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Aaron Donny-Clark doesn't square with the stereotype of a militant student leader. The soft-spoken president-elect of the Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU) seems more like a thoughtful music major (which he is), than a firebrand radical imploring his charges to storm the palace gates.
But it would be wrong to interpret Donny-Clark's low-key demeanour as a sign that he lacks the intestinal fortitude to step into the breach at a critical juncture or to rally the masses if need be. Make no mistake; Donny-Clark has been making political stands his whole life.
His first test came as a kindergartener in Columbia, South Carolina. Against the backdrop of the 1988 U.S. presidential race pitting Republican George Bush Sr. against Democratic hopeful Michael Dukakis, his class held a mock election. Donny-Clark was the only child to cast his vote for Dukakis. It was a bold, if somewhat ill-advised move in a Republican stronghold that flew the Confederate flag from its Statehouse until 2000. "The other kids really bugged me about it," remembers Donny-Clark, "but I was really proud of myself."
In high school, it was more of the same. "I was always the Democrat guy, the Ralph Nader guy," he says with a chuckle. It was also at this time that Clark took his first intoxicating sip of the power of assembly, during a demonstration in 2000 to protest the aforementioned flag's position of prominence. "I had never seen that many people, that many police... but it was all really peaceful." Later that year, the flag was removed forever.
But being an anonymous face in a sea of protesters is a far cry from leading the students union of one the continent's best-known universities - a mantle Donny-Clark will assume on April 1. With a year as the SSMU's VP External under his belt, he suffers no illusions, understanding all too well that the union faces major challenges both externally and, especially, here at home.
"The SSMU went through some really unstable years with presidencies that didn't last and internal dynamics that didn't work," he says. "As a result, the union was ridiculed in the campus press and lost the confidence of the people it serves."
But Donny-Clark believes that things are on the upswing for the SSMU — thanks in large part to the foundation laid by outgoing president, Adam Conter. "Adam took the approach that [the Executive was] a team and he was the coach," says Donny-Clark. "He never made decisions for us — he just made sure we all got along." And get along they did, forming one of the most cohesive executives in recent memory.
With decent voter turnout and a slate of qualified candidates vying for all positions, the recent elections are proof that students are coming back to the SSMU fold. Donny-Clark understands that this is just the beginning and this is reflected, in part, by the five-point campaign platform that helped him win one of the closest presidential races in McGill history.
In addition to the requisite touchstones of tuition freezes and the environment, Donny-Clark's platform includes an ambitious plan to consult with students and student groups on ways to improve the union. At the end of the process, he hopes to produce a document outlining a five-year plan for the SSMU. "Finally, we're stable enough to be able to look forward," he says. "We want to have a vision — but the vision that the students want us to have."
Stability is a recurring theme for Donny-Clark, a little ironic since he conducts the interview sitting beneath a huge homemade banner that trumpets MCGILL ON STRIKE. But the lifelong politician understands that there is a time and a place for all strategies. He welcomes the recent administrative hirings as a harbinger of a new era of cooperation. "The administration has been in a state of flux. Now that they have filled a lot of positions, we should be able to solidify a good working relationship that will benefit everyone." His voice is soft, but full of conviction.