation of a fall reading week last year. He sees more potential in this year’s effort compared to SSMU’s attempts in 2015, which were sparked by a motion endorsing a fall reading week.

“[Campaigning in] 2015 was focused more on administrators and deans as far as I am aware,” Buraga said. “It is different now because there is a new Deputy Provost of Student Life and Learning who is open to hearing student concerns, and that is a huge leap from where we were last year.”

According to Fabrice Labeau, McGill’s interim deputy provost of Student Life and Learning, obstacles to a fall reading week encountered during the 2015 discussions still need solutions. Scheduling a fall reading week could mean having to compact the final exam schedule or start the term before Labour Day, which could leave some students having to pay an additional month’s rent.  

“There is the question of when […] we make up for the time during the semester that will be taken up by this fall reading break,” Labeau said. “Some faculties, like Engineering and Medicine, have accreditation requirements that involve a certain number of contact hours. So, whenever you lose a day, you need to add a day to the semester either at the end or before the usual beginning of the semester.”

Buraga intends for the Fall Reading Week Committee to split into two working groups, one of which will lobby and negotiate with McGill administration while the other group collects data and researches the needs of the student body.

“I think it’s going to be important to listen to the needs of all students,” Buraga said. “It’s going to be a balancing act, for sure, because [while] we cannot please everybody, […] we need to get a large majority of students to agree that we are okay with Saturday exams or we are okay with starting earlier before Labour Day or some sort of compromise.”

Buraga remains optimistic about the implementation of a fall reading week at McGill.

“Before the 1990s, there was not a winter reading break,” Buraga said. “It was a student-led initiative to get a winter reading break. With that precedent in mind, it is definitely very possible that we may get [a fall reading week].”

The SSMU Board of Directors could also face major changes within the next couple of years. SSMU President Tre Mansdoerfer has taken action to examine the structure of the board and address what he argues are systematic weaknesses. According to Mansdoerfer, the board, which consists of five members at large, three councillors, and four executives, is easily exploited by members with strong political ideologies.

“You have people of similar political ideologies on the board with an intent to express their political ideologies on a board issue,” Mansdoerfer said.

According to Mansdoerfer, an ideal board would see the council representatives and members-at-large replaced by academic representatives from every faculty.

“The [concerns of the] board should be financial, legal, [and] operational and the current structure doesn’t really reflect that,” Mansdoerfer said. “We can have faculty presidents where stakeholders from every single group [will be] on the board deciding the financial operational decisions for McGill students. [….The proposed reforms are] really trying to make sure the board is what it should be, looking [out] for the best interests of students.”

SSMU motion on far-right postponed

News/SSMU by
(Gabriel Helfant / The McGill Tribune)

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Legislative Council convened on Sept. 27, during which councillors Bryan Buraga, Mu Rong Yang, Garima Karia, and Andrew Figueiredo were nominated to the Board of Directors (BoD). The Legislative Council also approved a motion to prohibit the Vice-President (VP) Internal from becoming intoxicated at events and event organizers from spending SSMU funds on personal drinks.

 

In more routine matters, the Council renewed the motion designating affiliated clubs as SSMU’s highest priority and confirmed the membership of the health and dental care review committee. It also discussed a policy defining SSMU’s stance toward far-right groups and a motion addressing the lack of student participation in SSMU politics.

Motion regarding far-right groups postponed indefinitely

Council members voted to indefinitely postpone the Motion to Adopt a Policy Against Affiliation with Far Right Groups, which would forbid individuals or clubs affiliated with far-right groups from being directly involved with SSMU. During the discussion period, VP External Marina Cupido defended this move, stating that the policy in its current form was not yet ready to be submitted to the Legislative Council. Cupido will submit a revised motion in the near future.

 

“This is a very nuanced issue, and I think that there are a lot of concerns that need to be taken into account when trying to fight the far-right on our university campus, or anywhere really,” Cupido said. “I think that the […] draft that was brought up last year is a good start, but […] I don’t think it is adequate, frankly [….] I would like to see something better and more thorough, and I would like to have the time to put that together.”

