Features | The SSMU executive was decadent and depraved

The Daily’s Queen Arsem-O’Malley explains how two visions of student government came to a head at McGill last year

While SSMU burned, Anushay Khan wanted to dance. In the agenda of the April 7 SSMU Council meeting, in the thick of months of Executive infighting, VP Clubs and Services Khan submitted a motion proposing a dance-off between the six executives, a lighthearted attempt to break up a tense meeting. But, even though they were meant in jest, the teams Khan proposed for the contest – herself, VP External Myriam Zaidi, and VP University Affairs Joshua Abaki against VP Finance and Operations Nick Drew, VP Internal Tom Fabian, and President Zach Newburgh – hinted at the deep rift at the heart of undergraduate self-government that year.

By spring, it was a bifurcation solidified by months of bickering, stalled decisions at Executive Committee, and a tense office environment that some reported as bordering on threatening. Crucially, the Executive was divided over competing visions of SSMU: one that prioritized political activism, represented by Zaidi’s camp, and one that put McGill’s social calendar to the fore, headed by Newburgh. By the end of the school year, the two sides were barely speaking, let alone facing off in dance competitions.

2010-2011 was an eventful year for SSMU: confidential meetings late into the night, former executives criticizing their successors, campus publications squabbling amongst themselves on matters of both editorial stance and reporting, anonymous sources, leaked documents.

But, ultimately, the controversy boiled down to ideology.

The Students’ Society of McGill University is frequently referred to as a student union, though, in name, it is a society. It’s a distinction of little note to most, but of utmost importance to those attempting to navigate the SSMUniverse. In Quebec, it is typical for universities and CEGEPs to have a student union, but McGill does not necessarily think of itself as a typical Quebec school.

The word “union” has specific connotations – workers’ rights, fighting for a cause, solidarity. The larger Quebec student movement has historically lived for these battles. Provincial student groups, represented by acronyms like FEUQ, FECQ, and ASSÉ, made headlines with their anti-tuition activism. The word “society” has quite another feel, and marrying the two terms can be a delicate procedure.

The SSMU executive consists of a President and five Vice Presidents – Clubs & Services, External, Finance & Operations, Internal, and University Affairs. Clubs deals with clubs; External deals with the broader Quebec student movement, and has led the fight against tuition hikes; University Affairs is a largely academic portfolio, working on things like extending winter break; Internal tends to plan a lot of parties; and Finance keeps SSMU’s books and sees that Gert’s pays its tab.

They’re all crucial positions, and all come with a student-financed salary of roughly $30,000. Execs take a leading role in handling the millions of student dollars placed in SSMU’s hands every year – running the Shatner building and Gert’s, and, most importantly, acting as the primary contact point between undergraduate students and the McGill administration. But students don’t seem to care who takes the helm from year to year. SSMU elections have an unfortunate history of acclaimed positions and low voter turnout: the last few years have seen tallies of 30.9 per cent of undergrads (2008), less than 20 per cent (2009), 28 per cent (2010), and 21 per cent (2011). A huge percentage of students – like, maybe, the 79 per cent who neglected to vote last March – may not even realize what SSMU does.

In the 2010 elections, two positions were acclaimed, while the presidential race was a strange battle between SSMU veterans Sarah Woolf, who represented the political left, and Zach Newburgh, who stood for a moderate voice. (Stefan Link also made a good showing in the Presidential race, but his campaign was haunted by repeated election bylaw violations and paranoid accusations that another candidate ordered an assailant to punch him in the stomach at Gert’s one night.)

The election resulted in a mixture of both ideologies and personalities on the Exec, best exemplified by the divergence between Newburgh, who won the Presidency, and Myriam Zaidi, the outspoken, politically radical VP External.

Zaidi has a presence that is felt (and heard) before she enters a room. She has a booming voice and a distinctive laugh, not to mention opinions on just about everything under the sun. Previously a member of SSMU’s External Affairs Committee (and, before that, president of her CEGEP’s student union), Zaidi is steeped in the world of Quebec student politics. She is currently on the staff of MP Laurin Liu, one of the McGill students elected to Parliament this spring.

She claims that she was reluctant to run for an executive position – a full-time, high-stress role that precludes academics for a year. “They said we need someone who has the Quebec vision in here, we need someone who knows how it works on the other side to get involved at McGill and I refused many times” before finally agreeing to run, she says. Still, with an unmatched student movement pedigree, Zaidi seemed like she was born for the combative, political External gig.*

Newburgh, in his own way, was equally fit for the role of President. Before running, he was head of Hillel Montreal, the prominent Jewish campus group. He has over 3000 friends on Facebook. His LinkedIn account boasts an extensive list of titles – ending with SSMU President – and a glowing recommendation from Nick Drew, a stalwart Newburgh ally: “Zach demonstrates outstanding qualities of leadership,” it reads, has “a positive energy” and is “socially savvy.” No one who has ever met Newburgh would disagree with the last characterization. (Newburgh refused to grant an interview for this story, and informed The Daily that Drew and Tom Fabian would refrain from commenting as well.)

One of his pet projects last year was SSMU Homecoming, an event that was promoted as the first of its kind. The “Homekoming Bash 2010” lost more than $18,000, even more than SSMU’s substantial estimated loss for the event. (“[Newburgh] wanted a carousel,” Zaidi says.) In an email to The Daily, Newburgh claimed that the 2010-11 executive “did several great things for student life over the course of our terms in office.”  The first thing he listed was Homecoming.

