St. Mike’s President criticizes new Canada Summer Jobs funding requirement

Blog post says requiring groups to support abortion rights “unacceptable to a Catholic university”

St. Mike’s President criticizes new Canada Summer Jobs funding requirement

University of St. Michael’s College (USMC) President David Mulroney has criticized the federal government’s cuts to Canada Summer Jobs funding for groups that oppose abortion rights.

In a blog post published on February 1 titled “Catholic Social Teaching: A pre-Lenten Reflection,” Mulroney wrote, “Canada’s federal government seems intent on making support for its pro-abortion policies a litmus test for entry into the public square. The latest affront is the requirement that institutions applying for funding under the Canada Summer Jobs Grant program attest that their core beliefs align with government policies that include support for abortion.”

The Canada Summer Jobs Grant program provides wage subsidies to help employ secondary and post-secondary students throughout the summer. The program welcomes applicants from small businesses, non-profit employers, public sector, and faith-based employers, according to Employment and Social Development Canada.

Employment Minister Patty Hajdu released a statement in April 2017 saying that anti-abortion groups would no longer receive funding in constituencies represented by Liberal MPs. Hajdu’s statement followed a report published by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada that detailed the extent to which federal funding was going toward anti-abortion groups. MPs determine where funding goes in their constituency, including the Canada Summer Jobs grant.

After Hajdu’s statement, the federal government added a mandatory attestation that applicants of the grant in all constituencies must sign. “Both the job and the organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada… These include reproductive rights and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.”

Mulroney praised the strong reaction from faith groups, including USMC Chancellor Thomas Collins who, during a meeting of multi-faith leaders at St. Benedict’s Catholic Church on January 25, highlighted the value of faith-based organizations in their contributions to their communities through summer jobs. The Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto could see as many 150 summer jobs affected by the new attestation requirement.

According to Mulroney, USMC hasn’t used the Canada Summer Jobs program since 2015, and he remarked that given the new requirement to sign the attestation, it “will almost certainly not be able to use it in the future.”

“The government’s suggested work-around, that institutions simply assume that the requirement for attestation doesn’t apply to them, is unacceptable to a Catholic university on a number of counts,” wrote Mulroney. “First, this sends a terrible message to our students, whom we daily counsel to live their values to the fullest. Second, holding our noses and signing makes us both complicit and foolish, particularly if we comfort ourselves that this is a rare and not-to-be repeated assault on our values. There is a pattern developing here.”

During a town hall in Winnipeg on January 31, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the summer jobs funding issue. “There are certain groups that are specifically dedicated to fighting abortion rights for women and rights for LGBT communities and that is wrong,” said Trudeau. “That is certainly not something the federal government should be funding: to roll back the clock on women’s rights.”

Athens is burning at St. Michael’s College

The administration’s involvement in SMCSU’s ‘re-imagining’ raises serious concerns about student democracy

Athens is burning at St. Michael’s College

Students at St. Michael’s College (SMC) have been through their fair share of political turmoil in the past few years. A recently concluded financial investigation into the operations of the St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU) revealed evidence of kickbacks, poor record-keeping, and unidentified expenditures and cash deposits. In December 2016, Snapchat videos depicting then-current and former members of SMCSU joking about Islam were leaked onto social media. Disagreements over the appropriate role of Catholicism at SMC have created hostility and mistrust between students, staff, and SMC President David Mulroney.

In light of everything that has happened, the elections for this year’s SMCSU representatives are currently taking place under the watchful eye of the SMC administration. We acknowledge that changes to SMCSU’s operations are necessary in light of past events, but the administration is treading a path to ‘reform’ that is deeply undemocratic — and its constituents will ultimately suffer the consequences.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that the SMC administration is slowly but surely assuming control of student government at the college. After SMCSU prorogued its activities late last year, the administration appointed a ‘re-imagining committee’  of six students to establish guidelines for SMCSU’s new directions. According to committee member Haseeb Hassaan, many of the suggestions made by these students, including the proposition to add a Vice-President Equity to the SMCSU executive, were not taken into account by the administration.

In exchange, the new Student Society Leadership Policy drafted by the committee now requires leaders to “accept their ethical obligation to act in accordance to USMC’s mission as a Catholic university.” All SMCSU expenses that exceed $500 will have to be co-signed by the SMC Administrative Advisor, who will also attend all scheduled meetings as an ex-officio member once the student union begins its term.

