News  Gaza motion sparks constitutional controversy

Critics hold SSMU Speaker responsible

Thursday’s General Assembly (GA) is bound to be electrifying as a highly contentious motion is brought forward to condemn the bombings of educational institutions in the Gaza Strip.

Its critics, however, aren’t just riled up because it raises political questions about the Middle East; instead, they think the entire motion is unconstitutional, and are holding SSMU Speaker Jordan Owens responsible.

Mushfia Ahmed, U1 Electrical Engineering, felt like this resolution alone may not have a substantive effect on Israel’s policy, but SSMU’s condemnation could be one of many messages of disapproval broadcast by the global community.

“If it passes now, it is almost useless, especially after the end of military operations, but each condemnation adds up,” Ahmed said. “If no one speaks out, [Israel] may not reconsider their actions next time. SSMU is one more voice…. This [should not be] forgotten completely.”

Zachary Newburgh, U2 Honours Middle East Studies, criticized the resolution because the preamble states that Israel has deliberately targeted and razed hospitals, United Nations-funded compounds, and educational institutions, without any mention that the buildings may have been used by Hamas militants as bases of operations or as launching pads for weapons.

Newburgh, along with a large assortment of McGill students and campus organizations, including Hillel McGill, felt that taking such a political stance would not be productive in an academic environment.

“There are students on campus that are considering pursuing legal action, [through the Judicial Board], in order to retract this resolution and ensure that McGill remains a safe place for all students,” Newburgh said. “SSMU, by allowing such a resolution to come before the General Assembly, willfully isolates, marginalizes, and makes students at McGill University feel unwelcome.”

Owens, however, disagreed. She pointed out that SSMU has historically taken stances on external political issues in this manner.

“Through the General Assembly, SSMU took a stance on both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. My reading of the constitution is that there should be free and open dialogue about policy and the General Assembly is the forum for that,” she said.

Newburgh also pointed to the unconstitutional nature of the motion. In an email to the Speaker, and CC-ed to SSMU President Kay Turner, The Daily, and other campus publications, Newburgh explained several potential violations, such as Article 22, which states, “SSMU Council will not take a position on external political issues that Council deems to be extremely divisive among students at McGill University.”

He attributed the potential violation to Owens’s negligence.

“The SSMU Speaker has unequivocally chosen to violate the constitution and thereby infringe upon the rights of all those who fit under SSMU,” said Newburgh. “The job of the SSMU Speaker is to make sure that all resolutions that are submitted to the General Assembly don’t violate the constitution.”

Corey Shefman, SSMU Speaker in 2006-2007, also held Owens responsible.

“The Speaker of Council has the authority to reject motions that are not in line with the SSMU Constitution,” he told The Daily in a telephone interview from Wales. “Even here in the UK, I’ve heard about the protests going on at McGill, and with that in mind, it is obviously a divisive issue.”

Shefman came under scrutiny at the February 2007 GA when he ruled two blood-drive motions were unconstitutional, thereby refusing to let the issue be discussed. The highly-divided assembly tried to appeal the ruling, but eventually a slim majority voted to uphold the Speaker’s ruling.

Owens, however, defended herself, explaining that impartiality is a necessary virtue for a Speaker to possess.

“It’s not the role of the Speaker to decide whether or not a discussion should take place. SSMU has no opinion on the matter right now, and that is for the General Assembly to decide,” she said.

VP Clubs & Services Samantha Cook also thought the motions do not violate the Constitution and that neither the Speaker nor SSMU have done any harm to the school environment.

“I am familiar with Corey Shefman, but every speaker has a different way of looking at and interpreting the Constitution,” said Cook. “It is a living document, and its interpretation is a product of the times.”

Shefman, however, downplayed how representative the GA is in matters of this divisive nature.

“Dividing the student body like this is not a good idea, especially not by 600 out of 20,000 students,” said Shefman.

“If this is a question that really needs to be asked, ask the whole student body in an online vote.”

The GA will be held in the Shatner Cafeteria at 4 p.m. on Thursday. Maximum capacity for the cafeteria, with chairs and tables removed, is around 675 people.