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The State of the Union

Are student unions across Canada broken beyond repair?

Last week, a fictional rat very nearly became the incumbent president of the University of British Columbia’s student union. Coming in second place and winning five of six head-to-heads against other candidates, the notorious Remy the Rat was a satiric candidate nominated by members of Climate Justice UBC in a bid both to add some fun to student elections and to bring awareness to the social justice demands of students on campus. The creators hoped that running would increase meager voter turnout: “It did. This year, the turnout was 17.4 per cent, a 10.5 increase from last year,” wrote The Ubyssey’s Regina Hipolito.

Voter apathy has been an issue at McGill for the past few years, with turnout in SSMU Executive elections and referendums ranging from around 10 per cent to 19 per cent, which amounts to around 3,000 people – a very small proportion of the 26,765 undergraduate students enrolled at the university. A fair number of voters who open the voting link for elections also choose to abstain on all questions, with around 30 per cent of voters abstaining on the majority of candidates in this year’s SSMU elections. This demonstrates either a lack of concern for who is elected or an arguably understandable lack of faith in any candidate.  While there is always ample (and valid) criticism of our student unions – students need only take a quick scroll through McGill’s subreddit – students consistently fail to show up to vote. It’s hard to work out who’s to blame for this, though. While students need to at least show up if they want change, it’s easy to understand why they are disillusioned with student government: years of disappointment from inexperienced and power-hungry executives who have failed to follow through on their campaign promises leaves a bleak environment for electoral politics. 

Students have found communication from SSMU to be frustrating, contributing to their lack of motivation to vote in student government elections. An anonymous U3 Arts student spoke to the Daily about the SSMU’s lack of clarity in elections emails: “I normally can’t find the time to go through the chutes and ladders of figuring out the online portals, and almost every time a question or a candidate has changed and I have to do it multiple times. And even when I do fill it out, I often get follow-up emails asking me to vote again, or saying I haven’t yet voted, even though I know for a fact that it’s the exact same question or election I just voted on. It takes too much time, and it’s clearly not worth the effort.” Another anonymous student working for SSMU feels that Elections SSMU doesn’t have a good handle on the process: “I find those emails to be poorly written. They’re always full of errors, and I feel like the Elections officers quite often miss things that they shouldn’t. It means ballots are constantly being restarted every time and everyone receives, like, fifty emails at once. Nobody’s going to read all that when we have stuff to do like classwork.”

Students complain that the election process is so bureaucratic that it creates confusion about who is running and why, and that information is often hidden behind the numerous links that students receive in election periods. Tory Fortunato, U3 Arts, cites this as a key reason for lack of student engagement with SSMU politics: “While the frequent reminders are helpful for me to remember to vote, the fact that they flood my inbox for an entire week is honestly a bit overwhelming. I wish emails included more about who is running and what is on the ballot rather than just simple reminders. For students who are not as active on Facebook, which is where most SSMU campaigning happens, receiving emails about the ballot in its entirety would be helpful.” Fortunato’s mention of Facebook highlights another issue – that students are often not provided candidate information on an easy-to-access platform. Just this year, Elections SSMU failed to provide contact information for every campaign on the Referendum Question ballot, and it did not inform campus news outlets about the removal of the Palestine Solidarity Policy from the ballot at any point – the Daily was notified directly by Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill. This lack of communication runs contrary to Elections SSMU’s mandate regarding media communication, and it makes running for, voting for, and reporting on SSMU an inaccessible process for all involved. 

It’s therefore no wonder that students don’t participate in elections when the process often seems complicated and bureaucratic, particularly for the average student not involved in student government. Blinded by bureaucracy, unions are failing to provide meaningful support to the students they represent: “I think what underscores the plight of student unions everywhere in Canada is a crisis of engagement, a crisis which could be avoided entirely if student unions could recall their raison d’etre and make themselves meaningful to students,” said Nick Taylor of Trent University in a conversation with the Daily. “At Trent, our student union has come to see itself as an extension of the university, far more concerned with the administration of services, than with any kind of actual lobbying, whether around tuition costs, or accessibility needs for online learning, or the seemingly ceaseless desire of our university administration to corporatize and commercialize.”

This is one of the student body’s biggest gripes surrounding our own union at McGill: SSMU is so bogged-down by bureaucracy that it takes forever for real institutional change to happen as well as for student-serving initiatives to get up and running. Right now, for instance, Councillors and Senators are mostly unpaid positions.  Though paid Commissioner roles do exist, Councillors and Senators do a comparable amount of work; they are absolutely crucial to the drafting and presenting of motions for enacting institutional change and for generally serving the interests of their constituents. With these roles being mostly unpaid, the capacity of these workers is diminished. 

Councillors who do receive compensation for their work are financed by their respective departmental associations – like the Arts Representatives, who are funded by AUS. Arts Representative Yara Coussa told the Daily that this leads to problems for the unpaid representatives, who have to work on a voluntary basis: “It is not coincidental that the only Councillors getting paid through their departmental associations are the ones who are constantly bringing forward motions and speaking out,” Representative Coussa explained. “That being said, we are paid below the minimum wage for a very demanding and mentally taxing job.”

Students responsible for enacting change are therefore overstretched and underpaid for their time while still being held accountable for their work. In the past year, we have seen cases of Representatives being reprimanded for failing to consult on motions – but a lack of institutional memory in SSMU means that students are inadequately prepared for the roles they hold and that errors like this happen due to a lack of training and clarity. 

