Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Justice for the Social Justice Centre.

In lieu of recent events surrounding the Social Justice Centre, one of the AMS Resource Groups, I solicited comments from some of its involved members. The following has been written by Mike Thicke, co-editor of The Knoll and an active member of the SJC. It reflects his own personal views.

The Resource Groups were created by the AMS to allow student funds to be
devoted to social and political causes while having the council itself
able to remain mostly divorced from these issues. Most of the groups
have multiple roles as support centres for victims of discrimination,
political advocates, and educational resources.

All of the resource groups were founded on very idealistic principles, valuing
consensus-based decision making and maximum inclusiveness. When they are
working well, they are one of the best parts of our university. For
example, the Student Environment Centre's "Seeds for Change" conference
attracted over 150 participants from UBC, other universities and the
community for two days of lectures and other activities centered around
the environment. Colour Connected is the primary source of funding for
the Realities of Race week, which focuses on the continuing problems
surrounding race in our society, and particularly the reality of
systemic racism on campus. Both of these events are models of what can
be achieved by dedicated students working for what they believe in.

The Social Justice Centre (SJC) was birthed from the 1997 protests of
the APEC conference. The APEC protests, followed shortly by the "Battle
in Seattle" two years later protesting the WTO, helped push the
"anti-globalization" movement onto the world stage. The SJC was planned
to be a way to build on that momentum, and its extremely broad and
ambitious constitution spoke to the great hopes invested in the centre
by its founders.

The SJC's mandate is extremely broad, and unlike most of the resource
groups, it is not focused on one specific aspect of oppression. Rather,
it is devoted to preventing all forms of oppression. If any can be
identified, the two focuses of the SJC are anti-war, and anti-poverty.
One consequence of this broad focus is that the SJC has more potential
for contentious political debate and infighting than the other resource
groups. Revolutionary-leaning left-wing groups have historically been
divided along what seem to be outsiders rather trivial lines. While to
most people the distinction between a Marxist-Leninist and a Trotskyist
may seem murky and unimportant even after a good deal of research, to
people who identify strongly with one of these camps the distinction is
very clear and important.

The Vancouver anti-war movement has been divided in recent years into
two main groups. is a large, fairly mainstream group that
puts on large but infrequent events (you may have seen stickers for
their March 17th rally). Mobilization Against War and Occupation (MAWO)
is an extremely active group that puts on events almost weekly, on a
much smaller scale. MAWO was formed after internal strife within caused the majority to expel a group from the coalition that
they felt was overly disruptive to their operation. The expelled group,
and another that left with them, formed MAWO. (Notably, before joining
StopWar, some of these individuals were also expelled from the
Anti-Poverty Committee, a direct-action focused group which is much more
radical than StopWar, and has been very active recently in protesting
the loss of affordable housing downtown because of the Olympics.)

As a group that participates in events outside of UBC, often gives
donation to Vancouver groups, and has membership with involvements
around the city, the SJC inevitably attracted members that had strong
feelings about these two groups. The SJC also frequently went to these
groups as sources of potential speakers for UBC events, which had the
potential for trouble if potentially antagonistic speakers from either
side of the divide spoke at the same event.

At the beginning of this school year the SJC had planned several events
to encourage interest in the student body, always a nearly impossible
task. One of our first events was focused on the occupation of
Palestine. The SJC has traditionally been a very strong supporter of
Palestinians, and has worked closely with the UBC Palestinian Solidarity
Committee on many events. Although this is always a contentious topic,
it is not one we want to shy away from. The event was a
panel-discussion, with four speakers and a long time left for questions
and discussion from the audience. We were initially very happy to have a
large room filled with students listening to the panelists speak, but
the situation rapidly deteriorated. One speaker expressed unequivocal
support for Hezzbolah, another made comments that resulted in a formal
complaint of anti-semitism to the AMS, and another became very combative
with some members of the audience who he believed were attempting to ask
intentionally misleading and time-wasting questions. Overall, I at least
felt that oppressed Palestinians were not well-represented by our event,
and if anything their cause was dealt damage, rather than supported. At
the next meeting of the SJC, similar concerns were voiced, though not by
any means unanimously, but it was generally agreed that we should be
more cautious with our events in the future.

Our next major event was entitled "Canada in Afghanistan: A Roundtable
Discussion". When we initially discussed speakers, one speaker was
suggested as someone who had been involved in activist work in Iran
and very knowledgeable about the region. He was approved by the members,
including myself. Immediately afterwards I learned that he was actually
one of the people expelled by, and one of the founders of
MAWO. Further, there was a widely-circulated accusation of assault
against him by a person who attempted to leave the Fire This Time (FTT)
newspaper, of which this individual is the head editor. Although this
was an accusation without any particular evidence, it raised concerns
for me, and a few people I spoke to suggested that this speaker might be
problematic. I emailed another member of the SJC who was very involved
with FTT and MAWO, seeking another side of the story, and expressing
concern that we make every effort to ensure that our Afghanistan event
not be a repeat of our Palestine event. In response, this person
publicly accused me of racism of the highest order, as the speaker I was
concerned about happened to be Iranian. This accusation would be
shocking to anyone, but it was especially so given the nature of the
group we both belonged to.