 

The vote was initially proposed by the outgoing 2017-18 SSMU Legislative Council at the Apr. 5 council meeting, during which councillors voted to postpone discussion to the second meeting of the 2018-19 council. Despite this delay, Cupido expressed their commitment to preparing a policy in the coming months to address the presence of far-right groups on campus.

 

“I want to get this done by the end of October, so I really don’t want to drag [it] out,” Cupido said.

Council unanimously passes motion regarding student governance

 

Council members unanimously voted in favour of the Motion for Special Emphasis to be Placed on Greater Engagement with Student Governance. The policy, which will establish an ad hoc committee to undertake a comprehensive governance review, is an attempt to address student apathy toward and subsequent distrust of SSMU. These feelings have resulted in low voter participation in SSMU elections, including in the 2018 Winter Election, where only 32.8 per cent of the student body voted. This was the highest voter turnout in 14 years.

 

“The terms of reference engage in a serious attempt to address a longstanding problem,” VP University Affairs Jacob Shapiro said. “It’s a problem that traditionally has been addressed in ad hoc manners. I hope that this indicates a more sustained effort. Ultimately, we’ll be judged by the actions of this committee and not by words or bad raps.”

 

During the discussion period, Senate Caucus Representative Bryan Buraga expressed optimism that the policy would improve student perceptions of SSMU.

 

“I think this is a fantastic step in the right direction for reforming our society and making sure we re-engage our members, and [making] sure that they have faith in this institution that can do so much great work,” Buraga said.

Meet the Execs

News/SSMU by

Tre Mansdoerfer – President

What have you done this summer?

“I spent time working on new initiatives, improving our internal documentation/structures, and finding space for student groups on campus. Regarding new initiatives, I reached out to over 70 student body presidents across Canada and the US to learn about what initiatives they have at their schools [….] Our internal documentation was severely outdated, I spent time collecting and verifying numerous sessions of the Board of Directors and Legislative Councils from previous years [….] Finally, [VP Student Life Sophia Esterle and I] spent significant time finding building space on campus. Working with [campus groups…], we are hoping to mitigate the impact of not having a SSMU building.”

What are you working on now?

“Two of [SSMU’s new] committees include the Fall Reading Week Committee and Governance Reform Committee [….] We’re hoping to engage on the fall reading week conversation more seriously than what was done in previous years [….We’re working on] the Governance Reform Committee, which VP University Affairs Jacob Shapiro has committed significant time to. We’re hoping to critically evaluate SSMU’s governance structures and work on reforming the structure of groups like the Board of Directors.”

What challenges do you foresee this year?

“The biggest challenge for this year is the building closure. Not having a building significantly hurts clubs, services, and operations such as Gerts. Knowing this, [Sophia Esterle and I] have spent a lot of our time […] helping groups get additional space on campus. We’ll continue to put our time into helping out clubs and services as much as we can so that student life on campus is not severely impacted.”

 

Sophia Esterle – Vice-President Student Life

What have you done this summer?

“I took on a lot of the communication with both our clubs and within SSMU, [and also with our banks]. [We’ve been looking] to find space, and I’ve coordinated with all of our student groups to [hear] their needs [….] I also worked […] to clean up our list of clubs and make sure we had an updated list of everything, and also worked […] on the new interface/login system they are developing for clubs. Finally, [I worked on] Activities Night. The change of locations was quite a challenge, [and,] this year [,] I attempted to organize it a bit more by assigning tables and publishing a set floor plan with all of the groups, as well as creating an entirely new layout and organization of the tables [….] I hope everyone enjoyed the event!”

What are you working on now?

“Right now, my main priority is building space. I want to make sure that as many groups as possible can function and be successful this year. We also have mental illness awareness week at the end of the month […] being organized for the first time, which is very exciting. Additionally, I’ve been working with Rez Life to set up an event in residences centered around mental health throughout the year.”

University Centre reopening delayed until 2019

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(ssmu.ca)

Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) has postponed the opening of the University Centre building until the end of the 2018-19 school year due to construction delays, according to an Aug. 14 Facebook post. The construction, which began on March 17, was initially scheduled to be completed by the winter of 2018, with Gerts Campus Bar opening in September followed by the rest of the building in December. However, underestimates of the time needed to remove contaminants have caused the expected opening to be pushed back until the summer.

