On October 12, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Legislative Council met for over five hours of heated debate, covering nearly a dozen motions and a broad range of controversial subjects.
Council began with a lively question period, during which SSMU executives addressed several hot-button campus issues. Notably, when asked by The Daily why the upcoming closure of the SSMU building had effectively been announced to the public via a Facebook event, eliciting dozens of confused and outraged posts by students, VP Student Life Jemark Earle issued an apology.
“First off, the executive and SSMU would like to apologize for any disturbance or confusion that may have arisen from being notified [of the building closure] by a Facebook event,” said Earle. “We released a notification to all the building tenants, with a link to the Facebook event, so […] while it was open to the general public, it was meant for the building tenants.”
In response to a question from Arts Representative Corinne Bulger, executives also addressed their decision not to elect a new VP Operations and Sustainability following Anuradha Mallik’s resignation in August, and to eliminate the position entirely.
“First off, the executive and SSMU would like to apologize for any disturbance or confusion that may have arisen from being notified [of the building closure] by a Facebook event.”
“The executives ourselves have the right not to ask for a by-election,” explained VP Finance Arisha Khan, “and so we’ve decided we’ll just split the work up amongst ourselves, but in terms of the long-term, […] the role that the VP Operations has is traditionally more suited for a full-time staff member […] and so what we will be doing is bringing a constitutional amendment forward. So that would be a motion at Council, coming up probably in the next few weeks, and then that would go to online ratification.”
Senate Caucus Representative Isabella Anderson suggested that the proposed amendment could be submitted for consideration during the fall referendum session, which will take place in early November. However, Earle replied that this will likely be impossible. The responsibilities of the VP Operations portfolio are far-reaching and diverse, he explained, and it will probably take months to rework the Constitution and SSMU Internal Regulations in order to properly redistribute them.
The Daily also asked for an update on the constitutional reforms promised at the SSMU Board of Directors (BoD) meeting that took place on September 24. Currently, section 6.2 of the SSMU Constitution contains a significant ambiguity: it states that the BoD should be composed of 12 voting members, with four seats reserved for SSMU executives, but also allows for extra members-at-large to be appointed if, as occurred earlier this year, an executive resigns. In effect, the Constitution contradicts itself, and it remains unclear whether the composition of the BoD was strictly constitutional during September.
“Basically we’re still deciding on the format of how we’re going to structure the reforms of the Constitution,” said SSMU President Muna Tojiboeva, “so probably there’s going to be a committee struck in order to actually address that issue, […] and also get lawyers’ input on it, just to make sure that the language itself is sound, and it all makes sense.”
She added that there is no timeframe set for these reforms yet, explaining that the timeline will likely be decided at the next BoD meeting, a date which has also not been determined.
In response to a further question from The Daily, Tojiboeva confirmed that no effort has yet been made to publicize information on how students can write and submit motions to the SSMU Fall General Assembly (GA), which will take place on October 23. Traditionally, it is the President’s responsibility to promote the GA, but this year’s official deadline for submitting motions by petition passed with no public informational campaign. While a Facebook event for the GA has now been created, it does not provide guidelines for submitting motions from the floor.
Debate on AVEQ affiliation
The most contentious issue raised in Council was the prospect of SSMU affiliating with the Association for the Voice of Education in Quebec (AVEQ). AVEQ is a provincial student association, uniting the student unions of several Quebec universities to better advocate for their interests at the governmental level. In contrast to other such associations, AVEQ emphasizes anglophone participation as well as francophone, advocating for international students’ specific needs. AVEQ holds political positions on various issues – from climate justice, to sexual violence, to accessibility – which align closely with SSMU’s own. This is partly because SSMU representatives have played a significant role in building the organization since its inception in early 2015.
