Breaking down campus politics across Canada

The purpose of student governance

As students’ union elections draw near at most universities across the country, students are becoming engaged on their campuses as candidates, campaign volunteers, election officials and engaged voters.

Despite the best efforts of student leaders, turnout remains low and students are largely uneducated about the functions of the organizations and the people that represent them.

“What all student unions do is represent their students’ interests to their universities and colleges and to the federal and provincial government,” explained Arati Sharma, National Director for the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), a national lobby group.

To serve the needs of students, different structures are in place at different schools for the primary aim of representing students. “Student union structures vary regionally, provincially, and represent the differences in culture at different university institutions,” said Sharma.

There is no right or wrong way to operate a students’ union, but it is important that all students know how they are being represented.

Below is a look at how different students’ unions function across the country.

St. Francis Xavier Students’ Union (SFXU)

The SFXU is controlled by a board consisting of an elected president and vice-president who oversee a hired six-person executive team. The board also consists of 15 councillors elected in special constituencies on campus such as arts, science and business. Elections this year were held in early February.

“Students are engaged at St. FX. Voter turnout last year was 60.4 per cent the year before was 50.4 per cent. The vote campaign has been strong again this year with more emphasis on educated voting,” said Sarah Fury, vice-president of communications for SFXU.

Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO)

SFUO is governed by an elected six-person executive who are tasked with administering the students’ union. They are overseen by a 23-person board of administrators – comprised of elected representatives of different faculties – which are allotted seats based on enrolment.

Additionally, there are elections for one representative per faculty to represent students on the university senate and two are elected to sit on the university’s board of governors. This year, elections are held on Feb. 12 and there is no required quorum. Last year, voter turnout totaled around 30 per cent of the student body, which was an increase from the prevous year due to the advent of online voting.

“Having faculty directors on the board of administrators (BOA) keeps the executive accountable and is essential to ensure transparency and responsiveness for the needs of all students,” said Stephanie Marentette, candidate for vice-president of administrative affairs. “BOA elections for different faculties help prevent clique power structures from dominating the operations of the SFUO.”

Dalhousie Students’ Union (DSU)

DSU is overseen by a student council of 35 students, consisting of a five-member executive, four elected members of the senate, two elected members of the board of governors, five at-large members and 13 elected through their faculties.

Four out of five members of the executive are elected, with the vice-president of finance appointed by council.

The day-to-day operations of the union are managed by the board of operations, which consists of the executive, the general manager, an alumnus, three councillors and three members-at-large.

To ensure student input, all committees must have at least one non-councillor member. Voter turnout is around 17 per cent in student elections with a quorum of ten per cent. Elections are held in early March.

“Students are close to the student government and are encouraged to provide feedback [at Dalhousie]….All committees of council must have at least one non-councillor on them, making them more reflective of the needs of the student body,” said Ben Wedge, engineering councilor for DSU.

Brock University Students’ Union (BUSU)

To BUSU, the highest governing body is the students themselves.

The second highest body is an eight-member board of directors, which is tasked with handling the finances and implementing the operating policies and procedures of the union.

Below the board is the Student Administrative Council, made up of representatives for each faculty, providing student input into the decision-making process.

These two bodies oversee an elected four-person executive, chaired by the president.

Elections are held in February and March for both the executive and board, at which point there is a required quorum of ten per cent and an anticipated student turnout between 15 to 25 per cent.

Students’ union officials hope turnout will improve with increased advertising of the election date and time.

“With students as the highest echelon of power, there could never be better structure that satisfy the need for real power resting with the students,” said John Maduk, chief returning officer for BUSU.

Federation of Students – University of Waterloo (FEDS)

The FEDS is governed by a board and a students’ council, both of whom oversee the executive board, comprised of an elected four-person executive. The students’ council is composed of the four executives, as well as 29 councilors who are elected based on their constituency.

The board is composed of the four executives and five voting members of students’ council elected at the March General Meeting.

The board only convenes under exceptional circumstances or when the students’ council is unable to make a decision. Voter turnout fluctuates between 15 to 20 per cent, and there is no quorum for the vote.

“We are designed on a model where the students always outnumber the executive in every decision-making body, which forces the executive to be held accountable. The decisions of the organization are always in the hands of students,” said Chris Neal, chief returning officer for FEDS.