MASA Statement sparks controversy

SSMU Legislative Council discusses constitutionality of sharing political statements

On October 16, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) shared a statement written by the McGill Armenian Students Association (MASA) on the SSMU Facebook page. The statement came in the wake of a weeks-long conflict between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the independent state of Artsakh over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Despite the fact that a ceasefire was called first on October 5, and once again on October 17, Azerbaijan has continued to launch offenses on the Armenian border and Nagorno-Karabakh. MASA’s statement directs students to “bring [their] attention to the humanitarian crisis currently unfolding in the Caucasus,” and references the Armenian Genocide, claiming that “Armenians are currently facing severe threats of ethnic cleansing once again in the 21st century.” 

The post drew controversy, with students alleging that SSMU should not passively repost the MASA statement on the grounds that it was too political. Soon after being posted, comments on the SSMU Facebook page were turned off. SSMU wrote a post explaining that they were “unable to moderate the comments on [the] post to ensure a safe environment on [their] page.” As of the time this article was written, the comments have been reopened, and the post has garnered over 1,200 comments.

The topic was brought up six days later, on October 22, during SSMU’s Thursday bi-weekly open session of Legislative Council. During the question period, Engineering Representative Elif Kurkcu addressed SSMU executives with a question regarding the MASA statement. Kurkcu asked if there was a reason why the decision to make the post was not discussed in an official capacity, alleging that it was not mentioned to any SSMU councils and was not approved by the Board of Directors (BoD). “The post isn’t an official statement on behalf of any governing bodies,” SSMU President Jemark Earle explained. He cited SSMU’s posts regarding Anti-Black racism and the attacks on Mi’kmaq fishermen as other examples of SSMU sharing posts at the request of student groups without making a statement on behalf of SSMU governing bodies, i.e. the Board of Directors (BoD), Executive Council, and Legislative Council.

Following Kurkcu and Earle’s exchange, Arts Representative Paige Collins asked who made the decision to share the post in question. SSMU VP University Affairs Brooklyn Frizzle replied that SSMU executives were individually approached by MASA with a request to share their statement. The executives conducted a strawpoll vote to ensure that every executive was comfortable with posting the statement, which was then shared to their Facebook page by the Communications Department – presumably the Communications Manager and Communications Coordinator – per Frizzle. When Medicine Representative Benson Wan asked if the executives believed that existing communication methods regarding social media posts should be changed, Frizzle argued that instituting democratic processes to regulate all social media posts would not be practical. “We are a political organization, we have to take political stances […]There are always going to be instances of controversy,” they added, speculating that changing mechanisms of communication within SSMU would not resolve these controversies.

Later, Kurkcu remarked that the controversy around the MASA statement was similar to the 2016 controversy surrounding SSMU’s Motion for support regarding the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, in which a SSMU General Assembly voted in favor of a motion that called for “SSMU [to] support campaigns associated with the BDS movement.” The Judicial Board of SSMU found that the proposed motion was unconstitutional, as it “compel[led] SSMU to actively campaign against specific countries.” Kurkcu claimed that the MASA statement could be perceived as taking a stance against other student groups such as the Turkish Students Society of McGill University (TSSMU). However, Earle maintained that sharing the MASA statement was not unconstitutional, and argued that “condemning the actions of a particular nation is not equal to condemning the actions of its people.”

Members of council also expressed concern that the MASA statement did not cite credible sources. Engineering Representative Jake Reed described MASA’s concern that Armenians are “facing severe threats of ethnic cleansing,” as an “extremely strong claim that requires a larger degree of fact-checking.” Frizzle responded that SSMU executives had not been presented with credible sources disproving any claims in the MASA statement, and stressed that executives had no intention of retracting the statement. 

On October 18, TSSMU posted a statement on Facebook expressing their opinion against “the political and biased sharing of SSMU,” and alleged that SSMU had made the post “without examining its accuracy.” The statement also says that TSSMU will “contact the relevant parties to resolve this situation as soon as possible.” Neither TSSMU nor SSMU have made further public comments regarding the situation.