In 2008-2009, the SSMU celebrated its 100 year anniversary. The following year, the SSMU Executive commissioned “100 Years of SSMU”.
Below is the condensed version of how your student union came to be what it is today.
Birth of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU)
In 1902-1903, the Alma Mater Society was created. Although it promoted activities and some publications, the Society had little responsibility. In 1908 that the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) was finally realized and in 1909, the SSMU officially became the representative body for students at McGill.
The SSMU was first established in order to coordinate the undergraduate activities of the University. In the words of John T. Hackett, the first President of the Students’ Society:
“Like most new forms of Government its ‘raison d’être’ was found in abuses. The students had been brought into disrepute with the public. Their failure to meet their creditors in undergraduate enterprises, and their apparent acquiescence in the charges of vandalism which were periodically brought against them, rendered absolute the necessity of reform.”
The solution was the Students’ Society and its executive body, the Students’ Executive Council.
Although McGill University began to admit the first female students in 1884, women were not members of the SSMU until 1931. They had a parallel organization called the Women’s Union. It was not until1965 that SSMU had its’ first female president, Sharon Sholzberg.
The SSMU continued to grow and evolve after its inception. Its role expanded to include several clubs, to offer services, and to care for the University Centre (consisting at the time of a pub and a cafeteria). As enrollment increased throughout the century, so did students’ demands. The association took steps to ensure its effectiveness. This included enlarging its Executive Council and creating new positions for students.
In the 1950s, the SSMU grappled with the war efforts, conscription, the international exchange of Russian students, and the contraceptive pill, amongst other issues. The SSMU, as a member of the National Federation of Canadian University Students (NFCUS), sought to increase government funding for education and brought attention to the problem of a lack of jobs for students. A variety of tactics were used: a one-day boycott of lectures (1958), a publicity campaign during National Student Day (March 5th 1959), and meetings with the Premier of Quebec.
Establishing good relations with the province’s policy-makers remained important to the SSMU. Making the government aware of the need to make quality education available to students in Quebec, and specifically at McGill, has always been a priority. In 1954, the Students’ Society and other student associations were meeting with Duplessis, to discuss the needs of students. Their recommendations included statutory provincial grants to universities, as well as scholarships and bursaries. Their input helped reshape the financial aid program for post-secondary education.
In the 1960s and 1970s, McGill University (like most North American campuses) saw its share of protests. Montreal students were up in arms: demonstrations against the U.S. Amchitka nuclear bomb test and the war in Indochina were held. The Student Executive Council voted to support the abolition of all student fees. As social issues on campus became more important and more complex, the SSMU demanded the right to represent students to the university administration. After many student protests, it finally got the opportunity to do so in 1968, by obtaining seats on the Board of Governors and the Senate.
Membership in Student Federations
Although SSMU is facing different demands and realities today, active involvement in federal and provincial student associations is still seen as a valuable means of communication with other students, governments, and other post-secondary education stakeholders. The history of SSMU’s involvement in these student organizations tells a great deal about the Student Society’s changing relationship with external influences.
1926 saw the creation of the National Federation of Canadian University Students (NFCUS). The founding conference was held at McGill University. The intention was to promote a greater cooperation among student government bodies, in order to supervise the progress of each in promoting student interests. The Quebec student unions withdrew from the NFCUS in 1964 to form the Union Générale des Étudiants du Québec (UGÉQ), to be replaced in 1974 by the Association Nationale des Étudiantes et Étudiants du Québec (ANEEQ). In 1981, the movement grew again with the creation of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) at Carleton University.
The SSMU never actually joined CFS. The cultural context for Quebec was unique – the Ministry of Education played a bigger role in policy development there than it did in any other province. SSMU therefore found it more practical to become only a member of the regional branch of CFS (the CFS-Q). This would allow McGill students’ voices to be heard where they would have the greatest impact: provincially. More importantly, the SSMU never agreed with the CFS approach to student representation. It did not reflect the Student Society’s more pragmatic approach to influencing government policy decisions. For this reason, SSMU was a founding member of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) in 1994.
