O n August 16, McGill’s Union for Gender Empowerment (UGE) published an open letter to the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), criticizing SSMU for their use of “austerity logic and language” in connection with the potential defunding of anti-racist programmes. The open letter, which was co-signed by The Daily and other student groups, referenced two specific initiatives: Culture Shock and Social Justice Days. While the letter alleges that SSMU has definitively decided to defund these programmes, SSMU’s executive team released a statement claiming that “no decision has been made […] to defund Culture Shock and Social Justice Days.”
Crucial anti-racist programming
Culture Shock and Social Justice Days are event series run by the McGill chapter of the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG), and co-funded by SSMU. While both have taken place annually on campus for the past 12 years, early versions of Culture Shock, originally run by SSMU alone, were described as misrepresentative of racial justice. In 2006, QPIRG offered to jointly run the program, with a mandate to focus on social justice issues. In recent years the event series has featured anti-racism workshops, as well as keynote speakers like Octavia’s Blood editor Walidah Imarisha, and spoken word artist Joshua Allen, a prison abolitionist and activist.
“Culture Shock and Social Justice Days are all about centering the stories and experiences of marginalized folks,” says Delali Egyima, who has attended and volunteered at the events in the past.
“At the end of each event series, I was always left with the feeling that there’s so much more learning to be done. What I love most about these event series is knowing that the folks facilitating or giving talks are being paid for sharing knowledge that they are usually forced to share for free. Knowing an organization like SSMU sees the importance of creating different avenues for the continuous support of marginalized folks at McGill and in Montreal speaks volumes about their commitment to equity.”
“What I love most about these event series is knowing that the folks facilitating or giving talks are being paid for sharing knowledge that they are usually forced to share for free. Knowing an organization like SSMU sees the importance of creating different avenues for the continuous support of marginalized folks at McGill and in Montreal speaks volumes about their commitment to equity.”
The threat of funding cuts
Until recently, Culture Shock and Social Justice Days have been the only available anti-racist programming on campus funded by SSMU. This social role has been threatened over the last several years due to funding cuts. Until now, SSMU has supported the programming on three fronts: providing monetary funding, co-hiring staff, and offering free space in which to hold events. The letter published by the UGE stated that as of 2015, monetary funding had been reduced from its initial $10,000 to $2,040. In a subsequent interview with The Daily, a QPIRG representative stated that “the ability for QPIRG to book rooms in SSMU for the event series might be taken away as well as the funding.”
In essence, several QPIRG board members expressed concern to The Daily that the withdrawal of part of SSMU’s support could severely reduce the scale and potential of Culture Shock and Social Justice Days. They feared that to lose all three elements of that support – funding, staff, and space – would effectively end the programming.
SSMU’s side of the story
In response to the UGE’s open letter, SSMU’s executive team issued a statement to The Daily. In it, the executives argued that, all things considered, SSMU currently provides QPIRG with an exceptional level of financial and logistical support.
“In the 2016/2017 school year,” explained the statement, “QPIRG was given $2040 from the SSMU Operating Budget, […] $1500 in additional funding for Culture Shock, $1182 and additional HR supports for the hiring and support of a Popular Education Coordinator for Culture Shock and Social Justice Days.”
The executives’ statement also mentioned the funding SSMU provides for QPIRG’s Rad Frosh, and claimed that overall they offer “more supports than provided to any other student group on campus and with a system that is outside the norm of that we offer other groups on campus, making our relationship with QPIRG an outlier in our standard operating procedures.”
Where should funding come from?
QPIRG currently receives funding both from SSMU’s operating budget and from the SSMU Funding Programme, the latter of which is financed through nine different student fees. It seems that SSMU is urging QPIRG to, instead, apply for all their funding for these event series through the Funding Programme.
QPIRG, however, doesn’t feel that this is an adequate solution to budgetary constraints.
“Applying through the Funding Programme is a very unstable model of funding,” a QPIRG representative told The Daily, “as QPIRG would have to incur expenses with no guarantee of what amount of funding we would receive. All of these concerns were expressed by QPIRG in our meetings with SSMU.”
The SSMU executives’ statement continues as follows: “We have also highly recommended that [QPIRG] increase their student fee if they do not feel it is sufficient to cover their operations and programming, and the SSMU would be happy to help support this campaign.”
In reponse, QPIRG staff members told The Daily that to raise their student fee would go against the mandates of both Culture Shock and Social Justice Days, which are intended to be collaborations with SSMU. Crucially, they argued, it would also represent an aquiescence to the very same austerity logic that QPIRG, as an organization dedicated to equity and accessibility, firmly opposes.
“We have also highly recommended that [QPIRG] increase their student fee if they do not feel it is sufficient to cover their operations and programming, and the SSMU would be happy to help support this campaign.”
Seeking common ground
The future of Culture Shock and Social Justice Days is tenuous and it’s unclear when a final decision will be made. For their part, SSMU’s executive team has declined to comment further on this issue since releasing their initial statement.
Despite the tension between SSMU and QPIRG, however, both have expressed hope for upcoming discussions, and reaffirmed their commitment to anti-oppressive and anti-austerity ideals.
“We have to find solutions to ‘keep the lights on’ within these [budgetary] constraints, especially when efforts to increase our resource pool (such as the SSMU Base fee) are unsuccessful,” said the SSMU executive team in their statement. “While we would like to work towards finding the best possible solution, we need to be able to reach an agreement that works with the actual capacities of all parties involved. As marginalized people on this campus who are dedicated to the same issues, […] we must work together to find solutions to assist one another.”
The QPIRG board and staff expressed similar sentiments, writing in a statement to The Daily, “We know that these SSMU [executives] care about social justice programming and making changes at McGill. So it’s really sad that this is happening and we really don’t want to be fighting them! […] We’d love to work with them on [these programmes].”
“While we would like to work towards finding the best possible solution, we need to be able to reach an agreement that works with the actual capacities of all parties involved. As marginalized people on this campus who are dedicated to the same issues, […] we must work together to find solutions to assist one another.”