Students Mobilize to Vote at the Winter 2015 SSMU GA

The Winter 2015 SSMU General Assembly was held this past Sunday in Leacock 132, a location which proved large enough to receive the 550 students who showed up to debate and vote on changes to the student society. On the table were three motions addressing the divestment from specific companies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, accessible education, and unpaid internships. A summary of the motions can be accessed here.

Image courtesy of Stella Lee

Motion Regarding Divestment from Companies Profiting from the Illegal Occupation of Palestinian Territories

This semester’s General Assembly once again included a contentious motion regarding the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Whereas the motion brought forth last Fall moved to stand in solidarity with the people of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, this motion moved to divest from companies benefiting from the illegal occupation of those same Occupied Palestinian Territories. Specifically, the motion aimed to divest from RE/MAX, Volvo, Mitsubishi, Toyota, and Oshkosh.

Considering the wide and polarized interest in the proposal, this motion was quickly moved to the top of the agenda at the beginning of the GA by a motion proposed and passed on the floor. Following these procedural changes, slight alterations to the text of the Motion Regarding Divestment from Companies Profiting from the Illegal Occupation of the Palestinian Territories were made. Rather than the SPHR being charged with leading the Divestment Campaign, the wording was changed to state that a Divestment Committee would be formed to spearhead the issue. The motion then went to debate.

The majority of the debate centered around the context of the motion, rather than its content. Supporters of the motion claimed that the discussed issues of divestment are separate from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; this global campaign aims to boycott Israeli institutions (primarily academic and cultural), divest from Israeli companies complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights, and impose sanctions on the Israeli state. Opponents countered that the motion marginalized the Jewish community at McGill, and threatened to divide the student body.

After approximately 45 minutes of debate, a motion to move to debate was brought forth. Once this motion was passed and the voting period opened, another motion was brought forth from the floor to vote by secret ballot due to the sensitivity of the subject. The secret ballot motion passed, and volunteers distributed and collected ballots, verified as official with Gerts or SSMU stamps. The motion failed by a vote of 212 for, 276 against, and 9 abstentions.

Image courtesy of Stella Lee

Motion Regarding Unpaid Internships

After a mass exodus of people out of Leacock 132, the Motion Regarding Unpaid Internships was brought to the floor. Although most students agreed that unpaid internships may be detrimental to students and that paid internships should be promoted over unpaid work, debate centered around the clause requiring that SSMU mandate clubs and services to not promote unpaid work that contravenes applicable employment laws to the student body, if they wish to receive or continue receiving recognition from SSMU. In the words of one student debating in favour of the motion: “All this motion is asking is that McGill support laws that are already in place,” when it comes to illegal, unpaid internships. “This isn’t against unpaid internships, it’s just to ensure that students have their rights promoted,” added Miled Hill during the debate period.

Opponents of the clause asserted that the requirement would worsen already tense relationships between clubs and SSMU. Meanwhile, supporters of stronger wording emphasized that the requirement would bring SSMU clubs in line with existing labor laws that prevent unpaid work. It was decided that both clubs and services would remain under the motion’s mandate. Furthermore, it was amended that clubs and services not facilitate the promotion of internships that break Quebec and Canadian labor law. “As clubs fit under the SSMU bureaucracy, if they break the law, SSMU breaks the law. If they get sued, [SSMU] gets sued,” expressed David Benrimoh.

This final clause brought significant concerns about enforceability and SSMU’s administrative capacity. These concerns were raised because relationships between SSMU and clubs are typically opaque, and SSMU is not always aware of hiring practices. It was also added that SSMU should offer education to clubs regarding Quebec labour law.

The vote was divided between the original motion and the added amendment requiring clubs and services to actively comply with labour law. Both motions passed with two-thirds majority.

Image courtesy of Stella Lee

Motion Regarding Policy on Accessible Education

With only 102 students present during the debate of the second motion, there was a possibility of losing quorum once debate moved on to the final motion. All the same, the motion, which came in response to recent tuition deregulation in six faculties and a 180% increase in tuition for French students, was discussed. There was consensus that tuition rates should not universally be risen in response to austerity. However, there was disagreement on the regulation of French tuition fees, considering the provincial’s government dire need for increased sources of revenue. Bearing in mind that “277% of every dollar in Quebec is on debt at the moment […] the percentage of tax dollars paid in Quebec by French students and French parents is 0%,” expressed Matthew Cressati.

The primary divide was whether or not a stance against tuition hikes represents a first step towards both student protests and strikes should tuition rise further. As stated by a student during the debate, “We, at McGill, need to make sure we are carrying our share of the weight [in the fight against austerity].” Supporters asserted that the motion does not call for any action beyond taking a pre-emptive stance against expected tuition hikes for out of province students. Opponents asserted that the motion was fear mongering and believed the motion would lead to more extreme action. For some students, like McKenzie Kibler, based on the content of the motion, “it can’t be clearer than this: the intention is to go on strike next year.”

However, as clarified by Amina Moustaqim-Barrette, SSMU’s current VP External, “this is not fear-mongering [because through the portfolio] I already have a mandate to mobilize against austerity.”

Both opponents and supporters discussed the possibility of striking and other student mobilization movements in response to austerity. The debate centered heavily around issues of privilege and accessibility in face of rising tuition. “Deregulation of tuition is not a good thing. This is building barriers to class mobility,” stressed another student. This thought was echoed by David Benrimoh, stating, “when you deregulate tuition fees, you get more people from the top class, less from the lower, and the middle class shrinks.”

After the debate, the motion went to a vote; however, it was found that the assembly was short of quorum, with only 97 voting members remaining in the room. Therefore, this final decision could only be recorded under the GA’s consultative role. At the end of the assembly, the SSMU executive provided updates on each of their portfolios.

Image courtesy of Stella Lee