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Eight-hour General Assembly site of tense debates, unusual procedures

Hundreds of students pass motions on climate change, military research, austerity

Correction appended October 25, 2014.

Nearly 800 people filled the Shatner building on October 22 to participate in the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU)’s Fall 2014 General Assembly (GA). A motion calling on SSMU to condemn the recent violence in Gaza and the occupation of Palestinian territories was postponed indefinitely, while a motion against harmful military technology development on campus, a motion regarding action on climate change, and a motion against austerity measures were passed, pending online ratification. A motion to stand in solidarity with the pro-democracy student protests in Hong Kong was tabled to the Winter 2015 GA.

The GA began around 6 p.m., an hour and a half later than it was scheduled to start, and ended at 12:30 a.m.. Quorum was maintained throughout, with attendees spread across three rooms during the busiest hours. Despite logistical issues that resulted in some students being temporarily kept out of the building, the GA proceeded relatively smoothly, as SSMU had prepared for a high turnout.

Motion on solidarity with Palestine postponed indefinitely

By far the most contentious motion of the meeting, the Motion Calling on SSMU to Stand in Solidarity with the People of the Occupied Palestinian Territories was the first to see extensive debate. As soon as the debate period began, Political Science student and International Relations Students’ Association of McGill (IRSAM) President Ameya Pendse moved to postpone the motion indefinitely.

The debate over Pendse’s motion lasted about an hour and a half. Pendse argued that debating the original motion would create “a winner and a loser,” and thereby divide the student body. “Please vote to postpone this forever,” he said.

Dina El-baradie, coordinator at McGill Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) and one of the “yes” campaign coordinators for the original motion, said that the fact that the issue was brought up indicated that “there already is a divide on campus.”

Some supporters of the motion to postpone indefinitely invoked free speech, which Arts student Ryan Tepper called “ironic” since no discussion on the motion would be heard. Others said that it was not SSMU’s place to take a stance on this issue, since it would not represent its constituents, who have diverse opinions on the matter.

“I didn’t come to this university […] for a student union to speak on my behalf,” said U3 Arts student McKenzie Kibler.

However, multiple students also noted that SSMU’s constitution mandates it to demonstrate leadership in issues of human rights and social justice.

U3 Environment student and former Daily editor Joelle Dahm noted that she felt unsafe discussing her views on the conflict on campus, a situation that the original motion sought to address by providing for “a safe platform for students to voice their views and experiences.”

“Not being able to discuss this motion is taking the voice from people who do not agree with the status quo on campus,” said Dahm.

Students on both sides of the original motion spoke to the intrinsic value of debate and hearing the other side, seeing the GA as the right forum for this discussion.

“I just want a constructive debate,” said Management Senator Nabeel Godil. “If you can’t have analytical skills at the academic level, how will you progress to the corporate level?”

The motion to postpone indefinitely passed, with 402 votes for and 337 against. The original motion was not debated, and cannot be presented to a GA in its current form until Fall 2015.

“Would it have gotten ugly? Probably. But the point of a democratic society is that we can get together and talk, and if not find common ground, at least be exposed to other opinions.” – Medicine Senator David Benrimoh

“I feel that it’s actually quite hypocritical,” said El-baradie, commenting on the motion to postpone in an interview with The Daily. “A lot of other students who are pro-Palestinian and who are for human rights and social justice are now completely silenced. […] SSMU is the only channel where we can actually do something that’s tangible and actually take action.”

“I am happy that it didn’t go to debate,” “no” campaign organizer Jordan Devon told The Daily in an interview. “If we can be honest here, the vast majority of people here came in already […] with their minds made up.”

“This would have been a great opportunity to have multiple viewpoints heard,” Medecine Senator David Benrimoh told The Daily. “Would it have gotten ugly? Probably. But the point of a democratic society is that we can get together and talk, and if not find common ground, at least be exposed to other opinions.”

Motion on harmful military research amended

The Motion Regarding Support of a Campus Free from Harmful Military Technology Development, which called on SSMU to strengthen its stance of opposition to the development of harmful military technology on campus, saw heated debate.

“I am from the Middle East,” said one student. “I don’t want even the possibility that the money given to McGill to do research will be used to bomb people in my own country.”

Proponents cited ongoing research projects at McGill that have little to no practical usage outside of killing, such as thermobaric explosives developed by the Shock Wave Physics Group and systems developed for drones made by the Computational Fluid Dynamics lab.

“Military research has already harmed and affected the economic and educational possibilities of millions of people around the world,” said U2 Arts student Grace.

Critics of the motion argued that military funding can be an important part of research budgets in science and engineering. Law student and former Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) Secretary-General Jonathan Mooney also questioned how harmful military research would be defined, and who would be in charge of distinguishing between harmful and non-harmful research. Engineering student Abdullah argued that exact definitions of what is “harmful” should take place at a later date.

Cadence O’Neal, an organizer with Demilitarize McGill, proposed an amendment to the motion that would add resolved clauses mandating SSMU to publicly condemn states that apply military research and to publicly condemn recent violence in Gaza. Prompting several rounds of changes to the amendment, students debated on whether or not to include specific countries or list specific technologies that are known to be harmful.

“Military research has already harmed and affected the economic and educational possibilities of millions of people around the world.” – Grace, U2 Arts student

Most of those who spoke in the ensuing debate were not directly hostile toward the amended clause, but remained wary of the perceived relationship between the amendment and the Palestinian solidarity motion that had been indefinitely postponed earlier, and the implications this could have for the entire motion’s ability to pass online ratification.

