As a student of international relations with a minor in history, I am particularly interested in the study of the rise and fall of empires. To me, it’s beautiful how something so grand can be wrapped up in the tides of chaos and swiftly swallowed up by the indomitable sea of history.

In my opinion, the Roman Empire was one of the greatest empires relative to its time in history. I cannot express that it was ‘the best’ because of how its demise unfolded. Scholars believe that the following factors culminated in the demise of the empire: government corruption, political instability, imperialism, economic woes, insurrections and revolts, invasions from barbarians, the spread of Christianity and loss of traditional values, and the rise of competing empires.

As a former Vice-President of St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU) — having resigned on November 11, 2016 — I have enough insight and context to compare the factors that led to the fall of the Roman Empire with the demise of SMCSU. However, I want to suggest that SMCSU doesn’t have to meet its demise.

Domestic revolts

I was pushed out of council in November of 2016. While there were points to be made in the case of dismissing me — like that I had not fulfilled my fiduciary duties by missing two meetings — I was baffled to hear that it would be something else entirely that convinced council to let me go: public relations. I had committed myself to being a voice for students when I ran for the office of Vice-President, and that’s what I set out to do upon assuming my role. Though my methods were not good for public relations, they were not unconstitutional.

Yet instead of addressing our differences head-on, most of the council turned on me. Ironically, when the Snapchat scandal unfolded weeks later — labelling the union as “Islamophobic” and “racist” — several members of council went along seemingly unbothered by the fact that their Vice-President acted in a manner that was unconstitutional.

Again, council had it wrong, choosing to focus on semantics, context and intentions. Partial and insincere attempts to address conflicts by the councillors continued to escalate tensions and deepen divides within the group — meaning that a host of other problems involving the council and the college had no shot at being adequately handled.

Government corruption

The government of the Roman Empire was plagued by elites who worked for bribes. I confirm that at SMCSU, similar wrongdoings have transpired. The council has been under a financial investigation since several individuals divulged their unique involvement in an allegedly systemic problem of financial mismanagement to the college’s senior administration at the beginning of summer. Through these admissions, it can be concluded for certain that some of these actions were deliberate, while others were not.

In response to the admissions, our college preemptively slapped new council’s wrists with the following consequences: the permanent abolishment of club nights, the addition of an “Administrative Advisor,” and the college’s power to veto council’s budgetary decisions through said individual. Most of council failed to critically assess the choice of words that the college used to justify their ramifications: “The bleeding needs to stop.”

The word “bleeding” insinuated that the problem was ongoing from the preceding council(s) to ours. Indeed, there was a link between the past financial mismanagement and our current council; our President was implicated in this investigation. I welcomed the challenge of reinventing some of the portfolios on council to circumvent the absence of our staple club nights and implementing a cashless system. I was cognizant of the inevitable impediments of having an Administrative Advisor, but I remained positive for some time. The positive outlook changed when the administration plainly overstepped in its relationship with SMCSU.

Political instability

The tipping point came when University of St. Michael’s College (USMC) President and Vice-Chancellor David Mulroney wrote a blog post about the student societies at St. Mike’s. He expressed his excitement about his first report that he would be delivering to Collegium — the highest governing body at USMC — later that week. Essentially, he used this post as motivation for the agreement he planned to pass through Collegium at that meeting.

As if it wasn’t shocking enough that his blog disproportionately focused on SMCSU, Mulroney decided to showcase an old feature video that SMCSU once circulated for the promotion of its Cowboys and Schoolgirls party, despite the fact that the party itself had already been redefined — for its nature as an event that perpetuated the gender binary and, therefore, its exclusivity — by the will of the students.

So, in the process of compelling the Collegium, he embarrassed our council’s Collegium Representative who was present at the meeting and featured in the video. This student representative actually voted in favour of the agreement. I was appalled that Mulroney’s tactics were increasingly working to undermine SMCSU.

At some point afterwards, I decided to stage a protest, without the council’s permission, using the SMCSU moniker, and called it ‘SMCSU Presents: Two Solitudes No More? A Protest.’ I focused all of my energy into spreading awareness about the disconnect between our administration and the students’ union, but I simultaneously frightened my council and lost their respect as a leader.

