Photo: Rémi Yuan
To put it mildly, the last general assembly (GA) wasn’t a big success. By the end of the inaugural event, quorum wasn’t met and much of the potentially constructive dialogue between students and the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) quickly degenerated into unruly heckling. In light of this less than stellar first outing, how can we improve how this student assembly is run?
Refine communication and advertising
The last GA was 11 people short of quorum, which means the event couldn’t even draw one per cent of the University of Ottawa student body. While meeting quorum is a shared responsibility between the SFUO and students, the student union still needs to do a better job of advertising.
The current administration’s dubious history of failing to inform students about social events is well known, and this upcoming GA is no exception. If you are a follower of the SFUO on Twitter or Facebook you may have missed the announcement, since none was made. Apart from a banner on their website—which I’m sure a great many of you visit daily—there has been no real effective online advertising for the GA that’s taking place on March 24.
The print advertising for this event is similarly incompetent. Even though the Fulcrum printed the SFUO’s full-page ad, the location for the event is listed as the Ottawa Congress Centre, even though the venue hasn’t gone by that name since 2008, and has taken on two other names since then. The correct name these days is the Shaw Centre, so go there.
The SFUO should encourage students to be interested in the democratic process, and the first step toward doing that is to commit to better advertising for events like their GAs.
More relatable topics
The main problem with the last GA was that many of the issues brought forward were high-level political issues that really had little tangible effect on most students’ lives.
For example, an initiative to end Canadian intervention in Iraq or to lobby the university to divest from fossil fuels will not have much effect on our day-to-day lives, nor could they be expected to have much of an effect on high-level talks on those broad issues. So why would I, or any other busy student, attend this event?
The Muslim Students’ Association’s request for more prayer space on campus and the proposal to create a Racialized Student Centre were really the only motions brought forward that would directly impact U of O students, even though they were not explained in detail in the event’s promotional material.
What the organizers of the GA don’t realize is that, for the most part, student concerns are smaller in scale: getting our assignments in on time, having enough money to eat and pay rent, and hoping we get enough sleep.
If the motions brought forward aren’t going to address our immediate concerns, it’s hard to justify allocating time to sit in a room and vote on abstract issues. If the overriding topics pertained to issues like food prices on campus, or increased study spaces, then maybe there would be more of a turnout.
Better participation from students
While the student union is certainly at fault for how the last GA turned out, U of O students are not totally blameless either.
For one thing, not even one per cent of the student body decided to show up for the assembly, which sets a pretty horrible precedent for political apathy on campus. Based on all the bitching that’s done at the expense of the SFUO, you would think that more students would jump at the chance to hold the federation accountable at an event like the GA. Instead, it seems like many students would rather type snarky comments from behind a keyboard than take responsibility for how their student union and university are being run.
On the other end of the spectrum, the ones who did manage to show up didn’t do much better in terms of respecting student politics. While some students did come forward with legitimate concerns and questions, they were often drowned out by unwarranted hostility from the crowd and flagrant disrespect for the event’s proceedings. Holding student government accountable by asking tough questions is certainly one thing, but deliberately sabotaging someone’s attempt at instigating political dialogue is another.
For the next GA, hopefully students can cultivate a better attitude toward political discourse by finding a happy medium between complete apathy and relentless antagonism.
Scrap the whole thing
The GA was originally designed as an open forum where questions about policies could be asked, and the electorate had a chance to decide on each policy by way of democratic process.
Although some argue that this is a good system, the truth is that these kinds of student assemblies are unnecessary.
The reason the student body votes in an election is to choose people whose job it is to represent them when it comes to policymaking. By holding GAs, there’s no longer a point in electing an executive committee.
To put this in a broader context, this country elects Members of Parliament to make big decisions for them, because having millions of Canadians show up to vote on each new piece of legislation is expensive, time consuming, and completely impractical.
Instead of subjecting ourselves to another redundant GA, we should instead go back to having the executive committee (and the Board of Administration) vote on policy. After the recent SFUO election, the committee is now composed of a much more balanced group of political views, which will allow for proper discourse and consideration before each motion is passed.
An abolition of the GA would mean that student funds would not be wasted on expensive conference centre rentals. It would also provide students with the time they need to focus on their studies and let a representative democracy work for them.
—Graham Gould Maule