“We were under the impression that the building was on the original timeline until shortly before our update on August 14th,” Tre Mansdoerfer, SSMU President, wrote in an email to the The McGill Tribune. “There was more hazardous material in the building [than] was originally anticipated.”

The building was closed to allow for the replacement of the heating and ventilation system after the discovery of traces of asbestos. Asbestos, a construction material commonly used during the 1950s and 60s, has been linked to numerous lung conditions when its fibres are inhaled in large quantities. The building will also be equipped with improved electrical distribution, an additional washroom, and various other upgrades.

The University Centre is leased through McGill, which is responsible for the repairs and has been in communication with SSMU throughout the duration of the project.

Construction on a leased property falls under the control of the lessor,” Mansdoerfer wrote. “Both McGill’s project management team and contractors are responsible for the building repairs. We’ve been in contact with the contractors for the project throughout the summer, they updated us on the timeline in early August, and we subsequently updated the student body.”

The construction delays pose challenges for the 19 clubs that were forced to relocate ahead of the University Centre’s initial closure. Many were moved to spaces on Robert-Bourassa Boulevard and Peel Street, where they will remain for the duration of the construction period. However, clubs that require specific equipment and ample space to function are now encountering issues resuming regular activity.

“For general space needs, we’ve been working with the building directors of Athletics facilities and Residence Halls,” Mansdoerfer wrote. “Science Undergraduate Society, Management Undergraduate Society, Engineering Undergraduate Society, and Arts Undergraduate Society will be providing space to SSMU clubs at specified times during the year. Through the Deputy Provost office, we are booking available classrooms for club usage. We are also in conversations with McGill on getting additional permanent space for clubs/student groups on campus.”

For smaller organizations such as the McGill Plate Club, a student group which aims to promote sustainability by loaning reusable eating utensils on campus, the delays have created inconveniences to their regular functioning.

“Our core ability to function as an event plate rental service has only been slightly disrupted, since we are fortunate to have been assigned temporary storage space,” a representative of the Plate Club wrote to the Tribune. “Since our user base extends beyond SSMU groups, usage has been sustained even if this one sector is holding less events as a consequence of the building closure. I do feel that the loss of a central student space will put a damper on undergraduate student life in general.”

Meanwhile, for bigger groups such as the Players’ Theatre, which was evicted in February and requires a large space to operate, the move has been particularly difficult. Nonetheless, Cheyenne Cranston, Executive Director of the Players’ Theater, remains optimistic about the community’s ability to function despite the delays.

“After meeting with SSMU, it is clear that they are doing everything in their power to assist the clubs and services that have been impacted by the building closure,” Cranston wrote in an email to the Tribune. “There’s an old saying in theatre that says, ‘The show must go on!’ and we plan to follow this saying. While acquiring a theatre space through SSMU would be ideal, we’ll perform in someone’s living room if we have to.”

SSMU Board of Directors reduces dental coverage

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(ssmu.ca)

As a result of an unforeseen deficit, at a meeting on June 11, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Board of Directors (BoD) voted to reduce student dental coverage from $750 to $500 for the upcoming academic year. The motion was approved by the Board, with seven votes in favour and one abstention.

The SSMU Health and Dental Plan is administered by the Alliance pour la Santé Étudiante au Québec (ASEQ) / Studentcare, founded by McGill alumnus Lev Bukhman (BA ‘93) in 1996. Studentcare is dedicated to facilitating access to health and dental plans for post-secondary communities across Canada.

While the health care services component of the Plan only covers Canadian SSMU members, the Dental Plan provided by Studentcare is automatically available to all SSMU members. For an annual Dental Plan fee of $100, students are usually guaranteed coverage of dental services of up to $750 from Sep. 1 to Aug. 31 of that academic year. Following the BoD’s decision, however, students enrolled in the Dental Plan for 2018-2019 will only have access to services totalling up to $500 for the same payable fee of $100.   

