Earlier this year, I wrote a letter to the editor that made the point that the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) was worth saving. The upcoming referendum has made that question far more literal than I had expected when I wrote that piece. On Feb. 11, students will be given the opportunity to scrap the SFUO. But as tempting as that may be, I don’t think we should.
Believe me when I tell you, my position is not based on my adoration for the SFUO. Year after year, the group of students running the SFUO has come up with newer and better things to get my blood boiling. I’ve seen them blow 15 thousand dollars on fireworks that they could never use for 101 week. I’ve seen them give themselves U-Passes that they did not qualify for. I’ve seen them raise their own salaries against the will of the General Assembly. I’ve seen them lose tens of thousands of dollars on under-attended music festivals. I’ve seen them employ shady tactics in election campaigns. I’ve seen them tear voting cards right out of the hands of respected student leaders for “clapping.” And these are just the things that happened before the chaos of this year. Ranting about these issues has been an important part of my university life. All this is to say, I understand why students want to just throw out the whole organization. There are major structural issues that have allowed for these scandals to happen. But the issue is, no one has been given a fair shot at solving them.
Since I have been a student, there has yet to be an election where a group of students who truly wanted to reform the SFUO had a majority on the Board of Administration or occupied most of the executive positions. It is no surprise that the issues within the SFUO have gone unsolved, because there has never been a majority of decision makers who wanted to solve the institution’s problems (often times the majority didn’t even think that there were problems). If we want a more democratic, transparent, and accountable student union, we don’t need to throw out a 50 year-old institution, we need to reform it by electing individuals who want to make the necessary changes.
So how could we fix the SFUO? Many of the changes that had to be made were brought in under the governance reform in the fall. It was a good start. That being said, from a policy perspective, the SFUO still needs to revamp election regulations, increase accountability measures, and get smarter about the way that student money is spent. Even more importantly, there needs to be a culture shift towards accountability and transparency.
After this year of chaos, we need some stability. Regardless of what people say, building an institution from scratch is not easy. You can’t snap your fingers and all of a sudden have 17 services, 26 fully functioning Federated Bodies, hundreds of clubs, and a well run 101 week. These are things that took the SFUO half a century to build. No student union will be able to have these services “transferred” over to it or built overnight. It will take years before the services offered to students are back up to their current levels. Changing student unions comes at a high cost and it would be irresponsible to suggest that we can simply swap unions and all our problems will be solved. Let’s fix the SFUO, not scrap it.
– Sam Schroeder, fourth-year history and political science student.