The administration’s attempts to ‘reform’ the college have been underway for some time. Mulroney has made his disapproval of SMCSU and SMC student culture clear throughout his tenure, and he has repeatedly expressed a desire to reconnect the college with its Catholic roots. After Mulroney condemned the financial mismanagement of SMCSU’s frequent club nights last fall, SMCSU opted for a trip to a pumpkin patch while other student societies hosted successful Halloween parties.

One of the most important functions of democratic student government is to meet students’ needs in ways that a university administration cannot. This sentiment is codified in the “Aims and Purposes” section of the most up-to-date and publicly available version of SMCSU’s constitution, which states “the Union shall effectively represent the interests of its members” at the college and within the U of T community. Hired by the university, and often insulated from the more minute realities of student life, university administrations are not always in the best position to gauge what students want, or they may be more concerned with other priorities. In step student representatives as liaisons and lobbyists.

In order for relationships between student governments and administrations to be truly successful, both parties must maintain independence and mutual respect. Student representatives cannot be dissolved into figureheads.

Of course, student societies should be subject to checks and balances to avoid abuses of power. Provisions within student society constitutions exist for this very purpose. Additionally, external mechanisms such as the Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations, approved by Governing Council in June 2016, demonstrate that accountability mechanisms can be implemented while making efforts to respect the autonomy of student organizations. SMCSU and all other student societies should undoubtedly remain accountable to their constituents, but maneuvering on the part of the administration is not the way to achieve this goal.

In an editorial last year, we expressed concern that Mulroney’s attitude toward students at the college was infantilizing, and we continue to stand by that position. The actions of a few grossly reckless individuals are not representative of the vast majority of students and student leaders at SMC, who are capable of making responsible decisions — suggesting that the administration needs to babysit all SMC students is insulting.

In July, an open letter from SMC faculty and staff condemned Mulroney for criticizing SMC at the SIGNIS World Conference. Signatories expressed that Mulroney’s remarks about SMC students — which included concerns about objectification of women, excessive drinking, and a dearth of Catholic values — were disappointing and did not reflect the behaviour of all students at the college.

As conflicts persist and changes unfold, it is crucial that SMC students retain their right to freely select their own leaders. It is a mistake to assume that a heavier hand on the part of the administration will necessarily improve life at the college. Though issues of financial responsibility may be more effectively policed, if students are not respected, other problems may arise in their place. Not the least of these is the lingering resentment that undoubtedly comes from being treated like toddlers.

Also concerning is the quest to expand Catholic influence at SMC, which could have a marginalizing impact on students of other faiths. Keep in mind that many, if not most, SMC students are not Catholic, yet Hassaan was the only Muslim and non-Catholic member of the re-imagining committee. In a prior interview with The Varsity, Hassaan expressed concern that the administration was using him as a “showpiece,” and that he was selected for the committee due to the Snapchat incident that targeted his religion.

The issues that plagued the ‘old’ SMCSU were in serious need of redress, and it is understandable that the administration seeks to avoid future disasters. That does not, however, make it appropriate for university officials to set up shop in student government offices. And to non-SMC students who question the relevancy of these events to their own colleges and faculties, think of the precedent being set. Many student societies have had long and thorny relationships with administrations, which at times have led to struggles for independence. If it can happen to SMCSU, it can happen to you.

We’ll be following the SMCSU elections closely to see how the union will navigate its role within these newfound constraints. In the name of democracy and student autonomy, we suggest you do the same.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the administration’s Director of Student Life planned SMC’s orientation and that the orientation lip-sync contest was supervised to ensure the songs were appropriate. The article has been updated to reflect that neither of these instances occurred. 

A new SMCSU?

Formation of new student government at St. Michael’s closely supervised by Mulroney

A new SMCSU?

Nine months after the dissolution of the St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU), the St. Michael’s College (SMC) administration is moving to create a new union with seemingly less autonomy than its predecessor.

Earlier this year, the SMC administration chose six of the college’s highly-involved students to form a “re-imagining committee,” the goal of which was to build a new framework and guidelines for future councils following the dissolution of the student union in December 2016.