SSMU pays a total $134.15 premium per student on the Studentcare Dental Plan, financed in part by the annual $100 student fee. The Society is responsible for the remaining costs, which amount to over $600,000 for the approximately 18,000 students covered by the Plan. Typically, SSMU covers this amount using Plan reserves they have built up over the years. Due to a miscommunication on the part of the previous SSMU Vice-President (VP) Financial Affairs Esteban Herpin, however, the reserves are not sufficient to shoulder the cost for the coming academic year.

“Esteban communicated in an email that we had over two million dollars in reserves which we didn’t have, so we never restructured the [student] fee accordingly last semester,” SSMU President Tre Mansdoerfer said. “As a result, we only have about $200,000. It’s significantly smaller, meaning that we are currently slated a $320,000 deficit if we don’t adjust the fee.”

Following consultations with Studentcare, Mansdoerfer presented the dental coverage reduction to the Board as the only rational choice in the face of such a sizeable projected deficit.

“The suggested plan of action was to decrease dental coverage from 750 to 500 dollars,” Mansdoerfer said. “[…From] everything that I have gathered […] this is the most logical thing to do. Going forward this coming Fall, we can run a fee referendum for the next cycle of dental and health care coverage, and we can raise it back to 750 dollars if that’s what students deem is important, and I think they probably do.”

According to Mansdoerfer, SSMU’s Studentcare insurer estimates that five per cent of the Dental Plan subscribers exceed $500 worth of services over the course of 12 months. Indeed, only one third of dental services required by students constitute more expensive urgent reactive care, while the remaining two thirds are simply preventative services.

VP External Affairs Marina Cupido raised the concern that, for those approximately 900 students who were expected to exceed the reduced coverage, no other funding would be available to help alleviate the incurred costs.

“If we do have a member who is in a crisis situation and needs more coverage, is there anything we can say to them, is there anywhere we can direct them to, is there any pool of money that we could [use]?” Cupido said.

Mansdoerfer answered that he was unaware of any supplementary financial assistance that SSMU could provide to those students. The Board stressed the necessity for a fee referendum in the coming academic year to rectify the discrepancy between the maintained Plan fee and the reduced dental coverage.  

“[It’s going to be] really important to run this referendum in the Fall if there’s this number of students that are going to be underserved,” Cupido said.

SSMU Council discusses the presence of far-right ideology in McGill community

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(ctv.ca)

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Legislative Council convened on April 5 to discuss methods to prevent the spread of far-right groups within the campus community, and implement policies against sexual violence. Additionally, Council voted to update SSMU’s equity policy, to support the Fiat Lux library improvement plan, and to change the Arab Students’ Network’s status from a club to a service. Council also heard reports from the SSMU Environment Committee and the First Year Council (FYC).

 

SSMU’s relationship to “far-right” politics in a local context

Council members considered adopting a policy to not affiliate with any groups with a connection to the far-right, and to prohibit any individuals with far-right affiliations from working for SSMU. According to SSMU Vice-President (VP) External Connor Spencer, the policy would use RationalWiki’s definition of “far-right” ideologies, which describes them as values rooted in  inequality, like segregation. The motion mandates future VP Externals to annually update a list of far-right groups in Montreal.

Speaker Nikolas Dolmat and other council members questioned whether this ban could violate discrimination laws. Some also argued that any candidate with far-right affiliations would likely not be elected anyway.

“My one concern […] is are we allowed to ban people in our society from positions?” Engineering Senator and 2018-19 SSMU President-Elect Tre Mansdoerfer said. “Is that OK legally with McGill and the Charter of Student Rights, and Quebec legislation? […] It would scare me to pass something that was immediately violating multiple laws.”

Other Council members, including Spencer and Social Work Representative Matthew Savage, defended the legality of the motion by stating that genocide and other far-right beliefs are too hostile to be considered legitimate political opinions and therefore are not protected grounds for employment. They also pointed out that the motion is becoming increasingly relevant with the growing presence of the far-right in Montreal.

