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Sudden removal of Palestinian Solidarity Policy from SSMU Referendum causes controversy

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Winter 2022 Referendum spurred confusion and outrage among students after the Palestinian Solidarity Policy question did not appear on the ballot. Elections SSMU had previously approved the question, but when the polls opened on March 14, the question was not on there. 

After Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) McGill announced that the question had been removed, Elections SSMU published a statement explaining that the removal was due to an interim order from the SSMU Judicial Board. SPHR and other student groups immediately protested the removal of the question, and later in the day, Elections SSMU decided to reinstate it and launch a new ballot, discarding the previous one. Accordingly, the voting period for the referendum, which was initially scheduled to close on March 18, was extended to  March 21. 

The Palestinian Solidarity Policy directs SSMU to boycott and divest from all organizations that profit from or are complicit in what scholars, international organizations, and human rights activists characterize as a settler colonial apartheid state in the occupied territory of Palestine. It further mandates that SSMU condemns the surveillance and doxxing of Palestinian and pro-Palestine students by organizations such as Canary Mission. Lastly, the policy directs SSMU to demand the same from the McGill administration.  

Jaylynn Barth, chief electoral officer (CEO) at Elections SSMU, explained in an email to the Tribune that on March 11, three days before the start of the polling period, a petition against the Palestinian Solidarity Policy and the process through which it was approved for the referendum was filed. Barth did not disclose who filed the petition. 

Under the SSMU Internal Regulations of Elections and Referenda, all referendum questions must be approved by the CEO, unless a question seeks to alter the SSMU Constitution in which case it must be approved by the SSMU Board of Directors. Elections SSMU had not deemed the Palestinian Solidarity Question to be seeking a change to the SSMU constitution and had consulted with only the Judicial Board before approving the question. 

According to Barth, the petitioner was concerned that the question required approval by the SSMU Board of Directors. Barth says the Judicial Board had ordered that the question be removed from the ballot until “a legal determination on the merits of compliance can be rendered” by the Board of Directors. Yet, after considering the tight timeline and the “balance of inconvenience and harms” caused by the removal, Barth decided to reinstate the question. She emphasized that the SSMU Board of Directors’ “legal determination,” could potentially invalidate the question after the results of the referendum have been released.

Section 10.3 of the Rules and Regulations of Practice for Judicial Board Procedures mandates that J-Board provide an Executive Summary of the written reasons for an Interim Order. The SSMU Judicial Board has yet to share one. 

Malaika,* a member of McGill 4 Palestine, was frustrated by Elections SSMU’s communication of its decision to remove the item from the ballot. They believe the decision may have been politically motivated.

“We took this as an unfair and arbitrary decision to censor us without any formal explanation,” Malaika said in an interview with the Tribune/. “If they do further scrutinize our question, I can’t help but think that this was only to pacify us.”

In an interview with the Tribune, Omar,* a member of SPHR, said that they find Election SSMU’s decision to hastily intervene in the referendum to be disturbing, citing the many violations of SSMU regulations that such an intervention might entail.

“Both [the Judicial Board and Elections SSMU] acted outrageously, and have done tremendous harm to the integrity of the SSMU’s democratic process,” Omar said. “We have not had a proper justification from Elections SSMU. We have not received any communications from the Judicial Board at all. With the rush of the referendum and the campaign, we haven’t been able to follow up but it’s also their responsibility to be communicating with us and they are not.” 

The Tribune reached out to the Judicial Board as well as  SSMU vice-president Internal Affairs, Sarah Paulin, for a statement on the decision making processes that led to the question’s removal from the ballot. Both declined to comment. 

The results of the referendum were published on March 21, shortly after the polls closed at 5 p.m. The question of Palestianian Solidarity Policy passed with 71.1 per cent in favour.

*Malaika’s and Omar’s names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

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