Photos by Mariah Wilson

A tricky road ahead for the Students’ Union

By Ashar Memon, April 25 2019 —

Tuesday night in MacHall. Tucked away behind the Information Desk, the MacHall Executive Council Chambers are the scene of a weekly meeting of the Students’ Legislative Council, the governing body of the University of Calgary Students’ Union.

Inside, faculty representatives are about to vote on a resolution to approve the first reading of the SU’s financial audits. The chamber gallery is scattered with students here and there. Just outside, MacHall is buzzing with activity.

After some discussion and questions from an SU faculty representative, the resolution passes unanimously. That same meeting, SLC passed two other resolutions — both unanimously. The next week it passed several more — all either unanimously or unanimously with one abstention.

Since the 76th SLC began its term in May 2018, it has passed every resolution week after week either unanimously or unanimously but with a single abstention due to a conflict of interest. 

“I think we were more fortunate that it kind of ended up being that way,” said outgoing SU president Sagar Grewal. 

On the one hand, unlike votes in government bodies, the SU has the benefit of representing a much smaller group of people in roughly the same age demographic. There may be little difference of opinion among students on a particular issue, and hence, dissenting votes may be rare.

For SU executives, the streak of unanimous votes represents the achievement of a wide consensus on the slew of issues it deals with. 

“I personally see it as potentially a sign that SLC feels as though they were appropriately consulted on an issue,” said Grewal. “One thing we tried to ensure is that anytime we brought forward a decision, it came forward as a discussion prior to any reading.”

Grewal and other SU executives said that with having discussions beforehand, resolutions had been refined before they were put to the vote.

“It’s not just about the vote,” incoming SU president Jessica Revington said. “Part of SLC is to have those discussions and to have those discussions in a public forum where if there are members in the gallery, if there are students that are concerned about things that are happening with the SU, they have that opportunity to come and have their voices heard and speak to SLC.”

Despite the opportunity to attend weekly SLC meetings and air their grievances, students rarely do so. Compared to the busy halls of MacHall, the Executive Council Chambers remain relatively sparse.

Next year, that could prove especially difficult for the SU.

In April, Albertans elected a new provincial government. In 2018, the UCP passed a draft policy to make students’ association fees optional, which would effectively make students’ unions voluntary. While the U of C SU receives most of its income from tenant revenue in MacHall, it still faces a significant hit in revenue if that policy were to be implemented. 

“Right now, our priority is to ensure that voluntary students’ unions don’t happen,” said outgoing vice-president external Anayat Sidhu. “In the case that our students’ unions are at risk, right in September, when students come back for the fall semester, it is important to remind them of all the work that we’ve done and all the things that we’ve accomplished and all the things that we want to accomplish in the future.”

Over the next few months, the SU will have to make the case both to the government and to the students it represents that it deserves to exist. According to Revington, it plans to do exactly that.

“We need to do a better job of actually showing not just students at the University of Calgary, but government, what our value is,” Revington said. “Without revealing too much, that will be the focus of a project that we’re looking to start as soon as I take office.”

Aside from promoting itself to the student body and navigating a complicated relationship with a new provincial government, the SU also has to develop a foundational relationship with the new U of C administration.

“I think the biggest challenge that I will face will be working with a government that is also brand new and working with the university administration that is also brand new. I think the confluence of having three important groups on campus — myself as the new president of the Students’ Union, a new government in power provincially, as well as a new administration — those three groups coming together and trying to understand the relationships we’ll have moving forward, that will be a challenge.”

*

Fresh out of a provincial ‘get-out-the-vote’ campaign, the SU now has to begin preparing for a likely October federal election. Reflecting on the provincial election, Sidhu said she’d like to see the SU try more innovative techniques to get students to vote.

“It really comes down to meeting students where they are,” Sidhu said. “I’m just a single person as the vice-president external trying to get all of these students to vote but I can’t reach as many people in a day that The Den can reach and that the stickers or buttons can reach by students wearing them.