“The sentiment that I’m hearing from a lot of people here is that they want to protect that one person that might have some slightly right tendencies,” Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) VP External Alice Yue said. “But that’s not the purpose of this motion. The purpose of this motion is to make sure that that one far-right person does not get to run and make thousands of students feel unsafe on campus [….] It’s totally fine to be conservative.”

After the debate, Mansdoerfer moved to postpone the question to the second meeting of the 2018-2019 SSMU Legislative Council, which passed by a vote of 16 to seven.

 

Progress on anti-sexual violence initiatives discussed

Guest speakers Caitlin Salvino, the co-creator of the Our Turn National Action Plan and SSMU’s Gendered and Sexualized Violence Policy (GSVP) Coordinator, and Priya Dube, a student policy advisor, presented the progress they made in drafting a GSVP. They explained that the Policy covers sexual violence prevention, advocacy, and response. The GSVP will also offer survivors both formal and informal responses and resolutions to their disclosures.

Additionally, Council voted unanimously to mandate anti-sexual violence training in the 2018-19 school year for all SSMU officers, directors, and councillors and at the clubs workshop and services summit, a requirement that Salvino hopes to continue through the GSVP. Spencer predicts that the final draft will be passed next academic year.

“We’re trying to push McGill to better support their students,” Salvino said. “We tried to mandate this in the policy so that we’re not just relying on an exec who’s passionate […] but it’ll be every year that SSMU has to continuously advocate for survivor-centered policies and appropriate responses.”

Open letter demands external investigation on faculty sexual misconduct

McGill/News/SSMU by
(Leanne Young & Noah Sutton / McGill Tribune)

On April 5, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) held a press conference to discuss an open letter addressed to the McGill administration regarding sexual violence on campus. The letter, which was sent on April 4, accused at least five professors of sexual misconduct within the Departments of History, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, and World Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies.

Additionally, the letter demanded the launch of an external investigation into the way the Office of the Dean of Arts responds to complaints against faculty members. Currently, the letter has signatures from more than 2,000 students and over 70 student organizations, including faculty associations such as the Social Work Students’ Association (SWSA), the Department of English Students Association (DESA), and the Political Science Students’ Association (PSSA).

At the press conference, three students delivered speeches, followed by a question period moderated by SSMU Vice-President (VP) Internal Maya Koparkar. VP External Connor Spencer delivered the first speech, stressing the urgency of addressing the culture of sexual violence that exists on campus.

“A few weeks ago, we brought to the attention of the administration our concerns of the safety and well-being of a student who was being targeted by a professor who thought they were behind a guerrilla sticker campaign calling him out for violence,” Spencer said. “We presented a dossier of evidence and no action was taken.”

Spencer emphasized that this incident is far from isolated: Acts of professor-on-student sexual violence occur frequently, and worse, the administration is aware of many of them.

“Common things that are reoccurring are [the] open secret of faculty members sleeping with undergraduate students, or having abusive relationship with graduate students, and inappropriate behaviour during office hours,” Spencer said. “[There are also] folks [who feel] like they are obliged to do extra, outside classroom work that are not related to the content of the class, because they feel like it would affect their academic careers [if they refused to do so].”

Additionally, Spencer cited a warning that she received in her first year at McGill as an example of widespread sexual violence on campus.

“The culture at McGill is one that led […] some older woman in the program I was entering [to give me] a list of professors and [teaching assistants] to avoid, and to never go to their office hours,” Spencer said.

The second speaker, Maeve Botham, student representative from the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS), echoed Spencer’s sentiments. In particular, Botham denounced the administration’s silence in response to sexual misconduct allegations against  professors.

“The University knows who these professors are,” Botham said. “By not taking any action, McGill is failing its students. Students have the right to be safe on campus [….] without the fear of experiencing sexual violence. For students to be truly supported, the structure that is used to protect these professors must be torn down.”

Although handling issues regarding the sexual violence policy does not fall strictly under her mandate, Spencer expressed her frustration with procedures for reporting sexual violence.

“We are no longer accepting that the reason for administration inaction in addressing problems they are aware of stems from the students’ inability to file complaints,” Spencer said. “Instead, we wish to focus on the complaint process itself as the problem, as contributing to a culture of folks not wanting to come forward.”

