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Features | The rhetoric of the reactionary

Understanding the history of student politics at McGill

Whenever activists fighting for social and environmental justice try to get anything done at McGill, they are immediately faced with two obstacles: reactionarism and apathy. Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) General Assemblies (GAs) are a perfect example: either they are sparsely attended and fail to make quorum, or reactionaries attend in full force to tell students that they shouldn’t be supporting a particular social justice issue.

Consider the SSMU Fall 2014 GA, where a motion calling for solidarity with Palestinian human rights was tabled indefinitely. The discussion was hijacked, and instead of discussing the merits of standing in solidarity with an oppressed people, students were forced to discuss the intricacies of Robert’s Rules of Order.

A common argument goes like this: students should not be discussing these issues, because the milieu in which they discuss them, the student union, ought not to be political. We are supposedly students first; we have our grades to worry about, assignments to finish, lectures to listen to, parties to attend et cetera. SSMU should not be discussing these “political” issues, because students have other “more important” things to do. In addition, even the proposition for SSMU to consider taking a political stance is deemed divisive and alienating, as political discussions apparently create unbearable tension within the student body. This kind of reactionary is the “politically neutral.”

When the SSMU Legislative Council passed a motion to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) occupation of the Toronto Police Service headquarters, SSMU VP Internal Omar El-Sharawy said that students want SSMU to be more “fun” and less “political.” Former SSMU presidential candidates Alexei Simakov and Jordan Sinder made “political neutrality” the centrepiece of their campaigns.

While political discussions that are brought up at SSMU are uncomfortable at times, this is not a bad thing. They highlight tensions and disagreements that already exist among students, and working through them is necessary for us to take meaningful steps forward.

The problem is that nothing is politically neutral: everything is inherently political. Though this may seem like a vague statement, the simple fact that injustice and oppression exist in the world means that neutrality, or the choice to not do anything, has the effect of tacitly supporting this status quo. This choice is, in itself, political. It is SSMU’s recognition of its role as a political agent that justifies the commitment to “leadership in matters of human rights, social justice, and environmental protection” set out in SSMU’s Constitution. And while political discussions that are brought up at SSMU are uncomfortable at times, this is not a bad thing. They highlight tensions and disagreements that already exist among students, and working through them is necessary for us to take meaningful steps forward.

Another kind of reactionary hides behind a feigned concern for effectiveness. They recognize that SSMU is, in practice, political, but they argue that SSMU does not have the ability to effect meaningful change, and so any actions and stances in support of social justice on its part are not worth the effort. They don’t see the point in standing in solidarity with the anti-austerity movement, for example, by going on strike. They fail to see that direct action, in the past, has forced the government to change its policy and listen to student demands – remember when Quebec tuitions were not hiked? When other students want the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry or from companies that profit from the illegal occupation of Palestine, the reactionaries argue that these are symbolic actions that mean nothing, and that no matter what SSMU does, it will not be effective in bringing about the desired outcome. They forget, however, that McGill has successfully and meaningfully been a part of similar movements in the past, having divested from the tobacco industry and companies profiting from the South African apartheid.

As such, SSMU is said to be useless and a waste of money. Instead of providing their own alternatives, however, these reactionaries merely attempt to shut down progressive movements. Why would they provide their own alternatives anyway? To them, there is no problem with the status quo.

Turnout at these acts of direct democracy is usually rather low, but this does not mean that it is not representative of the political climate – if we are to assume that the silent majority at McGill simply does not care about what we do, then it cannot inform our decisions either way. As a side note, however, it would be nice if they cared.

Apathy is another threat to effecting change. It is difficult to get people engaged at McGill. This does not mean that students don’t care – but when it comes to active engagement, they disappear, often because of very valid reasons like school or work. However, student apathy often becomes a tool for reactionaries to push their claims: they dispute the legitimacy of the vocal minority – arguably a small group of very loud activists – in pursuing progressive goals on behalf of a majority that is okay with the status quo. But the reactionaries themselves can’t speak on this silent majority’s behalf, either as the fact that students don’t get involved does not mean that they oppose a progressive agenda. The results of student-run referenda and SSMU elections, our best indicators of the majority opinion, consistently show that many more students support progressive proposals. Admittedly, turnout at these acts of direct democracy is usually rather low, but this does not mean that it is not representative of the political climate – if we are to assume that the silent majority at McGill simply does not care about what we do, then it cannot inform our decisions either way. As a side note, however, it would be nice if they cared.

