As editors at the Sheaf, we struggle each week with what merits coverage within our pages and on our website. There is no worse feeling than sending an issue off to the printers with the feeling that important stories were neglected, or that unimportant stories were given undue attention. Yet, this is the balancing act we face each week.
One of the decisions we made early in the term was that we would strictly limit our coverage of student politics and the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union. This was not done out of spite, but rather out of a sense that we had privileged student politics at the expense of other, more significant stories over the last few years.
To be blunt, student politics can be a trivial and often petty affair. We ask undergraduate students to take on the responsibility of running a complex, multi-million dollar organization but give them almost no real power to effect change. And because of this impotence — and general lack of professional experience — minor differences of opinion flare into much more severe confrontations in which civility and reason fly out the window.
This is precisely what took place at the USSU annual general meeting on Nov. 17.
One of the 26 proposed amendments to the USSU bylaw debated at the meeting concerned how Members of Student Council are chosen.
The amendment was to change the wording in the bylaw for international and indigenous students, which calls for the International Students’ Association and Indigenous Students’ Council to each elect members to the University Students’ Council. The USSU was pushing for these representatives to simply be international or indigenous students without necessarily being tied to those two external groups. Obviously a member of council could still confer with the ISA or the ISC, but the association would be voluntary.
USSU President Scott Hitchings repeatedly insisted that this was merely a semantic change, that indigenous and international students would have representation guaranteed on council. Because the bylaw was worded as it was, and because there is currently no ISA, there was no international student representation on USC at the time of the AGM.
The rather hostile crowd assembled at the meeting, however, disagreed. Speaker after outraged speaker stood at the microphone and argued that this was willful disenfranchisement and delegitimization of two minority groups on campus.
If the fact that students were passionate about such a trivial change was surprising, the racially infused rhetoric was disturbing. As the four members of the USSU executive absorbed the verbal abuse, they were denigrated for singling out “people of colour” and for daring to propose changes while not one of them was an international or indigenous student — in effect, it seemed as though they were attacked for being white.
While it is true that Canada’s indigenous peoples have certain cultural and historical practices, the most outraged speakers repeatedly framed the disagreement in terms of “us vs. you.” It was the people who disagreed with the amendment on grounds that it was unfair to people of colour who introduced this racially-charged language and thereby poisoned the whole atmosphere.
Again, this was done over the simplest of proposed amendments. The USSU bylaw was in need of streamlining and greater flexibility to ensure that international and indigenous students would always have seats at the table regardless of what other groups on campus exist. Indeed, because there is currently no International Students’ Association, two recently elected international students likely can’t take their seats on council. The amendment was worded to prevent exactly this type of problem.
Needless to say, the amendment failed to win approval as the majority voted it down following a passionate and, we believe, noxious debate. The racial language did not further the discussion in the slightest, and only worked to raise the temperature on what should have been a tepid meeting. Also, once it became apparent that opponents of the wording change clearly outnumbered its supporters, the continued invective against the four mild-mannered USSU executive members made even less sense.
Perhaps most tellingly, the majority of people who angrily denounced the proposed change promptly left the meeting after having successfully voted down the amendment, with the majority of other amendments still to be voted on.
Student government is a sphere in which future leaders hone their critical and rhetorical skills, and everyone is permitted the odd lapse in judgement. The tenor of the debate at the AGM, however, exceeded the bounds of reasonable debate. People went from disagreeing to being disagreeable, and perfectly illustrated that in student politics, the smaller the stakes are, the greater the noise.
Photo: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf