Student power!

How Carleton council members made such a botch of things

Procedural breakdown. A government tone-deaf to its public. Demonstrations by a usually apathetic electorate. Calls for the leader’s ouster. It’s a familiar theme in Ottawa lately, both on Parliament Hill and up the Rideau at Carleton University where its student association, CUSA, sparked a national furor in late November by dropping Shinerama, its annual frosh week fundraiser for cystic fibrosis, in search of a more “broad reaching” charity.

Media was alerted to the vote by Nick Bergamini, a third-year journalism student who was the only council member present to oppose the motion. He was savvy enough to know the press would seize on the false claim that cystic fibrosis “has been recently revealed to only affect white people, and primarily men,” presented to buttress the assertion that orientation volunteers “should feel like their fundraising efforts serve their diverse communities.”

Of course there was the predictable stampede to mock what appeared to be yet another case of political correctness run amok in academe. Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente presumed, as did many, “that no one on the council had the brains to Google ‘cystic fibrosis.’ ” Such reasoning assumes, of course, that CUSA is a rational, democratic governing body, of which evidence is scant. Indeed, council member Michael Monks did have the brains to Google “cystic fibrosis” and relayed from Wikipedia that the childhood degenerative genetic disease afflicts boys and girls of various ethnicities (there’s even a photo of an African-American girl on the site). But CUSA rules don’t allow a motion to be amended after it is proposed, says Monks. So rather than redraft and excise the incorrect clause, council shifted discussion to the need to find a more “inclusive” charity.

Was there proof students wanted a more “inclusive” charity? Well, not really. “We don’t question the student who brings the motion,” CUSA president Brittany Smyth, a fourth-year part-time criminology student, told Maclean’s. “It’s just their own personal idea.” That this “personal idea” was presented by Donnie Northrup, who represents science students, only added to the insanity.

Nor had all council members surveyed constituents about whether they wanted to drop a 24-year campus tradition. CUSA rules state that council members must receive meeting agendas 48 hours in advance. But many hadn’t (some blame the vice-president of internal affairs for not sending it out, others a campus email failure). Again, the vote could have been delayed but instead the council barrelled ahead, procedure and democracy be damned.

Whether that decision reveals a lack of brains, entrenched ruling-class arrogance or both is up for debate. CUSA is comprised of 25 unpaid councillors representing different faculties and six executives paid (after a raise this year) $30,150 annually. Each has one vote, but the executive is understood to set the agenda with politically aspiring councillors following in lockstep.

An apathetic electorate is cited as another contributing factor. Last year, the CUSA executive, on which Smyth was vice-president of internal affairs, closed down its office in solidarity with striking campus workers, denying services to students while collecting their paycheques. Yet voter turnout in the February 2008 election was a mere 15 per cent.

But becoming a national laughingstock has a way of stoking civic involvement. Students mobilized on Facebook to reinstate Shinerama. A petition circulated to impeach Northrup and Smyth. Northrup tendered his resignation as did another council member at a student-packed Dec. 1 meeting that reinstated Shinerama. As part of its ongoing mea culpa to the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, CUSA raised the university’s donation this year to at least $40,000.

The debacle’s nicest irony is that cystic fibrosis has been its biggest beneficiary. “We’ve had a real outpouring of support and donations,” says Kathleen Morrison, the foundation’s CEO. “It’s been really positive. I hope for Carleton it will be positive as well.”

We’ll see. Smyth has apologized for any “offence” caused but is ignoring the call for her ouster. Enough signatures have been gathered to initiate it; they’re being authenticated before being brought to council, which may or may not forward a motion to remove her. By then she will have served most of her one-year term, which ends in April. “This has really woken up students,” says Bergamini. “They have to take responsibility for their government.” Too bad it always takes an indecorous scandale to figure that out.