One of the most striking things McGill students have experienced since November 10 is the significance of physical community. It’s on this note that I’d like to begin a discussion of how vital general assemblies are to student associations and their student members who live, study, and work at this University. General assemblies are a place where we can have human relationships with others and collectively empower ourselves to make democratic decisions.
These gatherings are the most open and democratic forums available to student associations like SSMU, the AUS, and the SUS. These assemblies allow the entire membership of an organization to debate and decide on whatever topics they collectively deem significant. Anyone who is a member of a student association can bring a motion forward, debate on it, and vote with equal say. At general assemblies we can openly discuss major issues, hearing all sides of the debate, and take meaningful positions that can be translated into concrete action. It’s this basis of direct democracy upon which the victories of Quebec’s social movements – including the lowest tuition fees in Canada – have in part been built.
No one would deny that online voting has its place. It is important to have a forum where thousands of people can quickly and easily agree or disagree with certain positions, and often things like fee levies and constitutional changes are decided this way. To be sure, technology opens up real democratic possibilities when thoughtfully and carefully used, but it has significant limitations. Technology cannot replicate the effect of hundreds of people meeting in person at a general assembly to decide how mandates are written; online votes only allow students to decide which policies are implemented. Certainly, no technologies can feasibly build the sort of physical community general assemblies allow – where our human relationships with each other hold us accountable for the choices we make, quite unlike many of the bureaucratic decision-making processes I’ve been involved in as a SSMU Councillor.
Despite the possibilities of overburdening procedures and weak chairing, the process of debating and amending is central to the democratic process. GAs allow us to do more than check a box: these assemblies allow individuals to set the terms of discussion and action. When GAs are effective – when they are granted the power to make concrete resolutions, when people understand and care about the issues – they are a central mechanism of student direct democracy. They become real physical spaces where we can collectively change our society. It’s happened in the history of Quebec, and it can and should happen again.
Starting this Tuesday, February 7, Arts undergraduates at McGill will have the opportunity to vote to change the constitution of the Arts Undergraduate Society and allow General Assemblies to make effective decisions. The proposed reforms include: allowing General Assemblies to make financial decisions, amend bylaws, and take precedence over AUS Council decisions. I urge you to vote YES to this important initiative.
Jamie Burnett is a U2 Economics and Women’s Studies Student and an Arts Representative to SSSMU. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org