Ah, February. So many cherished traditions. First comes the Super Bowl. Then the Oscars. Then the annual push to leave the Dalhousie Student Union’s external advocacy organizations.
Yes, in a development as fresh and surprising as Meryl Streep’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress, the DSU received a petition signed by 101 students and called a Special General Meeting for Wednesday, Feb. 25. At this meeting, a crowd of roughly 75-100 people who happen to be in the SUB at the time will almost certainly decide for the other 99.5 per cent of students that we need to abandon Students Nova Scotia (SNS), the provincial student advocacy organization that we helped found twelve years ago.
I’m cheap. I have limited faith in the effectiveness of student advocacy. Given my pessimism, you’d think I’d be happy, or at least indifferent, that we are on the verge of pulling out of another lobbying group.
The thing is, for all of my cheapness, I’m also a stickler for the democratic process, and this whole push just reeks of insincerity and barely disguised hidden agendas.
Consider a brief history of the drama over the past few years, and decide for yourself if the process doesn’t smell just a little bit sour.
Six years ago, a small but dedicated group of students attempted to push through major policy decisions and changes to our constitution at the 2009 Annual General Meeting. Among the things they proposed was that we leave the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), our federal lobbying organization (at the time). After two general meetings and some fairly exciting political drama, the motions ultimately failed. Things quieted down, for a time.
Three years ago, the DSU held a referendum in which students voted in favour of a major increase to the levy we pay to SNS. This was the last time that the organization itself came before the student population seeking our support, and we endorsed increasing our commitment.
Two years ago, some of the higher-ranking members of the DSU – including some of the same people who had been involved supporting the controversial motions at the 2009 AGM – started floating around the idea that we should consider an in-depth review of our external advocacy commitments. In preparation for this review, we dropped down from ‘full member’ to ‘associate member’ in CASA (a necessary preliminary step if we decided to leave the next year).
Problems beset the external advocacy review almost immediately. The planned broad-based committee was rapidly cut down to a few DSU insiders, with the final report being written by two committee members known for their opposition to CASA.
Last year, at the February AGM, we stripped from our constitution the provisions that required the DSU to hold a referendum before leaving or joining any external lobbying organizations. The executive at the time assured the crowd that this was purely a bit of tidying up for legal reasons. At the very next council meeting, the DSU pulled out of CASA and tried to leave Students Nova Scotia (only to be foiled in the latter effort by technicalities related to timing). The DSU subsequently ran a referendum question during the 2014 elections asking whether they should take the Students Nova Scotia levy and divert it to other advocacy efforts. 59.5 per cent of students voted against doing so.
The DSU is by far the largest member of SNS, and so many councilors and critics at the time noted that even if it was somehow failing our needs, we possessed a real power to influence the agenda. Since we were on the hook for another year of fees, and since the referendum appeared to indicate that a significant majority of voting students were against diverting the fees anyway, the idea was that we would take an active role in the organization while continuing our advocacy review process.
Unfortunately, our executives this year have made little effort to engage with SNS, and the wheels fell off the advocacy planning committee before it started rolling. While we at least pretended to hold a review process in 2013-2014, this past year the dedicated committee had disbanded by October.
As far as I’m aware, there are no particularly useful metrics for measuring the success or failure of external lobbying organizations. When good news comes down the pipeline, all of the various groups out there declare victory, and when we complain about our ballooning tuition, they all assure us that things would be much worse without them.
Still, whatever the relative merits of the organizations themselves, there is something deeply off-putting about a small cadre of motivated activists taking advantage of student disengagement to push through major changes to our union.
We had a referendum that explicitly supported increased involvement in SNS only three years ago, and last spring we decisively voted not to divert our SNS fees to other projects. In spite of this strong evidence of continued support for the organization, we seem on the verge of using a petition signed by a mere 101 students as the pretense for a council decision that would overturn the will of the student electorate.
This issue is really just a symptom of a larger disease that has taken root in the union. A handful of people appear to have decided that they know what is best for the rest of the students – even if those students can’t be relied upon to realize the truth for themselves.
Take heart, though. The flip side to this paternalistic approach to decision-making is that if YOU want to get involved in events like the Wednesday’s GM, or the upcoming AGM, your vote really can make a difference. Do a little research, and march through those doors armed with an informed opinion. With turnout at these events rarely topping a hundred students, your participation is roughly equivalent to voting 38 times in an open referendum!