A referendum on the fate of one of Canada’s oldest student newspapers wasn’t even close in the end, but the students who publish the paper said they shouldn’t have had to go to the polls in the first place.
The McGill Daily, which began publishing in 1911, and its sister publication Le Délit received a resounding 81 percent vote of support from students in a referendum held at McGill University in March. The students were voting on whether to continue paying $5 a year to fund the two papers.
In 2007, McGill’s administration made it policy that students must re-affirm their desire to continue funding independent student groups by referendum before the university will renew the group’s memorandum of agreement. These agreements are signed every five years and allow independent groups to collect funds from students and use the McGill name, among other things.
Jeremy Delman, a board member of the Daily Publication Society that publishes the papers, says he and his colleagues were “shocked” when they found out the policy would apply to them. “These are campus institutions. Why do we have to put our existence on the line to make sure students want us to be here when they obviously do?”
Mr. Delman says no other member newspaper of Canadian University Press is required by their university’s administration to win a referendum. Louise Burns, sales administrator for McGill’s campus radio station CKUT, says the same is true for campus radio.
Morton Mendelson, McGill’s deputy provost, student life and learning, says students are the ones who fund these groups so they should have a say in where their money goes. “No matter how much members of the administration support the idea of the Daily continuing at McGill, it is not for us to make that decision on behalf of students.”
The Daily, published twice weekly, and the weekly Le Délit have a combined circulation of 28,000. Mr. Delman says the papers’ publishers never doubted they would win, but says that’s not the point. The papers had to spend a lot of time, money and energy on the campaign leading up to the referendum. Under the new policy, this would have to be repeated in five years.
In February, students at the University of Waterloo voted against continuing to fund their school’s radio station. That referendum was initiated by a member of the student union who felt the radio station was no longer fulfilling its mandate of serving students. “What’s different [at McGill] is that it is initiated at the administrative level,” says Mr. Delman.
Ms. Burns and Mr. Delman say they think the McGill administration created the policy because it wants to ensure the university is not held responsible if the groups are implicated in a lawsuit or other controversy. “It really is an issue of liability,” says Ms. Burns. Dr. Mendelson says a periodic referendum does ensure the group is “truly independent of the university administration.”
Despite these explanations, student groups say they will continue to try to overturn what they see as a divisive policy that disrupts their work. CKUT and QPIRG, a non-profit advocacy organization, went to the polls last year and both groups were reaffirmed. McGill’s Legal Information Clinic, a non-profit student-run service that provides free legal advice to the campus and community, will be next to face a vote.