On May 31, the Judicial Board (J-Board) of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) released its ruling on the constitutionality of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Motion that was presented at the Winter 2016 General Assembly (GA).
The McGill Tribune supports the J-Board’s decision, as it places SSMU’s commitments to its students above its political mandate. However, the decision creates a few uncertainties, as SSMU has yet to explain how the ruling will be applied, or how future motions will need to be structured in order to maintain their constitutionality.
The J-Board ruled that the BDS Motion, and any other motion “that specifically targets one nation and compels SSMU to actively campaign against that country,” is unconstitutional because it would undermine SSMU’s commitment to avoid discrimination based on “irrelevant personal characteristics that include but are not limited to race, national, and ethnic origin.”
SSMU’s political mandate is valuable because it allows the Society to lobby on behalf of the interests of students at the local and provincial levels, but it loses its purpose when applied to complex international issues that have little to do with the university. As the J-Board pointed out in its decision, SSMU has a responsibility to serve and represent all McGill undergraduates, and to avoid discrimination based on national origin. The J-Board was correct in ruling against the constitutionality of motions that overlook SSMU’s commitment to its members in order to take sides in international debates over which the Society has little influence.
While SSMU is a democracy, and therefore has a responsibility to reflect the wishes of its constituents, this cannot be used to justify motions that discriminate against a minority of students. One of the fundamental roles of the judiciary in liberal democratic countries such as Canada and the US is to protect vulnerable minorities from potential abuses by the majority. The same principle applies to SSMU. As the SSMU’s equivalent of a court, the J-Board was justified in delivering its ruling regardless of whether or not it conflicts with the will of the GA.
However, the J-Board’s decision leaves several issues related to GA motions unclear. Chiefly, the Board has not explained what will happen if an unconstitutional motion is submitted at a future GA. One solution would be to create a committee to review potential motions for their constitutionality before they are presented at the GA. A similar committee, in the form of a Steering Committee, which would have screened “divisive or external” motions, was rejected at the Winter 2016 GA. Whether students would accept a new committee that may closely resemble one they just voted against remains to be seen. Thus, it is important that the J-Board elaborate on how it intends its new ruling be applied before the Fall 2016 GA.
Another potential solution lies in a new initiative proposed by SSMU President Ben Ger. In the SSMU Executive Goals 2016-2017 document, the President has committed to developing “Policy and Motion-Writing Templates” for student submissions to GAs and referenda in order to make it easier for students to get involved in the democratic process. Included in these templates should be an explanation of how to write a motion that conforms with the J-Board’s recent ruling on constitutionality. For example, the J-Board’s decision states that a motion would still be acceptable if it were “tailored to deal with the human rights issue in question,” instead of targeting a nation as a whole. Explaining this distinction is not the same as enforcing it, but these templates could facilitate screening by helping students determine whether or not their motion is constitutional before it reaches the GA.
Making the motion-writing process clearer and more accessible is essential in encouraging students to be actively involved in student governance, especially given that lack of interest in SSMU and low voter turnout at the GA have been chronic problems. Any solution that also improves student involvement would be doubly beneficial.
The J-Board was within its bounds in ruling that the BDS motion presented at the Winter 2016 GA was unconstitutional, but the J-Board must clarify how its ruling will be enforced. Both the J-Board and SSMU must ensure that motions now deemed unconstitutional will no longer be presented at future GAs.