Commentary | Reform the GA, the time is now

Why we should fight to preserve an institution

McGill University is unique in Canada not only because of its place in the rankings or the number of students with different nationalities. We are also one of only a few campuses that hold a regular General Assembly (GA) each semester where every student can vote on the issues of the day. If it’s so great, then why should we change it? What is behind this ongoing demand to reform the GA?

First and foremost, the General Assembly is a direct way for students to influence the direction that the university’s student body is taking and come up with new ideas on how to improve university life. Be it lobbying the university for more courses in a specific area or creating a charity fund it is all in our power, and only limited by our will and imagination. However, as years have passed, the GA came to be seen more as a bureaucratic and foreign body, with students finding it too hard to even write a resolution by themselves. The strict rules have also alienated a big number of voters. Moreover, when any organized group of students could come and vote massively for one of the sides, thereby influencing the motions, this was seen by many as ineffective – more like running into a stone wall than anything constructive. These challenges made it clear that a reform of this institution was needed for it to be successful.

Alexander Kunev is a U3 Mechanical Engineering student and a SSMU Councilor for Engineering. Email him with ideas on GA reform at alexander.kunev@mail.mcgill.ca

However, there was a SSMU Council motion from last year presented as a solution to replace the GA with an Annual General Meeting, and the fact that many people came out passionately  against it shows clearly that it ran counter to practical sense. Abolishing an institution, only to replace it with a meeting where financial reports are presented, is not only illogical – it is irresponsible. It directly takes away our democratic freedom of expression.

Last week’s GA came to exemplify some of these problems, despite the best efforts on the part of organizers. Quorum – a meagre 100 people – was lost after the third motion, which obviously begs the question: if we can’t even get 0.4 per cent of the student body to attend the GA, its premise is largely at fault. Furthermore, many students were not able to attend due to the fact that it started at 4:30 p.m. on a Monday afternoon.

I believe that the format of the GA should be changed, and that the transition to online voting is necessary. We already vote online in SSMU elections, referenda questions, faculty, and even departmental elections, so why not transfer that power to the GA too? Resolutions raised at the GA may sometimes feel too formal – and may seem boring to many – but they often affect each and every one of us. We should not leave it up to a group of 100 people to decide for 25,000.

Our campus is a host of everyday discussions, held at different forums, town halls, and events. Seeing the level of openness and erudition displayed at each of these situations makes me proud to be a part of McGill. Every student has an intelligent voice that needs to be heard. If they are not comfortable in expressing it in a certain environment, we shouldn’t label them apathetic. It is critical that even neutrality be presented in the debate, as neutral voices balance the status quo. Setting aside a period of three days to a week after the GA to think through the motions, consult the papers, and decide how to vote would help students who don’t follow campus politics. It is also essential to make the GA about more than just the motions, and to create an entertaining and engaging event in whatever way possible.

Let’s not limit our imagination about what the reform could include.  Getting rid of some of the strict rules of the assembly, for once, would encourage dialogue that does not stifle creativity. Now is the time for every student to give suggestions on what they want to see in a future GA. Let’s work on building the future of student democracy at McGill.

Alexander Kunev is a U3 Mechanical Engineering student and a SSMU Councilor for Engineering. Email him with ideas on GA reform at alexander.kunev@mail.mcgill.ca


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