I have been opposing authoritarian practices in the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) since 2015, long before it was cool. In those days, there was no meme page with over 1300 followers, but rather five students who wanted to do something when we heard that some of our friends had voiced mistreatment during their involvement in the SFUO. It did not start as a political slate, but as a movement to advocate for better conditions for SFUO employees, volunteers, elected representatives, and students at large.
At first, it seemed like no one cared enough to take action. Our numbers grew slowly, and the more testimonies we heard, the stronger we felt the need to strive for change. So, we organized into slates and ran campaigns in an attempt to improve things through the SFUO’s democratic processes, only to be met with behaviour that I would describe as unprofessional. I learned that mental health is extremely neglected in student politics, and student leaders are in need of much better supports and training.
We tried to collaborate with our opponents, but were stonewalled over a series of wasted meetings with promises made and broken in a continuous cycle. Ideas to increase the dismal voter participation rate like online voting, which the majority of Canadian university student unions have implemented to positive results, were vehemently shut down time and time again, even as the 2016 election turnout fell below 8%. In response to rhetoric, we sought to conduct research to develop factual counter-arguments, even going to the University of Ottawa archives to learn how the SFUO got to the way it was.
From looking at all those old documents, I can say with confidence that for most of its history, the SFUO was a fantastic student union that served as a positive example for student leaders across the country. Even with the current financial troubles, the SFUO has had more surpluses than deficits. It is only in recent times that the rate of scandals has increased in number and severity, but since the efforts of our predecessors to make this campus a better place are not remembered, many students think the SFUO was always the way it is. Just like a country, a student union that neglects its history becomes short-sighted and ineffective.
While there are nihilists who say that nothing is changing, the truth is that much has changed since 2015. Instead of five students, hundreds are informed and have voiced their desire for change. The opposition slates are much larger and the voter turnout has more than doubled since 2016. General Assemblies have begun to make quorum on a yearly basis, blocking an executive pay raise in 2017 and passing online voting in 2018. There has been so much momentum built that the university has finally listened and stepped in to call for an unprecedented forensic audit, which only a few years before was but a far-fetched dream. I implore you to remain hopeful and look at the long-term game because we have come a very long way.
Where do we go from here? I believe that the key to a successful movement for change involves a united front, no pun intended. During my years here, I worked with students of a variety of political backgrounds, from liberals, conservatives, and new democrats, to even students who would identify as further to the left than the New Democratic Party. I witnessed conservatives and communists collaborating to oppose the executive pay raise and bring the 2017 General Assembly to quorum, the first time quorum had been reached in 37 years. Forget ideology and challenge the common adversary: authoritarianism, wherever it may be. Advocate for social justice and transparency, not autocracy with progressive branding.
But the coalition will need more. It will require collaboration between students of all faculties, clubs, cultures, years, and backgrounds. These students will need to research the facts in the context of our campus, as well as that of student politics at provincial and national levels. It will need large numbers of slate volunteers and participants in advocacy campaigns. The momentum will need to keep increasing and the policy strategies will need to keep getting more elaborate, even if it comes to the point where the SFUO will have to be rebuilt from the constitution, up.
I spent a lot of time advancing this cause, so much so that I missed out on a lot of opportunities to strengthen my academic resume. Outside of campus, the effort it took to build momentum to this point is not understood. In a short time, I expect to be forgotten, just as others before me have been forgotten, and no one will know what my friends and I endured. University of Ottawa students of the present and future: do not let our sacrifice be in vain!