Spencer elaborated that the current process in place to file complaints against faculty members is overly complicated, thereby dissuading victims from coming forward.

“One of the things that McGill likes to fall back on is the policy against sexual violence passed by the Senate on Dec. 1 2016,” Spencer said. “However, the policy against sexual violence actually [points to the procedures within] the Code of Student Conduct, which you can only pursue complaints against students under.”

Spencer also said that the policy on sexual violence has no procedures outlined for complaints against faculty members, creating a huge obstacle for survivors.

“One of the things that I’ve heard very often from folks is that, ‘I didn’t come forward because I didn’t think they would believe me, I didn’t think they would do anything,’” Spencer said. “Another reoccurring thing that I have heard [….] is that the [negligence victims] experienced from dealing with the University afterwards [only] perpetuated that violence even further.”

The open letter accuses the Office of the Dean of Arts of being ineffective in handling complaints. In order to catalyze policy change, the open letter demanded the launch of an external investigation into the Office of the Dean of Arts. The investigation is partly inspired by a similar case that took place at Concordia University in January, where faculty members in the creative writing program were accused of sexual misconduct. Within days, the Concordia administration responded with the promise of an external investigation.

“We have been having the same discussions here at McGill since September [2017,]” Spencer said. “When we looked over to our neighbour and saw that [changes] are taking place there, we just cannot accept [inaction] anymore.”

Beyond an external investigation, SSMU will also produce a report by the end of June 2018, outlining appropriate steps  to improve the current reporting channel in the Faculty of Arts.

“We need to make sure that everything is documented, [including] exactly what’s going [on], exactly what our demands are, exactly what we want to change, and exactly McGill’s response to these things, [in order to] move forward next year as well.”

Responding to the spotlight the letter places on the Faculty of Arts, Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) VP Internal Rebecca Scarra expressed her Society’s support for the letter.

“We also want more action, more transparency, and more effective communication with our administration,” Scarra said. “When the system that has been in place for so long does not work, we need to change the system. We can no longer work within [a] system that has been built against us.”

With the help of the SSMU report, incoming executives will be able to continue pushing for policy changes next year. VP University Affairs-Elect Jacob Shapiro expressed his commitment to work with members of the community on this next year.

“I have already spoken briefly with [Spencer,]” Shapiro said. “I am going to seek out as many opportunities as possible to listen to and learn from those leading this work and anyone who wants to share their experience, insight, and opinion on this. Additionally, I know that we have a skilled group of incoming Senators, some of whom know a lot more about this than I do. I am looking forward to working with them.”

As of April 9, McGill University has not responded to interview requests regarding the letter. Meanwhile, McGill and Concordia student communities are coming together to stage a public walkout on April 11, in front of the James Administration Building at McGill University.

“As students, it really shouldn’t be our responsibility to make sure that we are protecting each other,” Koparkar said in her closing remarks at the conference. “But if this is the kind of work that we need to do [to get change], then so be it.”

What record voter turnout means for the McGill community

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(Lauren Benson-Armer / The McGill Tribune)

Voting for the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) 2018 Winter Election and Referendum closed on March 21 with a voter turnout of 32.8 per centDespite less than a third of all eligible SSMU members voting, this figure represents the highest voter turnout in the past 14 years.

7,100 of 21,636 eligible electors cast online ballots in the election—a far greater proportion than the 21.8 per cent turnout in Winter 2017, or the 17.5 per cent turnout in Winter 2016 ballots. The referendum questions, which students voted on alongside six SSMU executive positions, included one concerning SSMU’s policy on the implementation of a Fall reading week.

According to Matthew He, Chief Electoral Officer at Elections SSMU, this year’s relatively high voter turnout is likely due to the presence of the Fall reading week question. In an interview with The McGill Tribune, He interpreted a high level of ‘abstain’ votes on questions unrelated to the Fall reading week as evidence that many student voters were interested in only one question.

