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Month: March, 2014

Feds Shuts Down Debate

Author: Thomas Little 

Anyone reading the agenda for the upcoming Feds General Meeting (see the editorial for details) may notice that it is a bit short — the newly-elected executives for 2014–2015 will be ratified for their positions, a new Feds Council seat will be created for a representative for the Stratford campus, and some routine items like a gradual increase in the Feds fee are in order. Yet, to a well-informed observer, the agenda betrays a shocking lack of respect for students and for democracy on the part of the Federation.

It would perhaps be best to start with what is not on the agenda. Earlier this month, a Facebook event was created to discuss a motion submitted to the Federation’s Board of Directors, who are responsible for approving all General Meeting (GM) agendas. This motion was simple: if it passed, it would cause the Federation of Students to set aside SLC 2139 for use as a Clubs Library room. The Facebook event immediately had a strong following, with over fifty people listed as “Going” (and presumably intending to vote for or against it). The Board of Directors refused to add this item to the agenda, depriving students of the opportunity to vote on it at all, or even to discuss it in the meeting. Another motion also blocked by the Board of Directors was intended to ban credit card vendors from operating in the SLC, especially in “Vendors Alley”.

Instead of these things, Feds has added another item to the agenda for the GM — a proposed bylaw change (essentially, a change to Feds’ internal rules) which would ban new agenda items from being proposed “from the floor” (by an ordinary participant in the meeting). This would close the only remaining opportunity for students to propose motions for a GM without Board approval, making the agenda for all future GMs entirely controlled by the Feds Board. As can be seen from the blocking of these two motions, this creates a silencing effect on genuine grassroots initiatives to change Feds policy which come from outside the formal structure of the organization — from students themselves whose only title in the organization is “Member”.

An argument for this bylaw change is that it would prevent “unpredictable” agenda items from being passed without the knowledge of members who might otherwise attend to vote against such items. This is a mindset that is still rooted in the old reality of years past, where GMs were poorly attended and mostly revolved around approving decisions already made by the Board and Council in a largely token show of membership consent. The last two GMs have been well-attended and the discussions and decisions made there have generated shockwaves online and in the campus media. GMs, simply put, are too big and too important now to be mere administrative exercises, with Feds following its own rules by holding them, but not allowing the members who attend to make serious decisions about their own Federation. Is this supposed to be a Federation of Bureaucrats, a Federation of Managers, a Federation of Staffers, or is it supposed to be a Federation of Students? If it is the latter, then discouraging students from making decisions on their own behalf is not only a bad move, but is directly going against the spirit of our Federation as a democratic organization.

Everyone to the General Meeting

Editorial Collective

General Meetings are one of the few ways we can exercise direct control over our Federation, and as such it is not just important but absolutely necessary that as many students participate as possible.

If Feds is ever going to be a Federation of Students rather than just “the people in that funny little building”, it must be run by the students for the students themselves — an organization dedicated to promoting students’ own interests, even when (and, in fact, especially when) those conflict with the interests of others. A student union in the fullest sense.

If you want to participate in your own student union, General Meetings (GMs) are one of the few ways you can directly do so, through student-proposed initiatives which, if voted for by a majority, can be binding on the Federation, compelling it to act in a way students have democratically told it to. Because these motions can affect all students, it is important that as many students as possible have a say and a vote in the decision; a unique opportunity only available to us through GMs.

But what if you cannot come because of classes or assignments being due? Find a friend to proxy your vote for you. This is a good way to encourage other people to go to the meeting, as long as you trust them to vote how you wish. Each meeting attendee is allowed to carry one “proxy vote”, effectively giving them two votes in the meeting.

We as students need to educate ourselves about what is going on at our campus and in the community it is surrounded by and we also need to take advantage of these precious opportunities to make what we want happen. Every additional person we can muster to these meetings is a victory for direct student democracy.

Epidemic of Sexual Violence on Canadian Campuses

Author: Filzah Nasir

Over the last week, two incidents have spurred the University of Ottawa to make headlines across the country.

A leaked Facebook conversation showed several prominent student leaders at the University having an explicit discussion in which they threatened to sexually assault and rape Anne-Marie Roy, President of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO).

A few days later, the University of Ottawa men’s hockey team was suspended after an allegation of sexual assault was revealed to school administration three weeks after the incident. The team’s coach, who had been aware of the allegation, has also been suspended with pay.

