Now that Concordia students have voted against the Concordia Student Union’s proposed student centre at the Faubourg, let us take a step back and consider this project objectively, as I’m certain this issue will be back on the table with the next CSU general election. I had the privilege of being elected by the students of Concordia back in 2006 when I ran with the Experience slate, and the Faubourg project was a major motivating factor in my resignation from the CSU in October of that year. Since then I’ve completely abstained from any involvement with Concordia student politics, as I’ve yet to see any change in the culture of nepotism and self-entitlement that was so painfully apparent back in 2006. Keep in mind, this culture has been stimulated by the Concordia administration for years, and projects like the Faubourg are so rife with inherent corruptions and conflicts-of-interest, they stand more than anything else as a testament to a shared political impotence on campus. If something isn’t done soon, any hope of maintaining an institutional memory of self-criticism will be lost, as the Faubourg project already demonstrates. Perhaps it will be the job of future generations of Concordia students to form a critical opposition from scratch, but I would hope we could avoid the intervening years of navel-gazing.
To begin with, the entire scheme reminds me of the expression ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ – why are the indebted students being asked to provide the funds for university real estate? Whatever money the CSU has collected through fee-levies – an estimated $7 million so far – is literally a drop of water in an immense bucket when compared to the long-term acquisition, renovation, reparation and maintenance of a major piece of downtown property. And let’s not mince words – there are no other properties being considered. Aside from the fact that a proposed student centre would require a generally large and continuous piece of property, it would necessarily have to be within the Quartier Concordia. There are few empty lots within the neighbourhood, so new construction is pretty much out of the question (not to mention, if it costs an estimated $50 million to renovate the Faubourg, a new building would be entirely prohibitive based on cost alone). That said, if there are few open lots for new development, there are fewer buildings whose owners are seeking to self-off their property for total re-development. So if the CSU or Concordia administration ever tries to pull the wool over the eyes of the students again by insinuating there are multiple pieces of property under consideration, you’ll know this is bullshit – categorically.
Since we know the Faubourg is, for the time being, the only property being considered by the university, let us consider it. It’s a very old building, originally constructed in the 1920s as a car dealership. It was thoroughly renovated between 1984 and 1986, at which time the Faubourg tower was constructed. Originally, it was designed as an urban market in the same vein as New York City’s Fulton Seaport Market or Baltimore’s Harbour Place. The neighbourhood needed the Faubourg at the time, and it stimulated the renaissance of the Shaughnessy Village, in conjunction with the development of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the LaSalle College building and Concordia’s Library Building. The new project featured office space, a 200-room hotel, condos, a fitness centre, cinema, an international market and many restaurants. Since about 2005 however, the Faubourg hasn’t quite been itself and it seems as though the current owner is quite motivated to sell it off. Enter Jonathan Wener, the man who has been pushing the CSU to acquire the Faubourg ever since he proposed the project to the CSU executive at his ostentatious summer home in the Laurentians back in 2006. I don’t know if Mr. Wener will receive a commission for his role in securing the sale, though I think he’d be remiss not to pursue one. Besides, he made a pretty penny selling the old student centre to Jacques Villeneuve – a bad precedent was set years ago. As he explained it to us four years ago, the student centre could be whatever we wanted it to be, insofar as all student activities were concentrated in this space. Also, the retail space would have to be maintained as is, with the CSU and administration apparently splitting the profits. It was not entirely clear what would happen with the Faubourg Tower, in which Concordia rents considerable space. According to the new plan, the university would also maintain administrative offices in the Faubourg, so whatever space is left over for the students would probably end up being quite small when compared with the overall surface area available in the building. Regardless, we were encouraged to imagine all the potential of this space, which was proposed to us in a manner designed to encourage special interest groups on campus. As I was going through the blueprints for the new Faubourg student centre, I was puzzled to see a large space labelled ‘Muslim prayer space’. Then it became quite clear what was going on – we were not being asked to consider a real estate project as much as we were being told how to sell it to the diverse political organizations on campus.
The university has diligently crafted a new image for itself since the Netanyahu protest got our Hall Building on CNN back in 2002. The new word on the street is that Concordia is the United Nations of universities, where people come from all over the world and participate in the shared pursuit of objective truth blah blah blah. I like the fact that this is generally true, but when it comes to the politics of multiculturalism, we couldn’t be more behind the times. While university spokesperson de jure Chris MoTa likes to point out all the different nationalities and cultures on campus by referencing the clubs sanctioned by the CSU, she does the university a disservice when she applies the same spirit of disingenuous tolerance when performing verbal and logical gymnastics necessary to defend the presence of Scientologists in the Library Atrium. The fact is that we are hardly a unified or cosmopolitan university, we are instead highly divided and played against each other, every single year, during the CSU election. The parties each have their base of special interest groups on campus, and preach messages that would appeal to their base. There are few organizations that can truly claim to be inherently multicultural and open to all students, despite the fact that all campus organizations must be that way according to our own bylaws. Instead, we have excessive division, and those groups that are truly open and engaging are often in the minority and on the side of the political ‘left’ on campus. And so when it comes time to discuss a student centre, the exclusive special interest groups are appealed to with promises of special space in a special building just for them. Enter the Muslim prayer space. The MSA is by far one of the largest and best-organized student groups on campus, so much so that winning their vote is crucial to winning the CSU election. Is it any wonder we were encouraged to speak often about this space (I guess its more realistic to put a large prayer space for the MSA in the basement of the Faubourg than it is to ‘suspend’ a thousand-person auditorium on its roof)? What the students ought to be looking for in a student centre is a space for shared experience, cultural exchange and intellectual openness, and not a gallery proving our ‘acceptance’ and ‘tolerance’ of one-another. As a favourite South Park character once pointed out, you tolerate a cold; cultures are meant to be embraced, they’re meant to be inclusive. How the CSU and the university treat the MSA is simply repugnant, and disingenuous to the open spirit of Islam, as they are both complicit in a divide and conquer method of managing the student body politic.
With this in mind, we become aware of the danger of allocating limited student space to a specific function for a specific group. And if the student centre is supposed to cater to all the specific needs of all the specific groups on campus, well, you realize just how quickly we’d render the limited space in the Faubourg quite useless. Its utterly futile to think everyone an be pleased all the time, and therefore, all student space must be, by its very nature, designed to encourage and foster a new collaborative spirit. So, multi-religious prayer space is fine, and the MSA can sign up with the Wiccans, Rastafari and Evangelical Christians on campus to share it. And of course all of this is aside from the fact that we ought to be more focused on the inherently open and objective arts and sciences than the various dogmas of different religions. By providing prayer or meeting space for any religious organization on campus we are tacitly supporting division between students in general, and a divided student body is much easier to control, far easier to please with bread and circuses.
I think a student centre is, in the long-run, a genuinely good idea, but the students should not be asked to pay for it, neither should we make any money off of it – let us be free of this corrupting influence. Whatever new plan is put forth by the university administration, we should be quick to counter any element of the plan designed to divide the student body and foster the development of special interest groups, as the building must reflect the spirit of the student body through form and function. And if the politically inclined on campus ever want their university to reflect a more progressive nature, a more philanthropic character, we can start by getting a lawyer to help the CSU free that seven million dollars for the student centre and have it used instead to provide thousands of poor Montrealers full university scholarships. The university is filled with people who can all talk a good political game, but its time for the self-congratulatory rhetorical auto-fellatio to stop. I’d recommend putting our money where our mouth is instead.