“While acknowledging [that this year’s election had] the highest turnout we’ve had in the last 15-plus years, we do have to realize that there are a substantial number of people who abstained in every single vote except the Fall reading week referendum,” He said. “I understand that what tends to happen when you combine the referendum with the candidates ballots [is that] people will go vote for the one issue that they are passionate about and abstain from all others because they are not informed enough.”

He also described the new strategies that Elections SSMU used to encourage people to vote, like distributing promotional material, tabling to answer questions concerning the voting process, and collecting feedback from SSMU members who did not vote.

“I sent out an email to those who had not voted by the [final] day of the elections,” He said. “The most common feedback I got was that they simply did not have enough information on the candidates or referendum. They didn’t know what they were voting for. A lot of the feedback was expressing disinterest in the elections.”

Most questions in the Winter Election, including the SSMU presidential ballot, had over 2,000 abstentions. Taking abstentions into account, the underlying voter turnout for executive positions was an average of 19.6 per cent, which is consistent with last year’s low turnout.

This apparent lack of student engagement is mirrored at the graduate level, where voter turnout and candidate nominations have consistently been even lower. In the last McGill Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) General Electionwhich closed on Apr. 1, only 755 members, or 9.8 per cent of the electorate, cast ballots. Moreover, three of the executive positions—Financial Affairs Officer, Internal Affairs Officer, and Membership Services Officer—featured no candidates, and will be voted on in a by-election opening on Apr. 28.

Tre Mansdoerfer, U2 Engineering and SSMU president-elect, identifies a culture of institutional disconnect as one of the potential reasons for voter apathy at McGill.

“For whatever reason, at McGill, there’s a disengagement with the school and a disdain between students and McGill University,” Mansdoerfer said. “I think it has to do with [the administration] and how they interact with students, [and] I think it has to do with the culture they created. For whatever reason, McGill has been founded upon a lack of pride in the school. A good chunk of people aren’t happy being at this school. They’re here for the prestige and not their own happiness.”

Voter apathy and low voter turnout are not problems unique to McGill. Other large research universities in Canada continue to struggle to get students to vote in elections and referenda. The general elections of the University of British Columbia’s student union, the Alma Mater Society (AMS), have voter turnout percentages similar to those at McGill University, with a 20.7 per cent turnout in 2017, and 12.5 per cent in 2016. In 2016, the University of Toronto held a referendum for a fee levy for the campus radio station, with a proposed fee increase from $4.85 to $12.85. The levy of nearly 200 per cent, which represented an increase of over 100,000 dollars in funding for the radio station carried with only 59 members voting.

Zak Vescera and Ryan Jones, student journalists at UBC, investigated the low voter turnout rates for The Ubyssey and found that politically apathetic students tended to fall into one of two categories. They explained the results of their surveys in an email statement to the Tribune.

In our reporting, I’d say we found two primary types of ‘apathetic’ students,” Vescera and Jones wrote to the  Tribune. “The first group simply didn’t know what the AMS does or how it benefits them [….] Others knew what the AMS does, but didn’t feel like the result of an election would impact them in any concrete way. These students were often part of demographics that they felt the AMS doesn’t advocate for enough [….] Students directly involved in ‘campus life’ almost always vote, but [students who are less involved] told us they felt left out of the whole thing.”

These shared difficulties in engaging large student bodies may also stem from characteristics unique to Canadian student unions. According to Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, Canadian universities tend to be more complex and more concerned with running on-campus businesses like bars and restaurants than their counterparts in the United Kingdom, which are smaller and tend to focus on advocacy and academic affairs.

“In the UK [and other countries], the student unions are very focused on being a part of the quality assurance process,  [….] and somehow that’s never caught on [in Canada,]” Usher said. “Although we have lots of students who are interested in political issues, we tend to define the political issues as being dollars and cents issues, and not [questions pertaining to academic quality and relevance].”

However, metrics like election turnout may not necessarily be the best way to measure a student society’s impact, according to Usher.

“Voting is one measure of engagement, but another measure is simply how many people are involved in the governance structure,” Usher said. “If the central student union is engaging everyone in the faculties and department and [making suggestions and offering support in academic affairs,] I think doing that stuff increases the quality of the engagement rather than the quantity [….] At the end of the day, you’re doing something that matters more to students.”

