Last year, I attended 14 University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) council meetings – more than some elected councillors – over nine months reporting for the Manitoban.
In that time, I learned quite a bit about the organization that many of us only think of when picking up our U-Passes, avoiding campaigners during student elections, or reminiscing on the fallacy that was the credit card scandal surrounding Jeremiah Kopp’s tenure as union president. After all, who could forget when Kopp racked up nearly $14,000 in unapproved credit card expenses and an audit of his expenses was threatened by UMSU’s then vice president student services (VPSS) Jessica Morrison, who summarily resigned? Fun times.
Early in the year, I began to notice problems I believed needed to be addressed if the union were to act as a truly legitimate decision-making body for the undergraduate population at the University of Manitoba. As the year progressed, these issues only got worse.
This coming year, I again will not be expecting much in the form of serious action or advocacy on behalf of students from council, given that the last few years have been lacklustre on those fronts – at best.
To jog your memories on the year that was, here’s a recap: Just before an UMSU council meeting in September, VPSS Jessica Smith resigned from her position abruptly without offering an explanation to those who elected her. Councillors did not, nor would they over the course of the year, publicly demand a reason for the executive’s desertion.
In October, UMSU vice president internal (VPI) Adam Pawlak revealed that the union had run a $690,000 deficit the year before, which he placed blame for on discretionary spending, legal, and engineering costs. Councillors just nodded their heads and blindly accepted Pawlak’s explanation that he would never let such careless spending continue.
In November, as the U of M was thrust into a three-week faculty strike, UMSU initially refused to take a side. Then, after two weeks had passed and most of the damage was already done with regards to students’ classes and exam schedules, council finally voted to support the faculty.
In December, UMSU deepened their feud with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) by demanding an apology from the federation’s national executives for the alleged humiliating treatment UMSU executives were subject to at the federation’s general meeting in Ottawa the month before, which they did not receive .
Over the winter break, there was a lack of controversy that didn’t last long. In February, Pawlak resigned from his position as VPI after it was revealed that he had accepted a job as an aide for the PCs at the provincial legislature, an obvious conflict of interest.
Then came Bill 31 in April and the thawing of a tuition freeze that held increases to the rate of inflation UMSU did nothing to oppose the legislation and even heralded the fact that tuition hikes wouldn’t start until the 2018/19 academic year as a success for the union. Some victory.
It seemed that following years of mismanagement and petty disputes between self-serving student politicians, last year was par for the course within UMSU’s beleaguered offices.
Would it surprise many of you, however, if I said that it doesn’t need to be this way?
UMSU has the ability to raise its head above the waters of fatuousness that have not only made it impossible to get anything substantial done, but have also worn down students’ trust in those who lead the union.
The answer lies with the 45 or so elected UMSU councillors.
It needs to be made clear that responsibility for the decisions UMSU makes does not solely rest on the shoulders of the executives. UMSU representatives from various faculties and associations share just as much culpability, for better or for worse, with the five executives.
However, meeting after meeting, I watched as a group of ill-informed sycophants sat back and let the executives pass whatever motions they fancied. The only times I witnessed any meaningful debate were during the meetings in which taking a position on the faculty strike were discussed or when CFS was dragged through the mud.
UMSU councillors are elected to not only represent the interests of their faculties and associations, but to also sit in those meetings in order to keep the executives in check. They can’t do that if the vast majority of the time council votes unanimously for or against a motion simply because an executive supports or opposes it.
There were members of the union’s council last year that tried to facilitate meaningful debate with their colleagues on issues ranging from event locations to the spectre of tuition increases. But, for the most part, their attempts fell on deaf ears. Most councillors just didn’t seem to care, or if they did, they kept silent because they wanted to avoid picking a fight.
That needs to change.
UMSU council meetings should be filled with passionate debates on major issues facing U of M students. Councillors need to show up to every meeting informed on the motions being introduced and ready to stand up for students’ interest, even if that could damage their relationship with the executives.
They must demand answers from the executives, not just accept their excuses.
If the members of council can manage to get their acts together, then it is possible for UMSU to make meaningful change for students.
As another academic year begins and council starts meeting regularly, councillors have a chance to ensure that this year doesn’t end up mirroring past years of misconduct and controversy. Otherwise, they are just as much to blame for the union’s crumbling credibility as the executives.