From March 6 to 8, Brock University students will once again vote in a referendum on the Student Justice Centre (SJC). In the recently held February executive elections, students were asked to decide whether or not to increase funding to the SJC from $0.91 to $4.88 per credit. A total of 2,541 votes were cast in favour of increasing the fee, with 2,091 voting against, and 940 abstentions. However, concern over the language used in the referendum has led Brock University Students’ Union to send the question back to a vote.
Since the official vote tally of the February elections, concerns have been raised that the question’s wording was not precise enough. The question used by BUSU in the SJC referendum was “DO YOU SUPPORT A $3.97 INCREASE TO THE STUDENT JUSTICE CENTRE FEE ($0.91 TO $4.88) STARTING SPRING 2018 AS OUTLINED IN THE MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING?” Concerns have been raised due to the fact it was not specified in the question that the proposed increase in the fee was per credit. In a recent meeting of the Brock University Students’ Administrative Council, held on February 28, various BUSU representatives, including out-going President, Faisal Hejazi and Chief Returning Officer, Fiona Purkiss, referred to the lack of the words ‘per credit’ in the referendum as a ‘clerical error.’
As a result of concerns over this ‘clerical error,’ BUSU has decided to send the SJC back to the ballot box. In an official statement on the issue released by BUSU, it was stated that “Although our marketing and the official Memorandum of Understanding stated that the fee was per credit, it wasn’t explicitly written in the ballot question.”
Promotion of the revised referendum began on March 1, with voting commencing at 12:01a.m. on March 6 and finishing at 9:00 p.m. on March 8. This time, BUSU will not be actively campaigning on either the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ side of the referendum. In the initial February election, BUSU did run a ‘Yes’ campaign which was headed by Maddy Wassink, Vice President of Student Services for BUSU. Wassink was voted in by 16-1 in the January 17 meeting of BUSAC to act as the Campaign Manager.
In the January 17 meeting, council was asked why such an increase to funding for the Student Justice Centre was necessary. In response, Wassink noted “the manager being paid … student jobs, student sexual violence support, and … campaigns run by the SJC.”
Hejazi supplemented her rationale by noting that the “Ombudsman service is being performed by one person whereas [at University of Toronto] they have multiple coordinators. We also want to completely bring forward a new program for combating sexual violence.”
For the second round of the SJC referendum, one particular aspect of the vote has some students very concerned. For the revote on March 6-8, BUSU will be suspending By-law 401, also known as ‘Referenda By-law.’ This bylaw consists of five major parts: definitions & interpretation, general administration, polling, prohibitions & enforcement and general.
In fact, some students are so concerned on this by-law suspension that an online petition has been generated and circulated titled ‘VERY Concerned Students for Referendum Fairness’.’ The petition states that the suspension of By-law 401 would constitute the suspension of “the rules and laws of student democracy.”
The petition specifically addresses certain portions of the by-law, including section 3.1a, 3.1b, 3.1c, 3.1d, and 3.2(4). The petition also alleges that the suspension of the by-law will create “the most dangerous precent [sic] in Brock history!”
So what do all these bylaw sub-sections have to say? Section 3.1 a) deals with fairness. It states that candidates are to be treated fairly by all BUSU personnel involved in the election, and conflicts of interest to be declared and handled ethically. Section 3.1 b) deals with equality. It says that all candidates should have equal opportunity to speak to students, be asked questions, appeal decisions, and not be limited by barriers, financial or otherwise. The next subsections deal with consistency (no bias due to race, gender, etc.) and transparency (right to know). Finally, Section 3.2(4) states: “[The referendum process shall] provide every undergraduate student with the opportunity to engage the Campaign Teams so that their voices may be heard.”
In the Feb. 28 meeting of BUSAC, Steve Joseph of the Concerned Students referendum addressed the representatives present on the issues they believe deserve recognition.
“In the newly proposed motion, it states that bylaw 401 will be suspended for the duration of the voting period,” said Joseph. “Vital democratic rights are all guaranteed to students in this bylaw. By suspending By-law 401, BUSAC would be suspending these extremely important rights and principles. This bylaw also protects the right of students to campaign during a referendum. Students should have the right to express their views and opinions through a campaign.”
“By suspending these rights, BUSU and BUSAC would essentially be suspending freedom of expression on campus,” Joseph continued. “Just imagine if the Canadian government decided to suspend all of its democratic principles and election laws. Imagine the outrage Canadians would express.”
Joseph then directly asked BUSAC to cancel the proposed motion to suspend by-law 401. Following his remarks, another student, Keith Thompson, spoke about his opposition to suspending the bylaw.
“The lack of oversight, the lack of accountability that this new MOU brought in, really concerned me,” said Thompson. “For me, the MOU and the spirit of this referendum was lacking. We need to follow through with responsibilities.”
The Chief Returning Officer, Fiona Purkiss, was then given the floor to speak, rebutting some of the remarks made by the speakers opposed to suspension of the bylaw. Purkiss said there was less specificity in the MOU in order to give the SJC more flexibility in their funding and direction. When answering a comment about the precedent that the suspension of the bylaw would set, Purkiss said BUSAC councillors did agree to it and that as CRO, Purkiss has OK’d it.
In regards to criticism that there was no ‘NO’ campaign in the initial SCJ referendum, Purkiss also had a response.
