Last Wednesday’s General Assembly (GA) of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) was every bit as big an event as anticipated; with an attendance of over 700 students, the GA drew several times the attendance of several previous assemblies—which often hover around the 100 person quorum.
Chief among the reasons for the turnout was the “Motion Calling on SSMU to Stand in Solidarity with the People of the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” which sparked the creation of spirited advocacy campaigns on both sides, ultimately driving the turnout.
In the wake of the GA, which was marked by overcrowding, raucous debate, and even some students being turned away, due to space constraints and safety concerns, a Facebook event calling for the replacement of the SSMU Building with a noted children’s arcade chain gained widespread attention, with attendance numbers rivaling and surpassing those of events associated with the GA itself. What the event, as well as the GA itself demonstrated, was the degree to which our campus was and is intractably divided. The fact that students connected to such a clearly farcical suggestion suggests the presence of a pent-up outrage towards SSMU, which the apparent mismanagement of the GA ignited. Furthermore, between the obvious divisions on the substantive Israel-Palestine issue, there is also a pronounced divide on what the role of SSMU should be. Much of the opposition to the resolution stemmed from suspicion about the idea of the association, student dollars in hand, taking stances on controversial international issues.
Some of that suspicion is well founded, and informed the endorsement we offered on that very resolution last week. However, another thread has become clear in the backlash—the degree to which students are almost completely unaware of the role SSMU plays on campus at all, to the point of not even understanding that the association manages Gerts, or misstating which employees are paid. Oftentimes legitimate outrage and suspicion is enveloped in a cloud of misinformation; while there was justified outrage over the election invalidation last year and the apparent collusion in bringing charges against the initially declared victor, there also was a lack of knowledge as to the fact that the SSMU bylaws forced the presidency to be awarded to the runner-up instead of the running of another election. None of this is to imply that SSMU isn’t in need of reform, but that students need to be informed before they can reform.
There at times is an institutional culture among student politicians to distrust these periodic eruptions of complaint, and this culture is bolstered by the lack of information that drives these episodes. Students are busy and are well within their rights to ignore SSMU, but sporadic engagement without prior research isn’t productive for anyone.
What SSMU can do to alleviate this disconnect remains to be seen. There are platitudes about ‘engagement’ and ‘consultation’ that get thrown around every time this sort of issue comes to the fore, but perhaps a bigger change is needed. Will SSMU stay in its current state, lacking broader student engagement, or will attention from a broader cross section of the student body lead to fundamental changes in how the association organizes itself? The latter would be preferable, but it remains to be seen. In order to seek that change, students and SSMU must cooperate and reach a mutual understanding on the issues at hand.