Last weekend, as we mourned the 35th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, the SSMU Board of Directors (BoD) ratified a 2016 decision made by the SSMU Judicial Board (J-Board) declaring the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement at McGill unconstitutional according to the SSMU Constitution.
We would like to comment on the content of “the Reference re Legality of the BDS Motion and Similar Motions” (henceforth referred to as ‘the Reference’). The J-Board establishes that the legal question at issue is as follows: Does the BDS motion conform to SSMU’s Constitution and Equity Policy? The question is later narrowed to ask: Can SSMU adopt an official position against a nation?
The Reference states that BDS and “similar” motions do not conform to the SSMU Constitution and Equity Policy as they target one nation and compel SSMU to actively campaign against that nation. However, it also goes on to say that positions may be taken against a nation in very specific and extreme cases. As such, the J-Board is inconsistent in answering their own legal question: they do state that in some circumstances a similar motion would be constitutionally valid. Moreover, the limitation of the motion’s validity to only “extreme cases” is not found in the SSMU Constitution, nor in the Equity Policy. We therefore note that the finding has little grounding in SSMU’s own internal sources of governance.
Further, the J-Board’s finding is vague and encourages judicial discretion to an extent that reaches beyond its mandate. According to the Reference, the J-Board would determine the extremity of a nation’s actions, which they do not have the expertise, nor the jurisdiction to do. If the SSMU now officially holds that extremity is the proper basis on which to characterize a nation’s actions, then it should be a decision that rests with the union’s members. This type of subjective decision should thus be voted on at a General Assembly, and should not be left to a Judicial Board, composed of seven students who were not all democratically elected, and whose names are not publicly available to the union’s members.
It is also concerning that the J-Board appears to conflate individual Israelis (in Israel, and in the diaspora – including within Montreal) with the state of Israel. A nation’s political choices, military, financial investments, and occupation tactics must be differentiated from the individual people from that nation. There are Israelis who are pro-BDS, within McGill, Montreal, and around the world. There are also Palestinian citizens of Israel. Assuming that all students from a particular nation share that nation’s policies is both inaccurate and irresponsible. Assuming that condemning a nation’s political choices will discriminate against individual students from that nation was not proven in fact or by evidence in the Reference.
It appears that the J-Board is also inconsistent with their use of the terms “discrimination” and “structural disadvantage.” A critique of the state of Israel does not deny Israeli students services from SSMU, nor does it target them specifically. The Reference refers to supporting a political campaign, which like any political campaign, has an inherently short-term temporal nature. As such, it would not institutionalize disadvantage against students from Israel, just as much as it would not de-institutionalize centuries of structural inequalities that disadvantage students of color, notably Palestinian students and their allies on campus.
And finally, we must consider the broader implications of this type of judgement. There are countless examples of student unions around the world who have taken a stance against a nation to support human rights, social justice, and democracy. Students at most universities in Canada voted to condemn South Africa’s apartheid state, including McGill University. Student unions and organizations in Quebec have supported refugees while simultaneously critiquing the states in which they fled from. Students at McGill continue to stand in solidarity with Indigenous nations who critique Canada’s ongoing colonial occupation of their territory, notably through the recent Canada 150 protests across the country. This Reference now significantly limits the scope of SSMU’s political action in the future, and its ability to stand in solidarity with vulnerable communities in Montreal and around the world.
To conclude, the Reference is substantively inconsistent and entrusts the J-Board with a decision making framework that well extends beyond its scope and power, endowing itself with the ability to decide on the extremity of international activity and conflict, an issue that should be decided by SSMU’s membership. The Reference also has concerning implications for future political action at McGill and significantly limits its members from challenging the status quo and dominant narratives that continue to oppress and discriminate against people of color and people living under occupation.
We demand more from our student union.
If you have any questions about the BDS movement or how you can get involved at McGill, you can email the McGill BDS Action Network at firstname.lastname@example.org.