“It’s about creating a ‘get-out-the-vote’ campaign that’s not just solely on the shoulders of the VP external, but that every student and the stores and the other aspects of the Students’ Union that operate on a daily basis are also playing a role,” she added.

On the one hand, the timing of the federal election could prove beneficial to the SU. Having the campaign infrastructure, such as volunteers or posters, means the next SU vice-president external has the opportunity to hit the ground running.

On the other hand, a federal election just months away also means that the SU will have to divide its time between advocating to the new UCP government while it’s young and impressionable and, at the same time, completing a ‘get-out-the-vote’ campaign for the federal election.

“Even with the federal election coming up, it’s important for us not to lose sight of our provincial government. I think balancing those two is going to be difficult,” Sidhu said.

Sidhu added that her successor, incoming vice-president external Sadiya Nazir, will have to be proactive with reaching out to the new provincial government.

“When we’re able to have those positive relationships maybe they’ll be better able to understand our point of view,” Sidhu said. “So instead of meeting our elected officials with anger or the government with anger, I think it’s better to be proactive and take the necessary steps.”

Governments take students more seriously when they see the strength of their voting power. For Sidhu, the best way to show a government that students matter is through Students’ Union elections.

“It’s important for us to at least get half of the student population to know about the Students’ Union and what the Students’ Union does,” Sidhu said. “Because at the end of the day, if students want effective representation it comes from more students actually voting in Students’ Union elections.

“If we already have such a low voter turnout, it’s not quite effective in showing government even that ‘Oh hey, a lot of students are engaged in students’ unions and a lot of students care about students’ unions,’ ” she said.

This year, voter turnout in the SU general election dropped nearly four percentage points to 21.1 per cent from 24.8 per cent last year. The University of Alberta Students’ Union had a similar turnout of 24 per cent.

This year, the SU said that it was looking to introduce a ‘Yes/No’ ballot for acclaimed candidates in SU elections. In previous interviews with the Gauntlet around the time of his acclamation, president Grewal said changing policy around acclamations could be one way to help boost student engagement. 

The SU had originally planned to bring the issue to SLC by April, but Grewal said that staff issues delayed its timeline.

“I am, however, hopeful that it should come in over the summer, because I think it’s very much important that we actually explore this idea and the summer is a great time to implement it prior to a byelection,” he said. 

*

Along with its general election in March every year, the other prolific SU event that grabs the attention of U of C students is Bermuda Shorts Day — and BSD this year did just that.

When the SU announced in March that it would be holding BSD indoors to cut costs and reign in the deficit incurred by the event every year, it didn’t expect to receive the response it did.

On Facebook and Reddit, posts revealing the new format of BSD received dozens of negative comments. Several days before the event, a Facebook event protesting the change had hundreds of ‘interested’ users. According to outgoing vice-president student life Nabila Farid, the SU also received some emails against the move.

Reflecting back on the run-up to BSD, Farid said that she wished the SU had handled the promotion of the event differently.

“I think providing one clear communication plan right off the bat would be really helpful to students,” Farid said. “I think our communications team always does a great job, but I think students need maybe a little bit more description when it is such a big event coming in as a new format.”

Leading up to the event, the SU had reason to be optimistic. The first day that wristbands were being handed out, the lineups wound around the courtyards of MacHall. By the third day, they had all been handed out.

“The day before [BSD], it did snow, and so I was kind of doing a little bit of a happy dance,” Farid said. “So leading up to the event, it was really successful, it kind of surpassed our expectations.

“But the day of the event, I think it was much nicer out — which is fine — but I think we were hoping for a little bit of a better attendance,” Farid added.

Farid declined to provide specific attendance numbers, saying that they were still being finalized. She said, however, that despite the low attendance, the event itself was successful. She also said that she expects the deficit this year to be cut significantly.

“For the people that did come, I believe that BSD was a great success for them because of what we provided,” Farid said. “As well, BSD basically fulfilled its mandate, which is to provide a safe place for students to celebrate the last day of class.

“I’m just happy we were able to host it,” Farid said. “More than anything, this year was actually a year where we had the conversation of, ‘Are we going to host it indoors or are we not going to host it at all?’ I’m glad we went with hosting it indoors.”

