Commentary | Opt-outs are not a weapon

Opposing racial injustice, defending the rights of queer people, standing behind a woman’s right to have an abortion, protecting the environment: do these sound like fringe positions?
It’s also a list of causes supported by the Quebec Public Interest Group (QPIRG), which a small group of McGill clubs claim are “radical” and “fringe.” For the second year in a row, the clubs, united under the banner of the QPIRG Opt-Out campaign are trying to convince students to stop paying QPIRG’s $3.75 per semester opt-outable fee. This campaign has used disingenuous tactics in recent weeks to further a deeply misguided agenda. Students should not be taken in by them, and should continue to support QPIRG’s work. This kind of campaign should not become a campus institution.

QPIRG is a service to students. Its mandate is to pursue research in the public interest. It has done this for the breadth of its over 20 years of existence, and continues to do so. It provides resources and a safe space for people marginalized and oppressed in the rest of society. The campaign’s argument that “radical, fringe groups” should be silenced and oppressed demonstrates the continued need for QPIRG’s existence.

If Conservative McGill and its allies were more confident in the politics they advocate, perhaps they would argue on that basis, rather than making recourse to the cost of a slice of pizza. As it stands, their tactics in this campaign have been underhanded. Handing out fliers, opt-out activists have often simply said: “Save some money.” Their Facebook page lists things you can buy with $7.50, like “an all you can eat pass at the Black Students Network BBQ” and “almost a meal at the Chinese place in the Shatner building.” It’s hard to imagine a more vacuous way to engage in a campus debate.

And regardless of their tactics, the basic aim of the opt-out campaign represents a troubling view of how campus, and society at large, should function. Supporting, financially and otherwise, groups that you disagree with and services you don’t use is woven into Canadian society. Regardless of their political affiliation, all taxpayers contribute to the funding of major political parties. Likewise, they all contribute to the public school systems in their provinces, even if their children go to private school or they don’t have children. This is as it should be: paying for the betterment of your fellow citizens, your neighbours, and your classmates is what it means to be part of a collective society. If opt-outable fees are good for anything, it’s for helping students in dire financial need – not as tools in ideological disputes. In any case, QPIRG is a democratic organization; anyone can influence the direction it takes. Unless they opt-out – in not paying their fees, they forfeit the right to attend the group’s annual general meeting and have a say in its future.

The clubs leading the opt-out charge should appreciate this as well as anyone: as SSMU clubs, they all receive a chunk of non-opt-outable funding from the student body. The opt-out campaign flyers were printed, for example, with non-opt-outable money. That means that chances are many of the students who contribute to Conservative McGill’s purse do not intend to vote for Stephen Harper’s party in the next federal election. That’s fine. A diversity of voices is necessary for a healthy campus dialogue.