News | Council passes new SSMU equity policy

Extensive debate centres around striking the word “inoffensive”

Correction appended – Monday, Nov 15

SSMU Council voted Thursday to approve a new equity policy. The policy passed after significant debate over two amendments tacked on by Arts councillor Spencer Burger.

Equity Commissioner Emily Clare applauded Council’s final decision, saying, “I think the best policy went through today,” although the legislative process involved “a lot of give and take.”

The new policy is the product of work done by the 2009-2010 Equity Committee and Rebecca Dooley, former VP University Affairs, who returned to Council to see the policy passed. “I’m ecstatic,” she said. “That policy is the result of a lot of time and energy put in by a lot of different people.”

She added that the new policy is “far, far superior to the previous policy,” implemented in 2008, partly because it is “easier to understand.”

Approval was scheduled for the previous Council meeting, but was ruled out of order, since the Steering Committee had not read through the policy twice, as necessary. The document was endorsed by the Steering Committee during their report to Council on Thursday, however.

The new policy outlines SSMU’s background, history, and development of equity policies, and lists SSMU groups and services that hold a “strong commitment to equity, safety, and the creation of safe(r) spaces for its membership.”

An appendix also includes relevant sections from McGill’s Charter of Students’ Rights, and previous SSMU policies that “deal with varying aspects of discrimination and harassment.”

The policy applies to all members and staff of SSMU, including all activities, events, and funding allocated by the Society. It seeks to provide a “functional anti-oppressive environment” and outline the responsibilities of SSMU.

Procedures for submitting complaints are outlined, which are investigated first by the four Equity Officers, who are the Equity Commissioner and three members of the Executive Committee. The committee can make recommendations to Council, which then has the option to discipline offenders, including a suspension of financial support from SSMU.

Clare prefaced Council debate by explaining the strength of the policy.

“We’re taking the equity policy as a signal of change of how equity will be run at McGill. We want it to be a lot more accessible to students, and we’re taking this as the starting point,” she said.

Myles Gaulin, Policy and Equity Coordinator for Queer McGill, also spoke in favour of the policy, saying that despite advances in equity practices, “McGill can still be an oppressive, intimidating environment for many people.”

Debate centred around Burger’s three proposed amendments to the policy. The first, written in coordination with the Equity Committee, changed the policy’s definition of “oppression” to, “the exercise of power by a group of people over another group of people with specific consideration of cultural, historical, and living legacies.”

Clare supported the change, arguing that it “highlights nuances dealt with in an equity complaint.”

“It’s a simple amendment, but I think it really strengthens the equity policy,” she added.

A second amendment, which required extensive negotiation amongst councillors, moved to strike the words “inoffensive,” “collegial,” and “respectful” from the description guiding acceptable discussion between students and student groups. Of the three terms, Council only struck “inoffensive,” from the passage in question.

Burger said that the inclusion of his amendment is “a big step for freedom of speech on McGill campus and on university campuses in general.” He added, “SSMU does not have the right to censor someone based on the perception that what someone says is offensive. This equity policy is still somewhat jumbled, but I hope the acceptance of my amendments will make freedom of speech a much more integral part of our campus.”

A third amendment, which failed, sought to add a section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the equity policy. The section described the fundamental freedoms of Canadians.

The policy was passed with a large majority of councellors voting in favor of adoption. Clare highlighted that the policy “situated equity in general in the context of the history of McGill,” and shows that “SSMU has been a leader in equity.”

The amendments that passed “do not have a negative effect on the policy,” she said. “The discussion that happened was really useful for a lot of people on Council to understand what the equity policy means to our members and our organizations.