Commentary  TaCEQ: a coalition of the willing

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) has run the gamut of options for external representation. Despite having history with three other student-union federations, SSMU has now opted for external representation with the nine-month-old Table de concertation étudiante du Québec (TaCEQ).

Across Canada and Quebec, campus student unions like SSMU have traditionally sought outside association with other campus unions in order to more successfully press the government on vital student concerns. These concerns include legislation on fees (tuition or ancillary), university funding, and an assortment of other government programs and policies (or lack thereof) that address the quality and accessibility of our post-secondary education. The outcome: federative student organizations such as the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) have been formed to tackle these issues. These organizations are major players in the student movement.

So why is TaCEQ the right option for SSMU and, by extension, for McGill undergraduate students?
History lesson: after five years of membership, SSMU voted 74 per cent in favour of de-federation from FEUQ in the fall of 2006. Later that academic year, SSMU took out prospective membership with CFS. Within a year, SSMU was independent again. Both federations were characterized by cultural and institutional practices that did not square with SSMU.

Some of those practices: overly centralized executive power; unresponsiveness to member associations; policies that make it difficult to withdraw; partisan leanings.

Evidence to substantiate these claims could occupy pages and pages: just look in The Daily archives. Suffice it to say that we were not alone in these criticisms. Both federations have been blighted in recent years by an exodus of student unions citing similar reasons.

Some student unions would disagree with SSMU. That’s fine, as long as this view democratically reflects the will of their student membership. Despite its best efforts, SSMU was unable to enact many of the reform measures that would have brought the federations more in line with its values. This institutional paralysis and lack of responsiveness to its membership fundamentally undid the confidence that SSMU had in these federations.

Lacking suitable alternatives, SSMU likely would have stayed independent and, arguably, politically weak for some time. As mentioned, though, many similar-minded student unions in Quebec shared its reasons for disillusionment with the federations.

Consequently, four former FEUQ-affiliated student unions created a new vision for a formalized association: TaCEQ. The organization was born as a fresh attempt at remodelling the institutional culture and structure of – the very notion of – a coalition of student unions.

The member associations of TaCEQ, currently representing around 65,000 students in Quebec, agree that the best model for external representation is a formalized, decentralized, and voluntary coalition. This means a coalition that is member-driven: one that exists only as long as it serves the interests of each campus. Therefore, two founding principles of TaCEQ – entrenched in its bylaws – preserve an expedient exiting process and the right to dissent within the coalition.

The strength of this structure is its legitimacy, which must constantly be maintained. TaCEQ as an organization and its executives are forced to develop consensus and meet the expectations of its members, or rapidly face dismantlement.

To achieve this, TaCEQ holds bimonthly meetings where representatives from all member associations identify priorities for campaigns and strategies for pressuring the government and raising awareness on issues. Mandates are then delivered to the two-person executive to follow up on these dossiers, to act as spokespeople for the organization, and to coordinate initiatives with the member unions. The executive is constantly answerable to the unions that constitute TaCEQ.

Membership in TaCEQ provides SSMU with the best of both worlds: strength in numbers and the legitimacy of strong representation that comes with external association, as well as the ability to retain a dignified and independent voice, in order to better represent you, the undergraduates of McGill.