Last Wednesday’s Fall General Assembly (GA) of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) was once again marred by staggeringly low attendance. At its peak, the assembly only managed about 50 attendees attendees—far from its 100-member quorum. The apparent absence of an engagement campaign leading up to the event was confirmed through statements by SSMU executive members; advertising efforts were deemed to be a poor use of resources and abandoned almost entirely. This defeatism on the part of the executive illustrates both an abject failure to represent the interests of their constituents, and a neglect of the basic responsibilities of their office.
Raising awareness of the GA is not simply a good practice for the executive, but is mandated by SSMU’s constitution. While GAs officially fall under the president’s portfolio, the burden of outreach extends also to the speaker and the rest of the executives, as laid out by Article 29.3 of the constitution.
“The office of the President in conjunction with the executive and the speaker shall be responsible for the wide scale promotion of the General Assembly, including but not exclusive to: emails, website promotions, publicity in the campus press as well as posting,” the article reads. “The SSMU executive will use all means at their disposal to meet quorum for this body. The executive shall make every effort to actively advertise the assembly in the campus media.”
Nonetheless, this GA came and went with little evidence of any effort to raise awareness of the event. Email correspondence was vague, posters were eschewed due to cost, and class announcements were also deemed a poor allocation of resources. Apart from a few ads placed in the McGill Daily, advertising in the campus media was also mostly cast aside—the Tribune received notice of the motions set to come before the GA only two days prior to the event.
Last year’s SSMU executive put an emphasis on advertising, increasing efforts for the Fall GA and doubling them for the Winter. However, in Council on Thursday, SSMU President Katie Larson explained that last year’s low turnout despite the increased advertising had led her to expend fewer resources this year. “Given the fact that we just hit quorum last year, I didn’t think that it would make a huge difference,” she said.
Evaluating previous efforts depends on one’s definition of a successful GA. To say that they were unsuccessful because, despite increased attendance, the assembly failed to maintain quorum, depicts quorum—not general participation—as the sole objective of a GA. Rather, engaging students must be the first priority. Only by continuing to build awareness and a culture of participation will quorum become attainable.
It is easy to focus on the quantity of advertising, but quality is also important. This year’s GA also presented an opportunity to engage students on a current and controversial issue. One of the items on the GA agenda was the proposed Quebec Charter of Values, which has seen vocal opposition around campus. However, the vague nature and limited scope of the assembly’s advertising did not make clear that the charter was even up for discussion at the assembly. Giving a clear picture of what is at stake is imperative to engaging students.
There are many constructive discussions to be had about the relevance of our GAs to students, as well as students’ responsibility to participate. However, these conversations cannot even begin if the initial effort isn’t being made on SSMU’s end to raise awareness and to put students in the seats. There is some hope, however, after a productive Council discussion resulted in the creation of an ad-hoc committee, through which councillors will seek to assist the executive in addressing these issues.
The passivity demonstrated by the executive towards involving students in the political process is troubling. It is indicative of a disregard for the input of the membership at large, an attitude that we hope to see resolved once it comes time for the Winter GA. Encouraging student participation may be frustrating, and it may even turn out to be unsuccessful; but making the effort is imperative in keeping one of SSMU’s most valuable democratic checks intact.