By Pascal Zamprelli
“McGill had always been on my radar,” said U3 economics and finance student Ivan Neilson. And naturally so. Neilson is a lifelong Montrealer who went to elementary school across the street, literally – at FACE, and whose father, Patrick, is a professor in the Department of English.
Student politics has also been on Neilson’s radar. He got his first taste of it at Dawson College working on the student union’s accreditation campaign. Here at McGill, Neilson is currently representing the Faculty of Arts on the University Senate. On March 12, he ratcheted up his political profile, being elected President of the Students Society of McGill University (SSMU).
“This year,” he said, “I began to see how everything worked. I looked at [the presidency] as something that I could do.” Holding seats on both the SSMU Council and the University Senate gave Neilson a unique perspective on issues affecting the University, offering “direct contact” with the administration through Senate, as well as the chance to “be part of the legislative wing of the Society,” he added, “I like the best of both worlds.”
Neilson is a bridge-builder. One of his goals this year is to close the existing divide between students from Montreal and those from other provinces. “As a Montrealer,” he said, “I found it was pretty hard to get involved with SSMU, because you’re coming in essentially as second year student [because of CEGEP], and you’re already very comfortable in Montreal. It’s kind of hard to break out of that bubble and get involved with the campus.”
Many local-area residents arrive as second-year students and typically live at home, while most out-of-towners live in residences or the Milton Park ghetto. “It’s hard to make that first connection,” Neilson said. He is hoping to explore programs that would pair new Montreal students with first- and second-year students “so that they can show each other either things about Montreal or things about McGill that the other might not know.”
He also strikes a conciliatory tone when speaking about relations between SSMU and McGill’s administration. “We don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but that doesn’t mean we have to be confrontational,” he said. “We need to make sure the lines of communication are always open. We have to discuss things and ensure that there is proper consultation. It’s mostly when people feel that they haven’t been fully consulted – or that something is coming unexpectedly – that they get very defensive. That’s not productive.”
Neilson is concerned with the provincial government’s plan to reform university government. “We understand just how important the interaction between the Senate and the Board is, and between the Board and the rest of the University, so this is something that will impact us seriously if [the bill] goes through in its current form. I think we can agree [with the admin] that we are under-funded and that our board needs to remain autonomous. If we go to the government with a united voice, that’s likely to be much more effective.”
Lest anyone think it will all be lovey-dovey, Neilson is clear that the students he represents are his motivation. Agreeing on under-funding is one thing; agreeing on the role of tuition in fixing the problem is entirely another. Neilson says SSMU’s external representation will be a major part of his agenda, and plans to be ready to mobilize the student body if need be.
As for what the future holds, Neilson will take the time to think about it. He only has two courses to take next year, which will allow him to focus on his presidency as well as his post-presidential plans. On top of wanting to leave behind “a system that will not only engage people but will also be effective in legislating,” Neilson hopes the experience “is going to teach me a lot about myself, what I should be doing, and where I want to