Fighting to stay, fighting for change
The U of O announced back in September it plans to terminate its agreement with the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) on Dec. 24 of this year following allegations of fraud and concerns of improper governance, mismanagement, internal conflict and workplace misconduct, but the union has no intentions of raising the white flag any time soon.
Although four of the six SFUO executives elected for the 2018-19 school year have either resigned or recused themselves of their jobs with pay, including all executives named in fraud allegations from outgoing SFUO president Hadi Wess, two still remain: vice-president external Paige Booth, who is now acting-president, and vice-president social Faduma Wais.
In a sit-down interview with the Fulcrum, Booth, a political science and psychology student, explained her reaction to the news of the upcoming termination.
“It’s extreme measures obviously (the university) took, but at the same time there are concerns,” she said. “It was difficult, considering how this is a body to represent the students and the students should be deciding the fate of their own student union.”
Booth insists sticking with the SFUO is the best choice for students to make because of the federation’s longstanding ties to the campus through 12 service centres, four businesses, upwards of 250 clubs and about 20 federated bodies.
“The current structure we have in place would be the most beneficial to students because of the amount of resources and services that we do provide,” she said. “We have such a good foundation and such essential services … to erase all that and start from new instead of just improving the existing structure we have … would be a loss for students.”
It seems the SFUO is bargaining on the university changing its tune following the release of the forensic audit, opening up the possibility of the U of O agreeing to sign a new agreement with the SFUO.
“I’m really hoping that we can reach a new agreement with the university and we already have done a lot … to try to restore faith in the student federation,” she said.
It appears Booth is just as much in the dark as the rest of the student body on the future of the SFUO’s businesses and service centres following termination. Booth noted she has met with the U of O administration a number of times, but the fate of these services is still up in the air.
Booth wanted students to know that the SFUO is hearing their concerns and is working to respond effectively.
“We’re trying our best to make these changes, we’re trying our best to do more consultations, we want the students to be satisfied with their student union and to have faith in their student union,” Booth said. “We’re definitely open to listening and implementing new policies and new procedures and new ways of cooperating.”
Booth pointed to a number of motions passed at the Oct. 14 BOA meeting to increase financial transparency, including a move to develop a financial task force to overhaul SFUO financial operations in collaboration with an external chartered accounting firm.
Additionally, a number of motions passed to try to make the BOA less partisan, including a move to prevent SFUO employees from sitting on the board and the scrapping of the BOA slate system, where prospective members of the board can run as a team.
But some students see the fraud allegations and upcoming termination as just one scandal in a union plagued with controversies.
For example, in March of 2016 it was revealed that the SFUO was on the brink of bankruptcy, leading to the closure of service centres over the summer and the slashing of 24 staff positions. The SFUO has also been criticized for its relationship with student media, internal work environment and its approach to free speech.
“There has been controversy before all this happened and there has been concerns that need to be addressed and continued to be addressed,” Booth said.
To read our full interview transcript with Booth, visit www.thefulcrum.ca.
Fighting for change
While the SFUO struggles to stay afloat as the recognized undergraduate student union on campus, a number of other unions have risen to take its place. One of these is a union made up of students from across campus and the political spectrum: the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU).
The Fulcrum spoke with Moe Abu Rouss, a fourth-year commerce marketing student, and Tiyana Maharaj, a third-year women’s studies student, who are among the team working to organize the union.
“There was a line of democracy (the SFUO) crossed … the university had to step in,” Abu Rouss said of the upcoming termination of the federation’s agreement with the U of O.
Initially, Maharaj said she had concerns with the university’s decision to intervene, but eventually came to terms with the move.
“I was scared of (the decision) setting a dangerous precedent, with the university intervening in union business, but that being said I think it was necessary,” she explained. “There was nothing else they could do.”
The UOSU has a draft constitution available on their website and is collaborating with students and groups across campus. Over the past few weeks they’ve been holding consultations, round tables with federated bodies, and town halls with students.
“We wanted first and foremost to bring power back to the students,” Maharaj said.
“We want to make sure students have the voice and representation, that they’re the people who decide,” added Abu Rouss.
The UOSU plans to do this by turning the current SFUO governance structure on its head.
When it comes to the SFUO, the highest governing body in the organization up until the Oct. 14 Board of Administration (BOA) meeting has been the BOA, which could overturn votes from the General Assembly (GA). In contrast, the UOSU would establish the GA as the highest governing body from the start, meaning they could override a vote from the board, save decisions related to firing and hiring.
The executive structure of the UOSU would also be quite different than the SFUO’s approach.
The SFUO currently uses a system of president and vice-presidents. The UOSU plans to decentralize this structure, opting for commissioners instead that work for mandates such as francophone, equity and advocacy.
“It prevents a hierarchy from coming into place,” Maharaj said. “Commissioners are just representatives of different sectors.”
In terms of financials, the UOSU plans to hire an external and independent professional accountant to work with the GA to manage the union’s budget and finances.
Abu Rouss added federated bodies would be granted more independence under the UOSU.
If the UOSU is recognized as the official union of the undergraduate student body, the team plans to take over current services and businesses run by the SFUO.
Members of the UOSU organizing team are not interested in running for executive positions if there is a new student union recognized, Abu Rouss and Maharaj added.
Students weigh in
For the most part, the majority of students seem to side with the termination of the U of O’s contract with the SFUO, and are ready to embrace a new union.
Students on both the U of O’s Board of Governors and Senate expressed their full support for the termination of the university’s contract with the SFUO in a statement put out on Oct. 18. They pointed to issues such as the BOA’s decision to keep the results of the forensic audit private and out of a potential court case without their approval, along with their reluctance to suspend SFUO president Rizki Rachiq, who is facing allegations of fraud.
They also called for an online vote following termination date, including the SFUO and any other student unions that have satisfied negotiations with the university, to decide which union will be recognized on campus.
In their statement they list out a series of recommendations for a sound new union, including a constitution that can only be amended at an annual GA with a majority vote, elections managed by an independent third party, a model of governance which includes mechanisms for punitive action should trust be breached, and accountability to its membership.
“I think it would be a good idea to get a new group in that’s more trustworthy” to create “a more transparent relationship with the student federation” said Jennifer Affleck, a third-year human resources student at the U of O. “It would be nice to have input onto what they provide, and just more interaction and communication.”
Mira Nemr, president of the Lebanese Cultural Club, said she hopes the new student union will better support clubs, noting her club has not received funding from the SFUO over the past few years.
“Something (should) be done (so) clubs will actually be able to excel,” she said. “$200 goes a long way.”
On the other hand, some students said work should have been done first to try to repair the SFUO, rather than tearing it down.
“This was just a way for (the university) to really excitedly terminate an agreement they didn’t want to have,” said a third-year law student who asked not to be named. “Universities don’t want to have unions, so this was a way for them to get rid of that.”
—With files from Marissa Phul and Raghad Khalil