Democratizing SSMU: One Year Later

The McGill Student Union Democratization Initiative Policy, proposed to democratize student unions at McGill, appeared on the ballot during the Fall 2021 referendum period. By a 78.2 per cent majority student vote in November 2021, the initiative was subsequently adopted as a Policy. The initiative was proposed in response to a lack of student participation in McGill’s student unions, including low voter turnout in SSMU executive elections and referenda, limited attendance at general assemblies and resulting difficulties in meeting quorum, as well as executive positions running historically unfilled or uncontested. Currently, the VP Operations and Sustainability position is vacant. The initiative also attempts to offer a solution to the numerous instances of misconduct and undemocratic practices by elected representatives – outlined in the policy – sometimes without being held accountable. The policy writes, “McGill’s student unions have been acting more like corporations than unions, and have abandoned the interests of the members in favour of bureaucratic, representative governance.”

To remediate these issues of low student participation, possible abuses of power and limited accountability for executive members, the initiative calls for a non-hierarchical structure instead of the current system of governance. This policy’s framework, based on direct democracy, would allow a greater student involvement in the democratic life of their university by promoting participation in the general assemblies held in department and small faculty-level unions. According to the initiative, general assemblies accessible to all undergraduate students are ineffective, since they are “unfeasible and unconducive to debate and collective decision-making.” To prevent executive members from failing to represent the interests of McGill’s student community, the initiative proposes the creation of coordinators responsible for “implement[ing] the assembly’s decisions.” These coordinators would act as “delegates” responsible for complying with the common interests of the assembly of students they represent, rather than on electing officials who may abuse power, have limited accountability, and may run for reasons of furthering their career or for social interest.

In the semester following its approval, the initiative has received several criticisms, particularly as regards to its impossible implementation in the present SSMU system. Democratizing the Board of Directors “is a completely infeasible plan which could slow down already tedious Board decision-making processes,” explained previous members of the SSMU in an interview with the Daily. In addition to SSMUs governance structure, another obstacle to improving democratic practices within SSMU is their lack of an Access to Information (ATI) policy. Under the Access to Information Act, any Canadian citizen or person residing in Canada has the right to request access to records of government institutions. The Act is based on the principle that the public should have the right to know about government activities. This is beneficial as it enhances accountability of institutions, promotes democracy, and establishes a pathway for public debate on the actions of these institutions and respective elected officials. SSMU’s lack of an ATI policy prevents its constituents, including journalists, from filing ATI requests with SSMU – which makes it harder to gather information about their internal processes (see pages 16 and 17 for more information on how to file ATI requests). This lack of transparency and barrier to information about happenings within SSMU is not democratic as it becomes hard to hold SSMU accountable. Similarly, this November, the Daily had contacted a Speaker of the Legislative Council to access the minutes and lecture recordings of a legislative council meeting. The last time the recordings and minutes had been posted on their website was Winter 2022. The Daily was told that due to a recent policy change, recordings and minutes would no longer be accessible to anyone unable to attend the council meeting. This sudden change, which limits how much students can know about what happens at legislative council meetings, greatly decreases transparency.

However, SSMU’s democratization policy is not the only example of calls for  making student-level decision-making more accessible. In October 2022, the AMS – the students’ society at the University of British Columbia (UBC) – had proposed a motion to revise its Records Policy (SR2). The Records Policy sets a framework for how AMS records are to be stored, accessed and evaluated. The proposed amendments would prevent Society members from requesting access to internal correspondences, transition reports, and raw data. In an editorial published in The Ubyssey titled “The AMS’s proposed revisions to its Records Policy are bad for transparency,” their editorial board writes that students should be able to access emails from their AMS’s democratically-elected and student-funded leaders. They further write that this policy would prevent student-leaders from being held accountable, as well as impede journalists from accessing information that would be necessary to reporting. The motion was subsequently taken off the agenda. At the University of Manitoba, student councils have expressed concerns with a lack of transparency in their relations with their students’ union – specifically with funds being withheld for unclear reasons.

While democratization and transparency initiatives to reform university decision-making processes can be attractive, their implementation often seems to be relegated or becomes ineffective. Before SSMU can even begin its democratization, it must be fundamentally reconfigured, given its hierarchical structure, which mandates representative candidates to perform functions they are sometimes unable to support. There remains a gap between the power granted to the Executive Council, the Legislative Council and the Board of Directors, which is still the highest governing body of the SSMU.  In the past, the Board of Directors had the power to overturn decisions that had been made at its legislative level, for example by cancelling the motion forcing Darshan Daryanani’s resignation. The lack of awareness of the student population about the role it could play in putting pressure on the decisive bodies at SSMU can also be seen as an obstacle to its democratization. To increase democracy and participation, we encourage students to vote in referendums and those who work at SSMU to extend information and establish a dialogue with students.