The Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) has been embroiled in a political conflict that could leave the student union destroyed after 49 years of relative stability. In September, the University of Ottawa (U of O) terminated its agreement recognizing the SFUO as the official undergraduate student union after “allegations of financial mismanagement,” and “improper governance… and workplace misconduct” were unearthed.

This February, U of O students will vote in a referendum organized by the university administration to decide whether to remain with the SFUO or choose one of the new proto-unions formed by students who want change. This referendum takes resources and effort away from student advocacy, setting a new precedent for Canadian student politics.

The executive coordinator

Significant changes were made to the SFUO starting in 2011. The SFUO’s student court was abolished and a new, unelected, non-student position was created: the executive coordinator. The absence of the student court resulted in less transparency and accountability, while the executive coordinator position put most of the administrative power in the hands of someone who wasn’t an elected student. This led to a primarily mentorship-based role devolving into ensuring students adhered to the establishment’s dogma.

All U of T student unions have a position like the SFUO’s executive coordinator, usually referred to as an executive director. At the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), this position became the centre of a lawsuit in 2015 when executives gave their executive director $277,726.40 as compensation following a contract termination, which resulted in an out of court settlement in 2017 involving part of the amount being repaid to the UTSU.

These executive director positions at U of T student unions allow unelected non-students to potentially seek long-term careers in student politics and, as paid employees, have a vested interest in how student unions allocate their funds. Furthermore, current student leaders can become executive directors after graduating, so the cycle continues.

Over time, resignations, removals, and mistreatment of SFUO executives and employees who did not side with the establishment began to occur. These individuals cited a toxic work environment, filibustering, and mistreatment in the workplace. One of the executives who resigned described the ordeal as making them feel “absolutely worthless.

Frequent resignations are also characteristic of U of T student unions. At the UTSU, seven elected representatives resigned in 2018 alone. The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union’s vice-president external and chief returning officer also resigned last year, both citing that they felt unsafe at work.

Electoral processes

The oppressive power structure in the SFUO fostered mismanagement. Voter turnout decreased from 27 per cent in 2009 to less than eight per cent in 2016, during which time its online voting system was reverted back to paper ballots. Money began to be wasted, leading to an over $1 million deficit in 2016, the worst in the SFUO’s history. During this financial crisis, the board — overwhelmingly filled by establishment figures — passed an 18 per cent increase to executive salaries.

By this time, students had begun to resist, mobilizing over 280 of their peers to the Winter 2017 SFUO General Assembly (GA) to reverse the decision to raise executive pay, the first time an SFUO GA had made quorum since its inception in 2014. One year later, over 400 students brought another GA to quorum, passing a motion for online voting with a 97 per cent majority.

While U of T student unions may not suffer from such a level of financial mismanagement, they face similar problems when it comes to electoral processes. The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) and the SCSU still use paper ballot systems. A motion for online voting that was brought forward at the UTMSU November 2018 annual general meeting (AGM) was defeated. The SCSU also received a motion for online voting at its AGM, but its board of directors decided not to add the motion to the AGM agenda. Online voting at these campuses could have increased electoral accessibility and voter turnout.

Assault on the press

In the SFUO’s case, the establishment fought back against student resistance by trying to take over the board of directors of La Rotonde, the independent Francophone student newspaper that had written many investigative pieces about SFUO corruption. While this may seem like an outlier example, U of T student unions are no strangers to attempting to stifle the student press.

In December 2018, the SCSU attempted “to control student media accreditation and access to meetings” and tried to restrict Varsity journalists from live-tweeting. For the UTGSU, restricting real-time reporting was a condition to press seating at its General Council meeting, and when Varsity journalists tried to resist in December 2018, they were removed from the meeting outright.

Despite all this, student resistance at U of O continued to galvanize and grow louder. Then, in summer 2018, allegations of fraud in the SFUO made headlines across the country.

Let’s be vigilant at U of T

Now, U of O is a divided campus. The fall semester has been marked by protests in front of the SFUO officeand on social media. The establishment’s adherents who have not resigned are making every effort to keep the SFUO alive, even passing a series of policy-changing concessions that students have been advocating for since before the 2016 financial crisis.

While the SFUO may seem like an extreme case, we should be vigilant about how similar issues have been or are taking root at U of T student unions. A good way to reverse such negative trends would be to view student unions as primarily democratic student governments, instead of as mere corporations that provide services. Contributions of the press and students are crucial to maintaining a healthy level of student participation, as an informed student body will be more likely to get involved in advocacy.

Students and staff, regardless of the student union positions they hold, need to be welcomed and treated fairly, even if achieving this goal requires additional investments in human resources. Power should always be balanced in a way that maintains student democracy as the most powerful decision-making authority.

Justin Patrick is a first-year master’s student in Political Science.

Disclosure: Patrick is a UTGSU Council Representative for Political Science.