Students filled Shatner cafeteria to its 675-person capacity and crowded the halls Thursday in anticipation of the most contentious General Assembly (GA) motion in the decision-making body’s short history.
Hisses, cheers, and boos from the audience drowned out the microphones several times throughout the three-hour event, which eventually saw the indefinite postponement of debate over a motion calling on SSMU to condemn the bombings of educational institutions in Gaza.
U3 BCom student Khaled Kteily, who wrote and motivated the motion, stressed his intentions for bringing it forward were to preserve Gazan students’ right to education.
“Let us not make politics out of human rights,” Kteily said.
Soon after, U3 Environment student Kyle Bailey called for a motion to object to a consideration of the question.
After SSMU Speaker Jordan Owens was unable to visually determine whether the two-thirds majority had been met, she asked the GA participants to line up in groups of ten on opposite sides of the room. After this failed logistically, SSMU Council members counted individual placards, resulting in 453 votes for and 256 against – meaning the objection failed.
Students wishing to speak in support of the motion responded to the outcome by cheering “Human rights!” which was met with loud calls of dissent from the other side – before Owens again attempted to keep the crowd in order.
“See what just happened? That’s a perfect example of things that won’t happen,” she said.
Many students felt uneasy after the room was literally divided over the issue.
U2 Arts student Julia Berrer, who came to vote against the motion, said she was shocked at the sight of the divided room, and decided to leave after the first vote.
“It’s more upsetting than anything else,” Berrer said, adding that she believed SSMU’s position on the issue would be irrelevant to McGill and governments in the Middle East.
Tensions rose steadily as some students heckled and shouted profanities at the Speaker, while others attempting to call the question to a vote despite Owens not having called on them to speak.
After a first-year Law student of Jewish descent spoke in favour of the Gaza motion, a motion to postpone the Gaza question indefinitely was called, requiring a simple majority to prevent debate from occurring.
SSMU councillors again tabulated the placards, this time reaching a result of 436 in favour, and 263 against postponing the question, ending discussion of the hotly contentious issue.
U3 Finance student Omar Abu-Thuraja was disappointed with the outcome, and said that SSMU should encourage debate in and outside GAs.
“It’s ridiculous how people can vote against human rights,” Abu-Thuraja said.
U1 Middle East Studies student Zach Newburg, creator and organizer of the Facebook event called “SSMU: Vote Against the Condemnation of Israel,” sent a message to its more than 400 members stating that the decision to postpone the Gaza question indefinitely was the only case of students standing up to stifle attempts to politicize their campus.
“Together, we made it clear that the GA is not an appropriate forum to express external political issues that divide staff, students, and faculty at the McGill University,” Newburg wrote.
During the 20-minute executive question period near the beginning of the Assembly, SSMU President Kay Turner was asked why divisive issues were permitted to go forward at the GA
“It’s the role of the [GA] body to discuss these issues,” Turner said, adding, “It’s not the role of the executive to decide what can and can’t be discussed.”
Owens thwarted multiple audience attempts to move the Gaza resolution higher up on the agenda.
“I’m ashamed of the student body because of the lack of decorum during motions that did not pertain to the bombing of Palestine,” said U2 Sociology student Zoe Engelberg. “My assumption was that no one cared and the way people talked and left immediately after showed a lack of respect for the General Assembly.”
Following the announcement over the Gaza motion, the majority of the 675 students left – soon nullifying qualified and regular quorum – and debate began over the motion calling for GAs to occur on an ad-hoc basis, as opposed to once per semester as is currently mandated.
U4 History student Fred Burrill, who spoke against the ad-hoc motion, argued that removing the mandatory Fall and Winter GAs would be extremely detrimental to the progress made on establishing a culture of democracy at McGill.
However, Arts rep to Council and GA Committee member Sarah Woolf, who motivated the motion, insisted otherwise.
“This is not a motion to kill the GA,” Woolf said.
U4 Canadian Studies student Max Silverman argued the motion was poorly-named, likening it to a “GA counter-revolution.”
“It’s not ‘reforming’ – it’s reverting back to how it was,” Silverman said.
Other students noted that under the current GA structure, Special GAs can be called at any time for time-sensitive questions. The body acted as a consultative session with over 100 students present until attendance fell below 50 students, at which time the GA was adjourned.
The first motion of new business to be discussed called on SSMU to ban the sale of bottled water within the Shatner building, and to promote sustainable alternatives to the product.
U1 Environment & Development student Dana Holtby, who submitted the motion, responded to criticisms that removing bottled water would be detrimental to students looking for healthy beverage options.
“This isn’t about limiting options, this is about promoting sustainable ones,” Holtby said.
The motion passed shortly thereafter.
Most of the Fall resolutions were quickly pushed to a vote without much substantive debate.
U3 Engineering student Adam Cytrynbaum roused the crowd during the debate over the motion calling for SSMU to lobby against military research into thermobaric weapons at McGill.
“Think about the full consequences… If SSMU and other student unions stopped all military research, then what would the Israeli government drop on schools in Gaza?” he said, laughing as the crowd reacted strongly.
This motion eventually passed, as did the ones calling on Principal Heather Munroe-Blum to host a house party and for every other Friday to be recognized as “No Pants Fridays.” The other two motions left over from the Fall Assembly – calling on SSMU to ban military recruitment from the Shatner building and its publications, and to officially rename Munroe-Blum and Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Morton Mendelson after Star Wars characters – failed.
The summary of the GA results posted on SSMU’s web site claimed that this was the best-attended GA in the recent history of SSMU.
Immediately after the assembly, SSMU Council met and decided to make significant changes to the “GA Reform” resolution for its inclusion in the 2009 Winter Referendum. The section of the question which would have called for the elimination of two scheduled GAs was removed, meaning at least one GA will occur in both Fall and Winter semesters next year.