Commentary  Let’s really democratize SSMU

Why student participation in SSMU today is as important as ever

By way of introduction, we feel it is important to note that this article was submitted before the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) General Assembly (GA), which took place on Monday October 23. The original paragraphs below focus on the ways in which the Democratize SSMU campaign and President Muna Tojiboeva both undermine and co-opt democracy for their own political purposes. However, in light of recent events, we find it necessary to preface this article by highlighting that perpetuating modes of anti-Semitism under the guise of democracy is deeply offensive and destructive. There is a recurrent narrative that blames Jews for intentionally controlling and subverting the general will for their own purposes; these views should never be supported nor tolerated. While not directly related, it is important to note that the Daily was cited in a SSMU Equity complaint about anti-Semitism less than a year ago.

Between the two of us, we have volunteered for and worked in different political parties, social justice organizations, and our local and campus communities. Within many of these spaces, both of us noticed widespread criticism of SSMU. Since arriving at McGill, we’ve heard talk of scandal and controversy; resignations and calls for public apologies.

The controversies surrounding the student union deterred us from participating in any of SSMU’s committees. So, like many students, we use SSMU’s services, join and even lead clubs, and go to Gert’s, all while having as little to do with our student union’s politics as possible. 

When we first heard of the recently launched “Democratize SSMU” campaign to “unite for a better [and fairer] student union,” we were interested, and maybe even a little optimistic. Having participated in Model UN, debate teams, high school student government, and riding youth advisory councils, we welcomed this call to action.

We could not help but imagine a truly democratized student union: one with clear, accessible systems and rules that would facilitate better representation of our entire student body. The Shatner building would be the hub for exchange and innovation; a place where students in different faculties, from different backgrounds, and with different political opinions and visions of society could debate, discuss, and engage in open dialogue around how we can improve the institution for all. Through this process, we would hold our university and the student body accountable to the protection of all students, especially when certain events may render one group more particularly vulnerable or uncomfortable. Indeed, let’s democratize SSMU; we were sold.

Yet, as we read through Democratize SSMUís goals, we found that the campaign lacked commitment to a wholesale rethinking of our system. They do not engage with questions around making the student union more generally accessible, e.g. through reforming the GA, nor do they present a vision for increasing participation in SSMU’s elections.

Instead, as the narrowly-defined two line “about” section on their facebook page suggests, they seem to be focused on “reacti[ng] to the unjust SSMU BoD ruling declaring BDS unconstitutional.” Their emphasis on reforming the Board of Directors and the Judicial Board—the two institutions in SSMU that have recently posed challenges to the BDS movement—also lends itself to the conclusion that they are most concerned with passing BDS at McGill, under the guise of broader democratization.   

Meanwhile, Muna Tojiboeva recently wrote an op-ed “setting the record straight” in the Bull and Bear that made an appeal to the average student, whom she claims to represent. However, this should be called into question. It seems that her self-appointed title as an “ideological outsider to the SSMU establishment” is her way of saying that she is against BDS. Her use of the term “SSMU establishment” seems to try to convince the reader that while the rest of SSMU is not democratic, she is different. Moreover, despite Tojiboeva’s suggestion that her releasing the minutes of certain Board of Directors meetings demonstrates her commitment to transparency, she does not demonstrate any tangible ways through which she democratized or broadened student participation in SSMU. Additionally, Tojiboeva’s use of the term “establishment” serves to highlight and create division within SSMU, while absolving herself of responsibility for the organization’s problems. Blaming others through the use of the term “establishment” only grows the student body’s ambivalence for and distrust in our student union. Ultimately, the president needs to recognize that, along with the Executives, she is part of the “establishment” and responsible for the system’s improvement and democratization. 

Furthermore, while Tojiboeva seems proud of the “53 per cent of students who voted for [her],” she fails to consider, or even engage with, the four following facts on the last election. 

1. Very few students voted in the last election, despite it being easy to vote. 21 per cent of eligible students voted in the last election for the SSMU executive, and in the last 13 years there has never been a turnout higher than 31 per cent. Yet, we have multiple days to vote, and the link is sent right to our inboxes.

2. Tojiboeva received most votes cast for president, but not a majority. If you add in the 544 abstentions, Tojiboeva actually received 46 per cent of the votes cast for president. Less than half of the people who voted actually voted for her.

3. Tojiboeva received only slightly more eligible votes than her competitor. Tojiboeva captured 10.1 per cent of eligible votes, while Helen Ogundeji received 7.8 per cent. It is not persuasive to claim that Tojiboeva represented the average student, and that Ogundeji was on the fringe.

4. Very few students actually ran for these positions. Five out of six VP positions were only contested by one person. This means that out of over 21,000 students, only nine were even interested in occupying one of the seven positions (including president) on SSMU’s executive. It is clear that the vast majority of students are not interested in standing for election; this calls into question the general strength of our system, and, as such, anyone’s claim to represent the majority of students. 

These four facts suggest to us that democratization—a robust restructuring of the processes that represent and support McGill students—is in order. We are deeply critical of those, like the President, members of Democratize SSMU, and others, who are willing to use “democracy” as their strategy to advance their own political goals, regardless of whether their goals are democratically supported. These small factions seem to place their goals ahead of creating a thriving, democratic student union that represents, serves, and is accountable to our diverse student body.

Yet, despite our criticism, we also hope that, within these factions and our broader community, there are still people who are excited about truly democratizing SSMU. To democratize means to put the system ahead of particular political goals and to reform the structures of the (currently bureaucratic) student union so that they may be accessible and fair to all students. It is precisely because we both share this belief that the two of us—despite passionately and decisively disagreeing on BDS and a number of other issues—are confident in writing this argument together.

Democratization begins with genuine discussion and consultation: we need roundtables, townhalls, and surveys. Secondly, it requires research: we need to identify systems that have worked best in similar contexts and think creatively to adapt them to our unique reality. Unlocking the democratization process starts with honest, broad discussion and creative, thorough research. Though not easy, neither of these steps is out of reach.    

While we are less optimistic than when we first heard about the Democratize SSMU campaign, we are, ultimately, left with the same conclusion: Yes! Let’s truly democratize SSMU.