SSMU Council sees extensive debate
Internal regulations motion tabled until next Council session
On Thursday February 9, the Legislative Council of the Students’ Society of Mcgill University (SSMU) convened for an exceptionally long and confrontational meeting, with Council lasting over six hours and ending at one a.m..
During the first two hours of Council, people speaking during Question Period primarily voiced concerns over a tweet by Arts Representative and former Daily editor Igor Sadikov, which has drawn intense criticism for its alleged incitement to violence.
Furthermore, a motion to amend SSMU’S internal regulations was debated extensively and then postponed until the next Council meeting, on February 23. Council also discussed six notices of motion and three other motions.
Councillor Sadikov’s tweet
The day before the Council meeting, on Wednesday February 8, a recent tweet reading “punch a Zionist today” had surfaced online.
The tweet, which was posted to Sadikov’s personal account after working hours on February 6, was a reference to the recent “punch a Nazi” memes which circulated online following the viral video of white supremacist Richard Spencer being punched in the face at the inauguration of United States President Donald Trump.
The tweet in question has since been deleted, but not before screenshots of it had been widely shared within the Mcgill community and beyond.
Over the course of the following day, Thursday February 9, an intense storm of criticism developed around Sadikov and his tweet, with many at Mcgill and in the wider world portraying it as an incitement to antiSemitic violence.
This interpretation rests on the conflation of Zionism with Jewishness which, while widely believed, is in fact a misconception; many Jewish people do not identify with the settler-colonial ideology of Zionism or the goals and actions of the state of Israel.
Moreover, it should be noted that Sadikov himself is Jewish, a fact which has been ignored by many media outlets and in the discussion surrounding this controversy.
On Thursday morning, the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS), of which Sadikov is a council member as one of the Arts Representatives to SSMU, published a statement on their Facebook page condemning the tweet and asking for his resignation.
Meanwhile, Christopher Manfredi, Mcgill’s Provost and Vice-principal Academic, issued a public statement calling the tweet “disturbing,” stating that disciplinary action was underway on the grounds that the tweet violated Mcgill policy, despite being sent from a personal account after working hours.
Sadikov has been harshly criticized within certain segments of the Mcgill community, and in a variety of local, national, and international media outlets. Nonetheless, a movement in support of him has also developed.
A number of student groups and individuals in the university community expressed public support for Sadikov, using the hashtag #BiasedMcgill to call attention to what they perceived as a disproportionate and unjust response to his tweet.
It was in this incendiary context that SSMU Council met on Thursday evening. While such meetings are generally only attended by the councillors themselves and a few members of the student press, this one had attracted a crowd of roughly 50 students.
Some came with the intention of confronting Sadikov for perceived incitement to violence, while others wished to stand in solidarity with him and call attention to what they saw as political bias underlying the attacks against him.
After a number of lengthy presentations which were previously scheduled for that Council meeting, a question period began during which members of the gallery could air their concerns, and have them addressed by members of Council.
Arts student David Naftalin opened the session by telling those assembled that he personally felt frightened by Sadikov’s tweet, and didn’t see “how a member of this board has a right to be here based on the SSMU constitution, which prides itself on inclusivity and diversity.”
In response to this, engineering student Laura Khoury said that as a Palestinian, she felt unsafe due to the presence of Zionists on Council.
“Since SSMU has a social justice mandate,” asked Khoury, “why does it allow Zionist councillors on Council, when Zionist ideology is inherently [linked to] ethnically cleansing Palestinians?”
“Your question I think is really inappropriate,” replied Social Work Representative Jasmine Segal, “because freedom of speech [means that] people are allowed to believe what they want.”
Segal publicly identified herself as a Zionist, and characterized Sadikov’s tweet as a “hate crime.” When this statement elicited criticism from some in the gallery, she stated that she had consulted thoroughly with her constituents before the meeting, and was using vocabulary which they had endorsed.
Much of the question period involved heated debate over how exactly to define Zionism, and over who had experienced violence.
Iris Madeleine asked Council what would be done “to guarantee Igor’s safety after this hateful campaign against him.”
