Why McGill (and McGillish Universities) Need Tough Love

In February of this year, I was asked to come to the Faculty of Law at McGill to do a guest lecture on Aboriginal and Indigenous property. It was a fantastic class, I had a lot of fun, there were great questions, and it was an all around enjoyable experience.

I had to take a day off work to be there, and because I am not a salaried worker, that meant I lost a day’s worth of pay. Not being a very financially secure person, I overcame my extreme reluctance to ask for some sort of honorarium, since McGill tends not to offer one. The honorarium was not enough to cover the pay I’d lost, but it came close enough, and I felt the guest lecture was an important thing to do.

After a month had gone by I contacted McGill to ask about the payment. Thus began a series of emails and phonecalls and helpful suggestions that have culminated in me still not getting paid almost three months later, and coming to the realization that McGill, and institutions like McGill, need some tough love. Because I am not good at asking for money and I am even worse at making sure I get paid.

Below is my response to this situation, and my decision to no longer accept delayed payments from multi-million dollar institutions.

Date: Wed, 14 May 2014 16:30:49


Human Resources will be mailing you the cheque to your home address. You were paid back in 2011 and McGill policy is to send cheques (if there is no direct deposit) to the internal address on record. They sent the cheque to the 2011 internal address in the system. In addition, the only home address they have on file is for Jeanne Mance.

It would be helpful in the future if you mentioned to the department processing a payment that you have an internal address but it is not valid. Then the department might be able to change it so it is mailed to the department currently paying you and then arrangements can be made to mail it to your home. I hope this helps.

Date: Wed, 14 May 2014 20:05:12

With all due respect, please do not tell me what I should do ‘in the future’. This is the sort of passive-aggressive thing you say to someone who avoided doing a blindingly obvious thing which then resulted in a headache for all involved. Sort of like, “in the future, can you please avoid stomping all over my white leather sofa in soccer cleats while flinging chocolate pudding about” when really you mean, “why did you do that in the first place!?” Of course, perhaps you simply meant, “now that we’ve mostly figured out how this all went south, here is how you can navigate the bizarre situation you find yourself in.” The thing is, and here is really the purpose of this long reply, I don’t want to be a navigator.

(I fully understand that this is not your doing, or even the doing of your Department. Please feel free to forward this email to anyone at McGill who might be able to take a comprehensive look at how invited guests are paid at McGill.)

I am generally pretty quick to admit when I’ve messed up and made life more difficult, and heck, sometimes I give into weird Catholic guilt and take the blame for things I’m pretty sure weren’t my fault, just so other people don’t end up feeling badly. However in this situation, I wasn’t even aware of even the possibility of a complication until I started down this rabbit hole. Also, I’m not actually Catholic.

I have never been employed by McGill, in any department, ever. I have never experienced that first day thrill as an employee of the #1 MacLean’s ranked University in Canada (in medical doctoral programs). I haven’t gone through the slow process of disillusionment and ennui that no doubt plagues many a post-secondary institution employee, nor have I sneakily filled out job applications for other institutions during hours I was supposed to be working. I never got the chance to rage quit before being fired; never felt that invigorating yet destructive joy as I ‘stuck it to the Man’ before the crushing reality of my inability to pay rent brought me down to earth. No, I just attended one year of Law school at McGill, and I didn’t even get a stupid t-shirt. (I was too cheap to buy one.)

What I apparently DID do was agree to play my guitar for half an hour at a really awesome Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) event at the McCord Museum three years ago. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell you where SEDE’s actual office is located even if you threatened to tie me down and read Margaret Wente articles at me, and believe me, I’d want to tell you. Very, very badly.

I am a bit rusty on my Labour and Employment Law but I am fairly certain that one half-hour gig does not make one an employee. For some reason, doing that gig somehow resulted in an internal address being added to my file by nefarious unknown forces (or more likely it just made some internal McGill logic). Since I lost my omnipotence in another pair of jeans, I was left uninformed of these aforementioned momentous happenings.

Thus ignorant, I had absolutely no reason to suspect that in 2014, after months of waiting for payment for a guest lecture I did at the Faculty of Law, the mistaken internal address in question would finally play out its destined role. Three years it lay in wait! The joy it must have felt as it greedily consumed my cheque…the confusion of the people at SEDE who received a cheque in my name when I hadn’t done any recent events. The internal suspicions that could have possibly been sown in the minds of the more imaginative SEDE employees if anyone cared to speculate as to why cheques were arriving for someone who never showed up for work…

You can perhaps now understand why I feel it would be a bit unfair to have expected me to sort all this mess out beforehand.

I did fill out a rather long form after the guest lecture in question, providing my current address, a blood sample and my sworn promise to deliver my third born child to McGill, but I suspect this was all done in vain. Paper apparently does not trump Roman Goddesses, even in electronic form and though I hadn’t accessed Minerva since 2009, she hadn’t forgotten about me. It seems that my cheque is going to be mailed out to a place I no longer live, and at this point, I bid it good riddance.

I would like McGill to know that this is the third time I have played the “when will McGill pay me” game for events I have been invited to participate in. Each situation was with a different Department, and every delay was for different, super interesting reasons, and in each situation I was given helpful advice as to how to avoid similar delays in the future.

If I paid myself minimum wage (assuming a $10/hr average because I do not want to take advantage of the May 1st increase to $10.35 when many of these hours happened before 2014) for all the time I have spent trying to get the itty bitty honorariums McGill begrudgingly promised, well I wouldn’t have to worry about the honorariums because I’d be swimming in the dough! So to speak.

On occasion I have publicly groused about having to be crass and ask for honorariums from McGill when other institutions offer them as matter of course. I have had to turn down invitations because I simply could not afford to take that day off work to do a lecture or present research for free. It seems a little odd that Ezra Levant could be flown out to speak at a Petrocultures event at McGill where attendees paid $150 a pop to get in, but dishing out a $50 honorarium a for Montreal-residing Indigenous person to provide in-depth information on Aboriginal and Indigenous law is not the norm. Don’t worry, out of necessity I’ve learned to be a bit more bold. Apparently the custom is to not hope you’ll be offered something, but to go ahead and request a specific dollar amount that feels entirely too high. I am still learning your ways.

I have also commiserated with other folks who have been invited by McGill to headline events, run workshops or give guest lectures in their field. I briefly considered starting a support group for those of us who tend to want to give up on tracking down payment from McGill after a few months, but none of us could afford the bus fare to get to our meetings.

For an institution that prides itself on its international reputation, you might want to know that in the seedy underworld of non-tenured experts, community activists, researchers and entertainment specialists, McGill is notorious for ridiculously delayed payments. Perhaps in a nod to some sort of ‘Old World’ charm, McGill turns its nose up at the plebeian notion of prompt cheque cutting. I really couldn’t say, and all my interest in puzzling out the why of this situation evaporated before any curiosity actually materialized. I do know that with every other institution I have dealt with, payment was issued within a week and a half at the latest. I guess all those institutions simply lack McGill’s resolve.

Now if I could possibly make a passive-aggressive suggestion to McGill.

In the future, when you ask people to teach your students, or entertain your guests at events intended to raise funds or bolster the prestige (and enrolments) at your post-secondary institution, you may wish to offer them a reasonable amount of money for their time and expertise. You may wish to avoid involving them in tedious and complicated internal bureaucratic problems related to processing their payment. You may want to have someone simply ensure that these people get paid within a reasonable period of time, with as little effort on their part expended in making that happen. All of this would go a very long way to having people avoid having to treat McGill like that cousin who never pays you back.

Because right now, McGill, you are indeed that cousin and cuz, I’m going to have to put my foot down.

I will no longer accept invitations to do guest lectures, present my research, or speak at special events at McGill University unless I can be guaranteed same day payment. Sometimes we need to be firm with the ones we love, and let’s be honest, you and I aren’t even that close.

As I have already committed to speaking at an IB World Student conference at McGill in July, I will be informing the event organizers of this decision. I recognize that it is likely very difficult for McGill to make this change from payments which take three months to a same-day payment, but quite frankly, that shouldn’t be my problem. Tough love requires that I stop enabling you. If this means I have to withdraw from the conference, I do so unhappily, but also sort of happily because playing phone tag and firing off emails and trying to remember a password for a University system I last accessed in 2009 is really the opposite of fun and sort of makes the whole thing not worth it.

Many thanks, good luck and all of that,



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22 Responses to Why McGill (and McGillish Universities) Need Tough Love

  1. Bruce says:

    Well. Thanks to McGill University otherwise I/we would not have had this wonderful experience of reading your articulation. wah. Unfortunately, you were short changed but maybe someone like you can teach those big bullies a thing or two about tough love! Way to Go !
    ayhay apihtawikosisan iskwew

  2. Bob Thomson says:

    I had a similar experience with Concordia University in 2012. Months of delays and ridiculous rejections because receipts from Europe didn’t fit their preconceived definition of what they should be. Good for you insisting in same day payment which after all is an international standard.

  3. mf says:

    This was really interesting, engaging and well-written, but the whole time I was reading it I wondered when you were going to speak to McGill’s ombudsperson and to the Commission des normes du travail!

    • I suppose it’s an issue of how much time to I want to lose to this whole issue? McGill is just one of the institutions that I have been invited to to speak or do guest lectures. In general, my experiences with Universities has been very positive. I have already spent more time than I feel is reasonable trying to deal with this situation. This letter is my “I give up” moment because I am too busy to take it any further.

    • Miya says:

      Thanks for the letter, it is all bizarre with what is happening…

  4. parentassets says:

    simply proud of you- we need to stand up- I salute u

  5. debrahuron says:

    Loved reading this! It’s important to hold the idiots within bureaucracies to account, even though the people who represent “the system” are usually adept at passing the buck and the blame to somebody else. I thank my lucky stars every day that I do NOT work for one of these ridiculous bureaucracies.Your post is a breath of fresh air. Hope it stirs up some action at its intended source.

    • The thing is, this is no one person’s fault. Hence, bureaucracy. The system requires that I get kicked from person to person, none of whom know me personally or have the full story. They have the information available to them, through their system, and I fault no single person for the headache. No one is out to get me. But the problem is, you end up telling your story to one person, and then to another, and another and you get tired of repeating the story after a while and getting different responses. The system is disjointed and has little room for direct approach.

      • Jennifer says:

        I once had a several-months-long temp gig in a bureaucracy that involved being one of several people who worked with each client’s account.

        I get “tired of repeating the story” too! Whenever I contacted a client about an issue with his or her account I also put full details of whatever the issue was in the notes on the client’s account, *specifically* so my coworkers would have the whole story and the client wouldn’t need to repeat it. I also made sure to read any notes my coworkers put there for me ahead of time.

        Things can be so much less aggravating when everyone’s on the same page!

      • Cat says:

        I would say though (as someone who works at a small university) that it doesn’t take a genius to read a look of discouragement or frustration on the face of an outsider and to get up from your office to walk them to the next office and tell the story yourself to your own colleague in front of the visitor. I have done this lots of times and it results in everyone laughing at the complexity, the visitor getting what they need, and me getting a break (though I like people better than publishing as can be seen in my CV).

        • I think that some people working at Universities have developed those problem-solving skills, and I wish that the Universities having these kinds of problems would talk to those people about how to improve the system!

  6. Joseph Gold says:

    can you find out if the McGill student newspaper will publish this correspondence? Just as it is here??

  7. sharon mason says:

    What is the issue with universities and paying someone? I sit on a board that is affiliated with the university. This board pays me mileage only as I live outside Winnipeg. I usually have to wait a minimum of 1 month before I receive the cheque, and sometimes later after I have brought it to the dept’s attention. I, too, would appreciate same day payment as I have been on this board for 15 years or more!!!!!

  8. young savage says:

    Stop whining

  9. Cat says:

    So worth the wait! (we NEVER do stuff like that at Nipissing:)

  10. Lana says:

    I work for an Indgenous woman’s organization, and prior to this I’d worked in a variety of non-profits and academic settings. The org I currently work for is the only one that has a policy around honoraria (a very generous $400 a day, which is very fair I think). It’s a shame that other organizations don’t have policies.

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