Features

Illustration: Rame Abdulkader.

How the tensions between students and student government came to be

Last month, the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa (SFUO) made headlines across Ottawa: “SFUO President, executive coordinator, face allegations of fraud”. The news was met with an overwhelming outrage, receiving coverage from off-campus media and warranting unprecedented action from the university, who have normally taken a backseat when it comes to SFUO antics.

But scandal and criticism are not new to the SFUO.

For those of you who have just arrived at the U of O, let’s take a trip down memory lane.

Financial controversy 

If only one finger could point to the root of the SFUO’s myriad of problems, it would direct you to their finances. The executive’s inability to effectively and transparently manage students’ money is the principal reason for their poor reputation.

In March of 2016, after a bizarre General Assembly (GA) during which the executive claimed that “business is booming” while presenting their 2015- 16 financials, the SFUO announced it was on the brink of bankruptcy.

In a press release posted to their website after the GA, the SFUO indicated that the main culprit was the student health-care plan, which they administer and subsidize. They did not explain why fees from students designated to cover the plan had not increased in over a decade to cover the rising costs.

The 2015-16 deficit amounted to almost $1.5 million. While the health plan accounted for over half of this number, hundreds of thousands of dollars were being lost on other budget lines as well.

The announcement came as a shock to many, despite coming from an organization that spent $10,000 on fireworks it never used only the year prior.

As a result of the increasingly dire financial situation, the SFUO announced a number of austerity measures including “laying off 24 staff, leaving 16 positions vacant and reducing hours in three positions.” Most student services were shut down during the summer, campaign club funding was scrapped, and social campaigns and events were significantly reduced as well.

Things haven’t fared much better since.

At an October 2017 Board of Administration (BOA) meeting, Rizki Rachiq, then vice-president finance and current president, went over the health of the student businesses. The four businesses combined brought in around $51,000 less than what was budgeted for the previous year, with only the Agora Bookstore exceeding projections. Bar 1848 and Café Alt alone brought in a deficit of close to $90,000.

In the midst of these austerity measures, the personal finances of the executive have been disconcerting. A report from the comptroller general in August 2016 highlighted the executives’ troubling spending habits.

Two executives alone spent over $1,800 on taxis, and $330 had been spent for the executives’ retreat in a hotel room in Ottawa. The report also noted that the executives’ discount at Pivik resulted in a $1,000 loss for the convenience store—a business which only made $7,000 the previous year.

Later in the year, multiple complaints alleged that several executives had obtained U- Passes while only being part-time students. The allegations were investigated by OC Transpo, who provided a report to the university with guidelines and next steps.

The real outcry from students came during a March 2017 BOA meeting. Despite having cut dozens of campus jobs from students, Rachiq moved to increase executives’ salaries by $6,200 each—an 18 per cent increase. The motion passed and ultimately led to the resignation of four BOA members in protest.

That raise was struck down by a historic GA—the first to meet quorum. The BOA passed an emergency motion to increase their salaries by $2,000 and to receive a free transit or parking pass a month later.

Then, last month, former SFUO president Hadi Wess led a police report outlining allegations of fraud by Rachiq, executive director  Vanessa Dorimain, and vice-president of operations Axel Gaga. Upwards of $20,000 in student funding was allegedly transferred to the president’s faulty club, with expenses ranging from $950 Louis Vuitton glasses to $400 haircuts being charged to the club.

The Ottawa Police Service would not confirm whether an investigation is ongoing, however the university is withholding transfer payments to the SFUO until the results of a forensic audit are available.

No charges have been laid at this time.

Alleged harassment and bullying 

In the early months of 2014, the U of O became the focus of a nationwide debate around rape culture and privacy.

Former SFUO president Anne-Marie Roy was the subject of a sexually violent group chat between five male students, four of them being SFUO officials. Screenshots of the chat were sent to Roy by an anonymous third party.

Roy received an apology from the men the same day, but later received a cease and desist letter from all but one of them on the grounds that releasing the images would constitute a breach of their privacy. Less than a week later, the images of the chat were leaked online. All four student officials resigned and dropped their pursuit of legal action.

