McGill University is an institution that prides itself on 20 percent of its students coming from more than 150 countries and being renowned as “Canada’s most international university.” However, during this SSMU electoral period, two international students discovered that despite being a part of this international student population that they could not run for office and represent the student body at large – at least not legally.
Saad Qazi, current Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) VP Finance, and Sam Baker, current President of the Economics Students Association, decided not to run for positions on the SSMU Executive following concerns regarding their international student status.
Qazi’s past accomplishments include preventing the AUS from facing another financial crisis, and he wanted to continue his tenure in student politics by running for SSMU VP Finance and Operations. However, after speaking to the International Student Services and legal services, he decided against it.
Baker, on the other hand, went through the nomination period running for VP Clubs and Services only to drop out of the race a day before campaigning due to the concern of being denied renewal of his study-permit in the near future.
According to current Canadian immigration laws, international students must hold a valid study permit for the entire duration of their stay in Canada. The students cannot hold a part-time status except in their last semester of university. Furthermore, international students are allowed to work up to 20 hours a week on campus and can get an off-campus work permit. This allows them to work for a total of 20 hours a week during the academic year and full-time during scheduled breaks and holidays.
However, according to the employee contract that SSMU executives have to enter with the university, the executives must work 40 to 60 hours a week while being enrolled as a part-time student for the entire year. Based solely on this contract, international students cannot be both part-time students and employees of SSMU without violating terms of either the Canadian Immigration Services or SSMU’s protocol.
This bias against international students is not just limited to SSMU executives. Due to Quebec laws, SSMU was incorporated in 1993, resulting in the formation of a body known as the Board of Directors (BoD). The BoD is comprised of SSMU executives and councillors who sit on the SSMU Legislative Council. Since SSMU is a company, the BoD has the power to veto decisions made by even the SSMU Judicial Board (J-Board).
In tandem with international students lacking the contractual ability to be employed by SSMU, they are also not welcome to sit on the Board of Directors. According to the Motion Regarding the Democratic Reform of the SSMU Board of Directors, only Canadian residents are allowed to be members of the Board of Directors. This limitation is defended by the BoD for the reason that SSMU holds a liquor permit to serve alcohol on campus through our beloved Gert’s. With this permit in place, Quebec immigration laws dictate that only Canadian residents can overlook the functioning of this bar.
Considering that Gert’s forms a significant revenue stream for SSMU, the maintenance of Gert’s is an important job for SSMU executives and its BoD. But, the Quebec liquor permit requirement would make it illegal for an international student to hold office as a SSMU executive.
Nevertheless, in the past there have been international students who have managed to avoid the immigration services scanner and still perform their duties quite well as SSMU executives. Current SSMU VP Clubs and Services Allison Cooper has served as a SSMU executive this year despite the fact that she is from California. “The Quebec government, in a way, turns a blind eye to such situations,” she finds. Nonetheless, if a student is caught violating immigration laws, they may face deportation.
So far, Cooper and other SSMU executives have been largely unsuccessful in finding loopholes in the system. The only loophole discovered applies only to graduating students who wish to come back to McGill as a “special student” in the following year as a SSMU executive. Such international students can apply for a post-graduate Work permit within 90 days of graduation, which allows them to work full time as SSMU employees while studying part-time at McGill.
While incoming SSMU President Katie Larson, from Pittsford, New York, is taking this route, students like Baker and Qazi, who still have a semester before they graduate, have no legal way of doing so. Despite being a “legal” SSMU executive, Larson will not be able to sit on the BoD or make decisions relating to the operations of Gert’s. Will this be a problem in the long run? Larson feels that “since Gert’s is under the VP Finance’s portfolio and the members of BoD are the same as those on the Legislative Council, it shouldn’t be that bad.”
Cooper stated that the main issue for international students being on the SSMU executive committee arises from SSMU’s incorporated status and the fact that SSMU holds the liquor permits for Gert’s. However, The International Relations Student’s Association of McGill University (IRSAM) is another incorporated group at McGill that has been able to have international students as executives. Malini Jain, IRSAM VP External and an international student, says that since they don’t own a liquor license like SSMU, the executives of IRSAM can be international students without any immigration issues.
A possible solution to this issue would be separating the operations of Gert’s from that of SSMU, like Concordia did by separating the operations of the Concordia Student Union (CSU) from the operations of Reggie’s. This allows international students to run for the CSU by obtaining work permits. SSMU once had something similar, but McGill decided to combine the operations of SSMU and Gert’s into one entity for tax purposes. Larson said that this might be something to look into next year after a cost-benefit analysis with regards to the legal costs can take place.
Imagine being the SSMU VP Finance and not being able to make decisions about one of your major revenue streams, Gert’s, based on your international student status. As Qazi puts it, “Given the massive undergraduate population, it isn’t fair that only graduating international students can run for executives of the largest undergraduate society at McGill. Something should be done about this situation and soon. International students ought to be represented fairly, especially at an internationally acclaimed university like McGill.”