Despite SSMU’s involvement with AVEQ, however, SSMU only maintains observer status because members voted against affiliating with the association in the spring of 2016. In fact, SSMU is currently unaffiliated with any student association, provincial or federal, which severely limits the political power of McGill student voices. In light of this situation, last year’s Council mandated VP External Connor Spencer to bring this issue back for further consideration during the upcoming fall referendum period.
Spencer presented Council with a motion creating a referendum question which would ask students to approve a non-opt-outable $3.50 fee, paid every semester and adjusted annually for inflation, to allow SSMU to join AVEQ. Heated debate ensued, with several councillors speaking strongly against the idea of AVEQ affiliation.
Education Representative Josephine O’Manique read a prepared statement from her faculty’s executive council criticising AVEQ. For example, she argued that the association’s “one school, one vote” policy would place SSMU at a disadvantage, because as the largest member, it would receive the same representation as other unions while contributing more student fees. However, this policy protects smaller unions from having their voices subsumed by larger ones, allowing different schools to participate in decision-making on an equal footing.
The proxy councillor standing in for Law Representative Melisa Demir asked Spencer why the proposed question didn’t present alternative student associations, such as the Quebec Student Union (UEQ), expressing concern that if SSMU had not considered UEQ, “this would not be an informed decision […] for the student body.” Spencer explained that during the 2015-2016 academic year, then-VP External Emily Boytinck had attended meetings at both AVEQ and UEQ to observe their operations, reporting regularly to Council. Both associations had also made presentations to Council, and based on the sum of this information, Council had opted to seek affiliation with AVEQ.
Senate Caucus Representative Tre Mansdoerfer also expressed opposition to the motion, despite having been mandated by Senate Caucus to support it. He alleged that throughout the above process of observation and reporting, SSMU executives had been unfairly biased toward AVEQ. Arts Representative Jennifer Chan, however, criticised the last-minute nature of such objections.
“I think it’s fair to remind everyone that we did have a notice of motion at the last Council meeting,” said Chan, “and we also had a presentation from AVEQ, at which I feel like some of these questions could have been addressed, and that if there was action we wanted to take in terms of contacting other student federations, that could have been done. These genuine concerns are fair, but at the same time, if councillors were motivated enough, the change they are wishing to enact now could have been enacted. I think at this point this motion is in front of us to give an opportunity to students to make a decision for themselves.”
“If councillors were motivated enough, the change they are wishing to enact now could have been enacted. I think at this point this motion is in front of us to give an opportunity to students to make a decision for themselves.”
“It just seems disingenuous to not also give UEQ another chance to present to Council,” countered Senate Representative Anderson, “when the last time this went to a referendum they were also given that chance to present. Just because if we’re going to have students decide, […] they shouldn’t just be presented with AVEQ as the only thing.”
Social Work Representative Matthew Savage echoed Anderson’s view that SSMU should hear from UEQ again, but also emphasized the importance of affiliating with one provincial association or another as soon as possible.
“I think that SSMU would benefit from being part of a larger union; whether it’s AVEQ or not, I’m not so sure,” he said. “The reality of it is, there are forces in our government that want to privatize our education more and more. So as someone who is from Quebec, I really value the fact that we have people who are willing to stand up to make sure that our government’s held accountable. […] McGill kind of has its own bubble around it in the Quebec school system, and we really need to kind of put our foot forward […] and show some leadership towards equality and justice in our education.”
“The reality of it is, there are forces in our government that want to privatize our education more and more. So as someone who is from Quebec, I really value the fact that we have people who are willing to stand up to make sure that our government’s held accountable. […] McGill kind of has its own bubble around it in the Quebec school system, and we really need to kind of put our foot forward […] and show some leadership towards equality and justice in our education.”
Ultimately, councillors voted to have Spencer arrange a presentation from UEQ at next week’s Council meeting, with the motion itself postponed until next week.
Editor’s note: This article was amended on October 19 to clarify that Tre Mansdoerfer was mandated to support AVEQ affiliation by Senate Caucus, rather than by the Faculty of Engineering as previously stated. The Daily regrets the error.