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The general assembly (GA) was a failure. No one is without blame.

The first part of the failure belongs to the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO). They were unable to connect with their constituents. It could be a failure to connect with a wide enough segment of the student population and it could be a failure to provide a time and venue that worked for enough people.

The SFUO did engage some student groups: There were five motions and they represented diverse student interests: fossil fuel divestment, a student strike, more prayer space on campus, a protest against military involvement in Iraq, and the creation of a racialized student centre. Each one required a petition of 100 signatures to become a motion. If we ignore the very real possibility of overlap, there were 500 potential attendees.

Quorum for the GA was 337 and it was never attained. We can debate whether or not 337 people is a representative sample of a campus of more than 42,000, but what’s most important after this GA is how the SFUO is going to engage even that many going forward.

The referendum approving GAs as the highing governing body of the SFUO took place last February. There was time to ensure people knew what the GAs are, what they mean, and how to participate in them. Having less than one per cent of the student body attend raises concerns about the effectiveness of communication.

In a further failure of communication at the event, when it was unclear whether quorum could be met, attendees were unsure what was expected of them or the SFUO executives. These students came out to make their voices heard, and they needed expectations made more clear. How long were they going to wait before deciding quorum was impossible? How long were the executive reports going to be? If the decisions weren’t binding, why were they being voted on? The chair made decisions without explaining the basis for those choices to students in attendance. It’s possible that many of those students will not attend the next GA because they feel their time was wasted.

The second failure belongs to the students of the University of Ottawa. It’s easy to blame the SFUO for not being all things to all people. But while we’d like to see student government improve communication, it has to be said that they provided our campus with a great opportunity and it was mostly squandered.

All students pay fees that go to the SFUO and are used by them in various ways. Most students will never attend Board of Administration meetings and will likely never speak with our student federation representatives. The GA was a rare forum in which any student could attend, ask questions, and potentially vote on the sorts of actions the SFUO is going to take.

Most students didn’t attend. Whether they found the five motions relevant to their lives or not, they decided that holding the SFUO accountable wasn’t important to them. They decided that they would trust the federation to use their student fees however they wanted. The SFUO tried to give people a voice and on the whole, students decided they didn’t want one.

For students who did show up, we were largely represented by people speaking aggressively and cutting the SFUO executives off before they could finish answering questions. There was a lack of clarity for students on how the GA would run without quorum, but respectful and meaningful dialogue could still have been possible.
The executives sat and took questions in a relatively calm and composed manner, while many speakers undermined valid points by being unnecessarily inflammatory. It’s difficult to find consensus to move forward from when people are not being respectful or constructive.

As we move toward another potential GA, we need to have higher expectations. The SFUO needs to ensure that the motions brought forth are engaging a larger number of students. Maybe it entails investigating what issues matter to specific faculties—political science students may have different areas of interest than education or law students, for example—and making sure they know they have an opportunity to facilitate change through a motion. Perhaps there need to be more detailed explanations of the proposed motions— many students were unsure what a student strike might look like in practice.

For students, we need to take advantage of opportunities to hold our student government accountable. You may not consider yourself politically motivated, but as long as you’re paying an entity for services, it’s your responsibility to investigate how that money is being used. The SFUO has provided a forum to include students in their decision making. Our student government is practically begging us to tell them what we want and we aren’t doing so.

For those who do speak up, use the critical thinking skills your university degree is providing you with. When you have a chance to ask questions, don’t waste it being needlessly inflammatory and rude. You don’t have to agree, but there’s no reason to be disrespectful. You’re wasting the time of student representatives and you’re wasting the time of the students who have thoughtful questions and feedback.

Going forward, it’s unclear whether a second GA can be successful. What is clear is that everyone on this campus needs to learn from our past failures.