On Saturday November 6th, the Board of Administration (BOA) of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) held its monthly meeting. It was at this meeting that the executive presented the results of a legal assessment of the organization’s constitution. Despite allegedly having had this assessment since June, neither Board members nor students were made aware of it before the meeting was announced. The assessment states that the current SFUO constitution does not comply with the Corporations Act of Ontario and that one of the reasons is the current structure of the General Assembly.
The constitution of the SFUO states that the GA is the highest decision making body of the SFUO, with control over finances, by-laws and elections (section 3.13.4). However, according to the executive’s reading of Ontario law, the current structure of the SFUO is in conflict with the fact that only elected representatives of faculties and the executive are considered directors and have voting rights on constitutional matters. The solution proposed by the executive was essentially to remove the General Assembly’s ability to exert democratic control over elected officials by removing the clause which states that the General Assembly is the highest decision making body. This attempt is anti-democratic in the sense that it removes the best avenue for student participation and control over our elected officials. It goes directly against a referendum decision, as well as the constitution, that states that the GA is the highest decision making body and therefore should not be able to be dissolved by a lower body. General Assemblies would then no longer have the ability to recall elected representatives or approve budgets. The General Assembly would also no longer be able to change bylaws or policy without approval from the BOA. No matter how the executive tried to portray or diminish the importance of this change, saying they had no choice or that the opinions of an assembly that essentially functions as a town hall meeting would be seriously considered by the BOA, the result is a huge step back in terms of the democratic rights of students and transparency of the SFUO. The RSM resolutely condemns the anti-democratic nature of these proposed changes.
By removing the section of the constitution that places General Assemblies above all other bodies of the SFUO, the General Assembly is effectively stripped of all its power. Without the ability to create policy and bylaw changes, review and approve the budget, or recall elected officials, the GA ceases to have a purpose and no longer allows students to directly control our union. Of course we are told that the General Assembly will still exist as a consultative body where students can voice their opinions, but without any authority, nothing compels the BOA to follow through on the wishes of students. What is the point of having a representative organization if it can’t be held accountable or even be modified to fit the needs of the students it represents? If the structure of the SFUO is built around protecting its bureaucracy and not as a tool for protecting the interests of students, who does it serve and what is its purpose?
Many possible solutions were brought up by BOA members, including setting up a constitutional committee tasked with coming up with a proposal for a later meeting that would comply with both the referendum and Ontario law. Another proposed solution is to add a section that requires the BOA to ratify decisions made at the General Assembly. BOA members, however, were told that waiting even a single meeting would open up individual BOA members to lawsuits, fines or jail time since they would be violating their “fiduciary duty”. Not only is this false, but it is a purposeful manipulation of BOA members by the executive. The sudden urgency of this situation seems odd given the fact that the report was conducted in July, leaving the SFUO many months to come up with a solution. The way BOA members were coerced into voting against their beliefs based on threats of looming legal action (which for many members implied the possibility of removal from their programs or even loss of their student visa) is completely outrageous. The BOA, as well as students in general, were never truly given a chance to understand or attempt to fix the problem, despite having plenty of time to do so. Ultimately, the motion was approved and will undergo a second reading in December. We now only have a short period of time to organise and defend our democratic gains.
General Assemblies have enormous potential to mobilize students and provide an avenue for real change. They are the best method of organizing towards a strike which is the only way for students to fight for free and accessible education. They also have the ability to launch investigation committees open to any student who could look into abuses of power by elected officials. This could include mismanagement of funds or unacceptable situations such as the events of the Vets Tour earlier this year. It is clear that General Assemblies have the ability to challenge the bureaucratic authority of the current SFUO structure and that we therefore cannot rely on it to defend GAs.
In the next month students and concerned board members will be working together to draw attention to this attack on democratic rights and independently come up with a solution. You can get involved by joining us at the General Assembly on Saturday November 12th at 2pm in Marion auditorium. Let the SFUO executive and your faculty representatives know that your voice matters!
If you want to get further involved, follow and contact us on Facebook (Revolutionary Student Movement UOttawa) for more news on our next GA planning meetings or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.