The incidents at the University of Ottawa can be added to a growing list of such incidents taking place in campuses across Canada. Earlier this semester, an engineering student group at McMaster University known as the “Redsuits” was suspended after the discovery of a songbook which contained explicit content promoting misogyny and violence against women. Last semester, a group of students at Saint Mary’s University were heard chanting songs that promoted rape. The same chant was heard on the other side of the country at the University of British Columbia.

These are just the incidents that made headlines in one school year. But they are not isolated incidents and to brush them off as such would be a huge mistake. These incidents contribute to the prevalence of rape and assault on campuses and reveal precisely how unsafe university campuses are for women.

In 2006, Statistics Canada reported that 4 out of 5 female students on university campuses face violence in dating relationships. Act Now to End Violence Against Women reported that only 6% of sexual assaults are reported to the police.

In case it wasn’t yet clear: sexual assault is an epidemic on Canadian campuses. The incidents at the University of Ottawa, McMaster, SMU, and UBC reveal exactly the attitude which has been created towards sexual assault on campuses. Namely, these incidents make it clear that sexual assault isn’t simply being condoned on campuses, it’s being actively promoted.

Consider this: the University of Alberta reported that 80% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. This statistic forces us to change the way we think about sexual assault. These crimes are not committed by hooded strangers hiding in bushes, the perpetrators are friends of the victims and very often they are our fellow students. We cannot begin to challenge assault on campuses without acknowledging this uncomfortable truth: perpetrators of sexual assault are a part of our campus communities.

Given this undeniable reality, the incidents at the University of Ottawa and the chants in the McMaster songbook as well as those sung at UBC and SMU can be seen in a different light. These incidents all promote and normalize sexual assault. They send a dangerous message to the perpetrators that exist amongst us: that sexual assault is normal, that their friends agree with them, that the general population believes the acts described in the conversations and songs are okay and that sexual assault is a common practice among people.

While the students involved in these incidents may represent a tiny portion of the student population, we have to consider the role that the rest of the community played in creating an environment that normalized the book’s existence. We also have to consider the real danger that the book and its contents pose to student safety on campus. Given the low rates of sexual assaults that are reported, the even lower rates of convictions and the high amount of victim-blaming that occurs when someone steps forward, there is no question as to why perpetrators feel safe that they will not get caught. But we cannot change the statistics around sexual assault without changing the way we think and report on the issue.

Victim-blaming — a common practice in which police, media and the general community attempt to claim the actions of the victim were what caused an assault to occur. Most of these tend to focus on how potential victims should change their behaviour in order to lower “their risk” of being assaulted. But if we remember that over 80% of sexual assaults are committed by people that the victims know (and indeed consider as friends or romantic partners) it’s clear that these tactics are completely ineffective. After all, if one does not go out alone but with a trusted friend, how would they know that the friend is perhaps a predator? Furthermore, these suggested tactics also place the burden of preventing assault on the victim – not on the community as a whole. This contributes to the low rate of assaults that are reported. In many cases, survivors walk away feeling they are somehow responsible and could have prevented the act.

In order to lower sexual assault rates on campus we need to take preventative measures that challenge the root cause of assaults. This will happen through educating ourselves on how common assault is, how it happens, and the role that bystanders can play, either in allowing it to occur or in preventing it. It also needs to be accompanied with an intensive program educating students about what consent is and what consensual sexual activity looks like.

But until these incidents are actually addressed as symptoms of a culture that normalizes and promotes sexual violence, university campuses will continue to remain an unsafe space for one-half of the population.

Open Source Software

Author: Aidan Coward

Open-source software is based on the premise that the elements that make up the software you use — the source code — should be open to anyone. This does not only include being able to read the code, but also to change or distribute it without restriction. This form of software is behind many large projects, including Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and the OpenOffice and LibreOffice suites.

The most significant benefit to the student regarding open source software is that it is free, with no conditions or fine print. This means you can share it with anybody or make as many copies as you want without any potential legal repercussions. There are no financial costs associated with obtaining or using this software other than the internet bandwidth required to download it onto your computer. One does not have to agree to any terms of service and potentially “sign away their soul” in order to use a program.

Another benefit to students is that large open source projects almost always have excellent documentation on the program’s behaviour and functionality. They usually also have forums for users to work with each other to solve their problems. These resources are provided free of charge — an obvious perk to those of us who don’t have enough money to pay for school, let alone computer support. Again, this wealth of assistance is not perfect, and one must occasionally puzzle together a solution based on the information from multiple forum posts that are only somewhat related to the problem at hand. There are certainly times when it is most effective and efficient to pay for a product that has on-call support to save yourself time, stress and effort.

