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Commentary  Big banks take over Activities Night

Corporatization spreads as a standard practice across McGill.

When new students walked through McGill’s front gates on the second day of classes, their vision was crowded by the tents, stalls, logos, and glaring advertisements of corporations and banks. This left many students scratching their heads. Shouldn’t campus be a place for students? What are banks and corporate giants doing here? But this shouldn’t really be that surprising; in fact, corporatization is standard practice at McGill.

Seeking refuge from the constant stream of advertisements and corporate manipulation, many students naturally went to Activities Night, an event organized by the Student’s Society of McGill University (SSMU) to help students discover the wide variety of student organizations that McGill has to offer. However, as students entered the SSMU ballroom at Activities Night, they were greeted by Tangerine’s huge orange tent, while the student organizations were pushed off to the sides. The bank’s kiosk occupied a significant portion of the floor, which meant that the student clubs assigned to the shared space had to squeeze next to each other, were limited to two people per club, and had to endure (every 5-10 minutes) the cries of the bank’s employees yelling and applauding whenever someone opened the bizarre door to the “free stuff” vault.

Corporatization at McGill is not new. The ritual tents of various banks and phone companies targeting first-year students during orientation week and the very strategically placed ads in bathrooms across campus are just a couple of examples of it. Companies spend a large amount of money in order to be present on campus. McGill is just another marketplace for big companies, and students are just consumers to profit from. As if big companies weren’t already present in every walk of life – do they really need to dominate our campuses as well?

The reason for corporate sponsorships

This creeping corporatization shouldn’t come as a surprise. As a public institution, McGill is dependent on government funding. But due to the Quebec government’s general austerity program, McGill’s budget has been slashed year after year. Just last year, it faced $10 million in cuts. On top of this, an additional $50 million has been cut since 2012. As capitalism sinks deeper into crisis, governments around the world are burdened with huge debts. This results in cuts to spending, the hiking of tuition fees and the corporatization of public institutions. The long-term result of this trend is a shift toward the  privatization of our public institutions.

Of course, McGill’s Board of Governors (BoG) has been quite happy to play along. This is not surprising, considering nearly every member of the BoG also serves as a director of one or more major corporations or banks. These people have a direct interest in granting banks and big corporations access to McGill. Actually, the companies they represent and them would profit massively off of the privatization of McGill, and they continue to profit from student indebtedness.

However, while corporatization of the university in general shouldn’t be that surprising, it is surprising and unacceptable that our student union, which supposedly exists to defend and serve our interests as McGill undergraduate students, is bending to corporate pressure.

Earlier this year, a SSMU referendum proposing a $5.50 increase in the base fee, was rejected by a 50.3 per cent majority. As a result, a ‘Club Fund’ fee had to be instated in the same General Assembly – both of these attempts to increase income were a result of $47,000 worth of budget cuts made to funding for student clubs. According to the latest version of its budget, SSMU estimates that it will bring in over $1.746 million in non-allocated student fees for the 2016-2017 year, in part to make up for the projected $130,000 deficit  and to aim for a $100,000 surplus to begin to replenish the Capital Expenditure Reserve Fund (CERF). The CERF is a section of the SSMU budget reserved for investment, renovation, or funding of student initiatives. As a result of the dearth of funding, SSMU has had to turn to corporate sponsorship and infiltration into student union activities, while at the same time fewer resources are being made available to student clubs. The neglect of students has created poor relations between student clubs and the SSMU, and the giant, orange bank tent at Activities Night is only the latest “SSMU fail.”

Repressing student voices on campus

When we were tabling at Activities Night on behalf of Socialist Fightback, Tangerine employees confronting us over complaints of disruption claimed to simply be a “medium-sized bank trying to help students.” The laughable claim that a bank is trying to “help students” flies in the face of how a bank actually makes money and what the material interest of a bank is – indebting people (in this case, students). On top of this, Tangerine is not a “medium-sized bank,” but has been a subsidiary of Scotiabank since its $3.1 billion acquisition of the ING Bank of Canada in 2012.

As it is usually the case, money comes with strings attached. Who does SSMU now represent? Students or corporations? There is already a long history of McGill trying to silence political activists on campus, including violence during student strikes. The last thing we need is the SSMU becoming intertwined with corporate interest. Ironically, during Activities Night, political activist groups were placed right next to Tangerine’s corporate tent. Feelings of anger and confusion soon spread among the student groups. Due to complaints from Tangerine, SSMU then resorted to calling security on a few groups, an obvious attempt to silence those who were openly critical of Tangerine.

When security arrived, they insisted that Socialist Fightback activists were not allowed to ask for voluntary contributions to help fund our activities and help to pay for the printing of our literature. All this despite the fact that the whole event was dominated by a bank trying to get students to open accounts and sign up for credit cards; we all know what that leads to – debt and profits for the bank. It should also be noted that telling student clubs that they cannot independently fundraise at Activities Night directly contradicts the SSMU website which states, “As clubs are not guaranteed any funding from the SSMU, clubs are responsible for their own fundraising in order to support their events and initiatives.” SSMU executive Elaine Patterson has yet to respond to the conflicting messages delivered to student organisations regarding fundraising.

On top of Tangerine’s obnoxious presence and constant haranguing of students to register for their products, students at Activities Night also had to put up with their jarring presence as they loudly promoted themselves. However, when student activists exercised their freedom of expression by chanting “SSMU is for students, not for banks!” for about a minute, the bank’s event manager accused students of being disruptive bullies. This was a hypocritical complaint, especially after Tangerine had tried to silence and disrupt activism on campus through bureaucratic means, by making complaints and calling security. As members of SSMU, we expect that our representative body will give us a voice and won’t try to silence us.

By condoning increasing corporatization, SSMU violates its anti-austerity mandate, voted for by students, which includes a commitment to protecting and increasing student spaces on campus. This puts into question its accountability to the student body. Instead, SSMU should oppose corporatization and fight against the corporatization of McGill in general, which is directly tied to the problem of austerity.

The fight against predatory banks goes hand in hand with the fight for free and accessible post-secondary education, and this is a fight that the SSMU should be leading. This cannot be attained under capitalism, which regards education as a business enterprise. Only an alternative system where the driving force of the production and reproduction of knowledge is human fulfillment (rather than private profit) will create the material conditions for better quality education, and for free and genuinely accessible education for all.