McGill student body finds BDS motions ‘unconstitutional’

BDS protesters at McGill
BDS protesters at McGill University FILE PHOTO

It may be more difficult in the future to have a BDS resolution or any other motion that specifically targets a single nation entertained by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU).

In a May 31 reference, which has yet to be ratified by the SSMU board of directors, the SSMU’s judicial board stated that such motions, which compel SSMU to “actively campaign against” a country, are contrary to SSMU’s constitution.

The judicial board was responding to a petition brought before it by student Zev Macklin in the wake of a recent BDS motion that was ultimately defeated.


The judicial board elaborated “that SSMU’s commitment against discrimination in favour of creating ‘safer spaces’ renders motions similar to the BDS motion, which specifically compel SSMU to adopt a platform against a particular nation, unconstitutional.”

It found that the boycott, divestment and sanctions motion brought before the SSMU general assembly (GA) in February by the McGill Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Action Network (BDSAN) was “unconstitutional and breaches [the SSMU’s] equity policy.”

The judicial board distinguishes a reference from a judgment. The former is an “advisory opinion” rendered in response to a question concerning SSMU’s laws and regulations.

The GA voted in favour of the motion, but it failed to be ratified in a subsequent online referendum. It was the third time in 18 months that a BDS motion came before the SSMU, the representative body for more than 24,000 undergraduates at McGill’s main downtown campus.

Macklin, who is from Edmonton, emailed The CJN that he believes this is “an extremely important win, both practically and symbolically, that will result in both specific and broad consequences within McGill and elsewhere…

“This ruling will finally allow McGill students to move forward and begin to come together and heal with [the] knowledge that extremely controversial and divisive motions will not be allowed to disrupt their studies and life again.”

Macklin realizes BDS activists may oppose the ruling.

“Their right to hold and advocate a different voice and opinion is an important contribution to the academic discourse at the university, but I am hopeful that they will only express their beliefs and views through the proper avenues that SSMU has established to voice such beliefs. It is not right for them or any group to push their beliefs or ideas on all students.”

The judicial board added nuance to its conclusion by noting that this does not mean the SSMU cannot hear motions condemning actions by nations. For example, the SSMU could have condemned apartheid, but not South Africa, it notes.

The reference was unanimous among members Robin Morgan, Lillian Fradin, Aly Haji and Munavvar Tojiboeva.

The February motion called on the SSMU to “support campaigns associated with the BDS movement through the office of the VP external” and for the SSMU president to “lobby the McGill board of governors in support of BDS campaigns.”

The judicial board indicates that if the BDSAN motion had been limited to calling upon McGill to withdraw its investments in three specific companies said to be complicit in Israel’s occupation the reference might be different.

But BDSAN also endorsed the general aims of the BDS movement, which the judicial board concluded clearly targets Israel.

The judicial board noted that McGill students come from all over the world, including areas of conflict, and the SSMU, as their representative, should not pick sides.

While the SSMU should do “its utmost to promote debate on issues relating to BDS and the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” the judicial board commented, adopting an official stand “inhibits SSMU’s ability to create an open, inviting atmosphere for students of Israeli origins.”

The judicial board notes that “during the period that led up to the GA vote and the general referendum, there was a sharp increase in harassment,” according to the definition in the SSMU’s equity policy.

“McGill students who campaigned for BDSAN and those who campaigned against were subject to a barrage of hostilities.”


In a statement, Aidan Fishman, B’nai Brith Canada’s campus affairs co-ordinator, hailed the judicial board’s ruling as a “landmark decision for Canada.”

Fishman added that if it’s ratified by the SSMU board of directors, it “will halt the stream of anti-Israel motions put before the student body during the past few years. Moreover, given the extreme similarity among the constitutions of various Canadian student unions, boycott motions may now be invalidated within those bodies as well.”

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) said the reference affirms that BDS is “a form of discrimination on the basis of national origin” in recognizing that it contradicts the SSMU’s mandate to represent all students, and it’s “a clear signal that the SSMU understands the true nature of BDS on campus,” stated CIJA Quebec co-chair Patrick Benaroche.


The ruling came after 155 McGill professors signed an open letter to McGill principal Suzanne Fortier last month congratulating her on her “courageous stance” in denouncing BDS following the defeat of the February BDS motion.

In March, 45 McGill faculty members issued a statement endorsing BDS and strongly disagreeing with Fortier.