Letter to the Editor: SSMU’s Proposed Democratic Reforms Are Anything but Democratic

From Simon Paransky

In November 2016, SSMU’s Legislative Council created an Ad-Hoc Democratic Review Committee in an attempt to make recommendations for reforming SSMU’s governing bodies, namely, the Board of Directors and the General Assembly. This upcoming Thursday, the Legislative Council will vote on amendments proposed by the Committee. Unfortunately, the proposed legislation is a poor excuse for reform. Rather, it undermines the very institutions that exist to manage SSMU’s obligations to its students.

These changes are undemocratic, inequitable, and likely illegal under Quebec corporate law.

First, the amendments affect more than just the General Assembly and the Board of Directors: they strip power from the Judicial Board, SSMU’s equivalent of a Supreme Court. Second, they take away the ability of students to directly adopt SSMU’s policies and plans, by gutting the Referenda process and the General Assembly. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the amendments’ most dangerous proposals concentrate all these powers in the hands of the Legislative council. These changes are undemocratic, inequitable, and likely illegal under Quebec corporate law. As a law student, and as a member of SSMU, I feel it is important for me to voice my deep concern with this motion.

It is important to recall that SSMU is a corporation. By law, a corporation must be managed by a Board of Directors (Quebec Companies Act, CQLR c C-38, article 123.72). In practice, SSMU tries to act as a government as much as possible. This is why we have a Legislative Council, an institution similar to Parliament where elected representatives debate issues pertaining to students. The Judicial Board serves a similar purpose within this framework. Its members interpret SSMU’s Constitution and Internal Regulations in order to protect the rights of students. Any decision taken by the Judicial Board or Legislative Council must still be ratified by the Board of Directors. This is an unfortunate legal reality that poses issues of accountability and fairness for SSMU. To this end, the sponsors of the proposed amendments claim that it reforms the current structure, eliminating the hurdles posed by the Board of Directors. In reality, it does just the opposite.

If SSMU is genuinely trying to act like a government, it should respect the separation of the judiciary from the legislative bodies.

The first issue is the effective dismantling of the Judicial Board by allowing its cases to be referred to Legislative Council. The proposed amendments give the Legislative Council the ability to decide whether or not to accept Judicial Board rulings (second “be it resolved” clause, amending article 5.3 of Internal Regulations of Governance-03). Anyone familiar with constitutional law would be shocked by this change.

If SSMU is genuinely trying to act like a government, it should respect the separation of the judiciary from the legislative bodies. The Judicial Board interprets SSMU’s constitution, Internal Regulations and, most importantly, its Equity Policy (Internal Regulations of Governance-03, articles 1.1(a), (c), (e)). The Judicial Board also rules on the legality of actions taking by Legislative Council (Internal Regulations of Governance-03, articles 1.1(b)). It strips students who do not belong to the political majority from defending their minority rights – rights that are equally guaranteed to them as SSMU members. Students who do not have the political clout to elect and influence a majority of Legislative Council should not be stripped of their ability to appeal to the Judicial Board for their rights.

Election violations during SSMU elections could cease to matter, as Legislative Council could do as it pleases regardless of the results.

Furthermore, should the proposed changes be adopted, the Legislative Council will be able to adopt any policy it wants, while disregarding the opinion of its constituents. If the Judicial Board rules an act of Legislative Council unconstitutional, Council could simply overturn that decision and push on with its own agenda. Any action would be fair game, even if it contravenes the SSMU Constitution. Election violations during SSMU elections could cease to matter, since Legislative Council could potentially do as it pleases regardless of the results. The Council would be empowered to act with impunity, as nobody would check its powers or hold it accountable.

If this weren’t troubling enough, the amendments also strip McGill students of their power to participate directly in setting SSMU policy. That power is, again, transferred entirely to the Legislative Council (5th “be it resolved” clause, amending articles 6.1 and 6.2 of the Internal Regulations of Governance-07). Both methods of directly participating in SSMU decision-making, the General Assembly and Referenda, lose all their weight  (3rd “be it resolved” clause, amending articles 1.1 and 1.2 of the Internal Regulations of Governance-05). Referenda, which allow for more accessible online voting, are completely erased. General Assemblies still have some weight, but are subsumed under the Legislative Council’s new power to unilaterally adopt SSMU policies and plans  (5th “be it resolved” clause, amending articles 6.1 and 6.2 of the Internal Regulations of Governance-07). Students lose any hope of directly affecting how SSMU, an organization to which they pay fees, makes decisions. As such, the proposed amendments severely undermine democratic and equitable principles on which SSMU was founded.

The Legislative Council is an important body, and is central to SSMU’s governance. But if SSMU wishes to function as an effective institution that ensures the rights of its members – the students – each arm of the institution must be equally independent, accountable, and responsible to the SSMU Constitution. If you share these concerns about these amendments, I encourage you to e-mail your Legislative Council representative or SSMU Executive and urge them to vote against this motion on Thursday.

As students, we pay SSMU fees and are SSMU members. We are afforded rights and protections by the SSMU Constitution. We have a say in any policy SSMU adopts. The amendments proposed to Legislative Council takes away our right to influence policy, and our ability to fairly appeal our rights to the Judicial Board. It must be struck down.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.

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