Guest post by intern Dan Osborne.
When Rector Nick Day, “elected to represent the approximately 20,000 students of Queen’s University”, signed an inflammatory open letter to Michael Ignatieff, he unintentionally showed the need for voluntary student unionism and the abolition of closed shop in Canada. When students are forced into joining their student union, student government, etc, they are forced into association with the group and its other members, no matter what the group does or how offensive it is to the student. In the case of Rector Day, the students of Queen’s University have been forced into association with the man and his comments regardless of whether they like it or not.
Day’s letter is basically a stock-in-trade angry young man’s diatribe about Israel. It argues that despite any opinion Ignatieff (who has 11 honorary doctorates, has written seventeen books including several on international relations, and held a position at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government) might have on the subject, Israel really is as simple as being an apartheid state and Ignatieff is not just wrong but actually “unethical” for criticizing Israeli Aparteid Week. After all, Day points out, a range of (unnamed)
“Scholars, activists, international advocates, civil society leaders and UN officials have observed that the occupation, checkpoints, walls, relocations, and home demolitions committed by Israel in Palestine have created a system of racial separateness and dominance. Thus, they have applied the term “apartheid” because of its obvious and internationally recognized applicability.”
Then Day really outdoes himself:
“If you (Ignatieff) were ignorant of these facts, I understand why you made the mistake you did in your statement. Now that you know, please rescind your statement and issue an apology or retraction.”
Seriously? Yep, and it gets better:
“I was elected to represent the approximately 20,000 students of Queen’s University. If I ever used the influence of my office and the power of my public voice, as you have, to insulate from criticism the perpetrator of a mass-slaughter, I would have a very difficult time sleeping at night.”
Now, if Day was a writer with a sense of irony, this would actually be quite funny. The problem is that he almost certainly believes that “the influence of his office and the power of his public voice” is comparable to that of the Canadian leader of the opposition.
The problem with all this is that Day does not represent 20,000 students. Unlike this very helpful website, we can’t find out how many students did vote for Day. Clicking on the link that says “Looking for Elections Information? Click Here.” Takes you to this page:
So when Day says “the power of my public office” it’s a public office whose constituents are generation-y but which can’t reliably put its election results online. Anecdotally Queen’s actually does have higher turnout for student elections than most, at around 25%. It’s first past the post and there were multiple candidates so let’s say he got 40% of the 25% turnout for 10% of the 20,000 he claims to represent, or about 2,000 students. Students at Queen’s University were able to collect over 2,000 signatures in less than two days in protest of the actions of Rector Nick Day. National news media has brought attention to the case.
In any other environment Day would just be an angry young man test driving the exhilaration of holding radical opinions, but as a student union president he’s doing it in the name of students who in many cases don’t agree with him, and using their money to do it. Unfortunately it is all too often the case on university campuses in Canada that student union presidents claim to speak on behalf of all students even though less than 10% of students actually voted for them, but are able to do so because they were “democratically elected” by people forced into association. Mandatory membership means guaranteed financing for student union executives, which means financing for whatever crazy schemes they can come up with; the student union at University of British Columbia flew people to Toronto to protest the G20 meeting last year.
We must recognise that it is our legal system that allows this. The lack of a constitutional challenge of closed shop and mandatory student unionism means that millions of Canadians have been forced into association with the Nick Days of the world. When it comes to human rights, Canada is supposed to be a world leader. But when it comes to the human right of freedom of association, we seem to be back in the nineteenth-century.