Photo C/O Kyle West
By: William Li
Content Warning: White supremacy
On July 21, the Student Representative Assembly briefly discussed concerns about clubs engaging in foreign surveillance and white supremacy — but in a shocking move, put these concerns aside and simply ratified all proposed clubs anyway, triggering an intervention just three days later by McMaster Students’ Union President Josh Marando.
Although Marando’s quick response to concerns of white supremacy and threats to marginalized students is a good start, this incident remains problematic: Why did the SRA ratify the Dominion society in the first place, even though these exact concerns were brought up in the SRA meeting prior to the ratification vote?
Currently, the clubs administrator processes club applications and provides a list of clubs to the SRA, which usually votes to approve all at once. However, the clubs administrator is an unelected person, and they are historically either unwilling or unable to act when clubs promote or endorse actions that put students at risk.
For example, they declined to take action in February, when the McMaster Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) publicly declared that they reported an event on campus to the Chinese government for discussing China’s human rights violations against Uighur Muslims. Soon, there were international headlines and concerns that such surveillance on campus puts Uighur and Chinese students at risk, since criticism of the Chinese Communist Party is often grounds for imprisonment in China.
The clubs administrator then took months to prepare a memo in response, which the SRA quickly overlooked as they re-ratified the CSSA at their July 21 meeting without addressing the memo’s concerns of surveillance and harassment.
The still-unresolved CSSA fiasco is a great example of how the Dominion society is not a one-time thing, but rather, just the latest symptom of a much more serious problem: the MSU’s glaring inability to manage clubs, and an urgent need for major reform.
Although we have a new clubs administrator now, the systemic issues with this model of governance persist: the SRA expects the clubs administrator to manage problematic clubs, but the clubs administrator does not do much beyond preliminary research and providing information to the SRA upon request.
The result is that nobody does anything. Anybody who can successfully fill out forms simply gets stamped and approved. Clubs get away with everything from foreign surveillance to peddling false medical information, while MSU officials busy themselves tossing political hot potatoes at one another.
We saw such political runaround in action when SRA members tried asking clarifying questions about certain clubs, and the clubs administrator wrote in their response, “I strongly recommend ratifying the majority of clubs such that the MSU Clubs Department can move forward with our activities for the year. If there are still concerns about certain clubs, it would be better to bring your questions directly to them.”
Given this apparent urgency for SRA members to stop bothering the clubs administrator with questions about clubs and just move on, there should be no surprise that the Dominion society escaped the proper scrutiny that should have happened before—rather than after—the rushed ratification vote.
While the SRA and clubs administrator have rightfully gotten flak over these decisions, we must remember that the problem is systemic. The clubs administrator job description does not explicitly require them to supervise clubs, ensure truthfulness in club applications or even enforce the clubs operating policy. Meanwhile, the SRA appears ill-equipped to pick up the slack on this front.
In order to address this, the SRA should not simply rubber stamp whatever is put in front of them by the clubs administrator; rather, they should take the time to do research and get fully informed before voting. Additionally, as our elected representatives, they should make the political decisions that the clubs administrator cannot, which includes exercising their power to withhold club status.
Although some may argue that revoking club status should not be used as a tool for censorship, we must remember that club status is a privilege, not a right. If clubs expect to access funding, ClubSpace and other such perks paid for with student fees, then the SRA should hold clubs to the same standard as other MSU departments.
Next, the SRA must revisit the rushed July 21 ratification vote and actually scrutinize clubs properly (perhaps at the emergency meeting that Marando has called for, though it remains to be scheduled). Instead of having the MSU President intervene each time there is a problem or waiting for issues to blow up in the media, the SRA should proactively resolve issues. The consequences of inaction can be clearly seen in how Chinese nationalists have instigated violence on other university campuses, while white nationalists have been provoking violence right here in Hamilton.
Finally, in the long-term, we need systemic change. Even though the clubs operating policy was recently amended in June, the updated policy quickly flopped in action when it failed to prevent the Dominion society ratification about-face. Furthermore, even Human Rights Watch has felt compelled to provide recommendations for more substantial change to address the Chinese government’s threats to academic freedom. The recent amendment’s stunning failure, the recommendations from HRW, and Marando’s intervention show that band-aid solutions will be insufficient — the entire clubs operating policy is no longer viable and must be overhauled.
The SRA must now show leadership so that these troubling incidents do not happen again. If nothing significant is done, then this cycle — where the MSU condones clubs that endanger students and then pauses to reflect only after enough controversy is attracted — will simply continue.