My council believed I was spiralling out of control while I was seeking legal opinion on the nature of the situation. At some point in that discussion, the lawyer raised his eyebrows when I explained that the ramifications of the investigation were delivered in the form of ultimatums, and moreover, that the preceding administration of the college allegedly had their hands in rejecting the funding of an LGBTQ+ club.

If the story behind the latter ever proves true, then it can be concluded that the college engaged in discriminatory practices and therefore committed a human rights violation. Yet, most of the council supported administration’s side.

Competing powers

Adding to the existing degree of ‘political instability’ was the threat of administration pursuing its agenda through the union. This would be problematic because the administration at St. Mike’s and its student societies possess almost entirely different values. By the University of St. Michael’s College Act, 2005, the administration of the college is granted powers to meet its objectives, which include the following: “operate a post-secondary educational institution in which the faith and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church are maintained and witness is borne to the Christian message.”

Contrast this to the aims and purposes outlined in the constitution of SMCSU, as amended September 11: “the Union shall effectively represent the interests of its members within the University of St. Michael’s College and the University of Toronto in accordance with its stated mission and values; the Union shall initiate measures and support organizations whose objective is to improve the quality of education and student life at the University of St. Michael’s College and the University of Toronto; the Union shall sponsor activities which contribute to the cultural and social life of its members; the Union shall practice tolerance and to preserve the Catholic identity of St. Michael’s College.”

The mandates of each entity are quite different. So, when SMCSU’s council was imposed with an Administrative Advisor that possessed veto power over our budget as a preemptive implication of the ongoing financial investigation, I was highly skeptical. I feared that our initiatives might be forced to change in order to appease the college’s values. My misgivings were realized when I was informed that the commissioner organizing our Volunteer Fair was discouraged from inviting non-Catholic organizations by our Administrative Advisor.

That threat was reinforced when there was an instance of an LGBTQ+ club denied recognition and funding again. This year, I was interested in bringing a club to St. Mike’s that hinged its mandate on energizing LGBTQ+ students and their allies to share their stories, which would in turn foster dialogue between communities. I was granted a three-day extension on the club’s recognition application by the commission responsible for overseeing the club recognition and funding process at SMCSU.

I was upset when the club’s recognition failed by a 4–1 vote in an omnibus motion because the board refused my suggestion to externalize any of the clubs in the motion; and the majority of members of the Club Recognition Board decided to retroactively strip away the extended deadline that was granted to my club and others. Before the vote, the Administrative Advisor — who was present in the meeting as a non-voting member of the Board — muttered something about “consistency.”

These actions, as well as the administration’s ability to meddle in the council’s affairs, have collectively undermined the power and autonomy of SMCSU.  What’s more, the administration has taken the reins through their selection of students to head other smaller societies at the college — all of which have resulted in meaningful initiatives. The SMC Commuter Dons, Campus Ministry, SMC Connect, and the Angel Lab are leading the way in enhancing student life, and none of their student leadership is elected by the student body at large. On the other hand, SMCSU remains irresponsibly managed.

Moving forward

To SMCSU’s council, vis-a-vis the scandal that circled your Vice-President: I’m disappointed in many things. It took the greater part of two days to draft and release a much-needed statement in response to the videos recorded by the Vice-President. What was prioritized was reversing the organization’s now 2.6-out-of-5-star Facebook rating by self-rating, ahead of releasing that aforementioned statement. The initial reaction to the video was to call for the consideration of the context behind the ‘jokes’, instead of understanding and apologizing to the students that vocally expressed their dismay and hurt.

I’m disappointed that SMCSU tried to escape responsibility of that situation by distinguishing that it wasn’t all council members, just some, who participated in that night’s activities. I’m disappointed that some council members don’t think they need sensitivity, equity, and anti-oppression training, and that some are choosing to not hold individuals in question accountable for their actions for the purpose of preserving personal relationships.

To SMCSU’s council — current and former members — vis-a-vis the financial mismanagement that took place: again, I’m disappointed, in many things. The parties responsible attempted to narrowly escape accountability by alleging that they only committed those actions because they were led to believe it was a systemic issue or that it was ‘tradition.’ Then, that improper justification led some to the belief that they should continue holding leadership positions at the college. Newer members of council weren’t more apprehensive and inquisitive of investigation. When some were informed of the names of people responsible for these unlawful and immoral actions, the council ostensibly turned blind eyes because some were friends with these individuals.

