Commentary  Fixing the windows before building the doors

McGill’s $208 million infrastructure project silent on accessibility modifications

On March 2, it was announced that McGill is receiving $75.86 million through the Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund (SIF), on top of which they will receive $5.1 million from the Quebec government. The SIF, provided through Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), aims to provide Canadian post-secondary research facilities with up to $2 billion in funding over the next three years (starting in 2016 — 2017) towards upgrading and improving their research facilities, as a means to “attract and retain talented people, boost innovation and build a sustainable economy.” ISED collected project proposals in the spring of 2016, and the grants are awarded on a rolling basis. Upon reading through the list of projects as listed in the McGill Reporter article, I hoped that the University would finally direct some money towards the campus accessibility renovations that members of the community with mobility restrictions so desperately need (see: “A Culture of Neglect.” January 23rd, 2017). Yet as I worked my way down the list, there was a noticeable absence of anything related to accessibility-related infrastructure projects.

The SIF website includes a list of approved investment areas, and includes, “Renovating and modernizing space to promote research and training to advance science-based policy-making in areas such as digital analytics, bioscience, water security and health” as an area for potential projects. If investment funds can be directed towards renovations surrounding the quality of a research building, then by the SIF’s definition, plans that center on building accessibility for people with mobility impairments should be included. Many students with mobility impairments may make the choice not to attend McGill altogether, because of the notorious inaccessibility of its campus. Making our buildings accessible would support research by attracting the people — the very highly-talented and highly-qualified people — that the program is looking for, but who currently deem it physically impossible, or at least incredibly difficult, to come here.

Now, some may attempt to argue that the grant dictates where the funding is supposed to be spent. When asked about the matter, Jean Ouellet, Director of Project Management at Facilities Management and Ancillary Services, stated that, “only expenses directly related to upgrades of research and innovation facilities are eligible for funding under the SIF program, so making buildings more accessible is unfortunately not covered. However, one of our biggest projects funded out of the SIF program is the reconfiguration and upgrade of a large portion of the Stewart Biology Building. We will take this opportunity to make the building more accessible.” However, when the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada was contacted, they did not indicate that these limitations existed in the eligibility guidelines for the University’s projects. The SIF designates its funding to projects that surround either the scale, quality, or environmental sustainability of the infrastructure in question. Their website states that these modernizations would help, “strengthen the development of highly-qualified, talented people, performing world-leading research, and generating new breakthrough ideas.” If we think of “modernizing” as ‘making accessible’ (which, we should), these projects would more than qualify for the grant-money. What better way to “strengthen the development of highly-qualified people” than allow them a way to comfortably access the building! You know that people who require the use of wheelchairs, canes, or other mobility supports are scientists, right?

If, for some incomprehensible reason, there is in fact fine print that excludes using the funds towards accessibility (yikes!), or perhaps if the projects are not open to significant alterations now that the application process has been completed, then so be it. But here’s another thought: the SIF program is a grant that educational institutions must apply for. If the application for this grant is anything like the highly vied-for, (and even less financially redeeming), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant (SSHRC), then the process is incredibly grueling. Despite this, the administration found it worth their while to go through the lengthy process of an application that would necessitate highly detailed financial and logistical foresight in order to secure the grant; and, low and behold, it worked! But here’s the thing: there are also grants for improving accessibility.

The federal government offers the Enabling Accessibility Fund, which provides capital costs for construction and renovation to improve the physical accessibility and safety for people with disabilities in their community and workplace. It has offered grants to University of Waterloo, Carleton University, and Algonquin College. As it turns out, McGill has not applied for the grant since it was rejected in 2007 – 7 years ago! Furthermore, through the Government of Canada’s News Release on the funding, it appears that McGill “and university partners” will be footing the rest of the $127.63 million that remains on their stated $204.2 million budget for the nine projects. So even if we are limited by the parameters of the funding conditions, surely McGill could have used some of its own money, which it is clearly willing to spend despite claims of “austerity,” towards accessibility.

I’m not saying the funding isn’t an excellent opportunity, or that the projects in question are undeserving. The issue is one of prioritization. Every move made by an institution like McGill is calculated. The money is found for “modernization,” but seems to go missing for accessibility. Take the new “Harvard-like” building signs. Frankly, I would hope that we care far less about the modernity of our buildings signs than the ability of our fellow classmates, colleagues, and professors to be able to safely and confidently access the campus. For all the emphasis McGill is currently putting on being “cutting-edge” and “innovative,” it’s kind of a wonder it didn’t think to focus on getting people into the buildings in the first place.