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Photo: CC pixahere. Edit: Rame Abdulkader.

The debate is the last before the referendum for a new union

The Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) and the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) took part in a public debate on Feb. 5 in the University Centre.

The debate was the final event planned before the vote for a new student union at the U of O on Feb. 8. Tensions were high as both unions answered questions from students and moderators about the future of student services on campus. The Ottawa Undergraduate student association (OUSA) previously stated an intention to run, but dropped out of the referendum before the debate.

Transparency and accountability

The UOSU stated that the union would install the General Assembly as the highest decision-making body of the organization. The UOSU also committed to replacing the executive with a series of “commissioners” who will be responsible only for narrow mandates—a move they claim will prevent the abuse of executive power.

The constitution would require explicit agreement among commissioners on any purchases over $5,000 and will prohibit any changes to the voting process without a full vote in the General Assembly (GA).

The UOSU also plans to place a two-year moratorium on all graduating students before they can accept certain union staff positions. This policy is a response to accusations that the SFUO gave well-paying positions to friends, rather than hiring on merit.

The policies come in response to accusations that the SFUO’s executive has been consolidating power by amending the constitution to benefit them.

The UOSU also committed to using third-party online voting for all elections to ensure full access and accountability.

The SFUO committed to the same voting standards and reminded students that they used a compliant system for the union’s recent by-elections.

The SFUO did not commit to any new specific structural changes but ensured students that they had put new accountability measures in place. They claimed that the union’s long history of issues has better prepared them to deal with corruption accusations. They also urged students to separate the institution from its members, reminding students that the SFUO can be reformed without being replaced.

Social justice

The SFUO asked the UOSU how they would continue operating programs like the Racialized and Indigenous Student Center and Women’s Resource Center. Both organizations required numerous referendums to get funding from the student body.

The UOSU commended the activism of students and said they would continue to be a voice for progressive causes. They committed to respecting the previous referendums on the establishment of institutions that promote social justice and maintaining those institutions.

Both unions were asked how they would prevent the social rifts on campus caused by controversial issues like the Boycott/Divest/Sanction movement last year. The UOSU claimed all official stances from the union will be “bottom-up, not top-down” and must be voted on by the GA rather than unilaterally implemented by the union’s staff.

The SFUO maintained that they have been a platform for debate and discussion, which often leads to heated disagreements.

Both unions reiterated a commitment to free expression and civil debate.

Mental health

The SFUO stated that their existing counsellor services have been effective, but admitted that service often falls short. They said there are plans in the works to establish a dedicated mental health center that would coordinate all related services in one building.

The UOSU committed to expanding mental health services including psychiatric and psychological care. They stated it should be treated as a medical problem and would be covered by the health plan.

Continuation of services

The SFUO quizzed the UOSU on their plans to continue services including resource centers and fed bodies without interim funding or a functioning administration. The UOSU and debate staff said the SFUO must ensure the orderly transfer of all sub-organizations of the SFUO to the new union as part of their interim agreement with the school.

According to section 3.04 in the SFUO’s charter, “in the event the SFUO elects to dissolve during or after the term, the SFUO shall transfer, through a transfer agreement, the assets, services and businesses of the SFUO to a similar organization, in accordance with their Letters Patent and the Ontario Corporations Act, 1990.

The UOSU stated that they had met with  university administration at the end of 2018, who maintained that the continuation of services is important to them, and clarification and support regarding the transition of services would be offered to the new union should they win the referendum. While the SFUO claimed that the continuation of contract services negotiated by the SFUO including the U-Pass and health plan was not possible under a new union, the UOSU was confident that these services could be transferred or renegotiated. 

Trust

Students also quizzed the SFUO about a leaked document from the SFUO that allegedly tells Board of Administrators members how to vote.

Acting SFUO president Paige Booth said that she “had not seen the document before” and reiterated that “student representatives have the full autonomy to make their own decisions and their own votes“

“I don’t know about that document per se—I don’t know who it could have came from … This should not be common practice for board members, but I can’t speak for other board members on my own,” she said.

Jason Seguya, the SFUO’s social media coordinator was directly accused of being friends with a fake Facebook account used to boost pro-union posts following a post on Beloved SFUO Overlords. Seguya defended against the accusation, claiming that his work as a promoter means he has “a large reach in terms of social media.”

 “I have upwards of 2,000 followers on Instagram, meaning the number of individuals connected to me is not a reflection of who is around me,” he stated.

“Once again, in my job as a promotions officer, it is my job to extend my reach, meaning it won’t be a surprise that a large number of individuals in this arena are connected to me … I have not heard of (the Beloved SFUO Overlords post) and this is the first time I have heard of (the Facebook account) altogether.”

Booth also responded to accusations claiming she “can’t control what anybody does or creates in terms of Facebook profiles.”

“I, myself, have not created a fake Facebook profile. But this is why it’s so important that students are separating the institution from the individuals.”

Booth added “This could happen to any institution, in any union, with any person who wants to create a Facebook profile. So I don’t really see the relevance of it.”

The UOSU stated that no one involved in its founding would be running in executive elections to prevent conflicts of interest. The answer came in response to accusations by a student in the audience that the union members were “opportunists” trying to capitalize on the SFUO’s precarious situation.

The referendum for a new student union will take place from Feb. 8 to Feb. 11. Voting will be conducted exclusively online, and details on voting will be sent to all U of O email accounts.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jason Seguya was accused of creating a fake Facebook account and that he was unaware of the Facebook page Beloved SFUO Overlords. It has since been updated to reflect that this is not the case.