In a unanimous decision made on Aug. 17, the SSMU Judicial Board (J-Board) rendered the 2020 SSMU Winter Constitution, which was put to vote without a French translation, invalid. During a Board of Directors (BoD) meeting on Aug. 20, SSMU voted not to ratify the J-Board’s decision, sending the judgment back to appeal.
The J-Board’s decision came after a spring petition that demanded the suspension of the new constitution, citing the absence of a French version that was included during the 2020 SSMU Winter Referendum. The petitioner, Daniel Benjamin Miller, U3 Arts, noticed that the new constitution adopted after the referendum was illegitimate because it neglected a SSMU regulation that states that all SSMU constitutional amendments must be provided in both French and English.
“At the time, I wrote to Chief Electoral Officer, Pooja Patel,” Miller said. “I asked for a copy of the French version, and she told me it didn’t exist, which raised a red flag to me. I think that rules need to mean something. Every member of McGill has the right to see that constitution in French.”
The J-Board ruled with the petitioner, appealing to the right of French constituents to a fair vote and asserting that doing otherwise would imply a refusal to make meaningful change. The J-Board also noted that not providing a French translation violated French-language rights protections, as stipulated in the Board’s own constitution and in SSMU’s Internal Regulations.
During the Sept. 3 BoD meeting, two members voted not to ratify the decision, one voted against, and seven, including SSMU President Jemark Earle, abstained from the vote. Explaining his choice to abstain, Earle said that while he recognizes that the lack of a French translation during the referendum was a mistake, he also wanted to highlight one of the consequences of the constitution’s reversal: The removal of councillors that were elected under the new constitution to represent marginalized voices, as their contracts needed to be renewed under the new document.
“[This omission] shouldn’t have happened last year,” Earle said. “No one disputes that fact. I abstained because [although] I understand the Judicial Board’s rationale, I [also] believe more weight should have been given to the fact that we would have to remove four legislative councillors [elected under the 2020 SSMU Winter Constitution], most notably, the SSMU Equity, Francophone Affairs, and Indigenous Affairs councillors.”
In addition to addressing the petition, the J-Board’s decision also recalled broader sociolinguistic issues, such as SSMU’s promise to serve its sizeable French student body, and the treatment of Francophones as minority constituents on campus.
These larger principles advanced in the J-Board’s decision were noted by Marco-Antonio Hauwert Rueda, U2 Arts, who believes that there must be improvements in the way McGill treats its Francophone community, as he feels victories such as this are few and far between.
“Francophone students’ concerns at SSMU have always been dismissed as inconvenient,” Rueda wrote in an email to the Tribune. “[SSMU does not] deliver in practice, whether it is regarding translations, student services, or funding. This is not only the case at SSMU, but also among the wider McGill community. Students at McGill absolutely love diversity in principle, but shy away when they have to make the slightest concession to favour that diversity in practice.”
The J-Board is allowed 21 days to decide whether to uphold or change its decision before delivering its final judgment. Should the J-Board choose to maintain its initial decision, Earle stated that SSMU will move forward with the ruling.
Earle explained that SSMU is working on passing new measures that will prevent the issuing of any constitutional amendments that are not available in both English and French.
“Something that we are [working on] is bringing forth a motion that automatically strikes down changes to the constitution that [are not also] made in French,” Earle said. “I know we, our new executives, have learned [and] we are committed to ensuring that this doesn’t happen again.”