Making a successful jump to student politics
By Neale McDevitt
Maggie Knight – the incoming President of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) – is nothing if not committed. Raised in Victoria, B.C., the fourth-year McGill Environment and Economics student has been active in environmental causes for most of her life. A leader in Canada’s youth climate movement, Knight was the National Outreach and Recruitment Co-ordinator for Power Shift Canada in 2009, while also sitting on the Sierra Youth Coalition’s Executive Committee, the nation’s largest youth environmental organization. Last December, she traveled to Cancun, Mexico, as a Canadian youth delegate to the UN Climate Change Conference.
After spending the last two-and-a-half-years as a SSMU Environment Commissioner, Knight made the jump and threw her hat into the ring as a nominee in this spring’s student government elections, winning in a landslide. Just weeks before taking office on June 1, Knight spoke with the McGill Reporter.
What made you finally enter student politics?
I’m not really sure how that happened [laughing] – it was never really my plan to run for the SSMU Executive.
A big part of being Environment Commissioner is working with various student groups. I sat on SSMU’s Finance Committee and represented the concerns of undergraduates at the Senate Subcommittee on the Environment. The environment portfolio crosses all the different portfolios, so I had the opportunity to work with execs in all the different roles and multiple people in those roles. So I thought, “I have all this experience and I have a number of ideas on how to make SSMU more effective. If I can provide the framework and knowledge of how to navigate the SSMU bureaucracy to a bunch of environmental groups, why can’t I extend that to other groups?”
It must have felt good to win by such a large margin
It is exciting because I feel like I have a strong mandate going forward and people have faith in my ability to do a good job.
What are you hoping to accomplish?
Consultation was a big buzzword in SSMU politics this year. I want to take it beyond being a buzzword and really ingrain it in our processes. It means everything from having very clear communication with the student body about what the SSMU does and all the different mechanisms by which they can tell us what they think of the job we’re doing, to supporting counselors in really representing their constituencies.
And on sustainability?
At the moment the SSMU has a smorgasbord of different policies, a five-year plan, some environmental student staff, some bylaws – but it isn’t too cohesive. This is a good year to move forward with a really integrated strategy that takes all the different skills and passions of our students and really craft something that sets a good vision and a good process that will make SSMU a leader in sustainability as far as student associations go.
How do you see the relationship between the SSMU and McGill Administration?
I think we have to be strategic. That is how the Administration is with us, so we should be that way with them?
We have to approach it issue by issue. When our interests align, we want to be collaborative – to enhance the student experience and make life easier for students. I really hope to help the Administration understand where bureaucracy gets in the way of what students are trying to achieve here.
And when those interests don’t align?
It is my responsibility to fight for student rights and interests. The Administration understands that and I think the most productive relationship is one in which both sides respect the other and do their best to navigate those waters.
Are you pleased with your executive?
I am incredibly excited to work with my executive team. We have diverse skills and we’re forming the basis of a really strong group that is committed to a many of the same values. But we also draw on a much different areas of knowledge and perspectives.
There’s often a lot of emphasis placed on the President’s role and that’s exciting, but a lot of my job is simply to facilitate and support the executive in fulfilling all their roles. The President’s role is the least project-based of any of the portfolios, so a lot of my job is representation in Senate and the Board of Governors and facilitation of SSMU’s democratic processes, be they at the General Assembly or Council. The rest of my time will be spent supporting my executive, helping them troubleshoot, helping them with an extra body in the room when needed. My favourite thing to do in a leadership role is being able to help people realize their plans and passions.
We had the Vote Mob on campus, a good turnout for the SSMU elections and five current or graduating students elected to Parliament. Would you say youth are becoming more politicized?
My science side says, I don’t have any data to back this up, so I’m not sure. I don’t know if it’s a broader participation or if it’s just that those of us who are interested are more vocal. Certainly there was more discussion among my circle of friends about this election than about the last election.
It is interesting to see so many McGill NDPers were elected and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. I’m hoping it will galvanize even more youth involvement – I think many people are turned off by the perception that Parliament is a bunch of quibbling old white men in suits. I hope they’ll bring the McGill spirit of hard work and diligence to that role.
You’re graduating but are coming back to do another undergraduate degree. Why?
For me, Environment and Economics is very much about understanding the intersections between the natural environment and the human environment and social issues and economic policy, and crafting new ways of doing things that really respect those disparate elements to create a future that we want.
But Religious Studies and Psychology is all about why people do what they do. One of the major barriers to better environmental policy is people’s ideologies and inherent bias against certain types of solutions and lack of willingness to accept we have huge problems facing us. It is interesting to see how many different religions have aspects of stewardship or respect for the natural world in them, but they aren’t necessarily the aspects that are emphasized.
Maggie Knight’s First Job
My first real non-community service job was selling fair trade soccer balls. I was a sportswoman – I played competitive soccer from when I was seven until I was 18, but I was also raised with a sense of social justice. You have to hand-stitch soccer balls if you want them to be good quality, as machine-stitched balls tend to fall apart really fast. Over 90 per cent of hand-stitched balls are made by child labourers. It didn’t seem right that I could run around and have fun while crippling the hands of children. The soccer league I played in bought the balls, which was great because it is always a challenge to find work that is meaningful and that you feel good about.