Commentary  How a SSMU Service Abolished Democracy

A Controversial ‘Service’

In 2018, the former McGill Arab Student Association attained the status of a SSMU Service, and was rebranded as the McGill Arab Student Network (ASN). Since Winter 2019, it has also benefited from a $0.50 opt-outable fee, paid by McGill students each semester. In order to achieve this status, the ASN agreed to a number of specific obligations. According to SSMU’s Internal Regulation of Student Groups, a Service’s mandate “must not include the provision of services otherwise provided by the Society.” Its mandate “must be to provide resources and/or support to Members. Services may also provide referral, awareness, education, or advocacy services in addition to their provision of resources and/or support.” Finally, “the provision of resources and/or support must be available free of charge to Members.” 

Yet things have not gone entirely according to plan for the new Service, led by its founder and (unelected) president, Karim Atassi. In February 2018, The McGill Daily sharply criticized the ASN’s “non-political and secular” mandate, arguing that such language merely served “as a cover for the association to promote a whitewashed, ‘palatable’ Arab culture.” Nicholas Raffoul, a former ASN committee member, also condemned its executive team for “encouraging the appropriation and whitewashing of Arab culture to conform to superficial desires of popular culture like music, partying, and food.” He stressed that, “instead of hosting parties and offering discounts to restaurants, the ASN should facilitate resources for Arab students who, like myself, experience intense marginalization on and off campus.”

In addition, it remains unclear how exactly the ASN’s approximate yearly budget of $20,000 is being spent. Other than discounts on shawarma, a networking event, and the annual ArabFest party featuring belly dancers and a mock Levantine wedding, it’s unclear where all that student cash is going, especially given the five dollar fee that all students are obliged to pay if they wish to access ArabFest, the ASN’s annual party featuring the “enriched culture of the Arab world.” This $5 fee for a ticket into ASN’s biggest annual event (and there aren’t many other events) has remained in force since ASN achieved Service status in 2018, despite SSMU’s Internal Regulations of Student Groups stating that “the provision of resources and/or support must be available free of charge to Members” of any Service. 

Nicholas Raffoul, a former ASN committee member, also condemned its executive team for “encouraging the appropriation and whitewashing of Arab culture to conform to superficial desires of popular culture like music, partying, and food.” He stressed that, “instead of hosting parties and offering discounts to restaurants, the ASN should facilitate resources for Arab students who, like myself, experience intense marginalization on and off campus.”

In October 2018, the ASN provoked more controversy on campus by inviting Nuseir Yassin, better known by his Facebook name Nas Daily, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and video-blogger who has been widely criticized for trivializing or dismissing the decades-long oppression of Palestinians by the Israeli state. After Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill (SPHR) expressed their opposition to the event, ASN President Karim Atassi personally messaged the SPHR Facebook page with a rather threatening message: “Just to extend my safety, a notice that there will be police team present in the event. It would be sad to have people arrested for any inappropriate actions. Do please extend this to whoever.” This exact message was shared with the author by SPHR.

In an interview with The McGill Daily the following month, Atassi tried to deny his use of threatening language against SPHR and other students who opposed the Nas Daily event, while also categorizing “Free Palestine” as a “slur.”  When asked about how the ASN would seek to deal with anti-Arab racism or violence on campus, Atassi merely stated that the ASN would “make sure to further promote the secular aspects of the Arab world that everyone would enjoy.” It was hardly an inspiring example of the ASN’s service to Arab students. However, one redeeming feature of the interview was Atassi’s promise to open up the service to genuine democratic participation. Ever since the ASN had become a SSMU service, neither Attassi nor any of the other executives had ever been elected to their positions. In response to criticism about this fact, he stated in the interview that “next year [2019] people will be able to campaign for positions, which will be decided by voting.” 