The rhetorical devices I have just described are not new. Indeed, when we look at McGill’s history, we see that this back-and-forth between reactionaries and those fighting for social and environmental justice changes rarely, and even the language used remains more or less the same. As they say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Over the past few years, there has been a growing polarization of political philosophy on campus. We have witnessed the growth of such groups as Students for Democratic University (S.D.U.); the Socialist Action Committee (S.A.C.); the McGill Student Movement; the Committee at McGill to End the War in Vietnam, etc. Each of these groups has sought to gain support for its own political view. We have also seen the Daily converted from the Campus-oriented journal edited by Jon Fenston in 1964, through the transitional issues of Patric MacFadden (who managed to weather several non-confidence motions) and Sandy Gage (who was not so fortunate), to the politically-oriented newspapers of Peter Allnutt and Mark Starowicz. 

—In December of 1968, the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) held a referendum to disaffiliate from the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). Ronald Segal, a “yes” campaigner, wrote an opinion piece focusing on political neutrality as a reason to secede. (“Should the engineers secede? YES.” December 3, 1968, page 6)

I recognize the importance of establishing a SSMU executive branch which maintains political neutrality. […] Our student government must represent and cater to the diversity of all political beliefs and ideologies, not a preferential few. I envision a SSMU which facilitates a means of political discussion and awareness. However, our student government must represent all political views, not retroactively impose their own beliefs on the student body.

–Following in the footsteps of former presidential candidate Alexei Simakov, Jordan Sinder ran on a platform of political neutralty. Sinder’s platform, compared with Simakov’s was definitely more toned down. (From SSMU presidential candidate Jordan Sinder’s campaign platform, 2016)

Discourse of neutrality and polarization

In 1968, an important discussion overtook the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS). Students argued that engineering students were not benefitting enough (or at all) from being members of SSMU. In addition, some argued that SSMU’s representative efforts were misguided – essentially, according to them, SSMU was too political. In the end, EUS decided to stay in SSMU, with 63 per cent of the votes.

Almost fifty years later, the debate on SSMU’s political nature is far from settled, and there remains a reactionary attitude to perceived politicization and radicalization of our student union. During this year’s referendum period, a motion to create a steering committee to block motions deemed to be “external and divisive” from being discussed at GAs was put forward. The question, criticized by its opponents (of which I was one of the most vocal) as stifling democracy, ultimately failed by a slim margin, with 52.6 per cent voting against it. A hesitancy, or even fear, of “polarizing” the student body marked the platforms of many candidates, especially presidential candidates, in this year’s executive elections.

The discourse of neutrality and polarization is meant to cloud people’s judgment. In actuality, the problem here is not that SSMU is taking too many political positions – it’s that the reactionary is not in favour of the topics being discussed. Back in 1968, one of the critiques brought up against SSMU was that it was in favour of making McGill a “critical university,” where that research would be conscious of its sociopolitical nature. This would imply responsible and ethical research. Avoiding this outcome is not political neutrality – it is a political choice. Similarly, the steering committee motion was brought up right after a contentious Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) motion was discussed at the SSMU Winter 2016 GA. Not discussing “external and divisive” motions, however, does not erase polarization – it’s merely burying one’s head in the sand.

McGill’s level of participation was hardly noticeable in the rally and many saw the low McGill student turnout as a clear indication of an uncaring and inactive SSMU. “It’s always sad that SSMU never comes out to these thing,” said Rudy. “My question is, who does SSMU support? If they’re not out here today fighting against tuition hikes, then what are they doing?” he asked.

—In November of 1999, the students in Montreal were striking against government cuts to education. Notably, however, SSMU was missing from the ranks. (“Students Take Demands to the Streets,” November 4, 1999, News, page 8)

“That culture [of student unions as sites of political] is not present at McGill yet, and that’s the problem – people see the student union as being more for events and for clubs,” she said. “That’s what I think needs to be changed, it’s the culture and the political awareness that needs to be reformed.”

