Last Thursday, the candidates for the upcoming Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) executive elections convened at the Carrefour ballroom to participate in this year’s SSMU Press Debates. Candidates were invited to give an opening statement, after which they answered questions from student press and audience members.
The two candidates for the VP Internal position, Lola Baraldi and Johanna Nikoletos, both demonstrated an interest in accessibility and student awareness of events. In a statement read on behalf of Baraldi, who was unable to attend due to a personal crisis, the candidate expressed an interest in increasing the general awareness of what SSMU is doing, making information needed for event planning more accessible, and working with other non-francophone campus groups to expand the impact of the Francophone Affairs Commission (FAC) beyond the French-speaking community.
“I want to breathe new life into this portfolio, revive communications and outreach, propose dynamic initiatives, and institutionalize sustainability, accessibility, and inclusivity within event planning at McGill,” she wrote in her statement.
As VP Internal, Nikoletos said she would hold events accessible to everyone by increasing accommodations for non-drinking students at larger SSMU events, as well as creating smaller events targeted at smaller groups, to create a “common student identity.”
“We all do have one thing in common, and that is the fact that we are students,” stated Nikoletos.
She also plans to implement a “Frosh scholarship” to combat the financial inaccessibility of Frosh, as well as discuss with the FAC possibilities for making Frosh more accessible to francophones.
Regarding off-campus students, she expressed an interest in providing bus services for students who live far away from downtown, so that they don’t have to worry about transportation during Orientation Week. She also suggested that Rez Project be present in events such as Discover McGill for students who live off campus. Nikoletos noted that she supports current VP Internal Daniel Chaim’s proposal for a fee levy to fund SSMU publications, and would be interested in putting together a SSMU publication to better communicate with students.
VP Clubs & Services candidate Kimber Bialik cited consultation of clubs before policies are implemented as a top priority, and that if elected, she will continue to work on expanding Club Hub to be a resource for students organizing clubs.
She said she hopes to liaise with the VP University Affairs and the President to make sure that clubs and services are not overlooked in negotiations over SSMU’s Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the University, especially considering the loss of the use of McGill’s name in SSMU club names.
VP Finance and Operations candidate Zacheriah Houston made it clear that financial stability of the Nest, the student-run cafe, is one of his top priorities. He further stated that he intends to achieve this by increasing catering at events within the SSMU building, exploring the possibility of catering outside the building – currently prohibited by SSMU’s MOA – and increasing food offerings.
He voiced strong support for creating a campaign with the other executives to raise awareness about how student fees are used, thus increasing transparency. He also stated that he will do as much as possible to make the budget more comprehensible to students by holding office hours and making the documents more accessible on the SSMU website.
Chloe Rourke, the candidate for VP University Affairs, said that mental health will be a priority for her, as she finds the current lack of resources at McGill compared to the huge demand for mental health services disturbing. “That is an indication to me that there is a much bigger conversation that needs to happen on why that demand [for mental health services] is increasing so quickly and what can we do as a community to address it,” she said.
Rourke also said that she will take hard line stances in her negotiations on issues that, in her opinion, overwhelmingly benefit students, and that for other issues that are controversial or political, she will go through many consultation processes before adopting a stance.
The presidential debates began with opening statements from each of the two candidates, Kareem Ibrahim and Alexei Simakov. The statements were followed by general questions from the press and from each of the candidates, and ended with audience questions and closing remarks.
Ibrahim went first, highlighting “strong advocacy on issues students care about” as important to him, especially in light of impending austerity cuts that might harm student services.
“I really want to prioritize student interests,” Ibrahim said.
Simakov asserted that he will go against the grain and take a different approach to SSMU presidency. “If you want a student government that is beyond an Orwellian micro-aggression enforcement policy, then I want to be your president. If you want a student government that focuses on services, on fiscal responsibility […] then I want to be your president,” he said.
The ensuing portions of the debate focused on a number of issues, including addressing budget cuts and student needs, increasing communication with students, and representing student opinion in the case of a student body as large and diverse as McGill’s.
Audience questioning was heated, with spectators leveling questions at both candidates. In one instance, SNAX employee Vivian Feldblyum approached the mic and accused Simakov of “piggy-backing” on the efforts of others and of having a superficial understanding of the situation at hand.
Another student asked if their strong personal stances could affect the policies they choose to pursue as president.
Both candidates emphatically declared that their personal opinions would not impact their decisions as president. “I know that what I believe in is not going to be what the student body believes in,” said Simakov. “I swear to God, I will spend the next year as president, you guys will not know my opinion on anything. I will have that on top secret […] That’s the kind of president I want to be for you.”
Ibrahim also noted that, when it comes to political stances, he would make sure these are informed by student opinion and not his own. “I think all students’ opinions should be considered, and when it comes to SSMU taking stances, that is something that we should make sure represents the majority of the student body,” he said.
In regard to how he would do this given the “inclusion and accessibility” portion of his platform, Ibrahim said that some of the changes he would make as president would not necessarily be informed by majority opinion. For example, the accessibility changes he has proposed to the SSMU website would not affect the students who are not visually- or hearing-impaired, but would make the website more accessible for those who are.
Closing statements were brief, with Ibrahim saying, “I genuinely care about student life. I’ve found my passion, this is my passion. […] I have the experience, I have the drive, and I am not dedicated to my opinion, but yours, and I know I can do so because I am experienced in that field.”
Simakov reiterated the ways in which he is different from a typical SSMU president. “I’m going to answer your questions, I’m going to expose myself, my values, my beliefs. Look at my page, and it’s going upset some of you, and some of you will think I’m wrong, but I’m going to show my opinions and my beliefs. I have principles and I have stands, and I have very clear core positions that go beyond empty rhetoric.”
Following the debate, Nicholas Renzetti, U3 Arts student and member of Simakov’s campaign staff, said he felt the event went well.
“I feel that Alex demonstrated strongly the positions that he wanted to make on fiscal responsibility, on political neutrality, and what he thinks he would be able to do as a the president,” Renzetti told the Daily.
He continued, “Despite the fact that people claim he has not had the experience his opponent has, that he is still a strong presidential candidate. That the experience that Ibrahim has is not the most constructive or helpful in representing all of the students’ views equally.”
Francesca Humi, a member of Ibrahim’s election committee, felt differently. Humi stated, “I think in [Simakov’s] concluding remarks, a lot of the irregularities and a lot of the fallacies of his platform were made evident.”
Amy Miller, a U2 Arts student, told The Daily, “One of the candidates seemed incredibly condescending, which is not in the spirit of what you’d want to see from this kind of debate, but overall I found it incredibly informative for that reason.”
One student, who preferred to remain anonymous, told The Daily that instead of crystallizing his vote, the debates had left him undecided.
“I don’t know who I’m going to support at this time. I’m torn in between. That being said, for me, the most important thing is that they will be neutral in the sense of not letting their own opinions affect the policy that is made by SSMU.”