On Sept. 15, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited McGill to inaugurate a new Facebook Artificial Intelligence lab. However important the initiative, Trudeau’s welcome was lukewarm. A group of students, including Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President (VP) External Connor Spencer, protested the Prime Minister’s visit. The protesters accused Trudeau of breaking his promises to Indigenous communities, citing his failure to acknowledge the McGill Pow Wow being held at the same time on Lower Field. Regardless of whether the charge is fair or not, it raises the question of the scope of the VP External’s role when engaging in political protest.
Among the SSMU internal documents that govern the VP External’s participation in the Trudeau protest are the VP External job contract and the Indigenous Solidarity Policy (ISP). A plain reading of either of these texts does not call for participating in student demonstrations, only for supporting student political activities. Moreover, the ISP is narrowly written to ensure SSMU’s involvement in Indigenous communities is focused on consultation, support, and advocacy in McGill policy areas.
However, more important than what the institution defines for the VP External, is what students should expect from the portfolio. As soon as SSMU begins to appear to students as an institution that’s there to serve itself or to disseminate its executives’ preferred ideologies, then SSMU is no longer seen to serve the entire student body.
In recent years, it has become a norm for the VP External to direct student protest. But this should not be the case. A very concrete example of the consequences that can arise from this approach was former VP External David Aird’s participation in an anti-Trump rally—#MakeRacistsAfraidAgain—that became hostile towards an apolitical protest advocating “no hate” in response to Trump’s vitriol. As a result, Aird was heavily criticized for not respecting students’ right to react to Trump’s election in their own way. Instead of allowing students to demonstrate in the way they saw fit, Aird picked a side and supported the vocally anti-Trump reaction which he saw as more appropriate, with poor results. Consequently, SSMU executives—and the VP External in particular, due to their portfolio—must ensure that they don't let their political views distract from their focus on serving the student body.
The VP External should be there to support student organization initiatives as they relate to interests external to McGill. But, even acting in this capacity, the VP External should remain removed from participating in student ideological demonstrations or campaigns, such as protesting the visit of a prime minister. For the VP External to be able to represent and support diverse student interests, they should try to be politically neutral. The benefit in being apolitical is that it prevents segments of the electorate from becoming disengaged. If the VP External, or indeed any SSMU representative, makes their political leanings public, it risks alienating voters who disagree with their views. More worryingly, it could lead students to believe that SSMU executives won’t support their initiatives if they are ideologically opposed. Students risk becoming even more disengaged if the VP External crosses the line from supporting initiatives to directing student activism.
If the VP External were to lead or begin student organization efforts instead of supporting existing movements, they would effectively be using their position to advance their own ideology. No one would organize students in a direction that’s inconsistent with their political ideology; therefore, a VP cannot actively direct student activism without simultaneously advancing their own personal politics.
SSMU executives should represent the interests of all students, independent of politics. Even if their motives are noble, a VP External should not participate in student protests. To fulfill the spirit of the position, the executive has to remain apolitical, so as not to risk alienating the constituents they represent.