On September 28, 2021, in response to an article about systemic sexism and misogyny within the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), Vice-President (Internal Affairs) Sarah Paulin published a statement that included the following promise: “As an Executive team, we have made a pact to not be afraid to change the system and call out toxic behavior. It is difficult to change a system so deeply rooted in problematic behavior, but we have already enacted change within the Society and hope that this will soon be reflected not only in the work that we do, but the environment that we contribute to.”
More recently, on February 17 of this year, executives at a Legislative Council meeting were asked whether they would resign if allegations of toxic behaviour were made against them. Vice-President (External Affairs) Sacha Delouvrier responded that he would “absolutely” resign in the event of “scandalous allegations.” He added: “if […] people directly stepped up and spoke up, saying that my presence made them feel uncomfortable and unsafe, I would want to retract myself from the [executive] position I’m in.”
In the five months which separated these two statements, I can testify that little has changed at SSMU. If anything, the working climate has become significantly more “toxic.” For a start, SSMU executives have all too often engaged in public displays of discriminatory or otherwise inappropriate behaviour. On January 10, former SSMU President Bryan Buraga spoke publicly regarding his treatment by two SSMU executives who subjected him to “insinuations, putdowns, and character attacks” during a Legislative Council debate. On January 20, Vice-President (Finance) Eric Sader made a public apology to Arts Representatives Yara Coussa and Ghania Javed, two women of colour, for making “unprofessional” comments against them in the same meeting.
Racism, worker mistreatment, and impunity
However, far from public scrutiny, hidden behind the shroud of “confidentiality,” oppressive and discriminatory behavior by SSMU executives continues with much more impunity. One white executive has become notorious for his racist statements. In one instance, after which this executive faced an equity complaint and a seven-month-long investigation for alleged racist behavior, he reportedly defended himself by stating: “My [partner] is Brown, so I am obviously not racist.” In another instance, the executive joked to colleagues of colour that they should take pictures with him in order to “prove” that he was not racist. In yet another “joke,” the executive claimed that sunny weather made him “look Asian” since it forced him to squint his eyes. In the course of the investigation, a fellow white executive, speaking as a witness, merely acknowledged that the former “can say things that aren’t super OK.” The executive has so far been let off with little more than a slap on the wrist, in the form of “equity training.”
In another instance, the executive joked to colleagues of colour that they should take pictures with him, in order to “prove” that he was not racist.
Furthermore, the same executive has built himself a reputation for mistreating his employees and co-workers. Within the past four months, no less than six separate “Equity complaints” or “Human Resources complaints” were filed against the executive in question, either by staff members or by fellow elected SSMU members. In addition to racist or sexist comments, the various complaints also raised grievances about the executive’s chronic incompetence, his disrespectful attitude, his intimidation of employees, and his tendency to steal credit for the work of his staff. Although these complaints were sent to the Board of Directors in accordance with SSMU Human Resources procedures, the Board has still not taken any action to discipline the executive in question. Instead, the executive’s employees have been forced to continue working under an abusive supervisor who now knows that they have attempted to speak out through institutional channels.
In addition to racist or sexist comments, the various complaints also raised grievances about the executive’s chronic incompetence, his disrespectful attitude, his intimidation of employees, and his tendency to steal credit for the work of his staff.
Behind closed doors
I cannot understand why SSMU executives claimed they would “call out toxic behavior” since they have systematically failed to confront such behaviour from within their own ranks. If an investigation into racist behaviour or the systematic mistreatment of employees by an executive merely results in extra “training” behind closed doors, without any form of public accountability, why waste students’ money on expensive investigations? In the past seven months, SSMU has hired five independent investigators to look into complaints against SSMU executives, representatives, and staff.
According to the SSMU Constitution (Section 10.6), the Board of Directors has a very straightforward, transparent way to deal with SSMU executives accused of wrongdoing: “The Board of Directors may present an Officer for removal before the Members” if they suspect the Officer of “impropriety, violation of the provisions of this Constitution or its Internal Regulations, delinquency of duties or misappropriation of Society funds.” With the next General Assembly scheduled for February 21, there is ample time for the Board of Directors to present any SSMU executive it deems fit for removal.
While many Directors may object to such impunity, or other unjust decisions, it is extremely difficult for dissenters to make their voices heard on the Board, where discussions are too often overshadowed by groupthink and the omnipresent fear of being ostracized. I would only be the latest Director who has chosen to appeal to the student body through the press rather than risk expressing myself in such a hostile SSMU environment.
I, for one, have had enough of SSMU silencing the student press, conducting secret meetings, and covering up toxic behavior. The SSMU Executive Committee and Board of Directors should stop hiding everything from our constituents and should start respecting the student body’s right to decide how their elected representatives are held accountable for their actions.
If an investigation into racist behaviour, or the systematic mistreatment of employees by an executive merely results in extra “training” behind closed doors, without any form of public accountability, why waste students’ money on expensive investigations?