SSMU: An Institutional Failure

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) has three mandates: service, representation, and leadership. In representing and leading the student body, SSMU has suffered an institutional failure: a failure, in turn, which threatens the core foundations of SSMU. The events of the past month have done irreparable damage to the trust we place in our collective institution. The purpose of SSMU itself has been brought into question.

For one, Igor Sadikov’s controversial tweet and dubious history of gendered violence exposes the poor moral quality of many who sit on the council. SSMU was unable to diffuse the anger around the controversial tweet effectively, nor was it able to detect or discipline Sadikov for his history with gendered violence. This paralysis is indicative of a deep failure in our student government.

The ineptitude displayed in handling the allegations against David Aird is another example of SSMU’s failed leadership. Aird, the former VP External, was publicly named and shamed for committing sexual violence against women on numerous occasions. To be clear, this was a man forced to resign from three clubs for alleged sexual misconduct. Former President Ben Ger, who was aware of Aird’s history of sexual harassment, decided, without consulting legal advice or human resources, that weekly ‘check-ins’ between him and Aird would be sufficient. Ger justified this action by stating that he was only aware of the accusations of sexual harassment against Aird, and not of sexual assault – as if gendered violence was acceptable in any iteration.

Three of the people who previously sat on SSMU Legislative Council and the Board of Directors have had allegations of gendered violence against them.

Then, as if this weren’t enough, at the March 9th Legislative Council, the SSMU Executives stated that former President Ger himself had a history of gendered violence. That the former President, who ran on a campaign platform directly appealing to pro-survivor sensibilities, has displayed such neglect of survivors, and perpetration of sexual violence speaks to the seriousness of SSMU’s failings.

Three of the people who previously sat on SSMU Legislative Council and the Board of Directors have had allegations of gendered violence against them. Two of them were also a part of the Executive Committee. This is an unacceptable reality: SSMU has failed not only in leadership, but also in representation. It is beyond shameful that these men were the ones who were representing the student body for most of our school year, and had remained safe within the institutional framework.

SSMU is not a monolithic organization, and if it disappears, so too would the various essential services it provides.

Amidst the anger and frustration, one has to wonder: would McGill students be better off without SSMU? The answer is a resolute no. SSMU is not a monolithic organization, and if it disappears, so too would the various essential services it provides. This includes services like the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) – a service that, especially given the current climate, we cannot do without. Other services will disappear as well, like MiniCourses and SSMU Daycare. SSMU Executives also play a role in lobbying the provincial government for funding for accessible education, one of the more consequential services that goes unnoticed. And of course, McGill’s various campus clubs would lose office space and funding. Ultimately, without SSMU, the Shatner Building, including Gerts, would slowly turn into just another office building.

One can argue that the administration should be responsible for providing these services, but the simple reality is that they aren’t, and we can’t bank on that fact changing anytime soon. It is precisely for this reason that we must hold our student leaders accountable when they fail so egregiously in fulfilling their function.

And yet, we must also have room for compassion for the student executives who are left to deal with this absurd situation – both because most who remain on the Executive Committee were kept relatively uninformed of the gendered violence committed by their colleagues until the public was made aware, and because the amount of work involved in keeping SSMU services running is astronomical. SSMU Executives are forced to meet unrealistic and unhealthy expectations. The beginning of each 2015-16 executive contract starts by stating that executives will be required to work 60 hours per week. After a laundry list of responsibilities and duties, however, the working conditions are conspicuously reformed: “a high-pressure work environment” requiring “70 hours per week” on weekdays, weekends, and evenings. There is no respite for a McGill student leader. It is not surprising that insular student leaders, trained only in the theory of safe space, falter in upholding the values of social justice, equity, and basic human security.  

Permanent oversight is needed from this point forward, as well as an institutionalized assurance of better representation of women and minorities.

Executives often quickly realize that the successful completion of their duties comes at the expense of their mental health: too many have suffered near or total mental health crises. This culture of unattainable expectations has become so normalized that students running for positions in student government are warned to prepare for perpetual depression and anxiety before they are even elected.  The tragedy of this situation is too easily obscured by the trope of the faceless, out-of-touch “SSMUtocrat.” SSMU Executives are ultimately just students, thrown into positions for which they are vastly and evidently underprepared.  At the heart of this institutional failure is a lack of experience, training, and resources.

This, however, is no license to forget the enormity of the failures witnessed. It is clear that these events occurred within a context of opaqueness at the top level of SSMU. Permanent oversight is needed from this point forward, as well as an institutionalized assurance of better representation of women and minorities. Unless these concerns are cogently addressed soon, it is inevitable that SSMU will continue to inadvertently harm its constituents.

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