Commentary | What should your democracy look like?

The SSMU president wants your feedback on GA reform

If you’re reading this article, then chances are you’re at least vaguely aware that the SSMU hosts a General Assembly (“the GA”) once each semester. You may have read editorials endorsing ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on different General Assembly motions, or advocating for or against the SSMU General Assembly being abolished all together. Even if you haven’t, please keep reading, because we’re attempting to change your democratic forum and you deserve to be involved in the process.

The GA has the power to provide a forum for students to come together, debate, and decide what we want to see from our student society and on our campus. The SSMU political process can be dry at times, although those of you who have attended GAs know that they are often host to impassioned speeches and substantive decisions (not to mention a lot of neon yellow voting placards).

It’s easy to critique the GA, which has had its fair share of problems – from low attendance, to motions some people find irrelevant, to controversial motions that have left the student body physically divided. What’s not as easy is to engage students in truly reforming the General Assembly into a decision-making body we can all be proud of and that can provide a central space for students across the downtown campus to make decisions about what SSMU should do.

Should motions “from the floor” be allowed? This would let any member show up with a motion on the day of the GA, instead of submitting it two weeks in advance; while there would be some logistical issues regarding translating and checking for contradictions with the SSMU’s Constitution or bylaws, this could add to the flexibility and dare I suggest excitement of the event.

“Quorum” (the number of students who have to be there in order for the GA to make a decision) is currently 100 members, with the requirement that no more than 50 per cent can be from any one faculty. Should this faculty requirement be kept to protect against any one faculty’s students overwhelming others, or is faculty a poor proxy for a student’s ideology and best interests? Should faculty associations have a formal role in the SSMU General Assembly?

Should voting at the GA continue to be in person only, or should voting be moved online in order to ensure that every student has the opportunity to vote, regardless of scheduling and space constraints? If the debate and collective process are a large part of what is most valuable about the GA, would allowing the assembled body to vote on the amendments, but then put the final motion to an online vote be a respectable compromise?

These are some of the questions SSMU’s bylaw committee is grappling with. We want to give the student body a stronger democratic forum, but it doesn’t make sense for us alone to decide what your democracy looks like. After a survey and two town halls, the bylaw review committee will be meeting this week to decide what proposals to ultimately put forward to SSMU Council. There will also be a town hall to discuss the proposed changes, but we encourage you to be proactive rather than reactive and to give us your thoughts now on how to reshape your GA.

If you’re a downtown campus undergraduate, then the SSMU represents you. Each March, all of you SSMU members elect six student executives and numerous councillors to represent you. But of course in any robust democratic system, the voters doesn’t just ignore what these elected officials do until the next election – in SSMU’s case, the vast majority of executives serve just a single one-year term, which means we don’t face a second evaluation at the ballot box. This is where the General Assembly and the Referendum Period come in. At a GA, any SSMU member has the right to argue for their perspective and debate the opinions of other students. We hope you exercise your right to not only show up for your democracy but to shape it.

Maggie Knight is the President of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). She can be reached at president@ssmu.mcgill.ca.


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