A number of changes have been proposed by incoming SSMU executives to increase member engagement with the organization. Outlining his plans for next year, Mansdoerfer discussed his intention to refocus SSMU’s efforts on projects that matter to students.

“It really feels like people involved in SSMU are dissociated from what students really want to see,” Mansdoerfer said. “It’s really easy to get focused on your personal projects, and it’s easy to miss out on what really matters [.…] I really hope that I can bring the structural and institutional change that has to happen for good leadership.”

SSMU building closure disrupts campus clubs

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(Natalie Vineberg / The McGill Tribune)

Student clubs and services previously housed within the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) building encountered logistical burdens in their search for alternative work spaces after the building closed on March 17. The closure was the the first step in a long-term schedule of renovations and repairs which are planned to continue into Winter 2019. While the move has left some student groups scrambling, both the clubs and SSMU have made efforts to maintain a cohesive community.

Nineteen clubs, which normally occupy the SSMU building, have relocated to other workspaces in buildings on Robert-Bourassa Boulevard and Peel Street. The Plate Club, a service that lends out dishware for student groups holding events, faced countless difficulties securing a new office before eventually relocating to 3471 Peel Street.

“At first, we weren’t given a new space because [SSMU General Manager] Ryan [Hughes] didn’t know what we do with our office space,” Plate Club Internal Coordinator Doug Lebo wrote in a message to The McGill Tribune. “We told him we didn’t need to move our dishwasher and his very next email essentially indicated that we didn’t have a space because we ‘would need dishwashing capacity.’”

However, after pushing SSMU for accomodation, Lebo has been pleased with the new arrangements.

“Overall […] the physical move was really easy,” Lebo wrote. “[SSMU Building Director] Wallace [Sealy] was kind enough to install a realtor box to keep our keys in since we now operate with locked cabinets in a public space.”

Some displaced groups such as Midnight Kitchen (MK), a non-profit collective known for serving vegan lunches on campus for donations, perform services which need specialized equipment to continue operating. MK employee Wade Walker found the relocation a struggle given the group’s need for a kitchen.

“At one point, SSMU thought they found us a space but it fell through because it wasn’t a commercial kitchen,” Walker said. “The only kitchen we could find is actually in Saint-Henri, so now we aren’t doing lunch servings.”

He also lamented that the relocation planning lacked cohesiveness.

“I really wish [SSMU had] had a complete plan in place before they came to us about the building closure,” Walker said. “They’ve been trying to communicate effectively, but there aren’t enough people working on the project, so they miss and forget things we’ve told them.”

Players’ Theatre, a student theatre company formerly housed in SSMU, was evicted from their office without warning on Feb. 12. Its new office is now on Peel Street and SSMU has given them funding to rent out MainLine Theatre on boulevard Saint Laurent for their productions. Events Coordinator Cheyenne Cranston said that, while the move has been challenging, it has reminded her of the strength of the campus community.

“It has been truly amazing to see the student body be so willing to help us when we need it, and support us through the move!” Cranston wrote in an email to the Tribune.

Jemark Earle, SSMU Vice President Student Life, hoped to prioritize the community of clubs. SSMU often didn’t have solutions to the challenges faced in organizing such a massive undertaking, leaving the clubs in limbo.

“We tried to make sure that even if we didn’t have much information, the clubs and services within the SSMU building knew everything we knew as soon as possible” Earle said. “The building [on Peel Street] was offered to us originally in August. We had been meeting with groups saying we could house them there, we had set down floor plans by the end of September, and then the administration said, ‘never mind this is off the table.’”

The building is scheduled to reopen in stages: Gerts will likely be back by the start of the fall semester, the first and second floors by the middle of October, and the rest of the building by December.

Ed Talks Episode 1: SSMU

Multimedia/Podcasts/SSMU by

News Editor Calvin Trottier-Chi and Managing Editor Audrey Carleton sit down with Multimedia editor Tristan Surman to share their thoughts on voter apathy, how fall reading week created single-issue voters, and both the outgoing and incoming SSMU executives.

Photo by Lauren Benson Armer

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