Schroeder talks opening services and businesses, hiring second interim equity commissioner
The Fulcrum is interviewing each of the four University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) commissioners as students head back to class. First up is advocacy commissioner Sam Schroeder, who touched on the roadblocks in establishing the new union, his approach to reducing student apathy, filling the role of interim equity commissioner, and whether or not the UOSU will join the Canadian Federation of Students.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
The Fulcrum: Can you tell us a bit about yourself, Sam?
Sam Schroeder: I’m going into my fifth year of history and political science. I wasn’t really involved in student politics for my first few years on campus but then I ran for the (Student Federation of the University of Ottawa’s Board of Administration). I ran as an independent and got clobbered. After that, I don’t think I touched student politics for two years. Then I was asked to run for the (Board of Administration) with the Solutions slate (he was not elected). I said, yeah because transparency, accountability, I thought these were spectacular things that the SFUO desperately needed. After that, I got the bug again. I got into student associations. So I started with the History Students Association and then moved on to Faculty of Arts Students Association.
F: Where did the idea to run for the UOSU advocacy commissioner come from?
SS: I think after I ran for Solutions slate something in my head that I was like ‘I’d really like to run for an executive position,’ I thought I could do a good job with it. I was the university affairs representative for the Student Association of the Faculty of Arts, so advocacy was just kind of like the natural progression from there.
F: What does the advocacy commissioner role entail?
SS: So it’s a lot of different things and it’s very broad. In the constitution, there are only four points down for each executive, so it’s really up for interpretation. Generally, it’s been a catch-all, so anything that doesn’t fit in anyone else’s mandate, it would generally come to me. A big part is chairing the executive committee, chairing the Board of Directors, working with the university, that’s the primary role of the advocacy commissioner. Media relations go through me generally.
I think it’s something that probably needs to be refined a little bit. When they made the constitution, they didn’t know how a lot of these things were going to pan out in practice. So in terms of the distribution of responsibilities, distribution of workload, there are probably some changes coming down the pipe.
F: Building off that, was being the first person to head this entirely new union scary for you? Was that fear a deterrent?
SS: Scary, yeah. I don’t think it deterred me though. I mean, it’s such a cool opportunity. As a nerd for governance and procedure, to be able to set all these precedents is such an amazing opportunity.
F: Are you in charge of working with the federal and provincial governments as well?
SS: That would primarily be me. That’s one side of the job that hasn’t really started yet as much because we’ve had so much on the operational side. I’m looking forward to toward the mid-range and tail end of my mandate, being able to start focusing on working with the provincial or federal government or joining a bigger association of student unions, because pretty much every student union is a member of some sort of student alliance.
Obviously we’re not going to join the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) so we’re looking into other options like the Canadian Student Alliance or the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.
F: Let’s let’s talk about the CFS. I know a lot of people are curious if the UOSU will join. Do you have any issues with them?
SS: Constitutionally we’re not allowed to join the CFS, as it stands right now. We have to wait two years to join any student alliance but there’s also a clause in the constitution that says that we can’t join an external; organization for which we can’t leave through either a board vote or referendum. The University of Ottawa left the CFS by destroying our entire student union, so that kind of goes to show what the process is like.
The fact that some student unions have such a difficult time getting out of the CFS I think speaks to the way it operates. It’s not always the most democratic of associations, there are fundamental internal issues with the CFS that I see a problem with, which is why I wouldn’t be comfortable having UOSU join it. But even if we did want to join it, I do have my hands tied.
F: Let’s talk about the transition from the SFUO to the UOSU. In your mind, how did that go?
SS: It was a rocky transition, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. We still don’t have the services open, the businesses are obviously not open. So there’s been just like a lot of roadblocks and it’s been difficult to get everything in place. Things are starting to get in place now though. We just hired our directors, they started on Monday.
F: Who are those directors?
SS: So the services director, business director, communications and administration director, and the general manager. We got the spaces in late August. So that was tough. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) was there until like mid to late-August. They wanted us to have a transition agreement before (we got) the service spaces. So there’s a whole mess that I don’t think was really foreseeable so that delayed a lot of things. We didn’t have liability insurance until mid-August, so that also made things a little more difficult in terms of hiring people and so on. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, it’s been a rocky transition.
F: And the goal for service centres to open is by the end of the month?
SS: Generally something along those lines. We’re still working on an internal timeline in terms of getting everyone hired. I think at this point, it’s looking like it’s going to be early to mid-October. We don’t want to open up the service centres and not have the staff there. We don’t want to open it up and then it’s not functioning. Through this transition, I’ve learned so many things about the SFUO that made me go, ‘Yeah, despite how rocky it was, I think this was legitimately worth it.’ There were just there so many internal issues that I don’t think could have been resolved. I think there were a lot of things in there that just wouldn’t have been able to change. A lot of the services, for example, were open, but they weren’t really functioning. So one of the things we don’t want to do is open it up and not have it do anything. We want to make sure that it’s open and really providing all the services that it’s supposed to be offering.
F: You mentioned some unfixable issues within the SFUO. Can you share any of those?
SS: Internal hiring practices, for example, I think there were issues there a lot of the time. I think a lot of the time they should have been more transparent. There was an opaqueness when it came to services.
F: Are you worried students will have a bad taste in their mouths from the SFUO and not want to get involved with the UOSU? Are you working to get around that?
