Commentary | Denouncing PGSS’s anti-democratic culture

An open letter from the Art History and Communication Studies Graduate Students Association

As members of the department of Art History and Communication Studies Graduate Students Association (AHCS-GSA), we are writing to denounce the anti-democratic culture that has taken root in the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) over the past year. A number of events during recent PGSS meetings have resulted in a loss of faith on the part of our members that PGSS truly represents graduate student interests. Moreover, two of our members, the PGSS Equity Commissioner and the External Affairs Officer, have been repeatedly harassed and intimidated while trying to carry out their duties. We are disturbed and upset that this kind of behaviour has been allowed to continue for so long and that attempts at remedying the situation have been met with retaliatory actions rather than conciliation and accountability. This is a concern for all members of PGSS.

Silencing
The silencing of dissent at council meetings, the recent Annual General Meeting (AGM), and the husting (electoral debate) on February 20, disenfranchises members attempting to uphold the PGSS as a viable democratic body. For instance, a protest that took place during the February husting – an example of PGSS members non-violently expressing their dissatisfaction with the way that the Chief Returning Officer (CRO) had verbally assaulted PGSS members and was disregarding election rules – was used as an excuse to censure the Equity Commissioner and External Affairs Officer. The fact that a peaceful protest would be construed as grounds for censure of anyone strikes us as a willful abuse of the mechanism of censure.

Abuse of power
A mass email concerning the husting circulated by the Board of Directors (BoD) on April 1 outlines a set of procedures to be followed in the case of similar events in the future. The emailed procedural document refuses to acknowledge the historical role of protest in democratic processes and instead construes the events around February 20 as harassment against the CRO. This email could also be read to imply that the protest was “loud, vulgar, aggressive, abusive, violent, illegal or could be construed as harassment…or that is inappropriate on any other grounds.”

This vague and value-laden procedural document is redundant insofar as abusive, violent, and illegal actions are already dealt with under the criminal code, while other actions like being loud or vulgar are not offenses for which people should be punished. These new procedures are therefore nothing more than a method for intimidating and controlling members whose dissent is deemed “inappropriate.” In a very similar fashion to McGill’s protest protocol documents, this policy leaves the determination of ‘appropriate’ protest methods completely open to interpretation and subjective assessment. The threat of the removal of PGSS resources that the BoD recommends as a consequence of “inappropriate” behaviour will likely intimidate members from engaging in legitimate protest actions in the future, and we believe this is the intention of the “new rules,” not the protection of PGSS members.

Exclusionary processes 
The quality of democratic debate and oversight regarding PGSS affairs has been hampered by actions on the part of the Executive to shut members out of the process. One prime example of this was the April 10 council debate of the motion calling to censure the Equity Commissioner. Immediately a motion for closed session was moved. After a majority of councillors approved going into closed session, the Chair and the Executive enforced the closed session by kicking out all non-voting members, despite PGSS bylaws which allow that “any regular member may attend the non-confidential portion of the meeting of any governing body” (see 7.1). The purpose of a closed session is to restrict coverage by the media, not to prevent the broader PGSS membership from overseeing the discussion at council meetings.

Disempowerment
On a number of occasions, the Chair has given preferential treatment and speaking time to members of the Executive. During the 2012 AGM, executives motioned to strike a member motion to censure Jonathan Mooney and Adam Bouchard from the agenda. This has contributed to the atmosphere of disempowerment on the part of members who don’t feel that they have meaningful space to engage in debate that will be fairly considered. The fairness in debate was also hampered in the April 10 council meeting by a special resolution for confidentiality imposed by the PGSS Board of Directors, which also sent representatives to the council meeting to enforce their ruling, leading to the confusion and silencing of members attempting to defend the Equity Commissioner against a censure motion.

No accountability
At the March 20 Senate meeting, the Secretary-General voted in favor of adopting McGill’s Statement of Values, and against the position adopted in PGSS motions at prior council meetings that rejected the intent of this document. Rather than reprimand the Secretary-General for not representing PGSS, the Executive Committee targeted the Equity Commissioner for censure because of a conversation she had before Senate with the Secretary-General about his intention to vote for the Statement of Values. If we can’t even expect our elected representatives to be accountable for the decisions passed by the PGSS, what do we gain from engaging in the organization?

In conclusion, a state of disempowerment has been produced by an executive who are not interested in enhancing the democratic participation of PGSS members. In light of the consistent refusal to acknowledge the above problems on the part of Jonathan Mooney (Secretary-General), Michael Krause (Internal Affairs Officer), Adam Bouchard (Academic Affairs Officer), Elizabeth Cawley (Member Services Officer), and Erik Larson (Financial Affairs Officer and Acting Chair of the PGSS Board of Directors), we demand:

1) the immediate resignations of these Executives;
2) council revoke the censure motions against the External Affairs Officer and the Equity Commissioner passed by the Executive Committee, as well as the censure motion against the Equity Commissioner passed by Council; and
3) a public apology from the Executive Committee and the PGSS Board to all members who have experienced confusion, frustration, and intimidation at the way PGSS has been conducting its affairs over the past year.

Ratified by the General Assembly of AHCS-GSA on April 18, 2013

Support by concerned graduate students, including:

·         Executive Committee of the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) – Concordia
·         McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies Student Council (MIISSC)-GSA
·         Anthropology Graduate Students Association (AGSA)
·         Education Graduate Students Society (EGSS)
·         McGill Radical Law Community (RadLaw), Faculty of Law
·         Jodie Beck, a PhD Student from the East Asian Studies Department
·         Anne-Sophie Pratte, Graduate Student at East Asian Studies Department
·         rosalind hampton, VP Diversity and Equity of the Education Graduate Students’ Society
·         Lena Carla Palacios, Vanier Canada Graduate Scholar, Joint Ph.D. Student, McGill University, Department of Integrated Studies in Education, Department of Art History and Communication Studies
·         Carl St-Denis, Graduate student at DISE
·         Ilyan Ferrer, Social Work Association of Graduate Students (SWAGS) Academic and Student Affairs Leader, PhD Candidate
·         Megan Mericle, MA in Art History, Department of Art History and Communication Studies


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