The open-source community is known for having a large group of experienced users that are willing to help fellow users in need. However, this very same community is also known for being elitist and belittling to those with less knowledge or experience. One can be talked down to if their question is considered to have an obvious solution or is clearly mentioned in the documentation of the project. Part of open source software is the ideology behind it and individuals that do not buy in to the ideological aspect can be less respected.

One of the benefits of open source software is that the programs often have very fast development cycles because they lack bureaucracy. As a result, software bugs are often fixed faster than with traditional methods of software development. However, this lack of central authority can result in a lack of clear direction for the project if the developers do not agree with each other. Since open-source projects are often hobbies for the individuals running them, some bugs may take much longer to fix if they are not considered interesting or critical to the use of the program.

While bugs are usually identified faster in open-source software, the bugs are publicly identified and visible to the entire world until they get fixed. There is also no obligation, apart from pressure from the community, to report bugs. This can result in malicious users taking advantage of the flaws in the software to steal personal data or damage your computer. The organizational structure of open source software also presents a disadvantage here, as there is no one individual or organization that can be easily held accountable for the damages caused by these flaws. Many open source projects are provided without a warranty of any kind, further distancing themselves from any official legal accountability regarding the effectiveness or reliability of their product.

Open-source software provides flexible and accessible tools to the student at no cost. However, one must judge these benefits against the possible difficulties that users may experience in working past flaws or inconsistencies in the program.

A Fair Elections Act?

Author: Amy Rose Gofton

On February 4th, 2014, Bill C-23, better known as the Fair Elections Act was given its first reading in The House of Commons. Bill C-23 contains roughly 244 pages of revisions, many directly addressing the Canada Elections Act. Revisions to the Canada Elections Act — a piece of legislation outlining rules and processes for Federal elections — are not rare. Bill C-23’s amendments however have stirred the dust, unsettling opposition parties and the media.

As with many political issues, the bill has been largely ignored by students on campus. The little coverage Bill C-23 has received comes in the form of a short Imprint opinion article by Ann Balasubramaniam — a letter addressed to “Minister Braid” criticizing the bill’s impact on the ability of students to easily vote— and MP Peter Braid’s reply in the form of a letter to the editor which appeared in the February 28th issue. I’m not one to agree with Conservatives, but in this case Braid was right to say, in his letter to the Imprint, that Bill C-23 will not inhibit the ability of students to vote.

The media at large and the opposition parties have latched onto the amendments to voter identification as their chief objection to the bill. Initially, I too felt grave concern at the removal of vouching. Vouching is a practice in which one elector confirms the identity of another, when an elector does not have government issued photo-ID, or the two pieces of other identification—one containing a current address, and both containing a full name—which are used to prove identity before voting. According to an NDP online petition titled Stand Up For Canadian Democracy, more than 120,000 Canadians vote through the vouching method.

After a careful reading of the relevant sections of Bill C-23, I can tell you that the removal of vouching is nothing to fuss over. Visit the Elections Canada Website and you will discover long lists of possible identification that can be used to vote. Everything from your library card to your vehicle insurance and credit card statement are valid. There is no reason why a student on this campus, or anywhere else in Canada, should not be able to produce some form of relevant documentation.

While attention has been focused on the voter identification amendment, the bill also features a change to the role of the Chief Electoral Officer, which will also restructure the Elections Canada system. The Chief Electoral Officer will be limited under section 17 of the Amended Act to inform electors how to vote and to ensure that votes are collected and counted properly. Theoretically, this could prevent Elections Canada from offering educational materials to schools, or running outreach programs to encourage our youth to vote. The Bill also changes the way in which the Chief Elections Officer is appointed.

Additionally, funds used by political parties to raise money will be exempt from calculation as election expenses. The Green Party’s Elizabeth May during the second reading of the bill on February 11th referred to this amendment as “a new loophole to spend money,” a way to “open the door to abuse.” She warned that Bill C-23 would “weaken our electoral system.”

I can’t help but wonder why so few ordinary people are talking about the Fair Elections Act. The vouching issue aside, Bill C-23 will significantly restructure the way our electoral system’s bureaucracy functions, and loosen restraints on election spending. The very least we as students can do is sign one of the many online petitions. More importantly, we can talk about the bill, read the bill and we can inform others in our campus and communities.