On Sept. 22, The McGill Daily published an article shedding light on a long-standing culture of sexism and misogyny rampant within the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). The article featured many accounts of past and present SSMU members who called out a culture of sexism within the Society. In response, SSMU’s vice-president (VP) Internal Affairs, Sarah Paulin, sent out an email that did not cite the article and only made vague reference to its contents. Although this is not the first time women have spoken out about their treatment within student government at McGill, it would appear that little improvement has occurred over the past several years. The article exposes only a fraction of a larger systemic failure, laying bare the need for urgent change in the immediate-term, and a cultural overhaul over the long-term. Structural change is imperative and while this is ultimately SSMU’s cross to bear, the organization will only take concrete action if students refuse to let these pervasive issues go unresolved. Students must move away from the accepted—and even expected—culture of apathy toward SSMU and reject its normalized toxicity to make substantive change possible.
Upon entering McGill, many first-year students are taught, whether by upper-years or frosh leaders, that SSMU is a deeply flawed organization not worth engaging with. This rhetoric does have some backing to it—historically, SSMU has been both untrustworthy and inaccessible to students. The union’s lack of transparency leaves students disengaged and though candidates almost always run on platforms promising change, this problem continues to manifest. Scandals frequently end with no action or accountability, only empty promises and vague messages to the study body. Executives and other SSMU members have managed to get away with this, as many McGill students have come to accept that their student union is irredeemable. Students must mobilize and demand change, whether by attending the Legislative Council meetings, casting votes in elections, or demanding that SSMU executives give public updates on measures being implemented. SSMU is supposed to represent the entire McGill community, and it is unacceptable that it is an unsafe space for women and other gender minorities.
While students at large have a responsibility to hold SSMU accountable, internal structural change is still clearly necessary in the short-term. It is telling that current and former student representatives felt the need to reach out to campus media to have their complaints taken seriously. As reported in the Daily article, SSMU’s human resources (HR) reporting structure is dangerously flawed. With the SSMU Board of Directors overseeing HR, there is limited separation of power, meaning that when representatives file complaints, they must grapple with the possibility that their superiors could see it. Furthermore, the mechanism to hold high-up executives accountable is ineffective for the very same reason. The mere presence of students in these roles exacerbates the lack of confidentiality and trust within both SSMU’s HR system and its approach to equity.
Although most students are unaware of the extent to which they shape SSMU, they possess the ability to radically improve its operations. For example, students can rally around proposals to pay SSMU representatives. It is disappointing that a motion to provide financial compensation for SSMU representatives failed in 2020, because it could have helped to address some of the union’s structural inequities. Compensation would make SSMU positions more accessible to a wider range of students, moving away from the ‘certain type of student’—particularly, those who have the financial privilege of not having to work during school—that these unpaid roles usually attract. This move would also allow SSMU representatives to unionize, providing an added level of protection and further empowering them to fight exploitation.
Asking students to take a stand for SSMU’s benefit is gruelling, especially when their representatives uphold a toxic sexist culture while refusing to provide transparency about how they plan on addressing it. The women who have been affected by SSMU’s misogynistic and demeaning culture deserve more than meaningless statements lacking concrete action. Most of all, these individuals deserve to have their experiences valued. The SSMU executive team says they have made a pact to fearlessly “change the system,” and students must be equally involved in overseeing this necessary cultural shift.
A previous version of this editorial incorrectly stated that SSMU executives oversee the HR Department. In fact, the SSMU Board of Directors administers the policy through its HR department and committee, and may involve the SSMU president or any other staff, on a case-by-case basis. The Tribune regrets this error.