Fund goes to vote

LESLIE STOJSIC | Today, undergraduate students head to the polls for the annual Students' Society of McGill University elections. What makes this election day vastly different from those of the past is the inclusion of a controversial referendum question over the creation of the McGill Student Fund.

Regardless of whether or not the question is passed, the results of the referendum will have a profound impact on students for years to come.

An initiative of SSMU president Duncan Reid, the MSF is an attempt to address the lack of student resources in three key areas: libraries, renovations to the University Centre and the creation of a bursary fund as a final recourse for students in financial difficulty. The five-year levy would be $38 per semester for full-time undergraduates, allocating $14, $12 and $12 to each of above areas respectively.

"We must do something about the shortage of resources that critically affects students," Reid said. He estimates that the MSF will generate $5.7 milllion over five years, and that figure does not include the dollar-for-dollar match that the University has agreed to contribute to the fund.

Reid is also approaching corporations for additional matching-type contributions to the fund. He says the companies have been responding "very positively" to the idea.

Despite the fact that the MSF is overwhelmingly supported by the Student Council, the propsal has nonetheless become an unpopular notion among some students. While students are generally sympathetic towards the aims of the fund, many feel that they already pay too many fees, both to the SSMU and McGill.

One of the more controversial aspects about the fund has been whether or not students would be able to opt out of it. In fact, after a heated council debate, a majority of council members voted against the opt-out idea on principle.

"If we are a student society -- a community -- then we should be addressing our needs as a community," says Douglas Painter, a religious studies student senator, Senate caucus representative to Council and an ardent opponent of the opt-out clause.

"Everybody contributing to this fund will benefit from it, in the same way that taxes enable each member of society to participate in and benefit from all aspects of the community."

Reid, realizing that the inclusion of an opt-out clause would make the MSF more attractive at the polls, disagrees. "This is a donation, not a tax," he emphasizes. "There will be students who enter McGill after this year who will not have had the chance to vote on the issue. The opt-out clause makes the fund more equitable."

In the end, the opt-out clause was included in the question as a result of an administrative error and an impending deadline that prevented its correction. "This is sending a stronger message to the administration and government: no one is binding people to give to the fund; instead, students are choosing to donate," Reid states.

Many students have questioned exactly what kind of message the creation of a by-students, for-students fund sends to the government. Erin MacLeod is a fourth-year arts student who, despite the opt-out clause, will be voting against the MSF.

"It's not addressing the problem of lack of funding at its root. If you find an alternate source for money -- and that source is students -- it's telling the government that they don't need to lower or freeze tuition fees," MacLeod argues. "And I haven't been convinced, by SSMU politicians or by the media, that there is no other way of finding the money for these needs."

Anna Kruzynski, a social work student, militantly opposes the MSF. "It's shifting the burden of responsibility from the society to the individual, making McGill more inaccessible," she says.

So enraged by the proposal of the MSF was Kruzynski that, last Thursday evening, she and other members of the McGill Action Committee, an informal activist group, took over the offices at the Students' Society, locking out SSMU members and employees for several hours and (unsuccessfully) demanding Reid's resignation. "SSMU should never have proposed this. Its role is not to introduce new fees, but to defend students' rights -- that means fighting against any fee."

Painter defends the spirit of the fund as being socially responsible. "What is disturbing," he says, "are the socially-minded activist groups that are saying this is some kind of a capitalist movement by Duncan Reid. This is a good initiative…it's a socially caring initiative. What should we do? Bitch and complain and watch students fall through the cracks? At some point, you have to take matters into your own hands."

Ironically enough (or perhaps not), the overwhelming sentiment echoed by both supporters and opponents of the MSF has been the same: whether it passes or not, the MSF is only a band-aid solution to a much larger problem.