Nabil Khaja, a first-year student in Science, earned a spot on the Student Representative Assembly (SRA) after winning in a by-election in mid-October. Though he was part of his high school’s student council, he’s now learning that the SRA operates a little differently.
“It’s very political,” he said. “It’s not like your typical high school student council. Everyone has a political stance and goals that they’re looking to further.”
Khaja says that not only has there been difference of opinion, but difference of perceived purpose for the Assembly.
“We’re all people working toward good goals, but there’s not total consensus on what the ultimate goal or direction should be that I see clearly right now,” he said.
Unlike in years past, this SRA, for better or for worse, is looking outside the services and operations of the McMaster Students Union (MSU), which it is charged with governing. There’s a group of members committed to bringing broader issues of social justice to the attention of the Assembly, encouraging it to take a stand on behalf of students.
Some members see this as a progressive break-away from the ‘status quo’ mentality of past assemblies. Others are asking whether this is really what McMaster students want or need. As SRA elections continue to receive low voter turnout, there’s disagreement among members on how to make their student government relevant, especially since most of the day-to-day work is being done by full-time employees.
Meanwhile, petty arguments and personal attacks during meetings further slow progress. Members are picking sides, applauding for friends and snickering at political opponents. For some involved, its been a major source of frustration.
At the Nov. 13 SRA meeting, some debate sparked after a motion from SRA Social Science Ryan Sparrow, which suggested that the MSU officially stand in support of Quebec student protesters, who are fighting 75 per cent tuition hikes.
“I think as a student union, we should be cognizant of the struggles that are going on across Canada, even throughout the world at times,” said Sparrow in an interview.
The motion, though, outlined no other plan for action. “There was really no other direction that went along with it, but it’s up to students and the McMaster community to determine what they want to do with a stance like this,” said Sparrow.
“The SRA, in recent years, has been viewed as a body that mostly deals with internal issues … like what happens with TwelvEighty, Union Market; Bread Bin’s another big one this year,” said Chris Erl, SRA Humanities. “This [resolution] kind of gets us looking to the outside world into the larger student movement, as opposed to simply within the MSU.”
He added, “This year, the politicization has, I think, exponentially increased our relevance in the eyes of students and the conflict that comes along with that.”
Matt Wright, a former SRA member and runner up in last year’s MSU presidential election, was in attendance at the meeting as an observer. It was after the motion that he rose, simply to explain that if a Social Science member on the Assembly did something that was not in the interests of his or her constituents (of which Wright is one), there were procedures in place for recall of that member.
Sparrow asked MSU Speaker Jeff Wyngaarden, who chairs the meetings, if there was any way to have Wright removed from the room. But before the idea could get anywhere, Wright left on his own.
“I have no idea what students want,” said Simon Granat, SRA Social Sciences, speaking about making the SRA relevant to students. “I’m guessing. I’m trying to give it my best guess, but I’m guessing … I think right now, the focus is very broad; we’re talking about everything and the kitchen sink, but we don’t know what of all that is a student concern.” He also noted that “the focus of the Assembly this year is really split” between internal matters of MSU operations and broader social justice issues.
Granat has tried to keep focus on internal issues like student hunger, quality of teaching and study space. “Those aren’t glorious issues. No one’s going to praise us for them, but they’re things that are really going to help people,” he said.
Before Wright brought up the possibility of recall, he was sitting at the back of the room as an observer. He wrote on his Facebook wall, “SRA 2011/2012 is my new favourite TV show. Except the characters suck because they can’t seem to remember their rehearsed lines. And the plot doesn’t really make sense. And there isn’t really any drama except for people tripping over their ego. I would’ve cancelled after the pilot.”
The post received 28 likes and 44 comments, many of which were made during the meeting, some by SRA members.
Facebook commentary was not isolated to Wright’s post. Earlier in the meeting, the Speaker asked that all members of the SRA leave their laptops and phones at the front of the room during the meeting. Sarah Ali, member of the Social Science caucus, responded by saying that there were members of the Assembly that had family in the hospital, and that she wanted to keep her phone on her in case her family tried to contact her. Other members asked to keep their laptops in case they needed to look up information relevant to the meeting. For those reasons, Wyngaarden allowed them to keep their devices.
During the meeting, Ali posted a derogatory remark on Facebook about VP-Administration Katie Ferguson regarding points she had made. The post has since been deleted.
Toward the end of the meeting, SRA Science Andrea Somers addressed the behaviour of other members. Somers declined interview, wishing to not worsen the situation, but did explain that “I rose on a point of privilege and called for a little more respect and decorum around the table. I stated that I personally believe that in order to function as a unified body we need to start with respecting each other.”
At the meeting, she spoke passionately, to the point of yelling, according to other members. Social Science representative Samira Sayed Rahman responded in a similar tone, asking Somers to speak more quietly.
During a role call at the end of meeting, Sayed Rahman acknowledged her name with the tongue-in-cheek response, “Don’t cry at meetings,” directed at Somers.
“Personal attacks have absolutely no place in the assembly at all,” said Granat. “Voter apathy is high, and I think this is one of the reasons why … [students] are just going to tune out and say that we’re completely useless.”
According to reports, motions to censure have been coming forward, though it’s not yet known who the targets are. The censure process involves singling members of the Assembly out for their behaviour, allowing other members to air grievances about the person before voting on whether or not to officially label their actions as inappropriate.
The matter will be addressed at the next meeting on Nov. 27.