Partly due to concerns over the speaker, and partly as a reaction to the
email accusation against myself, we held an emergency meeting a few days
later to "uninvite" this speaker, against the vehement protest of some
members of the SJC.

We knew that the internal tensions of the SJC were coming to a head at
this point, but we were not prepared for what was to happen at our next
meeting. Two days before the Afghanistan event was to take place we held
a meeting to finalize our plans and confirm our replacement speakers.
The people who objected to our cancelation of the original speaker
showed up with several new people to the SJC, and posters for an event
entitled, curiously, "Canada in Afghanistan: A Roundtable Discussion".
Although it had the same title, and took place at the same time, this
was not the SJC's event! It was an event put on by CAWOPI, featuring the
speaker we had canceled as their headliner. As we found out later, the
room they had advertised for their event was not even booked for its
duration. Their goal was to convince us to abandon our event and replace
it with theirs, and to use the room we had booked.

The extra people who showed up were there in hopes of forming a majority
within the SJC to vote for this to take place. One of the interesting
features of the resource groups is that all UBC students are, by
default, members of the resource groups, and any student who shows up to
a meeting has equal powers to students who have been coming to meetings
for months or years. As every student has part of her fees go towards
the operation of the groups, this rule makes sense. However, one of the
consequences of this is that the groups always have the possibility of
being ambushed. This time it didn't work - they did not form a majority
- but we still decided to cancel our event as we did not wish to run
openly confrontational events. I think this would have just further
discredited our cause, especially coming on the heels of the Palestine

Over the course of the next several weeks, from about early October to
late November, the SJC meetings turned into a firestorm of emotion,
lasting several hours each week, as the majority within the SJC sought
ways to prevent these past events from reoccurring. We felt that the SJC
could not continue with members who would sabotage our events whenever
they were not to their liking, especially when one of those who did the
sabotaging was one of our executives. We attempted to remove this exec,
to change the constitution, and to have SAC prevent CAWOPI from
interfering with our events in the future. None of these measures were
successful, partly because the SJC constitution was built with the
ideals of consensus in mind, making forcing through decisions a very
arduous task, and partly because we did not see any clear solutions to
our problems.

At the heart of the matter, I am convinced, is the SJC's approximately
$8000 per year budget. Unsurprisingly, activism around Vancouver is
ubiquitously starved for funding. A good portion of the budget has often
been devoted to donations to other groups in Vancouver in need of
support. It also, of course, goes towards promotional material for the
SJC and other campus groups, rental of sound and video equipment, and
other expenses. One of my core fears was that abandoning the SJC would
result in a good deal of these funds being devoted to MAWO and
associated groups. It was unacceptable to me that sabotaging our events
and creating a hostile environment in the group should result in such a
large reward for the perpetrators. Similarly, I expect the other side of
the conflict would have left and concentrated their activities within
other groups such as CAWOPI if not for the SJC budget.

In late November we passed a motion suspending the SJC's operations
until the February, as most of us were extremely burned out and fearing
for our academic futures. The break, we hoped, would also diffuse
tension and allow for a possible mediation period.

In late February we began a series of meetings, now moderated by a
member of the AMS Ombuds office, aimed at revamping our constitution.
The aim of these negotiations, for us, was to create a structure which
would allow the two factions within the SJC to operate somewhat
autonomously. We also hoped to fix lingering problems with the
constitution that would help the group to function more smoothly in the
future. Our proposed changes, which would have the SJC move to a more
committee-based system where people would work in smaller groups funded
by a larger "board of directors" met with quite a bit of resistance,
from all segments of the SJC, especially because it allowed these
committees to vote to exclude people from their meetings if they felt
that were necessary. Many people understandingly felt this was against
the spirit of the SJC, and possibly the AMS bylaws governing the
resource groups. Nevertheless, we were able to come to something of a
compromise solution that most seemed somewhat at peace with.

This Tuesday, April 10th, we met for our final meeting of the year to
finish off the constitution and elect a new executive for September.
Given that many people in the SJC had papers to write and exams coming
up, we had several absences. We had also grown complacent due to our
recent successes in reforming the constitution. Yesterday, however, was
another terrible surprise. Many of the same people who showed up out of
the blue in October returned, along with many faces we had never seen
before. For the first time in months, the balance of power within the
group shifted dramatically. We handled this quite poorly, as we
proceeded to go along with, and even suggest, some final changes to the
constitution that gave too much power to the executive. In the elections
three out of the four executive positions were taken by people I had
been battling for months. We were naive in our constitutional changes,
giving the executive discretion to override many of the safety measures
we had put into place to allow the SJC to function, and now it looks
like the worst result has come to pass.

The SJC and the resource groups as a whole are a fantastic part of the
AMS. However, they are vulnerable to takeover by small groups that have
policies markedly in opposition to what many students at UBC would feel
comfortable with. I am very concerned now that the SJC will not be a
positive force at the university, and will instead serve as a conduit
for funds passing to groups in Vancouver that do not serve the student
interest. I am hopeful, however, that this might spur those concerned
with social justice, anti-war, and anti-poverty activities to come out
in force next September to rescue the SJC from its uncertain future. I
will not be here in the fall, and for my part in this mess I apologize
to all the students who inherit it, but I think it is of tremendous
importance for everyone to invest their efforts in ensuring that the SJC
can regain its positive function.