*

When asked whether BSD would now permanently be held indoors, Farid said the decision would be up to her successor, incoming vice-president student life Alisha Gordon, and the other incoming SU executives.

From hosting BSD to managing tenants in MacHall, SU executives undoubtedly have a large portfolio. The main job of SLC, on the other hand, is to represent the interests of students and address their concerns.

According to president Grewal, SLC also serves another purpose: To keep executives in-line.

“If an executive commits to a certain action which members of the council don’t feel is appropriate or was wrongfully committed to, that’s their job to absolutely call out an executive on it and question them on it to better understand why that course of action was taken,” Grewal said.

At SLC meetings, discussions and consultations take up a fair chunk of the allotted time. When it comes to votes, however, the decision is always the same.

In the past, the streak of unanimous votes has raised the question of whether SLC is voting on the “right” issues. In an interview in February, for example, the Engineering Students’ Society expressed dismay over the SU’s decision to not consider collecting membership fees on the society’s behalf.

When asked why SLC members didn’t vote on contentious issues like a possible plebiscite on ESS membership fees, Grewal said the issue came to the SU abruptly.

“Unfortunately, it often just depends on the nature of issues and how time-sensitive it is with SLC meetings only being, for example, weekly at their peak, bi-weekly in spring/summer,” Grewal said. “At times, executives have to deal with the issues.”

When asked why the decision to move BSD indoors wasn’t put to a vote, outgoing vice-president operations and finance Kevin Dang said that the event fell outside the mandate of SLC.

“For BSD, a lot of the changes are very operational,” Dang said. “SLC is supposed to work as a board of a company, in some regard, and changes like pricing for an event or things like that — that’s an operational decision that a lot of our staff deal with.”

Dang added that he doesn’t believe the issue of unanimous votes comes down to what SLC is voting on, but rather the state of the policy once it arrives to SLC.

“It’s a much more polished product that we’re putting out there and that might be the reason why, just because it’s already gone through so many different checks,” Dang said. “Obviously, it gets looked at by our staff and the executives and we bring it to committees and consult with committee members.”

Of the executives asked about the unanimous votes, all of them said that they don’t believe unanimity is an issue as long as resolutions on the agenda are discussed beforehand. Grewal said he believes that voting on topics, even if every vote is unanimous, is still crucial as it still provides a mechanism for representatives to demonstrate their opposition if required.

“Without it, I personally feel like faculty representatives would maybe actually feel further disenfranchised and as if though they don’t really have a voice,” he added.

*

For many students, the goings-on of SLC and the responsibilities of the SU remain somewhat distant. At an SU town hall event in April, several students told the Gauntlet that they didn’t know much about the SU.

“The only thing I particularly know about the Students’ Union is that they run some of the food places here and people are still waiting for the pizza place,” one student said. “I don’t know what they do, though. I mean, I would like to know.”

A lack of student engagement with the consultative and governance side of the SU is a recurring issue. Despite high engagement with SU clubs or Volunteer Services, many students still don’t realize the impact that the SU has on them. 

“I think we can always do more and I think part of that comes from a council and SLC that is willing to actively go out and seek engagement opportunities with students,” Revington said.

Grewal said that the SU needs to continuously try to address issues of complacency and find new ways to reach students.

“I think the barrier on the SU’s side is figuring out what’s the best way to do so,” Grewal said. “A plan is needed for sure in the future.”

As the 77th SLC takes control of the SU, student engagement will be among its most pressing problems. To justify its fee, the SU has to show students that it can represent them best and that it will listen to them. 

It might be difficult advocating to a student body at a university often chided for being a “commuter campus” plagued by student apathy. Though, when the SU announced its changes to BSD, it knew that statement wasn’t entirely true.

“I want to say that I’m really glad students reached out to me,” Farid said. “It showed me that they actually really cared about BSD still. That was really important for us to see because we weren’t sure.

“We were hearing things, we were asking around but we didn’t know what students truly thought. But there were a lot of students that actually cared.”



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