Publicly funded social services and organizations exist because we value the role they play in keeping our communities—whether nationally, locally, or campus-based—healthy, supportive, and inclusive. Canadians fund affordable housing, women’s shelters, employment programs and public advocacy groups because we believe that they are a social good. The fact that not everyone uses those services does not make them any less valuable to our community as a whole. This logic also holds true when applied to our university community. As we do in society, we should strive for a university experience that includes a diverse range of services, opinions, experiences, and analyses. This diversity is not only an ideal, but also an expectation.
The Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG) is one part of creating that diverse, critical university space. It is a publicly funded organization that aims to connect the ivory tower to social and environmental struggles in our communities. This materializes both through events and programming (such as Culture Shock, Social Justice Days, workshops, speakers, and films), as well as through resources and initiatives made available through QPIRG (an alternative library and the Community University Research Exchange project). Crucially, QPIRG also funds working groups who do research, education, and action on a diverse range of social and environmental problems (such as Campus Crops, the Filipino Solidarity Committee, Greening McGill, and many others). It fills a void by supporting underrepresented and important issues on campus that affect many students and community members. By opting in to QPIRG, McGill students make typically scarce funding and resources available to our fellow students and community organizers.
In this context, the strategies that have been used in the last week by the students running the QPIRG Opt-Out Campaign are ones that have been deliberately misleading, inaccurate, and intended to starve access to resources that would allow for a more diverse, inclusive, and critical space on campus. The opt-out group, by framing their campaign in terms of saving money, silences the fact that the goal of the campaign is, in fact, to incapacitate QPIRG and its work. The campaign does not explain to students what QPIRG does or how it functions, and, as a result, discourages students from making their own informed decisions. When the opt-out campaign does address QPIRG’s work, they do little other than insinuate that it funds “fringe” groups from the “radical left,” which apparently includes causes such as locally grown food, the increasing corporatization of campus, a car-free campus, and the struggles of First Nations, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that that many QPIRG working groups have as many active student members as many SSMU clubs, meaning there is no quantifiable argument to be made regarding the “fringe” nature of these groups. Similarly, like SSMU clubs, working groups exist to represent a portion of the student population and their concerns, and, like many campus clubs, QPIRG does have a political mandate—one of social and environmental justice and anti-oppressive work.
The opt-out campaign’s tactics serve only to stifle political expression and organization on campus. As it would be with any other student service, when QPIRG is constantly under attack, it hurts the well-being of students, the diversity on our campus, and the aspirations of our university and our wider community. Fortunately, when we choose to continue to support the work of QPIRG and all other student services, it makes it possible for those same values to flourish.
Kira Page, Sarah Woolf, and Sebastian Ronderos-Morgan contributed to this article.