Behind the Bench, Sports

McGill must stop resisting before Athletics ceases existing

As another school year draws to a close, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the areas of the McGill community that have evolved—as well as those that have stayed tragically stagnant. A year marked by the return to in-person classes, sports games, social events, and cycles of relaxed restrictions followed by lockdowns has brought a whirlwind of changes to student life. However, for Divest McGill, the year has looked frustratingly similar to every other: Strong student support and protests backing their fight for change, and those in power refusing to budge. 

To make matters worse, this year has also shown that the administration’s refusal to divest is beginning to form cracks across other areas of student life at McGill. Their unwillingness to compromise is having unintended consequences for students, including in areas such as McGill Athletics and Recreation (A&R). 

Divest McGill and McGill Athletics are, on the surface, two organizations few would guess are interconnected. But due to student tactics to get the administration to divest, compounded by the McGill administration’s unwavering stance, A&R is getting hit where it hurts: The balance sheet.

In Winter 2019, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Legislative Council put the renewal of the Athletics Facility Improvement Fee to referendum. The 10-dollar fee created in 2004 went toward maintaining and improving the facilities, and the renewal would have funded air conditioning for the fieldhouse and locker rooms. However, since the fee renewal came amidst the #ChangeTheName movement, a counter ‘No’ campaign was heavily supported by students, including Indigenous students, who pointed out that approving this fee would allow McGill to continue to fund their programs under a racist team name and mascot. The referendum question ultimately failed with 58 per cent voting ‘No,’ and the Athletics Facility Improvement fee was removed from student fees for the next five years. 

“This means that there is a loss of $500,000 per semester for the Athletics department,” Evelyn Silverson-Tokatlidis, Varsity Council president, said in an interview with The McGill Tribune

As the administration dragged their feet on changing the varsity team name, the loss was compounded by SSMU identifying blocking ancillary fees as an effective way to apply pressure on the university to divest. As a result, the Legislative Council passed a Policy on Moratorium on McGill fees until Fossil Fuel Divestment. This meant that for the next five years, no new ancillary fees—which serve programs such as the McGill Writing Centre and the World University Services Canada Refugee Program, as well as  A&R—could be added to student’s bills until McGill divests, with the Athletics Facility Improvement fee locked on the outside. 

A total of $1,200,000 would be withheld from Athletics and Recreation over the next five semesters. 

Since the university does not provide funding for the facilities of A&R, the implications of this moratorium has wide-ranging impacts. Facility upgrades such as air conditioning in the fieldhouse and gym that would benefit all students, not just athletes, have been pushed back. Longer-term projects, such as the renovation of the locker rooms, fieldhouse resurfacing, and turf improvements all have uncertain timelines because of inadequate funds.

“Almost a quarter of the student body uses McGill athletics facilities,” Silverson-Tokatlidis said. “The refusal to divest by McGill is impacting the quality of these facilities for a huge amount of the student population.”

In an interview with the Tribune, Joseph,* a representative from Divest McGill and a varsity athlete, explained how the facilities are in dire need of improvement, making it harder for them to train and enjoy their time as a student athlete.

“We understand that there are updates to the Athletics facilities that are urgent. My coach talks about them and how much money needs to be put into it,” they said. “Being an athlete has created my identity, it has made me who I am. But the fact that McGill is refusing to divest means they are refusing to provide the services the athlete community needs. Everyone needs to get behind divestment.”

On Feb. 17, 2022, the Legislative Council met to discuss, amongst other things, putting the Athletics Facility Improvement fee back up to vote in the Winter 2022 referendum. The motion was postponed indefinitely. The current SSMU representative for Athletics, Sêdami-Habib Djossou, went into the meeting with the goal of getting the fee reinstated.

“My main aim was to make an amendment to the moratorium, not remove it,” he said. “The amendment would make an exception to the Athletics Facilities Fee because of the intense impact the moratorium is having on Athletics and Recreation. The renovations are essential, and we may have to discontinue some services in order to afford them.”

The amendment argued that the self-funded A&R program is being financially targeted due to McGill’s refusal to divest, a decision that they have no control over.

“If I am honest, the question period was really tense,” Djossou continued. “There was a huge concern about what the amendment would do. A member of Divest McGill said that if we allow the amendment to go through it will push the message that we don’t care that much. It will undermine all the efforts made so far.”

Joseph, who also attended the meeting, was frustrated that a student group and Athletics were positioned on opposite sides of the issue. 

“It felt as though the discussion was being framed as Athletics against Divest,” they said. “It was very difficult for me, being attached to both. Ultimately, the Divest [argument] was that it would ruin the momentum of the campaign.”

With the issue yet again at a standstill, it is easy for both sides in the Legislative Council debate to point fingers at one another—and this would certainly be convenient for the McGill administration. The administration’s refusal to divest is pitting students against each other, when energies should be focussed on holding those with power to account.  The more energy spent by students fighting amongst themselves, the less is spent on collective action.

However, both groups are keen to show that the issue is not with each other. The moratorium does not represent one group of students seeking to worsen the university experience for another group. Instead, it represents a blatant refusal from the administration to ethically invest its money, with students ultimately shouldering the cost. Universities all over the country, including Concordia, UQAM, University of Toronto, uOttawa, University of British Columbia, and many more, have divested, or at least pledged to—. What, then, is McGill’s excuse?

The Athletics Facility Improvement fee will not be reinstated this year after the motion was postponed, and it will take nothing less than divestment for the student group to lift the moratorium. At this point, any amendment to the moratorium will be seen as a victory for the administration. With the clock ticking for both the Athletics and Recreation budget as well as our planet, McGill needs to make the smart choice to divest from fossil fuels, and invest in the future of our athletes.

*Joseph’s name has been changed to preserve their anonymity.

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