 

A General Assembly? That can wait

In March 2019, I asked Atassi when the ASN was going to hold its first General Assembly (GA) and election, as stipulated in the ASN constitution. Atassi informed me that the ASN didn’t really feel ready to hold a GA, so they would simply… not hold it. He went on to explain that the GA would be postponed until Fall 2019, or even Winter 2020, claiming that the delay was due to some ill-defined SSMU bureaucratic technicality.

I eventually asked a SSMU staff member to corroborate this bizarre story. The staff member in question was not amused by the ASN’s unconstitutional antics, to say the least. They therefore promised to send a sternly worded email to the ASN about its electoral obligations. A few days later, the ASN hurriedly informed SSMU that it would hold its first General Assembly on April 10 2019, which would include an election for executive positions.

 

The first ‘election’

It quickly became clear that the incumbent ASN leadership was not going to allow an election to get in the way of another year in office. First, the ASN ensured that no physical General Assembly would actually take place, with the excuse that there was “no available space.” Instead, the GA would be conducted on the collective group chat of the ASN’s “committees,” which had been inactive all semester, and which contained only 26 people (including all the executives). Second, it was decreed that, Constitution be damned, only committee members would be eligible to run for an executive position, if it was vacant. Third, both available positions were uncontested, with each pre-selected candidate coasting to a predictable landslide victory. Finally, not a single email or Facebook post about the General Assembly would be sent out to the student body, ensuring that almost nobody would ever even know it had happened. When the ASN finally got around to sending out an email, it was to ask students to nominate ASN for the SSMU Service of the Year Award, as well as to nominate its president Karim Atassi for the McGill Equity & Community Building Award

It quickly became clear that the incumbent ASN leadership was not going to allow an election to get in the way of another year in office.

 

Abolishing elections

As comfortable as election victory had been, even a staged democratic process appears to have been a bit too stressful for Atassi and his fellow executives. By the end of 2019, they had apparently decided that enough was enough. Having failed to cancel their first General Assembly, the ASN executive team were going to make sure there would be no second. 

In the early months of 2020, one student interested in running for an executive position emailed ASN asking for information about the next General Assembly. ASN responded that it had changed its constitution and abolished its General Assembly and elections with SSMU approval, with the justification that, “it was recommended to us to remove it because it doesn’t fit the structure of a service.” When the student in question asked to see the new constitution, they received no reply. Another student who asked a similar question by email told me they were simply ignored. 

ASN responded that it had changed its constitution and abolished its General Assembly and elections with SSMU approval, with the justification that, “it was recommended to us to remove it because it doesn’t fit the structure of a service.” When the student in question asked to see the new constitution, they received no reply.

I therefore asked Billy Kawasaki, the SSMU Vice-President of Student Life, to comment on the ASN’s assertion. He stated: “The abolition of the GA was not ‘recommended by the SSMU’ as this is a constitutional requirement that we require of all services. So of course, we would not recommend to abolish something that we ask all services to do. (i.e. having a GA is a constitutional requirement). I do not know what ‘doesn’t fit the structure of a service’ means since all services have GAs and no service is exempt from this. ASN is not an exception. There are many different types of services such as volunteer, collective, security, referral, etc so there’s diverse structures under the SSMU but they all hold GAs.”

 

Time for change

For the past two years, the Arab Student Network led by Karim Atassi has dismissed criticism concerning its mandate, its behaviour, and its unwillingness to actually address the concrete needs of Arab students. In one case, its president even used the threat of police as a means to silence his critics. The ASN has also made its constituents pay for access to services which are supposed to be free of charge, in violation of SSMU regulations concerning Services. Most concerning of all, the ASN executive has repeatedly attempted to delay, manipulate, or abolish its internal democratic process, in violation of its own Constitution and of its obligations as a SSMU Service. 

At present, one hopes that the SSMU will finally pressure the Arab Student Network to respect its constitution and hold free and fair elections for its executive positions, in addition to its constitutionally-mandated General Assembly. This would finally open up the organization to genuine democratic participation. It’s about time. For the past two years, the ASN has received funding from the entire student body and claimed to serve all McGill students, both Arab and non-Arab, without ever giving any of them a voice or a vote.