“This motion, in its earlier form, would have been an effective way to oppose military research on campus,” said U2 Arts student Alex. “I believe that [if amended] this [motion] would fail in an online referendum, thereby taking away an opportunity that we have to do something meaningful.”

SSMU VP University Affairs Claire Stewart-Kanigan stated that while she had supported the motion in its original form, she could not support the amendment because she thought the change would undermine the original motion and might threaten SSMU’s democratic credibility.

O’Neal eventually decided to remove the portion of the amendment that condemned McGill’s relationship with governments entirely. The amendment was approved.

“I respect and I really am thankful for the work that went into the writing of this original motion, and that’s why I am choosing to remove [a portion of the amendment] in an attempt to make [the motion] more likely to pass through online ratification,” O’Neal explained.

As the motion was about to enter voting procedure, Speaker Rachel Simmons paused the meeting to allow a few dozen people who had lined up at the doors to sign in, but her decision was appealed. The appeal carried and debate began, but most of the students who had lined up entered the room before a vote could be taken, and the appeal was rescinded. Many of them later voted to abstain on the motion.

The amended motion passed with 146 votes for, 11 votes against, and 64 abstentions.

Motion regarding action on climate change passes

The Motion Regarding Action on Climate Change, sought to mandate SSMU to join Étudiant(e)s Contre les Oléoducs (ECO) and that VP External Amina Moustaqim-Barrette draft a policy on climate change action to be presented to SSMU Council in Winter 2015.

Many people spoke in favour of the motion. Moustaqim-Barrette, one of the movers, talked about the importance of taking a stance on climate change. “We cannot allow the government to keep doing this, we cannot be complicit.”

Beyond environmental motivations, people also spoke in favour of the motion for economic reasons. Arts student Sami Fuller contested the idea that continuing to investment in pipelines and tar sands are economically profitable, and argued that this was a short-term view. “The cost we’re going to face with climate change […] is expediting,” said Fuller.

“We cannot allow the government to keep doing this, we cannot be complicit.” – SSMU VP External Amina Moustaqim Barrette

A U4 Arts student argued that the motion could have a negative effect on McGill’s reputation and make the university seem anti-business. “People need to understand what they’re voting for.”

Benrimoh countered that economic consequences do not outweigh other considerations.  “Yes, we do understand what we’re voting for. Yes, we do understand that this makes SSMU, not McGill, look anti-business. […] I am not willing to sell my soul (not that I have one) for the short-term economic gain from getting money from these companies.”

The motion passed with 111 votes for, 17 votes against, and 6 abstentions.

Motion in solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong postponed to Winter

A motion brought from the floor by Benrimoh called on SSMU to take a stance in solidarity with the ongoing Occupy Central pro-democracy student protests in Hong Kong. Benrimoh argued that a lack of democracy was “tantamount to a human rights violation,” and noted the brutality that protesters in Hong Kong have been subjected to on the part of police.

Several students raised concerns about the fact that there had not been a campaigning period for the motion, and that few students from the region were present at the GA, not having known that the issue would be discussed. One student moved to postpone discussion of the motion until the Winter 2015 GA.

U2 Political Science student Ava Liu argued against postponing the motion, urging students to vote “no” on the motion instead. She said that the motion was poorly researched, and lacked context and input from concerned students.

The motion was postponed by a vote of 105 to 77, and will be discussed at the Winter 2015 GA, to be held on February 11, 2015.

Austerity and budget cuts

The Motion Regarding Solidarity Against Austerity called on SSMU to denounce recent provincial budget cuts to education, to motivate members to work with other student unions and federations to combat austerity, and to encourage students to attend information sessions regarding McGill’s financial situation, to be held by Provost Anthony Masi on October 27.

Kibler worried that the motion sounded like a precursor to a strike action, which he was strongly opposed to.

However, Moustaqim-Barrette noted that a strike motion requires quorum of 500 members, and that the motion was meant only to inform students and condemn the austerity measures. Mooney agreed that it was possible to take a stance on such an issue without going to strike.

In an interview with The Daily, Moustaqim-Barrette commented on the strike concerns. “People have been mobilizing around a strike against austerity measures, so maybe people had gotten wind of that and were concerned that that’s what this [motion] was,” she said. “[A strike] wasn’t at all what I was bringing forward.”

The motion passed with 142 votes for, 14 against, and 20 abstentions.

Board of Directors nominations, preferential ballot

Nominations to the SSMU Board of Directors (BoD) were approved as the first motion of the meeting. The BoD is vital to SSMU’s legal ability to function as a decision-making organization.

As the last item of the GA, Elections SSMU Chief Electoral Officer Ben Fung gave a brief presentation on a preferential ballot system being considered for SSMU elections. SSMU election bylaws are being reworked after controversy over the overturning of Tariq Khan’s presidential election in the spring. The ballot system will be brought forward as a plebiscite question in the next referendum and discussed further at Council.

—With files from Lauria Galbraith

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Dina El-baradie as an executive at McGill Students in Solidarity with Palestinian Human Rights. In fact, she is a coordinator there. In addition, Joelle Dahm was incorrectly referred to as a U2 student. In fact, she is a U3 student. Furthermore, the article incorrectly stated that the Motion Regarding Action on Climate Change had been moved by petition. In fact, it was moved by four councillors. The Daily regrets the errors.