As a result of these events, as well as the allegations of a gang sexual assault committed by the U of O men’s hockey team that same month, the university struck a task force on respect and equality. The university implemented a new sexual violence policy based on the committee’s recommendations.

Later at a March 2017 BOA meeting, a number of the executives took turns accusing then-president Roméo Ahimakin of misconduct. In her executive update read aloud by a proxy, former vice-president of university affairs Vanessa Dorimain alleged that the president was “violent and misogynistic”, that he yelled at her on multiple occasions and that she now fears him.

Her allegations were echoed by Hadi Wess, then-vice-president social, who claimed Ahimakin had made executive meetings an “unsafe space”.

These claims of workplace problems were no surprise given that vice-president social Jonathan Chin-Fook had resigned only two months into his mandate citing “interpersonal issues between the executive members and (himself)” as well as a “cycle of conflict” in the organization.

Racial tensions

Navigating social justice issues has been a sore point for the student government too.

The federation’s role in advocating on behalf of students has either been labelled too involved, not involved enough or simply unnecessary by differing campus groups.

In 2014, the SFUO led an effort to encourage open dialogue about students’ experiences with racism by hosting an anti-racism campaign called “In My Skin”. However, according to the event’s description, the discussion was to be split into two groups: whites and non-whites.

Students at the university took to social media in droves to denounce the event, explaining that racism and white privilege do not always go hand in hand. Students of mixed race and non-visible minorities felt particularly targeted by the event, leading the anti-racism initiative to be labelled as racist.

Student media relations 

After covering the March BOA meeting during which several members of the executive raised concerns about Ahimakin’s alleged behaviour, the president served the Fulcrum with a notice of action alleging defamation on the part of the paper and five other parties. Also named in the notice were Dorimain and her proxy for the meeting, Faduma Wais; incoming president Wess; vice-president equity Morissa-Dahlia Ellis; and incoming BOA representative Michel Antoun, who live streamed the meeting.

Later on, at the Annual General Meeting of La Rotonde, the university’s French language newspaper, 15 SFUO executive members and their friends were alleged to have arrived midway through the meeting in an attempt to obtain board seats following unfavourable news coverage.

The executive denied this accusation, instead claiming to want to work more “closely with the student newspapers next term.” La Rotonde’s then editor-in-chief, Frederique Mazerolle denounced the action, claiming it showed that “the SFUO does not respect student press.”

Free speech concerns 

Varied perceptions on freedom of speech span back several years, with some conservative leaning students feeling that their ideas are not welcome at the university.

In 2010, right-wing conservative pundit Ann Coulter cancelled her speech on campus over safety concerns due to protests organized in part by SFUO executives. U of O professor Janice Fiamengo’s lecture on men’s rights activism was similarly shut-down due to protests carried out in 2014.

With these practices in mind, the university has received consistent failing grades on the Campus Freedom Index, a yearly report published by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF). Last year’s report saw the SFUO receive another failing grade for its policies and a C grade for its practices, noting that “the student union does not have an express commitment to free speech on campus.”

Roy expressed her disapproval with the ratings, noting that the SFUO is, “working to create spaces where people do feel like they can express their opinions.” However, she continued, “we do make a point to make sure that most students are feeling safe in those spaces.”

However, only a few months ago a video of the SFUO’s executive coordinator, Dorimain, forcibly removing voting ballots from students’ in attendance at the GA circulated online. According to a statement released to the Fulcrum, the voting cards were removed because the rules on cheering and clapping were not adhered to.

Coming to terms with the SFUO 

The years of SFUO controversy continued into this first month of the school year—a warm welcome to the new students unfamiliar with the university. Cynicism is an easy route to take when phone calls home are spent discussing news scandals, rather than your university’s accolades.

But with any governmental institution, it’s important to keep yourself informed and engaged with how its programs, policies, and decisions impact you. The SFUO is your student government—take the time to get to know it.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that “the executive passed an emergency motion to increase their salaries by $2,000, and to receive a free transit or parking pass a month later.” This motion was, in fact, passed by the SFUO’s BOA, not the SFUO executive.