Commentary  QPIRG: what is it good for? A lot.

During the fee opt-out campaign this year, which lasted from September 14-28, a consortium of campus groups – McGill Anatomy & Cell Biology Student Society, the Conservative Society of McGill University, Free the Children McGill Chapter, the Student Network for Economic Development, and the Parti Libéral du Québec McGill – launched a smear campaign to convince students to cut funding to the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG) branch at McGill. QPIRG is an umbrella organization that funds a variety of campus research projects, activities, and services.

The opt-out campaign, largely organized around a Facebook group and web site containing an open letter to the organization, included a set of instructions on how to opt out of QPIRG’s $3.75 (undergraduate) or $3 (graduate) fee each term and a YouTube video aggressively promoting the process. Since QPIRG’s funding relies almost entirely on student fees, this campaign poses a serious threat to the organization’s existence.

The opt-out campaign has largely obscured facts, misrepresented QPIRG’s goals, and prevented meaningful discussion of QPIRG’s role in the McGill and Montreal communities. The campaign’s YouTube video post lambasted QPIRG’s funding sources, saying that “if you want something, ask first. Don’t take first. That’s called theft.” On the group’s web site, the organizers describe QPIRG as furthering “radical goals” and supporting “fringe groups” whose objectives would “appall the mainstream of McGill’s student body.” In fact, in the last three years, students have voted twice in referenda to increase QPIRG’s funding – a clear demonstration of mainstream support.

This rhetoric is a deliberate distortion of QPIRG’s mandate and actions. QPIRG, alongside its explicitly political groups, like Coalition Justice for Adil Charkaoui, provides a variety of valuable services that can be useful to any member of McGill’s student body – for example, Campus Crops, TapThirst, which aims to reduce bottled water waste, and Greening McGill, the organization behind Car-Free Day and the Plate Club, which provides students with plates and cutlery to use in the Shatner building at meal times. Other current working groups include the McGill Global AIDS Coalition, Tadamon!, the Anti-Gentrification Group, and Young Jews for Social Justice. QPIRG also offers a resource library that aims to fill social justice gaps in Montreal public and university collections.

The opt-out campaign’s Facebook page contains a number of ironies, listing things you can buy for the same value of QPIRG’s annual fee, including, for instance, an “[all] you can eat pass at the Black Students Network BBQ” – an event at an organization that began and was initially funded as a QPIRG working group. Even the opt-out option that the campaign is pushing was originally initiated by QPIRG, in line with the organization’s goal to support student autonomy. In the same spirit, QPIRG board meetings, along with its annual general meeting and the election of the Board of Directors, are open to all who pay the fee. We urge any student with concerns or questions to get involved with QPIRG and offer input, rather than make a hasty decision to simply cut funding next term.