Another of SSMU’s initiatives was the creation of the Fédération Étudiante Universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) in 1989. It was in the ballroom of the University Centre that the Students’ Society and other Quebec universities became members of the new provincial organization. SSMU was the second member of la FEUQ, but withdrew their memberships shortly afterwards due to irreconcilable differences on policy issues. In 1994, SSMU joined la FEUQ once again. In 1995, during the referendum on Québec secession from Canada, la FEUQ stood in favor of the ‘yes’ option and SSMU again pulled out. In 2002, SSMU joined la FEUQ for the third time pushed by the impressive amount of research that la FEUQ had been producing in the previous year. In the Fall of 2006, SSMU held a referendum to finally end their membership with la FEUQ. The results were clear and 76% of SSMU members voted to leave la FEUQ, with a 30% voter turnout. Despite the rocky past, SSMU and la FEUQ have continued to work together on various projects affecting students in the province.
In 2008-2010, the SSMU helped to create the Quebec Student Roundtable (Table de concertation étudiante du Québec, or TaCEQ)
Acting as a Hub for Student Life
The SSMU has always taken an active position on various issues, including international events such as the War in Iraq and national and provincial issues such as the Tuition Freeze. The SSMU’s priority has always been representing the interests of undergraduate students and improving the quality of student life on campus. Gradually, the SSMU became an umbrella organization for many campus clubs, and the provider of numerous student services.
Two successful events, Frosh Week and Activities Night, occur at the beginning of each school year. By 1953, thousands of students were attending Activities Night to learn about, and join, some of SSMU’s 150 clubs. Activities Night now showcases more than 250 clubs, services, and publications and is host to over 2500 students each Fall. The SSMU boasts historic clubs such as the McGill Outdoors Club and the McGill Debating Union (one of SSMU’s first established clubs, debating against top schools such as Harvard University since 1880). Along with Frosh, Faculty Olympics, Four Floors, and Week 101 are SSMU’s current grand scale offerings.
The Shatner Building
In the mid-1950s, SSMU successfully convinced the Board of Governors of the need for a building devoted to student services and activities. The SSMU presented a brief and enclosed a check of $25 000 as a donation for the New McGill Student Union Building Endowment Fund, indicating the students’ strong desire for a new building. McGill’s nearly 12,000 students were excited when the Premier of Quebec, Jean Lesage, officially opened the University Centre on October 15th, 1965. Although owned by McGill University, it is now operated by students, for students.
In 1992, a SSMU referendum sought to change the official name “University Centre” to the “Willam Shatner University Centre,” in honor of the Canadian actor who graduated from McGill with a BCom in 1952. After all, the logic went, no other McGill graduate has ever commanded a starship within 15 years of graduating! Although a majority of students supported the idea, the university rejected the results because of toponymy regulations. Nevertheless, it has ever since been affectionately referred to as the Shatner building.
A significant initiative from former SSMU President Duncan Reid (1998) was the McGill Undergraduate Student Fund. The purpose of the fund was to address the urgent financial concerns caused by government cuts in post secondary education. There were three areas targeted for funding: libraries, University Centre renovations, and the creation of a bursary fund for students in financial difficulty. The university agreed to match dollar for dollar the money collected from students. The fund was successful, but bittersweet. Improvements overseen by this fund include increased library hours and physical improvements to libraries; SSMU’s Campus Life Fund (over $35,000 annually), which allows students to apply for events that enrich campus life; and renovations to the Shatner building. In 2004, this fee was cut in half.
Throughout the Society’s history, the SSMU has been a leader on and off campus. The SSMU has always ensured itself a seat at the bargaining table and has never been a silent or timid member of any organization or committee. SSMU’s voice and vision is constantly being pushed to the forefront by its leaders. Through the vision of the SSMU, campus projects are undertaken and completed. These projects include the SSMU Daycare, the Library Improvement Fund, renovations to the Shatner Building, and the launch of the Staff-Student Mentorship Program. Our services extend themselves beyond McGill and reach out to the community that supports us, and our multicultural clubs forge links with the plethora of ethnic communities based in Montreal. Innovative events such as Culture Shock ensure that the SSMU is always willing to try something new, and major events such as Frosh are constantly being fine-tuned. The SSMU focuses on students in all of its endeavors, and, although the SSMU has had to fight through adversity to achieve its successes, this vision is what makes SSMU a great organization that McGill students should be proud to call their own.