The first Legislative Council meeting, on September 11 in the University Centre, was short and small. Although a full council has 30 members, many of these positions have yet to be filled: 12 councillors were there in person, and another five attended the meeting virtually. Ordinarily, the first meeting is when executives report what they did over the summer. However, because of a technical mix-up – executives not receiving an invite in their Google Calendars, according to President Alexandre Ashkir – it was moved by VP Sustainability and Operations, Hassanatou Koulibaly, that the reports be given at the next Council meeting, and this was adopted.
The Motion Regarding a Special By-Election for the role of SSMU Vice-President Finance was then presented by Ashkir. The proposed timeline is that a nomination period will begin September 18, and that the new VP Finance will be elected by October 12. After Speaker Jonathan Dong encouraged debate, Koulibaly stressed the importance of the VP Finance role, and VP Student Life Nadia Dakdouki echoed this sentiment, adding “the executive jobs at SSMU are packed…theoretically we could choose not to move forward with a by-election of the VP Finance, but that would be even less sustainable”. This motion passed unanimously.
The final motion on the agenda was a motion to adopt new standing rules, as is customary at the beginning of every academic year. Standing rules – as defined in Robert’s Rules of Order, the parliamentary authority of the Legislative Council – modify Robert’s Rules’ pre-existing procedures.
The proposed 2023-2024 Standing Rules were very similar to the previous year, with slight modifications. Two motions can now be submitted as late motions, at the discretion of the dais – the Speaker of Council, Deputy Speaker, Parliamentarian, and Recording Secretary – as opposed to one. Legislative Council sessions are also now more frequent – once every two weeks rather than once a month. This schedule is a return to that of two years ago. In an interview with the Daily, Ashkir said they experimented with monthly meetings last year, but found in an end-of-year poll that the majority of councillors preferred biweekly meetings instead. Ashkir is hoping that this change will shorten meetings and create a faster work turnaround.
Changes were also made to account for in-person meetings, according to Dong. That being said, some rules are still inappropriate for the latest council meeting. For example, one rule requires members to “raise their placards to alert the Speaker,” although there were no placards at this meeting.
Finally, Dong explained that the steering committee had made “small changes to make [the rules] more coherent,” specifically a section regarding behaviour in meetings. He may have been referencing section 3.8.8, which in the 2022-2023 version prohibits “texting or messaging during a given meeting, pertaining to discussion, and outside of the meeting”. The section has since been changed to “texting or messaging during a given meeting, pertaining to discussion, inside and outside of the meeting room” (italics added). The meaning is the same – texting during a meeting is prohibited – but the wording is hopefully clearer. It was difficult to track all the changes, since unlike previous years, modifications to the standing rules were not marked by colour.
During debate, a member of the McGill Student Union Democratization Initiative said that these motions had not been made available to the public – the hyperlinks in the agenda were broken and led to a login page. Councillor Jacob Shannon asked whether the motion would be available to the press, publicly, before voting on it. Dong responded that “usually we inform the Governance Manager and the governance department, and generally speaking they’re the ones responsible for posting them to the website, so in this case we did our part”.
Dong then messaged the Governance Manager, who encouraged him to extend viewing access of the document, and, the motion to adopt standing rules having just been published, debate resumed. Although the hyperlink for the standing rules was fixed in the meeting, the hyperlinks for the report of the steering committee and the motion for the VP Finance by-election continue to be unavailable at the time of writing.
Shannon moved to postpone the motion until the next meeting so that the public and the press could review the motion. Dakdouki argued, “I do see the press’s concern and I agree with it and I appreciate that the dais took the time to share it with them, but the standing rules do only affect members of the Council and not members of the gallery at all… I would be opposing the motion because it would be preventing us from holding Legislative Council, essentially.”
In fact, it is possible to hold Legislative Council without standing rules: the rationale in the motion defines standing rules as “mechanisms by which Robert’s Rules of Order can be fine-tuned,” and the risk section says that “should this motion fail, the meetings of the Legislative Council will lack decorum and proper parliamentary procedures”, a far cry from not being able to hold meetings at all. Some rights of non-Council members to participate in meetings are also determined by the Standing Rules. Section five describes how members participate in discussion. The Standing Rules are somewhat unclear here: members presumably refers to Councillors, and members of the Legislative Council, terms that are used interchangeably. Under this interpretation, section 5.4 insinuates that non-Council members may only participate virtually: “Members of the Gallery may participate in discussion or debate by using the ‘Raise Hand’ feature via the virtual platform”. This is presumably a remnant from previous years where Council meetings were held entirely remotely.
Shannon said he was confused how Council had just approved two motions if Dakdouki’s arguments were true, and reasoned that if this was possible, then returning to the Standing Rules at the beginning of next meeting couldn’t hurt. VP University Affairs Lalia Katchelewa asked whether tabling the motion to approve standing rules would lead to the adjournment of the Council, and Dong responded that they would not, as adjournment is provisioned for in Robert’s Rules. At the end of the debate, Dakdouki agreed with the concerns and apologised for missing the point, suggesting that the adoption of the Standing Rules be the first motion on the agenda at the next council meeting. The motion to postpone the Standing Rules passed unanimously.
The meeting adjourned at 7:16 p.m., the shortest first Council meeting in the past five years. This is in part because allocating committee seats and nominating councillors to sit on the Board of Directors is traditionally done during the first Council meeting – President Ashkir said that this will happen at the next Council meeting instead.
In terms of goals for the Legislative Council this year, Ashkir hopes to increase interest and participation, especially after COVID-19. He’s keen to foster an interest among students of becoming a councillor and showing up to Council meetings. He says that his running unopposed is symbolic of the current atmosphere among McGillians.
“We can’t have democracy on campus if people are not interested, and if people continue to not be interested, we have to have a re-evaluation of why. This year is a year of trying to get people interested, trying to get people involved, and if that doesn’t work at the end of the year, if we have the same issues as last year, then we need to have a broader evaluation of democracy on campus – what can we do to make it truly representative?”
Part of Ashkir’s strategy will be to work closely with the media, to increase advertising efforts from SSMU , and to revisit internal documents. He hopes to make these documents – namely, the Constitution and Internal Regulations – more simplified and accessible. He also hopes to remove personal interpretation from these documents. “That’s another democratic principle – it should be very clear to everyone, this is how things are done,” he said in an interview with the Daily. Ashkir is working on revising governing documents with the Governance Manager and the Policy and Advocacy Coordinator, who are both full-time staff. They will then present their findings to the Governance Reform Committee, and finally to the Legislative Council.