I write to you as the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) is on the verge of a seismic shift. For as long as I have been a student at this university, the SFUO has drudged through scandal after scandal. I can only assume that these latest allegations against the president and executive coordinator will serve as the final climax to this era of corruption and apathy. It’s not over quite yet, there will likely be a long and drawn-out battle between the students who are demanding change and those executives and board members who resist it. But come February, when students go to the polls in the SFUO general election, the next chapter in the SFUO’s history will begin. The question we must all ask is; what should that next chapter look like?
An important thing to underscore about the alleged fraud is that it is indicative of far more than two or three corrupt individuals. It is indicative of an organizational structure that lacks the oversight and transparency necessary to prevent corruption. The biggest mistake the student population could make is throw out the entire United team and think that the job is done and that the problem solved. The problem is far deeper, and the solutions are far more challenging than a simple change of the guard.
First, the SFUO must put in place better oversight. The forensic audit being forced on the Federation is a good start, but the SFUO needs to make sure that permanent financial oversights are added. Employees of the Federation, especially elected ones, should have no doubt that if they misuse student money, they will get caught. In addition to this, the disciplinary decision-making process of the SFUO should be overhauled. This scandal has proven beyond any shadow of doubt that the Board of Administration is too partisan to be solely responsible for disciplinary action. Instead, there should be an independent disciplinary board made up of non-partisan students selected by the Fed Bodies. This ensures that the decisions made by this board are fair; both in practice and in perception.
Second, the SFUO must create a culture of accountability to the students. This means a greater respect for their democratic decisions, more emphasis on transparency and openness, and a better two-way dialogue between the students and their executive. These are principles that students must demand of their elected officials. Executives must be open to criticism, and committed to improving based on the criticism they receive. This is how a constructive dialogue is built between the students and their federation.
Third, we need to accept that some things shouldn’t change. United will leave a mixed legacy. Yes, they will leave a legacy of corruption and infighting. But they will also leave a legacy of diversity and passion for social justice. This part of their legacy commands our respect and our gratitude. The SFUO must continue to be a bulwark for equality as the next generation of SFUO executives and board members show that progress and principle can go hand in hand.
That’s the SFUO I’d like to see, but for this to happen people must stand up and take action. Make no mistake, the SFUO’s sombre state of affairs is the product of apathy. Without the participation of the student population at large, there will be no progress. We must resist the urge to scrap the whole organization. The SFUO can and should play a positive role in the lives of students. We can’t allow ourselves to become lazy and decide that the SFUO isn’t worth saving. It will take serious work, but if we succeed, the students will be better off. Finally, the success or failure of this next chapter comes down to the student leaders. If the student leaders, both current and aspiring, shrug in pessimism and defeat, then count on the scandals and the mismanagement to continue. But if student leaders fight for the well-being of the Federation and the students, the next chapter will be a success.