The SSMU President is required to be a bureaucratic Jack of all trades—he chairs different SSMU committees, helps his fellow VPs with their portfolios, and represents SSMU’s interests at the Board of Governors (BoG) and Senate. Neilson seems competent in these areas, and we were also impressed by his interest in SSMU’s different green initiatives—including supporting funding for an industrial composter and encouraging McGill Food Services to serve a locally-sourced meal. An equally pragmatic suggestion was to hire an independent advertising manager for General Assemblies to battle the trend of student apathy on campus. We liked Neilson’s interest in outreach to McGill commuter students—and while his suggestion to incorporate them into the Rez Life project was very good, he had no proposals for how to get outreach off the ground. Neilson’s concern for greater transparency in ancillary fees and referendums was equally vague. But while these are all important parts of SSMU, they are also comparatively safe issues, and could be handled by special committees.
On external issues, Neilson seems intent on playing nice with everyone rather than fighting the status quo. The McGill Reporter—the administration’s self-promotional newspaper – has hailed him as a “bridge builder.” Building bridges might be a pragmatic approach to the Bill 38 issue—where SSMU and the administration take a common line against a mandatory 60 per cent external membership on BoG—but not for contested issues like tuition increases. Neilson told the Daily that plugging the tuition line would be damaging to the relationship he hopes to build with admin—though he has also said that he intends to work for greater “accessibility”—whatever that means. We only hope he has the chutzpah to remind his fellow governors that the recent several-thousand-dollar tuition increases in the Management, Engineering, and Science faculties for international students have coincided with a huge spike in student unemployment. Because McGill now gets to keep a greater portion of its international tuition revenues—rather than pooling them with other Quebec universities and divvying up the spoils—the University should increase the number of bursaries and loans available, as Heather Monroe-Blum herself promised in an interview with The Daily last year.
Neilson has admitted that he’d like to keep, “idealism out of the office,” because it conflicts with his work. On this, he couldn’t be more wrong. Making sure SSMU runs efficiently and achieves small, concrete goals is important, but he was still elected to be a political leader—not a glorified office manager. It’s true that his role as president is to represent Council interests and act as spokesperson for SSMU in a way that doesn’t conflict with Council’s political prerogatives, but that doesn’t mean he can’t create his own motions or initiatives. His predecessors, Jake Itzkowitz and Kay Turner, both did an adequate job—but they failed to make their mark in the way the extremely political Aaron Donny-Clark did in 2006-2007. At best, we may find ourselves with another forgettable though well-organized SSMU President, and at worst a lapdog of Monroe-Blum.