Arts undergraduates voted against entering an unlimited student strike at a special General Assembly (GA) held on Tuesday, March 13. The motion, which was defeated by a vote of 609 to 495 and included 16 abstentions, would have allowed the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) to join the Quebec-wide student strike against tuition fee increases.
The GA was scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m., but was delayed for three hours because the SSMU cafeteria, originally scheduled to hold the event, did not have the capacity for all students who wished to attend. By 6:30 p.m., the lineup extended from the Shatner University Centre to the Schulich Library of Science and Engineering.
In the ensuing hours, the AUS opened the SSMU Ballroom, EUS Common Room, and Thomson House to accommodate the students. Many students waited a few hours in the cold before they were relocated.
“I think it was a bit disappointing because [people] keep saying that they want more students to participate democratically, but then we realize that they don’t have the means in place,” said Colleen Alkalay-Houlihan, a U1 math student in arts who arrived early at 5.45 p.m. and waited for three hours.
At about 8:30 p.m., students lined up outside Shatner were moved to Leacock 132, which can hold 600 people. Students in the EUS Common Room and Thomson House were then relocated to Leacock 132.
AUS president Jade Calver said that the AUS had not expected the huge turnout.
“We had considered [the possibility of needing more rooms], but we honestly were not expecting this much of an overflow … I was thinking 500 or 600 [students] would come,” Calver said.
The AUS GA officially began at 9:00 p.m. Debate was held in the SSMU cafeteria and was livestreamed to the SSMU Ballroom and Leacock 132 through TV-M.
After the agenda was approved, the movers of the motion to strike presented their motion and addressed its implications for the McGill community.
“We’re not fighting with the McGill administration over this one, we’re fighting along with every other Quebec student against the tuition hikes, and we’re fighting against the [provincial] government,” Amber Gross, co-mover of the motion, said.
Afterwards, the assembly heard three students in favour of the motion and three students against. Student Brendan Edge said that the students who attended the GA were not an adequate representation of the upwards of 6000 arts undergraduate students, and that voting in favour of a strike would be a misrepresentation of the students’ will.
“I am not going to put my education on the line,” Edge said. “I am not going to put my summer job on the line for this.”
Those in favour of the strike, however, pointed out that an unlimited student strike in Quebec has never caused the cancellation of a semester, and that a SSMU Solidarity Fund would give financial aid to students affected by the strike.
“This is our only option, and this is our only opportunity to say “We’re going to stand up: McGill is not going to be the only institution that doesn’t care enough, [that] is not aware enough, to get involved,” Jamie Burnett, U2 Economics and Women’s Studies and co-mover of the motion, said.
Another student, who could not be identified, argued that a general strike was financially impractical for students who would have to pay for rent and lose time at summer jobs if the strike resulted in an extended semester.
Following the speakers for and against, Speaker Ben Lerer received five amendments to the motion, but soon after heard a motion to end the debate and vote on the question. Students in all three rooms voted in favour of voting on the motion to strike without further debate.
“I thought a large part [of why] they voted to cut debate was because everyone who was at the GA had already made a decision,” Alkalay-Houlihan said. “I didn’t really think the debate was going to be convincing that many people.”
Students then voted on the motion to strike. The results from all three rooms were pooled. Shortly before 11 p.m., Lerer announced that the motion had been defeated with 495 students for the strike, 609 against, and 16 abstentions. After the motion was defeated, all three rooms holding the GA quickly emptied. Although there was a motion to remove speaker Lerer, the motion failed because Lerer had not violated the voting procedure.
Students then voted against adjourning the GA, and the remaining students relocated to the SSMU cafeteria. However, the GA’s attendance dropped to 119 members, less than the quorum of 150 people, which meant that further motions could only be passed by the assembly as a consultative body. The assembly finally moved to adjourn the meeting at 11:30 p.m.
JÃ©rÃ©mie DukÃ©-Laviopre, a student at the CÃ©gep Vieux-MontrÃ©al and member of the Coalition large de l’Association pour une SolidaritÃ© Syndicale Ãtudiante (CLASSE), the main organization behind the unlimited student strike, who attended the GA as an observer, said that general assemblies in French institutions were different from what he witnessed at the AUS GA.
“[Debates in French institutions] are more structured. We take more time to discuss the motions,” DukÃ©-Laviopre said. “[This] result is pretty sad for the movement.”
Alkalay-Moulihan suggested that the large turnout was due to student concerns with the practical aspects of a student strike.
“I think pretty much everyone who voted no would have gone to class [if the strike motion] had passed. People were upset by the idea that they might be physically blocked from going to class,” she said. “Furthermore, I think a lot of people don’t feel the GAs really do represent them. That’s why so many people came out tonight, because there’s this idea that all the radical students are going to the GA … so the votes that are passing through aren’t really representative.”
Gross said she was frustrated by the lack of coordination between the different rooms and the AUS’ unpreparedness for the large number of students who attended.
“Obviously it was disappointing… that the vote was so close and it ultimately failed, but 44 per cent of arts students voted in favour of striking,” she said. “I was really excited to see how many people came out. The fact that we had a line stretching all the way across campus was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen on McGill campus.”