Graduate students at the University of Calgary may find they cast their referendum votes in vain.
Graduate student Ray Novak has filed a formal complaint against the U of C Graduate Students' Association for a bylaw violation in the proceedings of the referendum on membership in the Canadian Federation of Students taking place this week.
"From my perspective, the referendum should be called off," said Novak. "The [GSA referendum] bylaws are so lax. The only real rule is that the President and the executive can't take a position officially, and they broke that only real rule."
The GSA bylaws state: "The executive and the Graduate Representative Council shall not, as bodies, advocate or endorse any position on a question submitted to Referendum."
Novak claims this bylaw was violated by GSA President Viola Cassis in a brochure delivered to GSA members just days before the referendum ballots were mailed. The brochure, made by the CFS specifically for the U of C referendum, bears a sticker claiming: "This information has been distributed by the GSA as per 2001 Referendum Procedures. It is not intended to endorse either side of the Referendum." The brochure's front cover prominently bears the word "Yes" and contains a letter from GSA President Viola Cassis encouraging students to "consider the benefits of adding your voice to Canada's national student organization."
A subsection to the bylaw in question states: "Any publication which is sponsored by the Association and which published a statement advocating or endorsing a position on a question submitted to Referendum (i) shall clearly indicate that the statement or statements represent the views of the author or authors only and not the views of the Association, the GRC or the Executive and (ii) shall seek and
publish representative views in an impartial manner."
U of C law professor Jennifer Koshan said the brochure, along with Cassis' letter could be construed as a violation of the bylaw.
"My view is that this bylaw is not drafted as clearly as it could be," said Koshan. "One interpretation could certainly be that if the GSA sends out materials, even if they indicate that those materials are not being sent out as an endorsement of the position they contain, bylaw 4b(ii) means that they should send out views representing the other side of the debate as well."
Koshan added that Cassis' letter was not a "clear" endorsement of the CFS, but contained phrases indicating a CFS membership would benefit the GSA.
"She does close by encouraging students to consider all the issues and to make an informed decision, but her letter can be taken as endorsing the CFS, particularly because it's contained within a brochure that says 'Yes' in bold letters on the cover," said Koshan. "If she wasn't endorsing 'Yes', then I think her letter needed to be a bit more clear or mailed out separately."
Cassis refused to comment on the bylaw violation complaint. However, Chief Returning Officer Jennifer Pelley requested that the Gauntlet not publish anything on the subject until after the referendum.
"[I am concerned] that the publication of any article regarding any alleged discrepancies in the referendum proceedings could seriously affect the way in which graduate students vote. That could seriously compromise the integrity of the referendum," said Pelley in an e-mail.
Novak also received a communication from Pelley indicating that a story in the Gauntlet may be construed as an attempt to "actively" campaign by discouraging people from voting and could result in the overturning of the referendum.
"It's just ridiculous. What the media does is to write about referendums and politics," said Novak in response to Pelley's statements. "It's a little patronizing to suggest that an article would somehow sway students. The whole idea of a referendum is to explore both sides and make an educated decision one way or the other. We have a huge 'yes' brochure published with cash from the CFS and endorsed by our GSA executive, which is a flagrant violation of their own rules, so one article's not going to change someone's mind."
Koshan agreed, pointing out that even if a media article could be proven as a 'no' campaign, the article would simply fulfill the requirements of the bylaw.
"Even if the Gauntlet came out and said 'there hasn't been a 'no' voice in this debate and we want to show the other side', what [the Gauntlet] is doing is just what the GSA exec should have done in the first place, which is to provide both sides in light of their obligation to seek and publish representative views in an impartial manner," he said.