This year also saw VP Internal Sarah Paulin request that campus media refrain from contacting SSMU employees despite the contracts signed by those employees not preventing media outlets from doing so. But VP Paulin came into the role with limited experience, taking over from a line of VP Internals who either never took office or also had limited experience in student government. Running unopposed in last year’s election, Paulin had little template on which to base her work – it’s not surprising that SSMU Executives make mistakes like this when there is a profound lack of institutional memory in the organization and when training is inconsistent from year to year. Effectively, SSMU has become a place where inexperienced candidates are burdened with salaried jobs that they aren’t prepared for.  Though students should understand the risks and responsibilities of running for SSMU, the bureaucracy of the organization makes it hard to ensure that unprepared candidates know the full extent of the responsibilities and difficulties they can expect to face in their roles. 

As a current SSMU employee myself, I would never run for a SSMU executive position. It’s a common sentiment among casual staff that the roles are doomed and that those who actually care about and are involved in student government know not to run because they’re likely to be burned out by October and embroiled in various disputes, scandals, and interpersonal conflicts. The roles are too much work for too little gain – while it’s an often-cited complaint that SSMU executives receive a high salary, their work reportedly translates to around minimum wage, with executives often taking on other jobs during their tenure in order to support their studies. The work that executives are tasked with is often burdensome and impossible to complete in a single year, particularly when much of the year is spent putting out fires – such as this year’s ongoing disputes regarding President Darshan Daryanani’s absence and the extra work required of other executives in his absence. Readers can take a look at the Daily’s past endorsements to see if any candidates managed to complete even the most basic of their campaign promises – more often than not, they’ve not completed any. 

The roles therefore attract people running for the wrong reasons, not the students who have actually fought for change. This year, extensions were issued for three key positions (VP External, VP University Affairs, VP Student Life) due to a lack of applications, and three positions overall ran unopposed. These issues are far from exclusive to SSMU and McGill – the University of Toronto’s student union has failed to find a president for the coming year after nobody ran for the office. Meanwhile, The Ubyssey, despite not normally issuing endorsements, urged students not to vote for a particular slate following a slew of elections violations. Taylor provides insight into similar issues for executives at Trent University: “at the end of last academic year, half the executives of our student union stepped down over what was ostensibly an interpersonal conflict […] I think a lot of people see student union executive positions as something akin to a high school’s student council, and often their approach to the position reflects the same level of maturity. But it’s a job! And students are footing the bill for these opportunistic careerist types to clamor all over one another in a competition to see who the biggest narcissist is. It’s gross!” Exceptions to this would include candidates like this year’s VP University Affairs Claire Downie, who went on a leave of absence following the return of President Daryanani. At a recent consultative forum, Representative Coussa commented, “​​I think that it is shameful that SSMU is an environment where an exec is unable to work because she feels unsafe […] I think that we have failed VP Downie.”

While writing this article, I received news of VP Downie’s resignation from SSMU. In her letter of resignation, she describes the toxic environment that led to her departure: “There are some truly kind and devoted people at SSMU who genuinely care about supporting students, but there are far more people with different priorities. SSMU attracts a lot of truly harmful and just plain unkind people. For the past few months, I have witnessed my coworkers fail to understand, let alone advance, anti-violence and anti-oppression in the workplace. Inaction allows it to continue with impunity regardless of who it harms. Their behavior as well as their inaction has furthered an unsafe environment at SSMU. It cost me this job, a full time source of income, and a lot of other things that I can’t articulate properly yet.”

With issues ranging from voter apathy, to a lack of candidates, to corruption allegations, and to inexperienced executives, it’s almost impossible to know where to start in terms of reforming SSMU and other Canadian student unions into organizations that actually enact meaningful change for the students they serve. One proposed solution is an initiative by Bryan Buraga to “Democratize SSMU,” but current members of SSMU governance have expressed dissatisfaction with the initiative. Current AUS VP External Charlotte Gurung told the Daily that she feels the initiative “is not feasible, it is a bandaid for bigger issues, and would make SSMU operations impossible.” They also criticized Buraga’s process of consultation: “The faculty societies are independently licensed organizations. Organizers of the Democratize SSMU motion did not do due diligence in consulting the Faculty Associations when writing this motion which would fundamentally change the operations of the independent faculty organizations […] Organizers of the motion did not consider that democratizing the Board of Directors (and removing executives from the Board) is a completely infeasible plan which could slow down already tedious Board decision-making processes, leave the Society open to legal liability, result in ineffective communication between Executives and the Board, and delay funding approvals for student initiatives, clubs and services.” SUS VP Academic Alexandra Mircescu also described the initiative as a “utopian fantasy campaign,” arguing that the proposed change to faculty association governance structures ultimately “fails to address any of the pressing issues with SSMU which are impacting students right now.” In the past week, McGill administration has also threatened to sever its Memorandum of Agreement with SSMU in protest of its democratically voted-upon Palestine Solidarity Policy, jeopardizing the union’s ability to exist in the way it currently does. 

Ultimately, it’s unclear whether any solutions could save the crumbling student unions across Canada. At some point along the way, we lost sight of what was really important: the students that elected candidates are meant to represent. Student government is meant to be a form of institutional support for the interests and well-being of students on university campuses – instead, it’s become a site of toxicity and bureaucracy, and countless students across the country have been harmed by their student unions’ politics and processes. It’s hard to not be pessimistic, but students across Canada have come to expect corruption over change, and it doesn’t look like things will change anytime soon.