Commentary | Why equity and social justice matter

Equity is a mainstay of a well-rounded university education. In our wider society, different dynamics put certain groups at risk of discrimination and harassment. McGill’s campus is diverse, and participating in productive discussions here means recognizing that students come from vastly different standpoints and levels of privilege. Equity is implemented on both an individual and institutional level. It is a lens through which we conduct our relations in a bid to create an atmosphere of respect and safety. It is the responsibility of educational institutions to develop clear policies to deal with these issues and generate an atmosphere of respect. A safe academic environment allows individuals to realize their potential. As such, equity is a fundamental responsibility of SSMU.

There is an important distinction between free speech and equity. While the two can coexist peacefully, there are often definitional tensions. Integrated within equity is a support for discussion and dialogue. The very concept of equity is negated if individuals are limited from “engag[ing] in the open discussion of potentially controversial matters,” as SSMU’s Equity Policy calls for. Social justice discourse demands of its participants respect for others and their struggles, historical and current; it does not call everyone to fall in line with a pre-approved, rubber-stamped PC lexicon. All rights have attached responsibilities to ensure community balance and cooperation. Free speech is no different.

Clubs are student funded and thus must be held accountable to SSMU council and its legislation. The equity policy and equity complaints procedure guarantee students that their money is being used responsibly. Free speech is not contravened when a club is held accountable to the organization that funds it. Every student and member of SSMU has a right to participate in an environment that, according to SSMU’s proposed new equity policy, “exceeds social norms of equitable treatment, creating a safe haven for…members where collegial debate and marginalized ideas can flourish in a culture of respect.”

Last year yielded a few high-profile cases that highlighted the importance of equity on campus. Choose Life, a pro-life campus club, had been criticized for disseminating false information and displaying graphic images related to abortion. Several equity complaints were filed and SSMU Council suspended Choose Life’s club status. The Student Equity Committee worked with Choose Life to ensure that the club’s future activities were aligned with SSMU’s equity policy, allowing them to regain their status.

More recently, the Management Undergraduate Society (MUS) chose a “tribal” theme for this year’s frosh. After realizing the negative connotations that the theme evoked for indigenous populations, MUS quickly and respectfully resolved the issue by changing the theme to “superheroes.” Equity is about ensuring that such a situation does not arise again.

This year, Lynsey Grosfield and I were hired to be SSMU’s equity team. Lynsey is the Social Justice Days coordinator and I am the SSMU Equity Commissioner. Together, we will work on spreading awareness on campus about equity and other social justice issues. We will be providing support for QPIRG during Culture Shock, a two-week event in October focussing on how migrant and racialized communities navigate multicultural societies. Additionally, I will be chairing the Student Equity Committee and working with other equity officers should any complaints arise.

What we learn on campus, or in any other microcosm, is often orphaned from application in the greater society, outside the campus gates. Ideally, McGill will cultivate an understanding that will yield positive results outside of campus walls.

Emily Clare, U4 Political Science major and Race and Ethnic Studies minor, is SSMU’s Equity Commissioner. Send her a shout-out:

Lynsey Grosfield, U2 joint honours in Anthropology and Women’s Studies, is SSMU’s Social Justice Days Coordinator. Send questions, comments, and event ideas to