On February 8, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Legislative Council convened for its third meeting of the semester. Council passed several motions related to equity and social justice without significant debate, but the evening was mostly taken up by a tense and ultimately inconclusive discussion about SSMU’s relationship with the Association for the Voice of Education in Quebec (AVEQ).
This discussion was sparked by an announcement from newly-elected VP Finance Esteban Herpin, who expressed concern over certain expenses made by VP University Affairs Isabelle Oke and VP External Connor Spencer. Herpin framed his announcement in the context of the upcoming Winter Referendum, which is expected to invoke discussions among students about affiliating SSMU with a provincial student federations such as AVEQ. “Given that we are expected to discuss the topic of provincial representation,” Herpin states, “I would like to make Council aware of certain expenses that have come to my attention.”
He went on to explain that in January 2018, SSMU had hosted an AVEQ congress, and that Spencer and Oke had used SSMU credit cards to fund the attendant expenses, which totalled over $4000. These expenses, Herpin said, had not been mentioned in advance to the Provincial Representation Committee (PRC) of SSMU – the body chaired by Spencer and Oke which is tasked with gathering information about different Quebec student organizations “SSMU has a mandate to participate in.” He also objected to the fact that the conference expenses had not been included in SSMU’s operating budget for the current year.
“I believe that this is a severe transgression of the financial responsibility these [executives] owe to the Society, and further, that this presents a serious financial conflict of interest between the Society and AVEQ,” said Herpin. “AVEQ now owes us over $4,000. This sort of monetary liability to the Society could be a point of pressure that AVEQ could push.”
He also claimed that “this compromises [Oke and Spencer’s] roles” on the PRC, given that the committee is ultimately tasked with delivering a report on the respective advantages and disadvantages of affiliation with both AVEQ and the Quebec Student Union (UEQ). According to Herpin, the fact that the two VPs had worked with AVEQ to host the conference constitutes proof of a pro-AVEQ bias that will hinder the integrity of the PRC.
Oke addressed Herpin’s concerns as Spencer was unable to attend Council. Oke explained that, in fact, it is standard practice for members of AVEQ (and observing members, like SSMU) to host the student federation, front its costs for such events, and subsequently invoice it in order to get fully reimbursed. The costs involved were not included in this year’s budget because last year’s VP External, David Aird, had failed to include them.
“The point of hosting [the conference] here,” said Oke, “was to make it more accessible for students, so that they could see how AVEQ actually runs. This seems like a perfectly reasonable […] motivation for hosting it on campus.”
“The point of hosting [the conference] here […] was to make it more accessible for students, so that they could see how AVEQ actually runs.”
Regarding the accusation of pro-AVEQ bias, and in response to a question from First Year Council (FYC) Representative Anthony Koch about whether SSMU executives have attended or worked on UEQ events in a comparable way, Oke explained that UEQ has simply been less active in this area.
“In order to do the work that we want to accomplish, it involves coordinating with other student associations and getting involved with things happening at the provincial level, and I think because AVEQ is just doing more this year on that subject, that’s why we keep hearing about AVEQ,” said Oke. “There isn’t anything that UEQ is putting on that we haven’t gone to or that we wouldn’t, it’s literally just the fact that AVEQ has organized a couple more things. […] So it’s not in the spirit of always trying to be where AVEQ is at, it’s in the spirit of going to where the student associations are and working on similar projects that we share.”
Oke added that the PRC will be speaking with UEQ representatives on February 12, and that she and Spencer are scheduled to attend a UEQ conference later this month. While she firmly rejected Herpin’s allegations of bias and malicious mishandling of SSMU funds, Oke said that his claim regarding a conflict of interest was “a valid point.” She told Council that the invoice has already been sent to AVEQ, and it is strongly in the student federation’s interest to reimburse SSMU fully and promptly. However, she also proposed that should AVEQ fail to do so, SSMU refrain from including AVEQ as an option on a referendum question about provincial representation, as a way to prevent the outstanding debt from influencing the result of such a referendum in any way.
Herpin objected to Oke’s proposed solution, but did not suggest any alternate options. This prompted several councillors to express frustration with the length of the discussion and with what they saw as an unconstructive attitude from Herpin.
“I just want to say that I’m disappointed with what the VP Finance has said tonight,” said one such councillor, proxy Science Representative Joey Decunha. “I can’t help but feel that the introduction of this controversy was a calculated political move to prevent SSMU from affiliating with AVEQ, and the reluctance of the VP Finance to accept any sort of reasonable solution that’s been proposed only makes me further convinced of that view.”
“I can’t help but feel that the introduction of this controversy was a calculated political move to prevent SSMU from affiliating with AVEQ, and the reluctance of the VP Finance to accept any sort of reasonable solution that’s been proposed.”
Decunha added that serious accusations such as the ones Herpin had raised effectively discredit SSMU and do further damage to the already fraught relationship between McGill students and their representatives. Herpin responded by saying, “[in response] to the speculation that this was politically motivated, […] I would ask you to keep your speculations to yourself and not to bring them to Council.”
“I would ask you to keep your speculations to yourself and not to bring them to Council.”
Ultimately, Council voted against prolonging the time available for discussion, and no resolution to the issue was decided upon. During the remaining portion of the meeting, motions to renew the ECOLE Project’s fee levy; to de-gender the language used in SSMU documents, spaces, and meetings; and to support efforts combating systemic racism in Montreal all passed unanimously with little or no debate.