Photo C/O Kyle West
By: William Li
Content Warning: White supremacy
On July 21, the Student Representative Assembly briefly discussed concerns about clubs engaging in foreign surveillance and white supremacy — but in a shocking move, put these concerns aside and simply ratified all proposed clubs anyway, triggering an intervention just three days later by McMaster Students' Union President Josh Marando.
Although Marando’s quick response to concerns of white supremacy and threats to marginalized students is a good start, this incident remains problematic: Why did the SRA ratify the Dominion society in the first place, even though these exact concerns were brought up in the SRA meeting prior to the ratification vote?
Currently, the clubs administrator processes club applications and provides a list of clubs to the SRA, which usually votes to approve all at once. However, the clubs administrator is an unelected person, and they are historically either unwilling or unable to act when clubs promote or endorse actions that put students at risk.
For example, they declined to take action in February, when the McMaster Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) publicly declared that they reported an event on campus to the Chinese government for discussing China’s human rights violations against Uighur Muslims. Soon, there were international headlines and concerns that such surveillance on campus puts Uighur and Chinese students at risk, since criticism of the Chinese Communist Party is often grounds for imprisonment in China.
The clubs administrator then took months to prepare a memo in response, which the SRA quickly overlooked as they re-ratified the CSSA at their July 21 meeting without addressing the memo’s concerns of surveillance and harassment.
The still-unresolved CSSA fiasco is a great example of how the Dominion society is not a one-time thing, but rather, just the latest symptom of a much more serious problem: the MSU’s glaring inability to manage clubs, and an urgent need for major reform.
Although we have a new clubs administrator now, the systemic issues with this model of governance persist: the SRA expects the clubs administrator to manage problematic clubs, but the clubs administrator does not do much beyond preliminary research and providing information to the SRA upon request.
The result is that nobody does anything. Anybody who can successfully fill out forms simply gets stamped and approved. Clubs get away with everything from foreign surveillance to peddling false medical information, while MSU officials busy themselves tossing political hot potatoes at one another.
We saw such political runaround in action when SRA members tried asking clarifying questions about certain clubs, and the clubs administrator wrote in their response, “I strongly recommend ratifying the majority of clubs such that the MSU Clubs Department can move forward with our activities for the year. If there are still concerns about certain clubs, it would be better to bring your questions directly to them.”
Given this apparent urgency for SRA members to stop bothering the clubs administrator with questions about clubs and just move on, there should be no surprise that the Dominion society escaped the proper scrutiny that should have happened before—rather than after—the rushed ratification vote.
While the SRA and clubs administrator have rightfully gotten flak over these decisions, we must remember that the problem is systemic. The clubs administrator job description does not explicitly require them to supervise clubs, ensure truthfulness in club applications or even enforce the clubs operating policy. Meanwhile, the SRA appears ill-equipped to pick up the slack on this front.
In order to address this, the SRA should not simply rubber stamp whatever is put in front of them by the clubs administrator; rather, they should take the time to do research and get fully informed before voting. Additionally, as our elected representatives, they should make the political decisions that the clubs administrator cannot, which includes exercising their power to withhold club status.
Although some may argue that revoking club status should not be used as a tool for censorship, we must remember that club status is a privilege, not a right. If clubs expect to access funding, ClubSpace and other such perks paid for with student fees, then the SRA should hold clubs to the same standard as other MSU departments.
Next, the SRA must revisit the rushed July 21 ratification vote and actually scrutinize clubs properly (perhaps at the emergency meeting that Marando has called for, though it remains to be scheduled). Instead of having the MSU President intervene each time there is a problem or waiting for issues to blow up in the media, the SRA should proactively resolve issues. The consequences of inaction can be clearly seen in how Chinese nationalists have instigated violence on other university campuses, while white nationalists have been provoking violence right here in Hamilton.
Finally, in the long-term, we need systemic change. Even though the clubs operating policy was recently amended in June, the updated policy quickly flopped in action when it failed to prevent the Dominion society ratification about-face. Furthermore, even Human Rights Watch has felt compelled to provide recommendations for more substantial change to address the Chinese government’s threats to academic freedom. The recent amendment’s stunning failure, the recommendations from HRW, and Marando’s intervention show that band-aid solutions will be insufficient — the entire clubs operating policy is no longer viable and must be overhauled.
The SRA must now show leadership so that these troubling incidents do not happen again. If nothing significant is done, then this cycle — where the MSU condones clubs that endanger students and then pauses to reflect only after enough controversy is attracted — will simply continue.
On Feb. 20, the McMaster Muslims for Peace and Justice and the McMaster Muslim Students Association sent a letter to Canadian ministers Chrystia Freeland and Ralph Goodalech, asking the government to investigate the Chinese government’s role in directing students to silence human rights activists on campus.
The letter follows an event organized by MMPJ and McMaster MSA on Feb. 11 where Rukiye Turdush, a Uighur Muslim activist, spoke about the Chinese internment of Uighur Muslims.
According to the Washington Post, a group of students created a WeChat group chat to oppose the event.
During the event, a student filmed Turdush and cursed at her. After the talk, the students say that they contacted the Chinese Embassy in Canada, which directed them to investigate whether university officials or Chinese students attended the event.
A few days later, five Chinese student groups, including the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, released a statement condemning the event and stating they contacted the Chinese consulate in Toronto.
The internment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China has been confirmed by multiple news outlets and the international community.
Approximately one million Uighur Muslims have been detained by the Chinese government, according to the British government.
The Chinese government has denied any wrongdoing, suggesting the camps are constructed for counter-terrorism purposes.
On Feb 16, the Chinese Embassy released a statement defending the actions of the Chinese students on the principle of free speech and dismissing any accusations of misconduct as ‘groundless accusations’ and ‘anti-China sentiment.’
Representatives from McMaster MSA and MMPJ say this is not a free speech issue.
“I do not think this was ever a conversation about freedom of speech. I think it always has been a conversation about human rights violation and speaking up against that,” said representatives from the McMaster MSA and MMPJ. “It’s blatantly obvious that the government is supporting these attempts to quell discussion about these human rights violations.”
The CSSA did not respond to multiple emails from The Silhouette about the situation.
McMaster MSA and MMPJ said the government acknowledged their letter but has yet to engage in any formal action on the matter.
“It’s important that we help people understand the university’s commitment to free speech and to the sharing of views and opinions, even those that might be controversial,” said Gord Arbeau, McMaster’s director of communications.
It is worth noting that these events come amid growing concerns about Chinese government involvement in Canadian universities to oppose any criticism against the Chinese Communist Party.
Following the protest at Turdush’s talk, an unnamed McMaster student created a Change.org petition in hopes of removing the CSSA from the MSU. As of March 2, the petition has amassed 461 signatures.
McMaster MSA and MMPJ said they did not start the petition.
“We definitely have mixed feelings about this petition simply because I think we somewhat recognize that these students these Chinese students are also victims of surveillance and they are victims of a form of control,” McMaster MSA and MMPJ representatives said. “It has never been a priority for either of our organizations to go and attack them, to take revenge.”
The MSU clubs department is aware of the situation but will not take any action without instruction from the government and/or university administration.
"As the clubs department is not a formal investigative body, its governing policies state clearly that any punitive action taken towards a club or individuals inside a club are done so after federal, provincial, municipal and/or University judicial bodies (as appropriate) render opinion and/or action. Therefore, the Department would certainly act on the advice of investigative professionals in this matter," said Josephine Liauw, the MSU clubs department administrator.
This article was clarified on March 12, 2019 to include a direct quotation from Liauw.