Discussion gives way to riled up students at SFUO general assembly

Photo by Rémi Yuan

The first general assembly (GA) of Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) members gave way to a rowdy audience large enough to cause a ruckus, but not enough to make any decisions.

The Nov. 17 assembly at the Shaw Centre, just off campus, didn’t attract the 337 students needed to vote on motions, though it came close: At peak attendance, the GA came up short by only 11 people.

“The reality is the vast majority of student unions who have general assemblies for the first time don’t meet quorum,” said an optimistic SFUO president Anne-Marie Roy.

The Revolutionary Students’ Movement’s (RSM) motion to have the SFUO “look at the possibility of a strike in Spring 2015,” namely to protest nearly a decade of tuition increases and to stifle any chance of a student code of conduct, was one of the most hotly contested topics.

Members of the RSM distributed red squares outside before the GA began. Although campaigning outside of polling stations during student elections isn’t allowed, there are no rules prohibiting campaigning outside the GA, said Roy. The president herself said she supported the potential strike motion, and wore a red square during the GA.

Many students asked for more specifics about the potential strike mandate. RSM chair Alex Lépine said the motion was intentionally ambiguous. “The reason it’s vague is because we want students to take ownership. We don’t want to be the ones proposing something from the top down,” she said.

There were four other motions on the agenda: to create a “racialized student centre,” to denounce Canada’s involvement in Iraq, to create a dedicated prayer space in the south end of campus, and to lobby the university administration to divest from fossil fuels.

But those motions didn’t go anywhere since the GA ended at 9 p.m. without the extra dozen people needed for quorum, and with some opposition from students.

The SFUO will post the minutes online and all of the motions will be tabled to the next Board of Administration meeting on Dec. 4.

Roy said she “will be tabling the motion to investigate the possibility of a strike to our next GA.”

Question period saw a flood of inquires that veered on and off topic—some asked pertinent questions about the motions while others aired general frustrations with the student federation—so much that the chair mentioned repeatedly that the translators and sign-language interpreters could barely keep up.

Students’ questions centred around the potential strike motion, but also on other topics such as the SFUO’s budget, organization, and accountability measures, and a recently hot topic, the $10,000 of unused fireworks meant for 101 Week.

Legitimate inquiries were often hampered however, by disruptive behaviour. Those in the crowd frequently interrupted the executives and each other. One student asked if they could disband the SFUO. One student asked another student if he was drunk while he addressed the SFUO executives.

Some complaints also stemmed from a lack of understanding of and disagreement over the rules of order. Fred Wu, a second-year common law student, was a vocal critic of process at the GA.

“Instead of having a participatory democracy, we were just an audience and that was our feeling, we didn’t feel empowered,” said Wu.

“If we look back at all the criticism, it’s been about the process, not about what the executive has done,” he said. “None of what I have said in front of that microphone was ever meant as an indictment of their work.”

Jack Bellemare, vice-president of finance of the Students’ Association of the Faculty of Arts, also frequently denounced the procedure of the GA. “The chair used the GA’s ‘not-quorum’ status to make arbitrary rulings, and repeatedly ignored the attendees’ mood,” Bellemare wrote to the Fulcrum.

However, Roy said it was “frustrating” because the chair “tried to implement a procedure,” but was unable to bring the GA to order due to “a handful of students who were incredibly disrespectful.”

Students also brought up concerns about the GA’s accessibility, noting that the only way to vote on the motions was to be there. Bellemare said he missed two classes in order to attend.

Roy said proxy voting wasn’t implemented because of concerns that those who do not attend the debate won’t hear all the arguments on the motions.

“I want to make sure that if there are proxy votes, that students can still hear the debates and the discussions around motions,” she said. “People’s experiences get shared and sometimes that can influence and change some people’s votes.”

“There needs to be a more thorough conversation around how we want to approach proxy voting,” said Roy, “and maybe that means we should be looking into including an online component.”

Roy said the SFUO also did not implement a form of online voting because she hadn’t found a system that she trusted 100 per cent. Roy said she will look into security measures before using online voting.

The next GA is tentatively scheduled for Thursday, March 19.