SS: Definitely, one of the things I really want to prioritize is getting people engaged as much as possible, mostly through volunteering. I really do think that we have a system that’s going to work for students and we need to show that. We need to make sure students are getting engaged so they can see that and get engaged with the student union. In many ways, what happened to the SFUO was no one was really paying attention. You had a small group of people who were really upset with the way it was operating, but generally speaking, there was apathy that allowed for everything to fester inside the organization. The best way to avoid that is by having students go to board meetings, by having a quorum at General Assembly.
F: So looking back so far, what do you think you’ve done really well? What are some of your proudest accomplishments so far?
SS: I think the way that I’ve dealt with the university. One of the things that I ran on and one of the things I really want to make sure stays in place once I’m gone is having a cooperative and constructive relationship with the university. I feel like the SFUO had a very confrontational relationship with the university as opposed to how can we work together? How can we make sure the services being provided to students are going to be the best services, regardless of whether or not been provided by the student union or the university?.
F: How did the Student Choice Initiative impact how the UOSU’s budget was set up this year?
SS: It’s tough and I still don’t know the (opt in) numbers and we’re going into mid-September, these services need to plan how much we’re spending this, how much money to spend on that and they’re very much affected. Student governments, same thing. What’s our budget going to be? How can we start planning? Because a lot of them have to have their budgets in by September, so it just makes the whole planning process so much more difficult. If it’s a low opt in rate, then there’s gonna be a lot of cuts, quite frankly.
F: What are your thoughts on the SCI? Do you see it as an attack on student life?
In a way. I’m against the policies, no two ways about it. I think a lot of the services student unions provide are so important, not just campus life but for students in general. In order to have a successful academic career, you need to have at least a little bit of student life in there, if for nothing else but to pad your resume. When you make cuts to that you are hurting students. That being said, I also see the value in students who might not be able to afford a lot of these things, they can save a little bit of money. It’s a tough balance, but I don’t think that the policy comes out on the right side of that balance because I think there’s a lot of things that are good for students that are going to be lost because of this.
F: What are your thoughts on the provincial government’s changes to OSAP?
SS: I’m against the cuts. A lot of students can’t afford to go to school for a second semester or even a first semester. It’s a shame because we’re supposed to be a campus where anyone who works hard in high school, gets the grades and keeps the grades, you ought to be able to go to university. They’ve shown that you have the ability to be here, and yet they’re getting their legs cut from under them because of a policy that’s not saving all that much money anyway. It doesn’t make sense because it’s inherently political. It’s not because we need to reduce government spending, it’s because they know this is something that makes sense for them politically. Students end up being hurt by it, so it’s a shame for that reason.
F: Some students are worried about the lack of an equity commissioner. What’s being done to fill that role and what’s gone on with that position?
SS: Arielle Lavallee (former interim equity commissioner) did a spectacular job over the couple of months she was there. I’m very happy with the fact that we had someone over the summer and she did do a lot in terms of like making sure that we were prepared from an equity perspective for things like 101 Week. There was an administrative issue in finding a new interim equity commissioner. We have a motion going to the next board meeting on Sunday to appoint someone. Assuming the board chooses to fill the position and fill a position with her, she’ll serve until the byelection and then the students will get inside who their equity commissioners from there.
F: Was it worrying after the April general election that still half the Board of Directors seats were vacant?
SS: Yeah, it is an issue. Luckily, for a quorum, it’s based on the number of board members that we have. I also don’t think it was half, I think it was 19, by the time we appointed Arielle. But the lack of people presenting themselves to the elections, even if we had filled all the seats but there was still like a bunch of uncontested elections, that would still have been problematic. I’m hoping that that’s one of those things where people see things are more established now and are willing to put their names forward.
F: What are you looking to hold the university accountable to this year? What are some of the main actions or main initiatives you want to see from them?
SS: With the carding incident, there’s a lot that we wanted to see there. We did try to hold their feet to the fire on that. They took good first steps. We made four calls to action and one of them was mostly met. So the other three, we’re still left to see if the university will take action on that.
I really think it’s important to have a collaborative relationship with the university. I think the SFUO and student bodies in general oftentimes have a tendency to be like, if we’re not yelling at the university, we’re not doing our job. When really, if you sit down, have conversations with the university, set up the different things that are going to make students’ lives better, you’re going to get more done. An example of that would be mental health. It was by sitting down with university and saying, ‘we’re going to put an additional however many hundred thousand dollars in student fees towards SASS for mental health resources, will you match it?’ Sitting down, not yelling at them, not saying you need to do more, none of that. Just sitting down and saying this is what we’re going to do, are you willing to match it? They matched it. So that’s the sort of thing where you can get a lot done and get more done when you actually collaborate with them.
F: What message do you want to send out to the students?
SS: It’s coming along, we’re getting there. I know, it’s been a long road, but a lot of the building blocks you need in place to have a functioning student union are starting to come into place. In the next few months, I think students are going to notice a whole lot of a whole lot more positivity around student unions, I think that we’ve done a good job building a good management team. Now obviously, we still need to flesh out services, businesses and so on, but it’s getting there. We still need students to engage. We still need people to run for Board of Directors seats, we still need people to show up to General Assemblies. There’s so much opportunity to get involved, so take that opportunity.