Dividing the ratification of the nominees for the board of directors of the McGill University undergraduate student union into separate votes at its fall general assembly, rather than a single bloc vote, violated the union’s constitution, ruled the Students’ Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) judicial board.
The original decision to split the selection process into 10 votes resulted in two incumbents and one new nominee failing in their bids to be elected at the SSMU general assembly on Oct. 23.
The three charged that they had been targeted by a pro-BDS faction in the lead-up to the assembly, because of their advocacy on behalf of Israel. One of the incumbents, Noah Lew, also claimed that a group called Democratize SSMU singled him out because he is Jewish.
Democratize SSMU did acknowledge and apologize for being “insensitive to anti-Semitic tropes” in its campaign material.
However, in a judgment released on Dec. 31, the judicial board absolved SSMU vice-president (internal affairs) Maya Koparkar and former speaker Jad El-Tal “of all blame,” in regards to their entertaining of the motion at the general assembly, which allowed the split vote to proceed.
The judicial board “believes” the original motion on the nomination of the board of directors should be either voted on again at another general assembly, or put to students as a referendum question – “this time, as a whole.”
The judicial board ruling is not binding, as it must be ratified by the board of directors.
This final judgment followed an interim order by the judicial board on Oct. 28, which suspended the general assembly vote, permitting Lew and the other incumbent, Alexander Scheffel, to remain on the board. The newcomer whose bid was rejected was Josephine Wright O’Manique.
As always, the general assembly was open to all undergraduate students who attend McGill’s downtown campus. The board of directors is the SSMU’s highest governing body.
The judicial board was responding to a petition brought forward by SSMU board member Jonathan Glustein, who argued that splitting the vote was contrary to the SSMU’s constitution. The motion was passed by a 106-64 vote.
The judicial board said that several sections of the constitution were violated, while acknowledging that there is some ambiguity in the letter of the law. It said it is “receptive” to Glustein’s assertion that “unwritten principles and values” were breached, including the principle of democracy contained in the constitution’s preamble.
Moreover, “ratifying directors individually vitiates the purpose of the nominating committee,” the judicial board found.
However, the judicial board rejected the claim made at its hearing that a “vote by ambush” took place at the general assembly.
“Conflicting evidence submitted by the parties and their witnesses at the hearing does not allow this board to corroborate the ‘vote by ambush’ theory, but irregularities in the process do justify the present reminder that members are entitled to total transparence from their elected and nominated officials,” the judgment states.
Nevertheless, El-Tal was found to be blameless, because he “acted with the requisite standard of care” outlined in the constitution and consulted the judicial board’s then-chief justice, James Trougakos, before allowing the motion to be tabled.
The question of whether to divide the vote was not only about the candidacies of Lew, Scheffel and Wright O’Manique, the judgment states in its summary of the facts.
That possibility was raised at the general assembly, when Koparkar noted that president Muna Tojiboeva and vice-president Arisha Khan’s names were on the list, even though their nominations should have been automatically ratified, by virtue of their offices. Koparkar’s motion was nullified, but Glustein alleged that discussion instigated another member to put forward the motion that split the nominating process.
The judicial board rejected that evaluation.
Another key ruling in its final judgment is that justices of the judicial board should no longer be consulted during general assemblies on questions regarding the constitutionality of motions.
The final judgment was unanimous.
“We are gratified with the decision of the SSMU Judicial Board,” said Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs – Quebec. “We feel the position taken by the students has been vindicated. We hope this will be a moment when those who engineered this now repudiated act will reflect on their actions and strike a more inclusive posture going forward.”