In 2016, the union was mired in controversy after a Snapchat video that was criticized as Islamaphobic and that implicated current and former members of SMCSU went viral. The video led to the resignation of Vice-President Kevin Vando. President Zachary Nixon resigned from SMCSU weeks later, although Nixon was not involved in the video.

In addition, a financial audit of the union started in July 2016 and released in summary in March 2017 detailed kickbacks, falsified invoices, and inappropriate expenditures on behalf of members of the union.

Structure of the new union

A report, released by the re-imagining committee in April, outlines the changes made to the structure of the new student union.

The new SMCSU will comprise of nine voting members: President, Vice-President, VP Finance, VP Communications, VP Community Life, VP Academic Affairs, VP Arts, VP Athletics, and VP Religious and Community Affairs. This structure differs slightly from how the union was structured in the past: the executive consisted of just a President and Vice President, supported by eight commissions, which were led by a Commissioner and, in some cases, also an Officer. The commissions of the old SMCSU were the Double Blue Commission, which ran events, Finance Commission, Religious & Community Affairs Commission, Education & Government Commission, Community Life Commission, Arts Commission, Communications Commission, and Athletics Commission.

UTSU Representatives as well as Senior Residence and Commuter Dons, among others, will be invited to attend one of the two monthly meetings but will not have voting rights. The University of St. Michael’s College Administrative Advisor, a non-voting member, will attend all scheduled meetings as an ex-officio.

SMC President David Mulroney requested the delay of the elections from April to the fall of 2017 in order to draft a student code of conduct. “It is now clear to me that, in addition to having a money problem, SMCSU also had a people problem,” he wrote in a blog post.  Mulroney said that interviewing the members of SMCSU revealed their engagement in hazing and other “disrespectful and harmful behaviour” during last year’s fall and spring retreats.

Criticism from the re-imagining committee

According to the re-imagining committee’s report, students planning to run and hold office are now required to maintain a CGPA of at least 2.5, model good citizenship, and demonstrate responsibility and respectful behaviour. According to Haseeb Hassaan, a member of the re-imagining committee, Georgina Merhom, former UTSU SMC Director, and Jeremy Hernandez-Lum Tong, SMCSU’s Religious and Community Affairs Commissioner in 2016, are two of the prospective candidates running for President this fall — though neither Merhom nor Hernandez-Lum Tong confirmed this.

The committee also decided that, in addition to their statement at the Annual General Meeting in March, future SMCSU councils will be required to present a budget report publicly at the beginning of the fall semester. Expenses that exceed $500 will need to be co-signed by the USMC Administrative Advisor.

“There’s no way anyone could embezzle money this year just because of how much control SMC admin is going to have over them,” Hassaan said in an interview with The Varsity.

Hassaan stated that most of the student members’ suggestions were not taken into account. This led him to assume that the formation of the committee was merely an attempt to get the students’ “stamp of approval” on decisions the administration had already made.

“I do feel like I was used by admin [as] more of a showpiece than anything,” Hassaan said. He believes that, as the only Muslim and non-Catholic member on the committee, he was chosen because of the video controversy regarding actions by Kevin Vando and a former member of SMCSU, Sara Gonsalves, which were called Islamophobic.

Hassaan proposed adding a VP Equity position to the prospective council to protect and represent minority students, but his suggestion was not approved.

Hassaan claimed that the new student union will likely have less autonomy in relation to SMC. As an example, he added that this year’s frosh lip-sync contest was overseen by the college to ensure the songs were appropriate. “If they’re that involved in something like a lip sync contest at orientation week, I can only imagine how they’re going to be with SMCSU this year.” He stated that SMC’s frosh was organized by Oriana Bertucci, Director of Student Life at the college, and not a student.

SMC is expected to announce more information about the election of its reformed student union in the coming days.

Stefan Slovak, a spokesperson for the SMC Administration, did not respond to The Varsity’s repeated requests for comment.

Georgina Merhom and Jeremy Hernandez Lum-Tong did not respond to The Varsity’s requests for comment either.

Editor’s Note (September 12): This article has been updated to clarify that Zachary Nixon was not implicated in the leaked video that was criticized as being Islamophobic.

Editor’s Note (September 14): This article has been updated to add that the prospective candidacies of Georgina Merhom and Jeremy Hernandez-Lum Tong are according Haseeb Hassaan. Neither Merhom or Hernandez-Lum Tong have confirmed Hassaan’s comments.