Rekindling Student Democracy Is Not a Cheesy Idea

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Following the logistical disaster that was the October 22nd General Assembly, I went home – frustrated after having been turned away from casting my vote – and created the farcical Facebook event formerly known as the Chuck E. Cheese’s Motion. Despite being genuinely exasperated by the inopportune nature of the fire hazard assessment which made it difficult for many students to partake in the GA, it was quite clear from the start that my planned motion was not serious. Even with its inefficacy, crippling bureaucracy and ineptness in planning appropriate accommodation for a crowd it knew would be unprecedented, I was not actually going to propose a motion to dissolve SSMU, and instead turn the building into a Chuck E. Cheese’s.

That said, I was still thoroughly surprised by the staggering student response to the event itself, which amassed close to 1,400 attendees in less than two days. In addition, there was also a plethora of posts on the event’s wall, with content that ranged from students being delighted by the hilarity of this cheesy idea to more serious comments doubting its validity as a virtual forum for voicing grievances towards SSMU. However, above all, this shockingly positive reaction simply goes to show that, among the undergraduate body, there is in fact a sense of general discontent with our student government.

On the topic of SSMU, I will refrain from commenting on whether it should take an official stance on contentious issues such as supporting Palestine, although it was the topic at the heart of the controversy at the last GA. Instead, I will focus on the mechanisms that barred students from effectively producing a democratic decision – a fully avoidable occurrence which only served to heighten the division within the student body.

First and foremost, despite its adherence to SSMU’s established GA procedures, the result of the indefinite postponement of the Palestine motion was not a genuine democratic decision for the critical reason that many students – myself included – were unable to cast their vote. As a result of space limitations, a significant number of SSMU members who had expressly made their way to the University Centre to exercise their voting right were refused entry, with many of them being repeatedly and arbitrarily relocated to no avail following extended periods of time.

Counting only the votes of the people who were able to squeeze in is hardly democratic, especially when many more were barred from voting. Such was the case of David McCusty, a U3 Pharmacology student who ended up leaving the General Assembly unable to participate in the democratic process:

“I arrived at the GA before 3:45 and had to leave for a midterm over three hours later, during which time not a single motion had been voted on,” McCusty insisted. “In the time it took me to leave, write the exam and return, only one motion had been [put to a vote]. And, much to my dismay, I was not allowed in to hear debate and vote on the next motion because the overflow room was ‘overcapacity,’ though security was unable or unwilling to tell me how many people were in the room or what its capacity was.”

Though this kind of extreme congestion is generally uncharacteristic of past GAs where quorum often failed to be met, SSMU should have all the same been more prepared and better equipped to deal with what it knew would be a shortage of space. This is especially pertinent considering the GA organizers were aware of the vocal, campus-wide interest in the motion leading up to the Assembly. As evidenced by this avoidable failure, SSMU’s current procedures are obsolete and cumbersome, an opinion shared by many – including those in support of the Chuck E. Cheese’s motion.

Plain and simple, anything related to “demonstrating leadership in issues of social justice and human rights” – as mandated by the SSMU constitution – should be decided via an online referendum. As these issues tend to generate the most interest among the student body, a framework should be developed to ensure that as many SSMU members as possible can have their voices heard by partaking in the democratic process that is supposed to be the GA. Such an alternative would ensure the assembly is representative – to the utmost – by being accessible to all students from the convenience of their laptop.

As a result, my suggestions are premised on the dual needs of increasing the democratic effectiveness of our forums for public discourse, as well properly clarifying and increasing awareness of SSMU’s role among the students it represents.

1. Streamline the procedures and digitalize the General Assembly as much as possible.
Such a digital initiative would enable all students to partake in policy-making without having to be physically present at the ordeal that can be the GA, thereby maximizing the democratic effectiveness of the meeting. As a result, this course of action could strengthen SSMU’s efforts to generate a more consistent level of interest among its members on issues related to student governance. Moreover, by fostering a greater accessibility to this apparatus, the organization could also augment the awareness and understanding of its role on campus.

2. Conduct a special forum on SSMU’s Constitution.
Many, especially those at the Chuck E. Cheese’s event page, have expressed concerns with SSMU’s role on social issues. The above proposal of an online GA could also be used by SSMU as a platform to once and for all specify the nature of its mandate in taking a stance on controversial issues such as international human rights violations. As such, SSMU could conduct a survey and turn the result into a motion calling for a constitutional amendment if the student body sees fit. Ultimately, this initiative could take the heat off the SSMU administration pertaining to the logistical nightmares of such contentious issues.

As outlined above, there are in fact ways to fix this crippling shell that is our student government. After all, you’re paying $89 a year to keep it alive, so why not get something out of it?

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.