On Oct. 16, a student activist group’s Facebook event titled “Democratize SSMU campaign” appeared on McGill students’ newsfeeds. The group, whose membership is anonymous, formed after the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Board of Directors (BoD) ratified a SSMU Judicial Board (J-Board) ruling on Sept. 17. The J-Board had previously ruled the Winter 2016 referendum motion mandating SSMU to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as unconstitutional. On its event page, which has since been taken down, Democratize SSMU listed its goals: To end abuses of power, conflicts of interest, and the neglect of duties within SSMU governing bodies.
“[Democratize SSMU formed out of] frustration and a desire to change the current composition of many of SSMU’s governance bodies,” an organizer for Democratize SSMU, who chose to remain anonymous to avoid personal attacks, said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “Frustration due to the fact that they’re not democratic, not transparent, not representative, and very shady in terms of how they organize.”
The group mobilized at the Fall 2017 General Assembly (GA) to submit a motion of non-confidence in SSMU President Muna Tojiboeva to the agenda. The motion came to the floor four days after SSMU Vice-President (VP) Student Life Jemark Earle read a statement on behalf of the other five SSMU Executives at Legislative Council on Oct. 19, asserting that Tojiboeva had acted on their behalf in a non-transparent manner. In response, Tojiboeva alleged that she was a victim of workplace harassment.
According to Democratize SSMU, Tojiboeva’s own miscommunications about the processes for submitting motions to the GA agenda fell in the way of its attempts to put forth the motion. Section 13.2 of the SSMU Constitution requires the BoD, Councillors, or SSMU members to submit motions to the agenda two weeks prior to the GA. While Tojiboeva stated that the GA date was posted on the SSMU website in September, there is no evidence to show that she formally announced this submission deadline to SSMU membership beyond this post. Although all parties were allowed to submit their motions late, each motion subsequently required a two-thirds majority of votes at the GA to be added to the agenda—whereas on-time motions are automatically added, and in turn, voted upon with a requirement of 51 per cent to pass. The motion of non-confidence failed to garner a two-thirds majority—with 61 per cent of students attending GA voting in favour—and as such, was not added to the agenda.
“We, Democratize SSMU, were forced to submit a late motion, faced an uphill battle to get two-thirds majority just to get this on the agenda at the GA,” the organizer said. “[Had Tojiboeva] opened submissions on time, and we submitted our motion on time, and it was automatically on the agenda, and we only needed a simple majority to pass a non-confidence motion, we would’ve had 61 per cent of the vote, and that would’ve passed [….] Had she done her job, the General Assembly would’ve voted non-confidence for her.”
Following the approval of the agenda, the GA moved into regular business, including the approval of the SSMU Auditor and the ratification of the 2017-18 SSMU BoD, whose year-long term begins on Nov. 15. However, while Board members are typically ratified as a bloc, such that members vote to approve or disapprove the entire Board, SSMU VP Internal Maya Koparkar motioned to divide the question. This motion passed, and the nominated directors were ratified as individuals. Of the 10 nominations, seven were ratified for year-long terms, while three members—Noah Lew, Josephine Wright O’Manique, and Alexander Scheffel—failed to be ratified. Both Lew and Scheffel are members-at-large of the current BoD, and were the only two nominated directors who would be returning for second terms.
After the ratification, SSMU members alleged that Democratize SSMU was behind the choice to divide the question. According to Koparkar, dividing the question was an attempt to improve transparency in the selection of the BoD given the controversy over the constitutionality of the Board’s makeup earlier this semester.
“I am definitely not a member of Democratize SSMU,” Koparkar said in interview with the Tribune. “When all of those conflicts were going on regarding the constitutionality of the Board, someone had alluded to the fact that the Board wasn’t democratic because it wasn’t composed of elected members [….] Someone suggested dividing the question as a way of adding legitimacy to this process, which I felt was fair, especially given that we voted on the councillors for BoD in this manner at Council a couple weeks ago.”
The ratification vote occurred just one week after the BoD’s vote in confidential session to suspend VP Finance Arisha Khan for a two-week period on Oct. 16 for a breach of confidentiality. At the meeting, SSMU General Manager Ryan Hughes presented the results of an investigation into suspicions that Khan had leaked confidential information to student media. Hughes showed directors a confidential email that Khan had forwarded to a SSMU member who is not part of the executive and is unaffiliated with the student media. During the vote, Khan was at a conference on behalf of SSMU and said she was not warned of the vote prior to the meeting. The Board’s failure to notify Khan would violate article 6.8 of the SSMU Constitution, which stipulates that a Director shall have the right to put forth reasons opposing the proposed removal from office.
“Noah Lew and Alexandre Scheffel are both members of the Board of Directors that voted to suspend [VP] Khan from the Board of Directors when she was away at a conference on foster care without her being given the chance to defend herself,” the Democratize SSMU organizer said. “In the constitution it says that a Board member can be voted off from their position but they will be notified of the time and place of the meeting and shall be present, [and have] the right to be present to defend themselves. But she wasn’t notified [….] It’s unconstitutional what they did.”
Following his failed ratification, Noah Lew asserted in a widely-shared Facebook status that the students voting against him were motivated by religious prejudice, citing Democratize SSMU’s mention of his name, his affiliation with Jewish organizations, and his conflict of interest in its Facebook event description. Many members of the McGill community expressed anger and disappointment with the alleged anti-Semitism behind Lew and Scheffel’s failed ratification, including David Naftulin, U1 Arts, a vocal member of the Jewish community on campus.
“[Lew] is being ostracized in a political witch hunt because he is active in his [religious] community,” Naftulin said. “I posit that any [member of another] minority group that was active in a mainstream organization that advocated for their community would be under no such scrutiny at SSMU. And that is the anti-Semitism. It is a double standard.”
The allegations of discrimination prompted McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier to issue a statement to the student body on Oct. 25, reaffirming McGill’s values of tolerance and respect. She also detailed the administration’s plans to investigate alleged discriminatory bias or intent behind the results of the vote.
“The allegation is that votes were taken, and that on account of people’s perceived religious affiliation, the vote against [the BoD members] was negative,” Fortier said in an interview with the Tribune. “So, they were singled out on account of religious affiliation. So that is the allegation, and that’s what we will investigate [….] I think we need to ask ourselves the question of, how many people on our campus are subjected to situations that are discriminatory or disrespectful.”
According to the organizer, the BoD ratification was not on Democratize SSMU’s radar when mobilizing students to attend the GA. Rather, the motion of non-confidence was their only goal prior—and the BoD ratification vote only became important once the former motion failed.
“A lot of people […] have made it out to seem that this movement came to the GA to unseat these three directors, which is totally false,” the organizer said. “We came to the GA for one reason, the non-confidence motion [….] The principal’s email makes it seem like we mobilized against those directors, but we didn’t. Democratize SSMU has broad goals of constitutional reform.”
In the week following the GA, Director Jonathan Glustein petitioned the SSMU J-Board to rule the division of the BoD motion unconstitutional, calling for the upcoming online ratification to vote on the new members as a bloc. The J-Board intends to hold hearings to determine the constitutionality of dividing the motion and, in the meantime, all the directors will retain their positions.
Further, the BoD passed a motion to form a committee to investigate anti-Semitism on campus at its Oct. 29 meeting. The committee’s membership will include representatives from Jewish cultural groups.