The Students’ Society held its first semi-annual General Assembly of the year last Thursday. Required once a semeseter after an ammendment to the Students’ Society constitution made last spring, the GA is designed to provide a way for students to take part in active democracy on campus.
The Shatner Ballroom doors opened at 11:30 a.m. and students poured in to vote on issues put forth by fellow undergraduates. Roughly 170 students attended, exceeding the necessary quorum of 100 students and making any GA decisions binding.
The agenda contained three motions. The first two, submitted by the Grassroots Association for Student Power, committed SSMU to take a stand against rising corporate influence on campus and to support workers in their struggles with McGill administration. A third motion was submitted by Midnight Kitchen to guarantee the group access to the third floor kitchen in Shatner, which they claim belongs to the organization after a verbal agreement made with SSMU during the 2003 renovations to Shatner.
The issue of kitchen space for Midnight Kitchen, a SSMU service that provides free vegan food to students, was the first to be discussed.
The motion called for guaranteed access to the kitchen in the form of a key ensuring that members could get into the kitchen at any time. Problems were cited with the current agreement in which other organizations were using the kitchen, interfering with Midnight Kitchen’s operation.
“We’re bringing this to the GA because the relationship [between SSMU and Midnight Kitchen] has disintegrated, and the SSMU has not been able to accommodate the discussion,” said one supporter during debate.
The motion to allow Midnight Kitchen full access to the third-floor kitchen was passed to bouts of applause from Midnight Kitchen supporters.
“It wasn’t our last resort, but it was a step along the way and we needed it to show that we had student support,” said Josh Pavan, Midnight Kitchen participant. “It shows that we have a student mandate.”
Corporate influence on campus was the next issue discussed. The motion suggested that SSMU would “condemn corporate invasion of public space and interference in academic life, actively oppose increasing negative corporate influence on campus and support the publicly-owned and funded nature of the university.”
Supporters of the motion cited the fact that one third of McGill’s budget is from corporate sponsors and questioned whether the money was funding student interests or those of the corporation.
Dissenters asked students to look at the loss of educational freedom that would come with the cut funding that the university would suffer if corporate sponsors were done away with. They also noted that the loss of funding would most likely result in higher tuition.
Some also took issue with the broad nature of the motion’s wording, requiring SSMU to take a stance against any form of corporate funding, regardless of the circumstances.
After almost half an hour of debate, the motion was passed.
The third and final motion up for discussion was the issue of Workers Solidarity. The motion moved that “the SSMU support, by whatever means at its disposal, the workers’ struggles affecting our campus and the greater McGill community” and that “when the rights of students anywhere are under attack, the SSMU use whatever means at its disposal to defend said rights.”
This issue seemed to generate much less controversy than the previous two. By the time this motion came up, many students had left and after a short debate, the motion passed.
Students’ Society Vice-President External Affairs, Max Silverman acknowledged that the GA could be improved.
“The biggest problem I saw is that everyone came with their minds made up and didn’t have a desire to work towards something more acceptable for everyone. There’s no point having a debate unless you’re going to change peoples minds or change the motion to be more acceptable.”
The low attendance was also an area of concern for the GA, which in ideal circumstances is supposed to be representative of McGill’s student body.
Silverman placed the blame of low attendance on SSMU, claiming that while the event was well advertised in the week leading up to it, better organization would have been beneficial.
“I think we could have started earlier and then we might have had more diverse conversation,” Silverman said.
He went on to say that students have a responsibility to come out and vote.
“If you choose not to vote, or not to come to the GA, then you’re abandoning your right to have a say in that. I do think that’s problematic and I’d love to see a GA with 18,000 students, I just don’t think its going to happen.”
Students had varying reactions to the results of the GA. Mike Jancik, U3 Political Science, was critical of the Assembly.
“[The fact that] fewer than 200 students can bind SSMU to broad positions is a clear sign that GA’s are not democractic, but also that the only way for reasonable McGill students to get their government back is to attend these meetings and prevent the SSMU from being hijacked,” he said.
Other students weren’t as concerned with the possible results of the GA.
“There are a lot of restrictions on [the motions themselves] and I think that it really acts as a balance,” said Alix Stoicheff, U1 English and History, who was pleased with the results.
Silverman cautioned those who were worried about the implications of 170 people binding SSMU to a policy by pointing to the minimal impact that the resolutions would have. He said the motions passed mandate policy and a general framework, but do not require any specific action.
“None of them mandated any sort of course of action,” he said, “but rather broad sentiment and policy, and so it will be up to the executive to interpret the mandate given to them.”
However, many students were unaware of the GA and were therefore unable to make their voices heard.
John Menzies, a member of Conservative McGill, helped to mobilize students who were opposed to the motions at hand.
“The GA was very poorly publicized right up until it happened. When SSMU sent out the email for the GA they never put the resolutions in them. So a group of friends and I got together and said, ‘you know these two motions are radical motions, we disagree with them strongly, and the student body has not been informed about them. And further, the majority of the student population will not be able to voice their opinion.'”
Both Liberal McGill and Conservative McGill were involved in the movement.
“[Liberal McGill President] Simon Bessette and I had never met before, a friend introduced us. We got talking about this, and we were both on the same page. So we talked to our execs, and our execs agreed and so we sent out a message on our listservs,” Menzies said.
Though organized by two political groups, the opposition to the GA and the motions was non-partisan according to Menzies.
“The posters had no political party on them, it was not officially endorsed by any political party. It wasn’t even our execs that came up with the idea. Of course people from the executives came out and helped, but it wasn’t just Liberal and Conservative. It was non-partisan and it was from people of all ends of the political spectrum,” he said.
Menzies felt that the problem with last Thursday’s GA was its execution, not necessarily it’s concept.
“I think [the GA] is a very good forum for debate. Some very good points were brought up for both sides. But I still believe that this is incredibly undemocratic that this is held during class time, when people have to choose between the GA and going to class. I think it was a very poor decision to schedule it during that time. I think a better way of making it more democratic would be to, if a motion passes through the GA, then put it through an electronic vote.”
Menzies believed the GA in its current form was not in accord wit
h students’ expectations.
“Nearly 80 per cent of students voted for the GA [last year]. They did not vote for one during class time, unpublicized, during midterms, before thanksgiving weekend and almost under the radar.”