L ast year, I wrote a Hyde Park comparing QPIRG to SSMU (“Conservative McGill doth protest too much,” February 8, 2010). It had become clear to me then that certain student groups didn’t fully understand QPIRG and, by consequence, contradicted themselves in their critiques of the organization.
In some ways QPIRG and SSMU are similar. For example, both are student-funded and student-run; both operate as umbrellas for a variety of student and campus-community groups, giving them space, administrative support, and, most importantly, funding; both print planners at the beginning of the year…
However, I confess that my argument last year was rather reductive. In fact, QPIRG and SSMU are also quite different, notably with regards to their political objectives. SSMU is the student government and official representative of all downtown undergrads; it seeks to provide students with services and representation. QPIRG is a student-run public interest research group (PIRG) with a social and environmental justice and anti-oppression mandate. The PIRG “conducts research, education, and action on environmental and social justice issues at McGill University and in the Montreal community.”
QPIRG, and its working groups, play a vital role in campus-wide dialogue on issues that are underrepresented, be they related to class, queer people, people with disabilities, immigrants, ecological sustainability, et cetera. McGill students benefit from the opportunities to learn and share skills within QPIRG working groups, or to research in the alternative resource library. Student-run working groups have brought campus “Car-Free Day” (Greening McGill), urban agriculture programs (Campus Crops), a native studies journal (KANATA), panels at “Social Justice Days” (held in January), a speakers series on the Israel-Palestine conflict, awareness on aboriginal colonization and the situation of Filipino migrant workers in Canada… And the list can go on.
QPIRG provides a space dedicated to causes and people that are marginalized in our university and society at large. In short, QPIRG and the organizations it supports provide space for furthering critical discourse in our university – which ultimately enriches the educational and social experience of your years at McGill.
Confronting social injustice and environmental degradation are always highly contentious and difficult processes. There will always be heated debate and students that disagree with one another. Occasionally, I have disagreed with the methods and messages employed by QPIRG and some organizations within it. But I value the contributions that these groups have made to my university education outside of the classroom. I value the existence of events such as the speaker series “Culture Shock” (this year from October 4 to 15 – check the QPIRG and SSMU websites for details!) because they challenge my own perspectives and the positions forwarded by my professors and textbooks.
So, returning to the original question, how are the political objectives of SSMU and QPIRG different? SSMU is, by its nature and its democratic structure, a majoritarian organization: it functions like a union and must represent all students. QPIRG, as stated earlier, preserves space and funding for minorities and their causes. In other words, while SSMU’s raison d’être is to give voice and representation to the majority, QPIRG’s is to give voice and representation to the voiceless. When the voiceless are heard and when alternative causes have a place to flourish, you get more education for your money – and our university, hopefully, becomes a more just, sustainable, and tolerant place.
Sebastian Ronderos-Morgan is a former SSMU VP External, a current QPIRG’s board member, and a U3 Political Science student. The views expressed here are his own. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.