On Feb. 16, 90 per cent of students at the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) General Assembly – Consultative Forum voted to adopt the Divest for Human Rights Policy. The Policy mandates SSMU to campaign against McGill University’s investments in corporations complicit in colonial land theft, environmental destruction, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, both on Turtle Island and abroad. One week later, the SSMU Legislative Council endorsed the Policy with a resounding two-thirds majority.
Based on overwhelming support demonstrated through a democratic process, it was expected that SSMU’s Board of Directors, a largely unelected and unrepresentative body, would ratify the Policy. Yet at their meeting on March 4, the Directors declined to do so. Their justification was that adopting the Policy might provoke reprisals from the McGill administration. Instead, the Directors voted to refer the Policy to SSMU’s Judicial Board to confirm that it does not violate SSMU’s constitution. If the Judicial Board reaffirms the Policy’s constitutionality as expected, the Board has indicated that it may refer the Policy to SSMU’s legal counsel for additional reassurance before deciding whether to approve it.
It is clear that the Directors’ foot-dragging is motivated by their fear of McGill’s potential backlash against SSMU rather than by any objective analysis of the Policy itself. Director Chip Smith expressed opposition to the Policy based on the assertion that naming and criticizing McGill’s investments would raise the risk of legal action from the administration, despite the fact that SSMU has adopted other divestment campaigns in the past. Director and SSMU President Jemark Earle echoed this argument, stating that the McGill administration has been closely eyeing the progression of the Policy, and has threatened SSMU for pursuing human rights advocacy in the past. McGill does this by declaring that SSMU is violating its constitution, which allows the university to threaten to default on its legal agreement with SSMU—the Memorandum of Agreement (MoA)—thus voluntarily jeopardizing the relationship between McGill and SSMU. Due to confidentiality constraints, Directors were unwilling to provide details about prior instances of intimidation by the McGill administration.
When asked by student attendees, none of the Board’s members were able to provide any actual explanation as to how the Policy might violate SSMU’s constitution. Although some Directors framed their decision as a temporary delay of the Policy’s adoption, others stated that the Policy should be rejected outright by the Board if it runs any risk of a threat from the McGill administration. This reasoning is as cynical as it is absurd, given that McGill is clearly willing to issue unfounded threats of default on the MoA regardless of any precautions that the Board might take. The Board’s reluctance to adopt the Divest for Human Rights Policy therefore establishes an outrageous precedent, whereby any democratically approved SSMU initiative could be vetoed by the Board of Directors every time McGill’s administration expresses disapproval.
As students advocating for ethical divestment, we are disappointed that SSMU’s Board of Directors has not shown moral courage in the face of yet another baseless threat from the McGill administration. We are also shocked by the rhetoric of certain Directors, who appear to be exploiting the fear of controversy in their effort to obstruct the Divest for Human Rights Policy. After enduring so many excessive bureaucratic hurdles, we expect the Board to uphold the democratic will of the student body, which has wholeheartedly endorsed this divestment campaign. The duty of our student union is to resist, not assist repressive methods of intimidation, which the university regularly deploys against its own students whenever they seek to hold the institution accountable for its complicity in violent oppression and the destruction of our planet.