Democracy in Canada- Part II
Sunday, May 1, 20160 Comments
Guelph, we did not do democracy right this year.
Let me preface this by saying that I don’t at all question the dedication or capabilities of the four candidates who ran for executive positions on the Central Student Association, Miriam Kearney, Meghan Wing, Zoey Ross and Ryan Shoot. In fact, yours truly has interviewed Ms. Wing and Mr. Ryan before (on the issue of student fees and the University of Guelph surplus), and we’ve consistently heard glowing reviews of Mr. Ross and Mx. Kearney, as well. They are not the issue. The issue here is how we, as a student body, are not taking our franchise seriously.
Begin with the number quoted in the last paragraph, four. There are two obvious problems with this. The first is that there are five executive positions on the CSA. No candidate ran for the position of Local Affairs Commissioner, the role of which is to oversee municipal issues, transit, awareness/prevention of sexual assault, and student tenancy issues. Over the past few months, transit and sexual assault issues, in particular, have become hot button issues on the Guelph and other Canadian university campuses, respectively. I’m sure I speak for many when I say I feel uncomfortable with these portfolios not getting the attention they deserve.
The second is that elections, for any position, should not be coronations or confirmatory votes for the lone candidate that decided to run. This year’s election was rather self-defeating, even if you exclude the fact that on the first round of voting, all three referendum questions failed to meet quorum. While candidates may still have been called upon to explain their views and proposals, there were no alternatives, and thus no clash.
This second observation, I think, offers the beginnings of an explanation for why rates of democratic participation are so low, which I don’t believe is all that different from voter apathy in elections across Canada. Many voters simply don’t believe they matter. TheCannon reported on one such instance at this year’s CSA Annual General Meeting, with students questioning the low numbers required for quorum and insisting their views were not being represented. Now, with 15% of potential respondents actually casting ballots, the results announcement declares that quorum has been achieved. Notice a pattern here?
This is in tandem with the positions and activism carried out in the name of the undergraduate student body, which seems to happen with minimal transparency or opportunities for opinions to be heard outside of having students actually show up to the meetings of the various CSA campaigns, which then go on to claim the support of a monolithic undergraduate student blocs. Examples of this lack of transparency are, I think, apparent in the lack of board meetings’ minutes since the middle of last semester, or the lack of updates on the way campaigns like the Guelph Student Mobilization Committee are handled (Can you find updates or reports on meeting discussions in that last link?). Would it be so hard to include these as attachments to the regular emails we receive from our student union?
The point I’d like to make here is not so much to suggest that the undergraduates of the UoG are having words put into their mouths. My gut feeling is that most students probably do share the positions taken by the CSA and its various campaigns. (Or maybe they don’t, given the infamous votes to leave the Canadian Federation of Students). The point is, there is an atmosphere of assumed consent/agreement, and so most students don’t get a feeling of being necessary to student democracy, which lessens their inclination to actively participate, which reduces their perceived impact, and so on in a decidedly unvirtuous cycle.
Consider, however, what might be done to address this. In the past, as attendance became increasingly difficult to maintain, quorum at CSA AGM’s was reduced to just 100 people (out of an undergraduate population of 20, 000 students). In my opinion, this response was a cop-out. Despite the vast potential technology gives us to supersede the limits of physical space, there is no option for students to participate remotely. Decisions far more consequential than an undergraduate student body’s positions are made via remote conference, so why not this one? Previous AGMs/ board of directors’ meetings and even the CSA’s own list of issues have said little to nothing about increasing student involvement. Others might point to the almost complete lack of outreach international student (especially those for whom English might be a second language), or representation of their issues within election campaigns or meetings. To give credit where it’s due, however, the most recent CSA executive election campaign did feature some musings on expanding undergraduate participation, most notably by Mx. Kearney and Mr. Ross.
One last thing that bears acknowledgement is the meaning of the democratic franchise. Whatever the mistakes made by our elected representatives, the reality is that positions aren’t run for and arguments aren’t made because large segments of students consciously disengage from the process. While it was encouraging to see some examples of dissent these past couple years, I think it’s fair to ask that students who feel slighted or ignored actually show up to voice their opinions in the available forums, and run for open positions. To those who already do these things: thank you for your participation. Please welcome those you disagree with.