—Former SSMU VP External Amina Moustaqim-Barette attempted to mobilize SSMU to be more directly involved with the Spring 2015 anti-austerity movement. Much to her chagrin, it takes more than asking nicely to get students to believe in SSMU. (“Quebec students set to strike,” February 2, 2015, News, page 6)

Ineffectiveness and McGill exceptionalism and the McGill bubble

The critique that SSMU’s political stances are meaningless has a kernel of truth in it, though, as they often end up having little effect. However, this is not because SSMU is powerless to enact meaningful change, but rather because, when it comes to mobilization, SSMU often trails significantly behind its counterparts at other universities. It is clear that the solution is not, as the reactionaries would have it, to cease political activity, but rather to increase SSMU’s mobilization capabilities.

One of the reasons why SSMU is difficult to mobilize – despite being located in Quebec, a province with many vibrant student movements – is the widespread perception that McGill is fundamentally different from the rest of Quebec, with the campus enclosed, as it were, by a bubble. This explains the fact that most McGill students again stood idle while the rest of the province was up in arms against provincial austerity measures, as was the case during the Spring 2015 movement.

In fact, though, McGill is not as different as we’d like to think – if we put our mind to it, what works elsewhere will work here as well. When enough students mobilize, they get tangible results. In 2012, when the provincial Liberals tried to hike tuition fees, tens of thousands of students took to the streets, eventually leading to the ousting of that government. Even though McGill was not very active in that movement, it benefited from the actions of other Quebec students.

Whatever anyone says, McGill is in Montreal and is affected by its political climate. Saying that SSMU is ineffective, without attempting to make it any better serves a reactionary agenda. If other universities and other student unions can do it, so can we. Calling SSMU ineffective is not an argument against it – it’s an effort to keep it that way for political reasons.

Mike Clarke, finance director of the Students’ Society, insisted that the secessionists were premature in their wish to withdraw. He said if the Engineers were dissatisfied with the Students’ Society, they should first work for changes within it. If adequate change was impossible then the students might be justified in their desire for secession.

—Finance Director of SSMU Mike Clarke complains about EUS members who complain about how SSMU is useless, while never proposing any solutions themselves. (“EUS considers secession,” November 27, 1968, page 3)

Every time that the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) ends up on my Facebook feed, there seems to be another scandal or controversy concerning the elusive group that runs our student government and their ‘esoteric leftist liberal agenda.’ This just means that students on this campus are focusing on all the wrong issues. Students’ reactions seem to be stuck within the binary of ‘not caring’ and ‘complaining.’ With that sort of attitude, we can never make SSMU into the ally we need.

—Lauria Galbraith, who wrote this article, was The Daily’s SSMU beat in 2014-15. From her vantage point, it was clear that SSMU could be used as a tool, yet students need to be convinced first. (“End your apathy,” March 30, 2015, Commentary, page 22)

Discourse of uselessness, waste of money

Whether they acknowledge it or not, every student at McGill benefits from the services and advocacy provided by SSMU. Extended library hours, the operation of the Shatner building, Senate representation, reading week, student rights – none of these could exist if SSMU had no money to spend on services as well as advocacy efforts. This is the case for any student union. As such, it is just patently wrong to argue that paying the SSMU fee is a waste.

No service SSMU provides can come for free. Understandably, students are hesitant to increase their fees. This provides a useful talking point for the reactionary who would prefer that this money not be spent toward progressive goals. Hiding behind the argument that progressive groups (often funded via, but not by, student unions) are useless, however, is merely avoiding a discussion about the true political intents of the reactionary.

Any other entity on campus that has a mandate to fight for social and environmental justice also needs to be funded – the amount of labour that goes into these endeavours and the socials goods that they create make these groups worthwhile investments. Examples of such groups include CKUT, QPIRG-McGill, and everybody’s favourite campus newspaper (yours truly). According to the reactionary, funding these groups privileges their political stances above others and this privilege is unearned. But this is false. Money for these groups comes from student fees levied through referenda, and students have repeatedly voted in favour of these initiatives. If SSMU and other organizations are truly useless to most students, nothing can explain the fact that these can survive and have survived for decades now with students’ continued support.

