On October 22, 2014 SSMU held its Fall General Assembly. In the past SSMU has had challenges meeting quorum, the minimum number of students to conduct business. However, due the the highly emotional nature of a motion brought to the floor, students turned out in record numbers. 800 students attended while many more waited outside the building in hopes of getting a seat. Ahead of the GA, chairs were removed from the cafeteria in anticipation of high attendance, leaving room for standing only.
Traditionally, only the 500 students who can fit into the SSMU cafeteria are permitted to vote. However, because of the high turnout, procedures were altered and students in the ballroom were livestreamed the debate and were permitted to participate in both substantive and procedural votes.
A Campus Divided
Many students attended the GA to discuss the highly contentious “Motion to Stand in Solidarity with the Occupied Territories of Palestine.” As the title states the motion moved to condemn human rights violations committed against Palestinians in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. The motion was highly contentious from the time of its proposal, both mobilizing large yes and no campaigns on Facebook.
The motion was originally fourth on the agenda however was moved to the second position in the New Business portion of the GA, following a successful motion to rearrange the agenda.
Ameya Pendse, U3 Political Science and History student, proposed a motion to permanently postpone the “Motion to Stand in Solidarity with the Palestinian Occupied Territories” indefinitely. After 90-minute debate, the motion passed with 402 voting yes and 337 voting no. Only a simple majority was needed to pass the vote. Now that the motion has been tabled indefinitely, it cannot again come before a GA in its current form. “By discussing this motion you are giving it legitimacy. This motion does not deserve legitimacy of any kind,” Pendse argued to The Bull & Bear after the vote. “Not only is the motion extremely biased and one sided in the perambulatory clauses,” he added, “by discussing it we give SSMU the legitimacy to conduct foreign policy, something we can not trust it to do. By motioning to postpone indefinitely, our took the a stance to not pick a side, where a group of students would feel alienated regardless of the outcome.”
The debate to table the notion was intense, focusing primarily on the proper forum in which to debate the issue not whether or not a discussion should take place. Many students felt that SSMU should remain an apolitical body and not take a political stance that would homogenize diverse student opinions on the conflict. “I came to McGill with my own free voice, not to have a student union speak on my behalf,” stated U3 Arts student, McKenzie Kibbler. “I do not see SSMU as a vehicle to show my political views without my consent.”
SSMU Execs Voice Opinions
Prior to the debate SSMU execs presented their various portfolios. The executives did not speak specifically to the motion concerning the occupied territories, but SSMU VP External Affairs, Amina Moustaqim-Barrette, stated “Over the last few days a lot of people have communicated to me that they don’t think we should be taking positions on external affairs. I reject that. SSMU’s constitution states that we should – if you think that an issue is divisive or polarizing, that’s okay. Civil rights movement, same sex marriage, South African Aparthied – they were all divisive and polarizing at some point, too.” Her comment was met with applause from the floor.
Responding to students that claimed that the SSMU should not a take political stance on a divisive issue, SSMU VP of University Affairs Claire Stewart-Kanigan added, “Is it not outlined in the SSMU preamble to take leadership on issues of social justice and human rights?”
Freedom of Expression
Other students, representing both sides of the conflict, felt that suppressing debate would deny their right to free speech and open dialogue. “We need to understand one another and learn from the other side,” commented Nisan Abdulkader, a U3 Political Science and Management student. “I came to university to understand, discuss and reflect and I hope that you will all join me.”
Students from both sides of the debated used appeals to free speech to support their points of view. Some students, Such as Ryan, U2 Arts, who did not give his last name, took a passionate stance with respect to the right of free speech. “Its ironic that people are postponing debate on the issue in the name of free speech. They are saying that it suppresses free speech but really what they mean is that they don’t agree with the other side.”
Varied Reactions to the Indefinite Postponement
Moustaquim-Barrette was disappointed that the motion failed. “I would say that it’s extremely disappointing. We heard time and time again that this is not the forum for this debate. That makes no sense to me. Students have been in front of every social movement so I don’t see how this isn’t the perfect forum to discuss this. This is what we were here for.”
Not all students left disappointed. “the motion would have made the Jewish Israeli population uncomfortable if it had passed. The resolution condemns Israeli actions without even mentioning other actions such as Hamas that commit human rights violations against Palestinians. The motion was incomplete and that why I’m really happy it has been postponed indefinitely.” Michael Saskin, U1 Management student.
Following the vote the majority of students left the GA, despite the fact that four motions remained to be discussed on the agenda. However, SSMU was still able to meet quorum, and chairs were brought in as seating space was no longer an issue.
The Bull & Bear will release an article fully summarizing the Fall SSMU General Assembly as a follow-on article.