On October 11, just before the Thanksgiving break, SSMU VP Internal Sanchi Bhalla was mandated to send out an email on the listserv on behalf of SSMU Indigenous Affairs Commissioner Tomas Jirousek. The email in question was mandated by a motion passed at Legislative Council just a day prior, condemning the Liberal government’s appeal of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s decision to award $40,000 to First Nations children who were taken from their families by the federal government.
However, the email, notifying students of an upcoming demonstration, was not sent out until the next day, October 12, around 10 a.m. The delay in sending this email on the listserv led to the creation of a letter calling for Bhalla’s resignation, signed by Jirousek and seven other Indigenous student leaders. “It is the opinion of the Indigenous student community that the conduct of Vice-President Sanchi Bhalla is grounds for resignation,” the letter reads. “By failing to provide timely allyship to Indigenous students Vice-President Bhalla demonstrated a lack of respect towards the issues as well as the labour that Indigenous students had applied.”
Timeline of Events
In Bhalla’s official statement, she wrote that a number of difficulties concerning the communications staff, as well as personal circumstances, led to the delay of the email. More specifically, Bhalla said in her statement that she had incorrectly assumed that the communications department had been aware of the motion and the email it required.
Upon finishing a midterm, she stated that she did not have the most current password for MailChimp, the application used to distribute SSMU listservs, as it had recently been updated for security reasons. As a result, she was unable to log on to compose and send the email. As well, due to it being a Friday night, she said that there were difficulties in reaching the communications director to fix the password, and only around midnight were they able to solve the issue. Just prior, around 11:30 p.m., Bhalla stated that a combination of a number of factors caused her to fall asleep.
Due to the omission of Bhalla’s whereabouts between 9:30 p.m and 11:30 p.m. in her statement and Facebook post, in combination with numerous sources informing the Daily of her presence at a bar during that time, the Daily reached out to Bhalla to clarify the situation. In an email, she confirmed that she went to Randolph’s Board Game Pub, which she identified as a cafe, around 9:30 p.m., “with notifications switched on the whole time,” and was there until 11:00 p.m.
The Daily spoke to Jirousek, who stated that Bhalla was not communicative. “I understand that we need to take time for selfcare, and can respect that Sanchi may have needed time,” he wrote. “However, during this entire time she failed to respond to my email communication, in addition to a full day’s notice that listserv need[ed] to go out that night.”
“Moreso,” Jirousek added, “efforts could have and should have been made to communicate to me personally that she was unable to act in allyship, at which point I would be able to make alternate arrangements.” At that point, it fell on SSMU President Bryan Buraga, who, per Jirousek, was “staying up, coordinating with staff, and ensuring that this situation was rectified as quickly as possible.” Afterwards, Jirousek indicated that he sent an email to the entire executive, to which he received personal emails from Buraga and VP University Affairs Madeline Wilson.
“At the same time, Vice-President Bhalla made no effort to respond to my email, nor to relay that she was facing technical difficulties,” Jirousek added. “Due to her decision, Indigenous students who had worked on this statement, and expected to share the statement to generate publicity for our event, were forced to continue work in a stressful situation due to a lack of support from Vice-President Bhalla.”
“I understand that we need to take time for self care, and can respect that Sanchi may have needed time. However, during this entire time she failed to respond to my email communication, in addition to a full day’s notice that the listserv need[ed] to go out that night. Moreso, efforts could have and should have been made to communicate to me personally that she was unable to act in allyship, at which point I would be able to make alternate arrangements.”
– Tomas Jirousek, SSMU Indigenous Affairs Commissioner
Student responses to Bhalla’s statements have ranged from simplification of the situation as a “technological failure,” as the VP Internal phrased it, to the spread of intense anti-Indigenous racism across social media in response to Indigenous students’ calls for her resignation.
“It saddens me to see some students’ attempts to distort or misrepresent the current situation regarding the relationship between Indigenous students and Vice-President Bhalla,” Jirousek wrote to the Daily. “The actions of the Indigenous community have been undertaken with the goal of promoting reconciliation, solidarity, and support for future generations of Indigenous students. Sadly, certain students fail to understand this underlying goal and work done by the Indigenous community at McGill.”
Jirousek added, “Indigenous students are marginalized, isolated, and made to feel culturally alone on campus. Indigenous students struggle with systemic barriers which limit our success at institutions like McGill. For students to try and portray the actions of Indigenous students as some type of ‘attack’ is saddening and speaks to the struggles we face on campus.”
Regarding the reforms in SSMU that Jirousek proposed in The McGill Tribune – “a three-step reform to ensure our independence and autonomy in mobilizing to promote Indigenous issues at McGill” – he has already begun to meet with certain executives to work on implementing these changes. The three proposals include the creation of an Indigenous Equity Fund, changing the position of the Indigenous Affairs Commissioner to operate independently of the SSMU executive, and reforming the SSMU Indigenous Solidarity Policy.
In addition to Vice-President Wilson’s work helping to draft and support the Indigenous Equity Fund, Jirousek stated that he has “had conversations with VicePresident Wilson about the change in power dynamics and […] received her full support for the changes.” With regards to the other members of the executive committee, Jirousek expects to meet with them individually to discuss how the changes in the Indigenous Solidarity Policy will affect their respective portfolios. “Sadly,” he added, “I do not expect to receive such support from the Vice-President Internal, but I do look forward to working with the other five executives.”
“I would also just like to note in closing how much damage has been done at this point. While Sanchi may feel this response is unnecessary, there has been very real damage done to the relationship between Indigenous students and the SSMU due to her inaction, whether she meant to do so or not. Further, her failure to take a personal stake in the course of these events is particularly saddening. Yes, her inaction may very well be a symptom of a larger institutional issue. However, we still remain personally responsible for our actions and their effects. She had the choice to personally reach out, and discuss the issue when I emailed. She ignored my email. She had the ability to apply herself diligently the same way President Buraga and Vice-President Wilson had. Again, she didn’t.”
– Tomas Jirousek, SSMU Indigenous Affairs Commissioner