AUS President Becky Goldberg, who was present in the gallery, replied to Madeleine, making it clear that she was speaking as an individual, not as the voice of her Society.
“It seems to be a little bit of [...] a political witch-hunt,” said Goldberg, “and I have tried to ensure Igor’s safety just in providing my personal support [...] but we have been contemplating formulating a statement that does not condone the use of [...] defamation or [...] the promotion of harm in response to something that people perceived as harm.”
Indeed, on the following day, AUS published a second statement on its Facebook page, condemning the violence enacted or threatened against Sadikov in recent days.
“I am grateful for President Goldberg’s support provided on a personal level,” responded Sadikov at Council. “That said, I’m in agreement with [Madeleine] about the need for institutional support. Over the past 24 hours I have received hundreds of insults and threats on social media, my personal information has been posted online, it has been reported to various institutions and authorities. I cannot say that [...] I feel safe.”
Internal governance reforms motion
Following the question period, Council discussed a motion to reform SSMU’S internal regulations which had been moved by Sadikov in collaboration with SSMU VP University Affairs Erin Sobat. In essence, the motion aimed to improve accountability at the level of the SSMU Board of Directors (BOD).
Last year, a series of reforms were passed which significantly increased the Bod’s power, in an effort to allow Council to function more efficiently. In doing so, however, reforms failed to put in place adequate checks and balances; as a result, the BOD, an un- elected body, currently has the unchecked ability to make substantive decisions independently of Council in certain cases.
The motion brought to Thursday’s Council meeting aimed to address this problem by obliging the Chair of the BOD to present a full report at every meeting of Council.
The motion also made a slight adjustment to the regulations surrounding the ratification of opinions from SSMU’S Judicial Board (J-board). Currently, every time the J-board issues an opinion, it is presented to the BOD to be either ratified, returned for further consideration by the J-board, or overturned. In order to overturn an opinion, a four-fifths majority of BOD members is required; this threshold can be difficult to reach in certain cases, resulting in institutional paralysis.
As Sadikov put it, “At the BOD, we had this situation where the Board was not able to ratify [a certain] opinion, nor overturn it. So this opinion is basically not in effect because it hasn’t been ratified, nor overturned, so it remains in this procedural gray area or limbo.”
In order to address this issue, the motion proposed by Sadikov and Sobat only required a simple majority of BOD members to overturn an opinion from the J-board. However, this small procedural change sparked a heated controversy. Many students had expressed firm opposition to the motion in the days leading up to Council, contending that this change was motivated by a desire to thwart J-board favourable opinions towards Zionism.
Some of those who spoke against the motion during Thursday’s Council meeting referenced the judicial opinion issued in May 2016 which ruled that a General Assembly motion in support of the pro-palestinian Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) campaign had violated SSMU policy. This controversial J-board opinion was never ratified by the BOD; nor was it overturned.
In addition to allegations that Sobat and Sadikov’s motion was politically motivated by anti-zionist intentions, some of those who spoke against the motion at Council appeared to be under the erroneous impression that the BOD does not currently have the power to overturn J-board opinions at all. Notably, VP Operations Sacha Magder argued repeatedly and at length that, as he put it, “as you allow J-board decisions to be overturned, you remove its separation from some of the political levels of governance.”
Magder’s confusion about the precise nature of both the motion at hand and SSMU’S own governance structures was emblematic of the protracted debate which followed. Ultimately, Environment Representative Tuviere Okome expressed the opinion that “this motion was badly explained,” despite the fact that both Sobat and Sadikov had explained it at great length beforehand, and that notice had been given at Council two weeks previously, as required by SSMU bylaws.
Close to midnight, after more than two hours of debate on the motion, Council voted to postpone the discussion until the next meeting, on February 23.
The motion regarding the endorsement of the Mcgill communities’ council letter to the Board of Governors was tabled until the next meeting, as well.
The motion regarding the amendment of the SSMU electoral timeline and the motion for SSMU to advocate for an immediate suspension of the Canadian-u.s. safe third country agreement passed.
At the time of publication, the SSMU executive team had yet to release a statement regarding Sadikov’s tweet or the events of the Council meeting.