Since Nov. 6, 2012, a group of McMaster University students and alumni have consulted studies and surveys from schools across Canada hosting their own Women and Trans* Centres. The students began this task in the hopes of establishing one.
The committee is led by Elise Milani, SRA Humanities representative.They have been discussing the most beneficial ways of running such a program and where they might locate their services.
The WTC committee is still working towards their goals with the help of its members: SACHA, YWCA, MSU and more. Problems have arisen – conflict over the title of the WTC being ‘gender-inclusive’ or not among others – but despite the kinks, Milani appears to remain optimistic. In fact, she’s stated that WTC is “just a working name” and intends to discuss the matter of changing it towards the end of this month.
Ultimately though, she said, “Ideally it would be great to get all that sorted out this year, and we will work towards [our] goals, even though we realize [they aren’t] necessarily within our reach.”
During their meeting on Sept. 13, the committee for the WTC divided itself into Subcommittees. There are four subcommittees – Operations, Space Allocation, Finance, and Outreach – each responsible for making a small part of the WTC dream a reality.
Operations will be largely focused on figuring out the services that will be provided, who can provide them, and how they can be provided. Space allocation will be responsible for working with the university to locate a space on campus that best promotes the needs and desires of those using the facility. Finance will work within the university, and outside it to discover where money to support the project will come from, how it will be budgeted, and where it will be spent. Lastly, Outreach will engage with the students to ensure that their opinions and ideas are supported and taken into consideration.
Milani said, “Our goal for this year is to complete as much operational work as possible. If we know what services we’d like to provide it will hopefully be easier to find space to accommodate [the WTC] and [to create a] budget that reflects our needs.”
While there are women’s centres in over 20 schools across Canada, McMaster is one of a handful of campuses that does not have a comparable centre. So for the past few months the MSU has been investigating if there was a need for a women’s and trans* centre (WTC) on campus.
Research from the WTC Ad-Hoc Committee showed that a vast majority of students, 78 per cent of those surveyed, said that they would use a WTC to seek counseling or in order to provide information to support a friend. 237 people responded to the online survey.
At the March 24 SRA meeting, a motion passed that formally recognized and acknowledged the need for a women’s and trans* centre on campus.
The motion also recognized the MSU’s commitment to ending violence against women and trans* individuals on campus.
However, the motions were not passed without much discussion amongst the representatives.
Some assembly members especially took issue with an original motion, which called for a commitment to ending violence. There was argument over whether the particular motion was purely symbolic and didn’t call for enough tangible measures.
But several members strongly argued that voting against that type of motion was more indicative of the MSU’s lack of support and divisive stance on ending violence against women.
Elise Milani, Chair of the Ad-Hoc Committee and SRA Humanities, stated that, “When we commit to it we’re saying we’re continuing to work. If we vote this down…it inherently says that we [the MSU] don’t want to end violence and against women and trans* individuals.”
Similarly, Simon Granat, SRA Social Sciences expressed his dismay in those opposed to the motion.
“It’s astounding that people are saying, ‘yeah I don’t think I’m going to vote for this’. Yeah it’s big. Yeah it’s lofty. But we’re committing to ending violence. To me this really shouldn’t be a discussion.”
Assembly members were presented with up to date information and research that the Ad-Hoc Committee had compiled in order to inform their decisions and stance on the necessity for a WTC on campus.
The research collected showed that there was a gap in services which SHEC, the Wellness Centre and QSCC was unable to fulfill in terms of providing specific sexual assault counseling or a discussion forum for gender issues.
Violetta Nikolskaya, a WTC Committee member, explained how, “we have to recognize it’s imperative that we have something on campus for students. Something that is convenient, readily accessible and central to students.”
Milani described how the committee’s next steps will be to look more closely at funding, location, partnerships with organizations such as SACHA and examine the liability of providing counseling and services.
“We can’t put all the responsibility on the WTC. It’s a huge thing we need to try and tackle. And this is just one part,” said Milani.
“Doing awareness campaigns and providing training [about violence against women and trans* individuals] is another big part of the overall issue.”
It was almost a year ago that the MSU’s Student Representative Assembly passed a motion to “stand in support” of Quebec students, who were fighting tuition increases proposed by the province’s then Liberal government.
The block of SRA members who brought it forward shook their fists, got a majority of the 35 people in the room to agree that tuition was probably too high in Ontario and then sat back to admire what they’d done.
But not much changed. Students didn’t take notice, and the MSU continued to pay membership dues to a far less militant lobbying group than those in Quebec.
The sound-and-fury faction of the SRA was responsible for the “stand in support” motion. They had pet projects. They were radical. They didn’t consult much with their student constituents. They spent too many hours in petty arguments with each other. They were full of rhetoric and short on action.
They could have (by constitutional authority granted to the SRA) reshaped the multi-million-dollar organization that is the McMaster Students Union. But they didn’t.
Say what you will about the place of social justice issues in the governance of the MSU. Whatever it is an SRA member hopes to accomplish, there’s a right way and a wrong way to represent students.
And where some of last year’s representatives got it wrong, Elise Milani got it right.
Milani brought a motion to the Oct. 14 SRA meeting, proposing that the Assembly create a committee to investigate bringing a Women and Trans Centre to campus. It passed.
This wasn’t a pet project. It wasn’t even a new one. McMaster hosted a women’s centre from 1979-1985. A referendum reopening the discussion went out to students in 2009. Last year, McMaster’s women’s studies department gathered information from other schools on how their centres operated. The SRA talked about it then, too. Milani and other supporters of the idea are channelling the interest that exists here at Mac.
Work went into the proposal. Milani has been, and has committed to continue, consulting with the relevant student groups, University organizations and community stakeholders.
And she didn’t – as past members might have – try to push a vote through the SRA that said something like, “the MSU wants a women’s centre.” A committee has been founded to do the legwork, and to find out if this project is wanted or worthwhile. It recognized the complexity and the context of this issue. Like a good committee should, it will make meaningful contributions to a quality project, and will help clarify substantive next steps.
Last year was not a unique year. The effectiveness of the SRA has been in question for decades. There are times when it seems structural – when it seems like something major has to change in the MSU constitution’s SRA section.
But there are other times, the Oct. 14 meeting included, that are much more encouraging.