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The campus campaign trail
It's early Friday afternoon in the offices of the Students' Society of McGill University, and Martin Doe looks like he hasn't slept in weeks.
Less than 12 hours earlier, Doe had learned that he would become the next president of the SSMU. Currently the vice-president (clubs and services), Doe has spent the last week trying to convince over 14,000 undergraduate students that he would be the best person to bring their concerns to the University administration and to the provincial and federal governments.
"It's a tremendous opportunity to be involved in the student society - you get the opportunity to change things that, from the outside, you're upset with," says the president-elect.
"I got involved because I saw the potential of what the student society could do, and I thought I could fill in the missing links to reach that potential." Although student government is often dismissed as little more than a popularity contest, Doe does not seem to be the "Prom-King" type. He speaks in calm, measured tones, each sentence carefully thought out - qualities that are likely to serve him well when his one-year term starts at the beginning of May.
The current SSMU traces its roots back to 1901, when the Alma Mater Society was founded. The president of the SSMU represents McGill students, not only on the University's Senate and Board of Governors, but also to the outside world.
Responsible for a budget of some $3 million, the administration of the University Centre, and countless services from cafeterias to scholarships, the president and vice-presidents need to be both politicians and administrators. No one knows this as well as Jeremy Farrell. The current SSMU president has less than a couple of months left in his mandate. You'd think with the better part of the year behind him, Farrell would have the freedom to relax, but this is not so.
Farrell's broad shoulders sag visibly when the SSMU chief electoral officer hands him the preliminary results of the vote.
The SSMU has lost two key referendum questions. The first was to approve a capital fee that would allow the SSMU to pay for an already planned renovation to the University Centre. The second - a renewal of SSMU's provincial accreditation status - also fell. While most students supported it, the vote fell a mere 200 votes short of the 25 percent of the student body required for it to pass.
"I'm not a legacy kind of guy, but I would have really liked that capital fee to pass," he says.
Though it's hardly an issue of the magnitude of say, health care or Quebec sovereignty, Farrell is obviously upset by the defeat - his work at SSMU is not something he takes lightly.
SSMU executives are paid less than $15,000 for a year's work, which is fairly low given the responsibilities of the job, especially when compared to some other student unions where executives make more than double that amount. Most SSMU executives are only able to take one or two classes for the year they're in office.
Joe Marin, executive chairperson of the Post-Graduate Students' Society (PGSS), knows all too well the time commitment that student politics demands. He routinely works 17-hour days - splitting his time between his PGSS duties and his student-related research efforts in chemical engineering.
There is also a widely held perception that student government is out of touch with the needs of students, a perception that Farrell is keenly aware of. "I have to remember that even though I won my election last year, thousands of people voted against me," says Farrell.
"I have something that a person wrote on a ballot last year there on my wall - it says ÔOccasionally serve McGill students, and make sure Jeremy Farrell is not president,'" he says with a wry smile. Given the workload, the mediocre pay, the constant barrage of criticism from the student press and the apathy of most of the student body, why would anyone go into the job?
Reasons vary. However, almost all seem to be motivated by a sense that they have something valuable to contribute. At least one believes more students would become involved if they could.
"Being able to participate in the University is a bit of a luxury for most students," says Robert Sim.
Sim first dipped his toes in the turbulent waters of student politics as an engineering undergraduate. Once he started his PhD in computer science, he became a PGSS Senate representative, and then a PGSS vice-president. At the peak of his involvement, Sim sat on 19 University committees, playing a role in everything from vetting new academic programs to helping to select McGill's new vice-principal (research) Louise Proulx.
Although he only sits on one committee now, and no longer sits on the executive of the PGSS, Sim recalls that, for the most part, his peers in the Senate - professors, students, administrators and support staff - generally worked together quite well.
Although on some fundamental issues student groups will always be opposed to the university administration - tuition increases are a perpetual sticking point - Sim says that student voices are generally listened to. When the Intellectual Property Policy was under discussion at Senate, Sim himself used the opportunity to ask several questions about how it would affect McGill researchers.
He says students have to be wary as they launch themselves into Senate debates - their fellow senators are generally much more experienced.
"It's definitely a challenge - most professors have been sitting on the Senate for years, while students are generally there for one year," says Sim. "Being on Senate for two years, I learned to pick my battles carefully."
For the last eight years, Principal Bernard Shapiro has often been in the midst of those battles. Shapiro says that he believes the University's relationship with both the PGSS and the SSMU to be cordial, a situation from which he has benefited.
"It has certainly been helpful for me since it has made me much more aware of student issues than would otherwise have been the case," he says. "In general, I have found the students effective in presenting their views, and serious in terms of their objectives."
Even when opinions are diametrically opposed - as they are on proposals to allow tuition increases - students and the administration maintain a productive relationship.
"One learns a lot from adversarial arrangements, but at least in my experience these differences of view have not generally embittered the atmosphere," says Shapiro. "After all, we need each other."
Tara Newell couldn't agree more. SSMU president in 1997/98, Newell continues to serve students as a client services manager with the federal student loans program.
"Every student president will tell you that they didn't have as much influence as they would have liked. I think from a student's perspective it's a token representation, but people do listen more often than students realize," she says, "and when they raise tuition, they'll have to listen to students even more."
In retrospect, Newell realizes that the battles that she fought during her tenure in the SSMU were not as earth shattering as they seemed at the time. She suspects Henry Kissinger was on the right track when he mused that university politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.
Although Newell was instrumental in setting up the on-campus daycare, and was involved in the efforts leading up to the construction of the Brown Building, she achieved near legendary status among student politicians for something else entirely - a letter she published in the McGill Daily.
She was decrying what she saw as the second-class status of women in McGill policy-making bodies like the Senate and the Board of Governors. The letter ran with a photo of Newell in her office - naked.
"As you can expect, some people greeted it warmly, some people not so warmly," she recalls.
"I don't have any regrets - if one person remembers what I had to say then it was worth it," she says.
Arts Undergraduate Society president Jennifer Sloan won't have any such potentially controversial photos in her closet. The U3 political science student initially became involved during her first year at McGill as a way to meet people in a new city. Alone among the students interviewed for this article, she freely admitted that she now sees her vocation as politics.
Although a big part of the work she did this year was simply trying to make the 6,000 arts students aware of their representative body and the services it offers (including a computer centre and employment program), Sloan feels the AUS was a good primer for her future career.
"I think this has been a great experience, it's great working in a professional capacity with your peers," she says.
"Once you start to get involved it's hard not to stay involved - it's almost addictive."