Council’s inability to react timely and appropriately to both matters indicated two things: one, that in the absence of bylaws, policies and procedures, it is ill-equipped as an organization to uphold the mission and values of its organization, and two, that its councillors are ill-equipped as individuals to represent the unique and diverse needs of its constituency.

I applaud the council for having humility in both scandals, but humility does not override responsibility and accountability. At the end of the day, these things happened within your organization and under your watch. As an elected representative of the union that is bound by a constitution that clearly outlines your mission, values and fiduciary duties to said organization, you possess the utmost responsibility in holding yourselves and each other accountable to it.

Inexorably, there will be more scandals like this to follow, but if they are of the same nature as what has already happened, council will prove they learned nothing. Students hurt by these situations raised their concerns and delivered their demands to SMCSU, so it is more urgent than ever that the organization create and foster a new culture within its organization that will normalize and institutionalize ideas of tolerance, acceptance, equity, responsibility, and accountability.

Unlike the Roman Empire, I would like to see the fall of SMCSU met with honour. I commend the difficult decision made to prorogue their activities and operations until 2017 and accept the resignation of their President. Yet the skies are still grey for some. Firstly, the absence of a President and Vice-President will inevitably have a negative impact on relationships with external organizations and cause miscommunications both within and without the council. Secondly, the permanent vacancies caused by mass resignations — for example, the President, two Vice-Presidents, Community Life Commissioner, and Double Blue Officer to name a few — will require councillors to absorb portfolios that they never had experience with, ultimately causing inefficiencies. And thirdly, council has yet made commendable rectifications with their constituency for their inadequate response to communities affected by the sentiments shared by their former Vice-President.

In my view, the SMCSU council should rectify those shortcomings by dissolving immediately after completing the following items:

  1. Invite the various marginalized communities on campus to meet with the council and ask them for consultation on the drafting of a policy that would effectively set a standard for equity, tolerance, and acceptance within SMCSU. This policy would be reflected in the actions of the council members and the initiatives the council decides to take on. Additionally, they should consider implementing a comprehensive and clear procedure that would deliver ramifications for violations committed by any member of the council.
  2. Invite all current and former members of the council, as well as students, staff, and faculty at the college, to participate in a comprehensive conference that will incorporate sensitivity, equity, and anti-oppression training. This training should be embedded into the council’s professional development.
  3. Accept the amendments to the constitution that have yet to be passed, especially the amendment that would add an article on conflict of interest.
  4. Meet with members of administration to draft a cooperative agreement between their entities that explicitly states the powers of each entity in relation to one another. Moreover, this agreement must include an article pertaining to the remittance of membership fees.
  5. Commit themselves to realizing their ongoing projects. In regards to the musical, SMCSU should provide at least 50% of the monies budgeted immediately to the producers (SMC Troubadours), and allow the new council to deliver the remaining reimbursements. In regards to the clubs, SMCSU should accept their reimbursement requests over the next month, and then have the new council reimburse the remainder of their allocated funding at the outset of their term. Hire a Chief Returning Officer using their Hiring Committee, and let this individual sort out the logistics of the spring election. The election itself should be held in late March, so that a transition process between outgoing and incoming execs may be thoroughly completed by the end of May.
  6. Apologize to their employees and their membership for languishing the reputation of SMCSU, which will negatively affect some for years to come. Apologize to the college for acting contrary to their mission and values.
  7. Remind their membership of the responsibility they hold when electing members to council. Compel students to vote responsibly in future SMCSU elections.
  8. Stop engaging with administration in closed meetings as a replacement for monthly meetings because this a direct violation of your constitution. Moreover, there are no minutes available from any of those meetings, which leaves students in a position where they cannot hold the council accountable for decisions made in those meetings — like proroguing.
  9. Publish a live version of their Fall/Winter budget on your website with an Income and Expenses sheet, since many fee-paying members of SMCSU, like myself, are questioning how the remainder of this year’s budget will be spent.

The months following the dissolution will be a time of reflection, healing and learning for the community at St. Mike’s. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know this year’s councillors professionally and personally. I will attest that they are hard-working students, supportive and caring friends, mostly morally sound, and they will eventually be model student leaders — if they can reconcile the tension between student politicking and doing the right thing.

Jessica Afonso is a fifth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying International Relations. She is the former Vice-President of the St. Michael’s College Students’ Association, having resigned on November 11, 2016. 

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