Any group with sufficiently high levels of support can lobby both SSMU and the University to be funded by student fees. The McGill Chapter of the World University Service Canada (WUSC), for instance, collects a Student Refugee Fee in order to fund refugee students’ studies at McGill. It surely cannot be the fault of social justice groups that no opposing reactionary student group is funded through student fees.

With little fanfare or audience, Activism Day passed quietly in the Shatner building.

—Similar to the anti-austerity week that was held at the beginning of this academic year, SSMU tried to hold an Activism Day in 1999. Turnout left much to be desired. (“Talkin’ About a Revolution,” November 4, 1999, News, page 4)

Apathy and the silent majority

The reactionary often attempts to further bolster the legitimacy of their rhetorical efforts by speaking on behalf of the “silent majority.” This nebulous group of students is presented as sharing the reactionary’s opposition to progressive efforts – the fact that they don’t speak out is taken to mean that they support the status quo.

The truth of the matter, however, is that public political discourse necessarily exists only among the vocal minorities, to which, incidentally, reactionaries of this kind also belong. While a professed commitment to neutrality is, as discussed earlier, a political stance, we cannot say the same of silence. In fact, we can hardly assume anything about the opinions of this silent majority, nor can we speak on its behalf.

The only way to find out what the majority thinks is to consult it. And in fact, referendum results for questions about progressive groups and issues, which are frequently decided by close margins, show that the distribution of opinions is much less clear than the reactionary would lead us to believe.

The turnout rates at referenda and elections, however, seem to contradict this statement. A majority of the approximately 30 per cent of the entire student body is really a minority. Yet, this approximately 70 per cent that constitute the silent majority is so consistent that we can ignore its epistemic impossibility. If it is the case that this 70 per cent is truly apathetic, then their opinion actually does not matter. We cannot know what they think if they do not speak up. We cannot know if they are for or against progessive movements if they do not vote. As such, there is nothing wrong with focusing exclusively on that fraction of students who do.

The debates happen between the vocal minorities, but it is still the majority that holds decision-making power, and it does not need anyone to speak on its behalf.

Explaining that while he personally was not for or against the motion, VP Internal Omar El-Sharawy said that consultations with students and groups have shown that students want “SSMU to be more fun, and less political. […] It just seems that this semester we have become more political and I think this is something to consider.”

—SSMU VP Internal comments that SSMU ought be less political and more fun, as per the demands of the broader student body. (“SSMU stands in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and Indigenous groups,” March 28, 2016, News, online)

However, the fight is far from over. “This year there’s been sort of a new group of students that have cropped up, we call ourselves McGill Against Austerity, Boytinck continued. “Organizing movements at McGill is a very slow and laborious process and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’re still at baseline mobilization, but I do feel like it’s growing.”

—SSMU VP External Emily Boytinck was more fortunate than her predecessor in finding passionate students to mobilize against austerity. The process is arduous, but it’s progress. (“The butterfly effect,” November 23, 2015, Features, page 10)


The political nature of student life at McGill is a fact. As students, we are passionate about the things we study and the things we do. It is inevitable that we care about certain issues. Personally, I do not believe that there is such a thing as true apathy. That 30 per cent is the highest turnout we see at SSMU elections could be seen as a piece of evidence against my conviction.

On the other hand, looking through the archives of The Daily, I have seen that this battle between activists and reactionaries has been waged for decades now. For every progressive action, there has been a reaction. Obstacles were always in the way. I believe, however, that there is a reason why EUS stayed a part of SSMU; there is a reason why QPIRG-McGill is still around; there is a reason why political campaigns such as Divest McGill and Demilitarize McGill can pass motions at general assemblies that mandate SSMU to support them; and there is a reason why The Daily is still here.

The progress of the progressive movement is real. The recent increase in reactionary efforts is only proof of this. The stronger the action, the stronger the reaction. History shows, however, that in the end, it is the activists who win. Sure, there are some defeats here and there; however, the social and environmental justice movements cannot be stopped. This is not arrogance that fuels these words. This is radical optimism. I am radically hopeful that one day we will eradicate all injustices in the world.

Until that day however, the battle against the reactionary continues.