Newburgh and Zaidi were, at the start of their terms, the most diametrically opposed members of the Executive. Take, for example, their attitudes towards the McGill administration. Newburgh used a deliberately conciliatory tone with the admin, an approach in which, as Drew might say, his social savvy came in handy. The SSMU president is the sole undergraduate on the Board of Governors, which includes the CEO of Telus and a former senior vice president of Astral Communications Inc. Newburgh fits into this kind of crowd easily, as I witnessed at one BoG meeting when Newburgh chatted with board members and updated them on his roommate’s graduate school acceptance.

Not surprisingly, Zaidi took a more confrontational tack with the Principal and company. The administration’s official position on tuition hikes is that Quebec should charge students the national average – McGill supported the province’s tuition increase in the spring. Zaidi, echoing SSMU’s official position, is fiercely opposed to increased tuition. “I, categorically, from the beginning, was like, ‘No, no, they will fuck us until the end,’” she told me in a recent interview. “We have to stop thinking that we have to be nice to them.”

Despite differences in opinion or aim, the executives began the year united. They rallied around a cause that students were passionate about: namely, the student-run Architecture Café. (The administration closed the popular cafe last summer over student protests.)

It wasn’t until mid-January that the Executive’s disintegration began. Six SSMU executives were scheduled to depart for a weekend retreat to kick off their second semester working together.

They never left.

When asked about it at Council, Newburgh replied that political differences among executives, stemming from a presidentially-led effort to scrap the General Assembly, had caused them to abandon the retreat.

In an interview with The Daily during the first week of Febraury, Drew said that the retreat was cancelled because of the heavy workload that executives were handling.

What Drew and Newburgh both neglected to mention was the animosity that had begun to fester within the executive on both political and personal levels.

On January 19, at the weekly meeting of the Executive Committee, Newburgh had revealed that he had been involved in a project outside of SSMU since September. A Montreal businessman had approached him with an offer to work at an Internet startup, Jobbook, which helps match job seekers with employers. Since then, he had spent weekends and nights working on the project, traveling to England and to Ivy League campuses in the US to promote his new venture. All of this was done without the knowledge of his coworkers and fellow executives; the terms of his contract bound Newburgh to confidentiality.

The ensuing campus media storm took everyone by surprise. The McGill Tribune garnered an interview with Newburgh immediately after his in-camera trial at Council, where he escaped impeachment, but was formally censured. Newburgh was then unreachable for the weekend, leaving others to explain the situation.

At the time, Abaki called the Tribune piece a “one-sided story” that left out details; the ensuing Daily articles (many of which I wrote) were roundly criticized as well. Both papers editorialized on the issue. (The Tribune included a disclaimer that their Managing Editor, who lived with Newburgh, had not been involved in covering the story or in editorializing about it. It was a reminder of the bizarre nature of the university setting: how about a disclaimer that Anderson Cooper shares a kitchen with Sarah Palin?)

Two views of the situation began to cement. The first was that involvement in the company would be a boon to McGill students, that Newburgh’s time outside of the office was his own, and that it was a great opportunity. The second view was that Newburgh had used his position as leverage for a matter not related to SSMU, and had betrayed the trust of fellow executives, of Council, and of the student body. (This was The Daily editorial board’s position.)

If ideological differences are something that a group can work through, deceit is not. The Executive split into the two factions that Anushay Khan would satirize months later with her dance-off teams: Khan, Abaki, and Zaidi thought Newburgh had betrayed them. Fabian and Drew backed the embattled President.

By the end of January, the bad blood proved too much: with Jobbook hanging over their heads, the Executive cancelled their annual retreat together.

But the controversy prompted a discussion of the nature of SSMU. Traveling to Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Princeton to promote a startup, while using the title of SSMU President to get in the door, doesn’t seem like a particularly union-oriented, student-centred, or progressive thing to do. A former Councilor, who asked not to be named, explained their disappointment with SSMU after the experience of last year. SSMU “has so much money, so much influence,” but doesn’t live up to its full potential, the Councilor said. “Petty issues” and “personal conflicts” prevent representatives from completing projects and being truly productive, they continued.

After the debacle and drama, elections for a new Executive began in March. They ended in a resounding victory for the left. Maggie Knight, a thorough and vocal Councilor, was elected over Cathal Rooney-Cespedes, who had attempted to follow Newburgh’s progress from Speaker of Council to President. Joël Pedneault, a good friend of Zaidi’s and a student movement veteran, took over as External. Carol Fraser, volunteer coordinator for the free, vegan lunch outlet Midnight Kitchen, took Clubs. Shyam Patel, who has repeatedly expressed his intent to revive the Financial Ethics Review Committee, won Finance. Emily Clare, the former Equity Commissioner, nabbed University Affairs. And the new VP Internal, Todd Plummer, was the only Internal candidate at election debates to prioritize a speaker series over a series of parties.

Paltry election turnouts may suggest that students really do want SSMU to be more of a society than a union, just a campus bubble filed with alcohol and political neutrality. But, there are indications that things are swinging in the opposite direction this year. The new Executive is extremely political. McGill’s Mobilization Squad, a cadre of student activists who stage sit-ins and marches, is growing more and more visible on campus. We may yet be at the start of a trend toward the union side of the equation.

It is a new year and a fresh start. Few of last year’s Councilors remain on Council – the complexion of SSMU is drastically different. But at least one trace of the 2010-2011 Executive remains on campus.
In early September, Zach Newburgh showed up at a meeting where AUS Frosh packets were being assembled. He had a flyer he wanted to include. He introduced himself as an employee of Jobbook.

*This article originally stated that Jack Layton was SSMU VP External when he was an undergraduate at McGill. In fact, he ran for the position, but lost. The Daily regrets the error.


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