Why does the SSMU take political positions?
To determine the priorities of students, the SSMU can look towards the results of General Assemblies (with online ratification), Referenda, and the 2014-2015 student experience survey. All of these mechanisms overwhelmingly show student support for political issues.
The Fall 2014 general assembly ratification, for example, showed that the majority of students support action against austerity, for climate change, and against harmful military technology development, with 83%, 79%, and 55% respectively. In Winter 2015, 84% of students voted to support campaigns against unpaid internships. In the special referendum of Winter 2015, 67% of students voted to adopt a policy on accessible education which mandated the SSMU to oppose any non-consensual increase in tuition or student fees and to campaign for the eventual elimination of tuition. Finally, in the Fall 2015 referendum, 79% of students voted for SSMU to increase our involvement with student-run cooperatives. If one looks at our Policy and Plan Book – there is not one policy the SSMU has that isn’t political in nature, even the human resources.
In the recently conducted student experience survey, students overwhelmingly indicated their preference for the SSMU to continue advocating against austerity measures, for accessible education, and against unpaid internships, among other topics. In fact, over 90% of the students who were not indicated as neutral either supported or strongly supported a campaign against budget cuts to universities.
While none of these methods are perfect methods of consultation, it is without question that every student is given an equal voice and that every student is highly encouraged to participate. By making these bodies online, they are highly accessible and heavily advertised to the student population. The collective results of these polls indicate that political campaigns are far from only being supported by a radical minority of students, in fact, the majority of the student body consistently votes in favor of various political stances of the society.
Important to remember is that any member can bring a motion on a political matter from the floor during a General Assembly! For more information, check here for more information.
Student Unions are Inherently Political
Critiques that certain issues are divisive or don’t represent the majority of students are often combined with claims that the SSMU should be politically neutral. As with all advocacy based organizations, the SSMU is inherently political and would have to walk a fine line to avoid crossing the line of what constitutes a student issue and what doesn’t.
While it is important that the SSMU represent the majority of students, it is equally important that the SSMU stands up for those most marginalized by society. In our constitution, the SSMU makes a commitment to “groups, programs and activities that are devoted to the well-being of a group disadvantaged because of irrelevant personal characteristics that include but are not limited to race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, gender identification, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or social class.” Certain on and off campus events can have harmful affects on the general well being of some of our student members, and it is essential that the SSMU be willing to show solidarity with students who are affected. For example, by creating policies and programs which support indigenous students, the SSMU is prioritizing the needs of a particular group of students who have been disadvantaged because of certain personal characteristics. To refuse to support a social movement because it is too political or divisive may send the message that individual experiences don’t matter. In the SSMU constitution the definition of representation is made clear: we must not homogenize the student body in an ill-fated attempt to seem “politically neutral.”
It is necessary to recognize that politically neutrality is largely impossible. Even in campus organizations that have claimed neutrality, political choices are being made. For example, if a society chooses to implement a large fee to offset austerity measures instead of mobilizing the base of students, then that society is making a political choice. By claiming neutrality an organization gives themselves the power to choose what is neutral and what is political, and that opens up a lot of difficult questions. Is a student union that fights for accessible education too political? Should the SSMU not advocate for student mental health care because that would require government reinvestment and that is inherently political? Does supporting events dedicated to marginalized students violate our ability to represent the majority of students?
Ultimately, political issues should be discussed, and they should be discussed critically, but they should never be banned under the guise of neutrality. As Demond Tutu is famously quoted to say: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Across the world, students have always been at the forefront of social and environmental justice. In particular, student unionism has been a major force behind massive social movements against war, poverty, and injustice. At McGill, students have campaigned for South African apartheid divestment, against the wars in Iraq and Vietnam, for the rights of women and people of colour, and for accessible education. The history of victories for student activists is broad and impressive, and to state that these individual movements had no affect on there surrounding environments would be objectively false.
In Quebec, the student movement is particularly well organized and is responsible for ensuring the low tuition and decent system of loans and bursaries that are available for students. This advocacy has largely been facilitated through provincial student associations, but is also the result of many grassroots organizations and individual activists. The victories of the Quebec student movement are vast, including the blockage of bursaries being transferred into loans and the rejection of the tuition hike proposed by the Charest government.
The SSMU VP External is particularly well positioned to collaborate with campus activists and other political actors in Quebec. It is essential that the student union be able to take issues that students have identified as important and collaborate with other student and community associations in the province or across the country to combine mobilization and lobbying efforts. In addition, the SSMU is well positioned to act as a liaison and an advocate for campus activists who are navigating the SSMU bureaucracy.
To remove the SSMU’s ability to act politically and support both internal and external campaigns for social and environmental justice would be doing an incredible disservice to extremely important social movements that are lead by campus activists. The SSMU never runs political campaigns in isolation, rather is works with both on and off campus activists to facilitate the spread of information, provide important resources, and the navigate the various institutional channels. It is through the initiative and dedication of campus activists that these issues are initially brought to the SSMU.
Ultimately, the SSMU has a mandate to demonstrate leadership in matters of human rights, social justice and environmental protection. We also are mandated to provide services to strengthen the educational, cultural, environmental, political and social conditions of our membership. By supporting political campaigns, the SSMU is able to to support an important component of student life, helping various students find community, while simultaneously supporting our commitment to equitable leadership.
For more on this subject: McGill Tribune – “VP External Should Support Student Initiatives, Not Direct Them”
McGill Tribune – “Student Politics Can’t be Apolitical”