Opinion: The 2024 "Greater Representation" bylaws referendum is a power grab in disguise

Editor's Note: After this article was first published, AMS Council decided during its February 28 meeting to remove the referendum discussed here for failure to comply with the AMS Bylaws.

Esmé Decker (any/all) is a Japanese-Irish fourth-year student in Honours English Literature and Language, with a minor in Environment & Society. Esmé ran as Remy the Rat for AMS President in 2022 (second place) and 2023 (first place), a joke candidate to promote informed democracy and social justice on campus, and served as AMS President from May to November 2023.

The night that I found out about this year’s referendums, I had a trauma response. I was at my part-time job, which I kept working all along, on top of my 60 hours/week at the AMS when I was president, in order to still have at least one community I could trust. As I processed what the passing of the “greater representation” bylaws referendum would mean, I washed dishes while my body shook and I held back tears. 

This referendum is putting up a front of bringing BIPOC representation to AMS Council. “But the majority of Council members have already been BIPOC for several years,” you might point out. “But why these specific BIPOC and minority representing clubs,” you might ask. I am a Queer, racialized, neurodivergent person who believes in Palestinian human rights, and these groups that claim to represent students like me do not represent me.

If you read the fine print, this referendum proposes to bring 99 new unelected seats to Council, effectively letting the members in these seats take control of any AMS Council vote. There are currently 32 voting members of Council: the five executives who are voted on by all AMS members and the faculty representatives who are democratically elected to represent fellow students in their faculties. Each faculty gets one member, with additional members based on constituency population starting at two total representatives for over 4,000 students (for example, there are three faculty of arts councillors to represent over 14,000 students). 

In contrast, this referendum would grant four AMS Council seats to the Black Void UBC Instagram account, a group unaffiliated with the AMS. The remaining 94 unelected representatives are from the Black Student Union (20), Social Justice Centre (15), UBC Trans Coalition (15), Women’s Centre (15), UBC Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (10), and “Indigenous Students” (20). If you noticed that the “Indigenous Student” seats have no organization attached to them, this was not a mistake. The Indigenous Constituency was never consulted as to whether or not they wanted to be on the referendum and were never given the opportunity to vote on or discuss the details of the proposal before it was released in the referendum. 

The organizers of this referendum claim they are fighting for BIPOC power and decolonization, while at the same time explicitly ignoring Indigenous voices. It is no coincidence that this number of added representatives would comprise 76 per cent of AMS Council, the exact number needed to reach the 3/4 vote threshold to remove any AMS executive from office. These changes also allow the newly added councillors to remove members of the AMS include the ability of these added seats to remove the membership of any member of the AMS - this would mean the removal of access to the AMS Health & Dental Plan, the AMS Food Bank, all club, constituency and resource group activities and all other AMS benefits and services currently available to all students. 

This referendum is undemocratic and a thinly veiled power grab from a minority of students who are plaguing the campus community with petty politics under the guise of social justice. The organizers are anonymous, which is why I cannot be clearer about who is behind these actions, and I find it highly problematic that such a substantial change is being proposed by faceless individuals who therefore cannot take responsibility for the effects and repercussions of it. 

Power-playing behaviour like this is what made me leave my role as president. It is behaviour like this that had me crying in front of other AMS staff in the office every day from early August to the day I left in mid-November (and I do mean every day, because completing all the responsibilities in executive roles often means working seven days a week). Behaviour like this is what had representatives in Council meetings having panic attacks, including myself. It has led to undeserved character assassinations, rampant cyberbullying and students feeling unsafe on campus. I don’t want any students to have to feel unsafe on campus anymore. 

Some might compare this referendum to the miscellaneous bylaw changes included under the referendum from the 2023 AMS Election, which created the Indigenous Constituency and shrunk the size of Council. While I do not agree with this style of referendum because it does not allow students to decide on separate issues separately — an issue clearly coming up in the Food Bank, Palestine, and RBC Divestment referendum as well) — the shrinking of Council was intended to make faculty representation more proportional, allow for better Council attendance and increase Council efficiency and effectiveness.

Professionally, smaller boards of directors enable societies like the AMS to hold more productive meetings and discussions. We see this at the University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU), where they also chose to reduce their Council seats, after years of less-than-ideal attendance and participation. Each member is now somebody more likely to be motivated to be informed and take responsibility since they must work together in a smaller group to fight for students.

However, we can already look to student societies like the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) to see the disastrous results of unsustainable Council-packing and power-grabbing. This board structure at the SFSS has led to constant in-fighting, unproductive meetings, and a waste of student fees and resources, which SFSS Council meeting minutes and recordings reflect. At the SFSS, Council absences are at an all-time high and engagement is at an all-time low. Of the 73 seats on SFSS Council, 27 are vacant. This is over a third of all seats. Well-meaning students who are not part of these SFSS in-groups end up having no training, and despite their best efforts to work hard and get the job done, they end up leaving the roles because of the toxicity of the environment that is driven by polarization on complex social issues. 

I am a victim of the AMS and I was also the head of it. I couldn’t save myself from the culture surrounding the AMS other than by escaping it. It was not the people within the AMS staff and councillors broadly who caused me to leave. It was the dehumanization and bullying I felt from other groups and that I didn’t want to lose big parts of myself that made me vulnerable: my empathy and my longing to trust people. 

I am so grateful for the support I received in my election campaigns. But once I was in the role and couldn’t do everything for everyone in the exact way they wanted me to do things, many people turned their backs on me and found new, more sinister ways to try to use me as a political tool for power. But only responding to the demands of special interest groups would have been a mistake. Every day that I was president, it was my responsibility to think about what was best for the 60,000 students I was representing: the students depending on the health and dental plan to not go bankrupt, relying on funds for clubs and constituencies to do community building on campus and counting on the AMS to prioritize the issues they care about without them having to worry. 

I am slowly learning how to trust again and not constantly be in fight-or-flight mode on campus. I have gone to therapy and bawled my eyes out to a poor young therapist who could not begin to understand what this microcosm of the world’s polarization is like. 

But it doesn’t need to be so divided on campus. I never wanted to be president of anything. I just responded to a student call for somebody who believed in the things I believe in to run for president. All I want to be is an English teacher who helps students build critical thinking and communication skills, because that is what the world so desperately needs more of. I ran to bring up voter turnout and get students to be more informed about their democratic opportunities on campus. I truly commend the students at UBC who have built up the experience as student leaders to be able to thrive in these roles that they put so much love into. 

I’m tired of the fear-mongering, the power-grabbing, and the petty politics. Don’t let this referendum take away your democracy on campus. Please, when voting opens on March 1, vote for the candidates who have the experience needed to truly work for you, and vote NO to this referendum.

This is an opinion article. It reflects only the author's views and may not reflect the views of The Ubyssey as a whole. Have something to say about what you just read? Contribute to the conversation and send a letter to the editor in response, or your own submission at ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion