Commentary | SSMU responds to Choose Life event

The SSMU executive is incredibly concerned and upset about the response of McGill University to the recent “Echoes of the Holocaust” event, hosted by the SSMU club Choose Life. We feel that McGill University has not only disrespected the rights of the SSMU as the accredited representative body of all McGill undergraduate students, but also failed to protect students’ rights.

McGill University has not respected SSMU Council and the SSMU executives as representatives of the McGill undergraduate student population. When the SSMU Council passed a resolution officially and publicly censuring the event “Echoes of the Holocaust”, the SSMU Council clearly stated that for Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson to permit it to go forward would disregard the desire of the Council. In response, Professor Mendelson argued that this resolution is a tyranny of the majority. Firstly, this is an offensive misrepresentation of the purpose of SSMU Council. The SSMU Council was acting on behalf of all undergraduate students, both in its representative capacity and in reaction to many conversations with students. Secondly, it is worrisome that the Deputy Provost interprets a large percentage of students being outraged and appalled at an event to be a tyranny of the majority. SSMU had hoped that Mendelson would consider the impact as well as content of the presentation instead of ignoring the formal intervention of students’ representative body by using the rhetoric of academic freedom.

By ignoring the SSMU Council’s decision, McGill acted as an enabler for a group attempting to violate SSMU’s governing documents. The resolution regarding “Echoes of the Holocaust” was passed because the subject and format of the planned presentation violated the SSMU Constitution and Equity Policy. Council did not pass judgment based on individual opinions, but on the constitutionality of the event overall. SSMU did not censor Choose Life’s opinions, but the offensive format within which those opinions were being presented. Moreover, the SSMU Council, as the highest governing body of SSMU, has ultimate authority over SSMU clubs. McGill University must respect the right of SSMU to govern groups under its jurisdiction according to its constitution, by-laws, and policies.

SSMU is also disturbed by McGill’s callous disregard of its need to protect students. The Deputy Provost has argued that the behaviour of the protestors was disappointing and appalling. SSMU understands that the disruptive behaviour of the protestors impeded on an event that the University had permitted to happen. However, the University has failed to address the concern that all other formal avenues had been exhausted, but to no avail. Vulnerable students tried to communicate their concerns to the University through the available channels: the SSMU executive, SSMU Council, AUS Council, the McGill Tribune, and The McGill Daily. There were no other avenues through which to stop this event, which they deemed victimizing, offensive, and stifling of educated debate, from happening.

Furthermore, it is unfair to expect these student protestors to watch a presentation calmly and to engage with a speaker when such a presentation would make them feel violated, demonized, and silenced. In his February 27, 2009 article in the McGill Reporter, “Free and Open Expression on Campus,” Mendelson said that free speech should be permitted as long as “we do not create a hostile environment for members of our diverse community.” This event created a hostile environment and should not have been permitted. It is possibly most disappointing that when students peacefully engaged in a public response to this hostile environment, they were removed through a police intervention. Administrators did not intervene at all during the height of the event, even after requests from the SSMU executive to do so. Students felt entirely abandoned by the McGill administration upon seeing fellow students removed from the safety of the downtown campus and handed over to the Montreal police and the public media.

SSMU has continually tried to serve and represent McGill undergraduate students in this situation, and will continue to do so. We will continue to engage in a conversation with the McGill administration concerning their respect for SSMU and our students’ rights. We will provide impartial information and guidance to any student defending any action to McGill or initiating a grievance with McGill. Most importantly, as the representatives of all undergraduate students, we will hold ourselves to the highest standard of accountability to our students and to the SSMU constitution, by-laws, and policies.

We hope to work with McGill to address these concerns and formulate constructive solutions. If any students would like to discuss these issues with the SSMU executive, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Ivan Neilson is president of SSMU and is writing on behalf of SSMU’s executive. Write the executive at