“You mentioned there was no counter-argument to the SJC side,” said Purkiss to Thompson. “We did have the referendum open, so any student would have the opportunity to do that [run the NO campaign].”
“It is correct that there was no ‘NO’ side in the SJC referenda, but this was not the only referenda to be voted on that did not have a ‘NO’ side,” BUSAC Speaker Iain Beaumont said.
Following the dialogue in the Feb. 28 meeting, The Brock Press spoke to both BUSAC speaker Iain Beaumont and concerned student Steve Joseph in regards to the issues surrounding the referendum and the suspension of By-law 401. Beaumont discussed how the ‘clerical error’ that led to the words ‘per credit’ not appearing on the initial referenda question managed to slip past the entire BUSU and BUSAC staff.
“To my knowledge, while referenda are being drafted, BUSAC representatives format new referenda from previous ones,” Beaumont explained. “As such, the SJC referendum was drafted from the transit referendum from the October election cycle, which was a simple fee increase rather than a per credit fee.”
“This, I believe, is where the oversight originated, and considering that we at BUSAC all intrinsically knew that it was a per credit fee, the explicit reference to the SJC fee being ‘per credit’ was simply not thought of throughout the process,” Beaumont continued. “Furthermore, as was discussed in the meeting on Feb. 28, BUSU (running the “YES” side campaign), made it very clear throughout the campaign literature, as well as the MOU attached to the referendum question that the fee increase would be per credit. It is after all the students’ responsibility to become informed in a BUSU election, like any other election. There was plenty of literature surrounding this referendum available to students, and if students want to make an informed vote, they should have been able to seek out those resources.”
Beaumont also clarified that this was a ‘re-vote’ and not a ‘second referendum’ on the question of increasing funding to the SJC, and that the suspension of By-law 401 was made so that it wouldn’t ‘limit BUSAC’s ability to conduct the re-vote.’
“By-Law 401 has been suspended in the past, and this year’s council was simply following precedent,” Beaumont said. “Further, the suspension of the By-Law is actually in student interest, leading again to the informed piece. BUSU wants to make sure that students are well informed. BUSU is recognising their mistake and making efforts to make sure that students do feel well informed, and most BUSAC counsellors feel the same way.”
“Students are free to think that suspending the By-Law may well be a ‘dangerous precedent,’ but I remind students that such a precedent has already been set in the past,” Beaumont continued. “It is not the first time one By-Law or another has been suspended by BUSAC to serve students’ greater interests. My question to the students operating this petition is: why now? Why these students choose to mobilise this initiative surrounding the suspension of this particular By-Law rather than doing so in the past is beyond me. Perhaps the suspension of other By-Laws for various historical reasons has served these particular students and their unique interests, perhaps they feel that this suspension does not meet their needs, and they are now choosing to stand up to what they incorrectly perceive is injustice.”
Steve Joseph also discussed why he felt the need to get involved and speak his mind on this issue.
“It’s one thing to suspend the bylaw, which I spoke against. But they also ignored it which is what my first petition was all about,” explained Joseph. “The SJC referendum was only announced in mid-January, when it should have been announced in December. One of the reasons why the by-law is in place to make sure that students have the necessary time needed to prepare a campaign for either side. My petition got 56 responses from Brock students in just two days. 93 per cent of respondents said that they support councillor Verrier’s motion. This showed to me that there are many other concerned students on campus, and that is why I decided to speak at the BUSAC general meeting last Wednesday.”
Councillor Verrier put forward a motion to BUSAC that would revoke the election results and “institute a completely new referenda,” according to Beaumont. It was noted by Beaumont, however, that Verrier was “only doing his job” and that Beaumont “commend[ed] him for speaking up for his constituents.”
“Parliamentary procedure is never easy,” Beaumont explained. “Everyone will have their own opinions about everything that occurs in that room in that environment. Becoming heated is not a new emotion for a BUSAC meeting. Folks are passionate about the issues they present to BUSAC, and that is a good thing. If they were not passionate about such things, I daresay it would mean that their hearts were not into the job, which certainly would not be serving anyone. Councillor Verrier knew the various avenues that he could have explored after the ratification of the election results, whether he chose to explore them or not is his prerogative. He put up a good fight in that room, and he certainly made the voices of those whom he represents clear.”
Joseph had a different tone in his comments, suggesting that these turn of events will set a bad precedent in the future.
“At this point, why should students have any confidence that the bylaws mean anything, if they can be ignored and suspended without any consequence whatsoever,” stated Joseph. “By-law 401 was created to protect fairness, transparency, accountability, the right to campaign and many other student rights. BUSAC chose to ignore these rights and principles when they decided to suspend By-Law 401. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if BUSAC continues to break its own by-laws in the future.”
“I, along with 2000+ students, voted no [on the referendum]. But whether or not you are in favour of the initiative, the fact remains that it broke the process which hurts the legitimacy of BUSU, BUSAC and the SJC,” explained Joseph. “It’s very concerning that the staff who are responsible for interpreting the bylaws are making incorrect assertions. I wasn’t there for the per credit issue. I had set that aside for bigger principles. During the BUSAC meeting, they never even mentioned once that they broke By-Law 401, and that makes me concerned for the legitimacy of student democracy at Brock.”
Voting on the referendum begins Tuesday at 12:01 a.m. Students will receive an electronic ballot via their Brock email. Voting will finish March 8 at 9:00 p.m. and results will be revealed shortly afterwards.