By Scott Eaton
On Sept. 17, 1969, a young Jack Harris – then-president of Memorial's Council of the Student Union (CSU) – introduced a referendum concerning the future of the union to the CSU for debate. After some tweaking, the ballot presented voters with five hypothetical structures of CSU union fees and services. Option "E" was received with shock and confusion: "No Fee, No Union, No Services."
The referendum was an interesting, if controversial, experiment. How much did students value their student union? The CSU was responsible for numerous services, including The Muse, MUN radio and the cap and gown ceremony; the CSU even had a large share of the university athletic program. The elimination of the CSU, or even its conversion to a voluntary union, would have seen the cessation of many of these services unless they were otherwise funded by the university. However, this was unlikely to happen; the director of physical education at that time, M.J. Foster, pleaded that the withdrawal of CSU funds from the athletic program would likely lead to further cutbacks from the university, as it could spin the death of the union as students showcasing "decreased interest in athletics."
Mr. Harris' reasoning for option "E" was that the CSU had been established without a mandate from the student body at large. Quoted in an issue of The Muse, Mr. Harris stated that: "Until now, the students' union has acted on an assumed mandate . . . therefore it has been a union in name only." Mr. Harris saw it as necessary to obtain student consent before continuing with CSU affairs.
Attaining this consent was far from automatic; since its inception, the union had failed to truly captivate students. The 1969 council elections were categorized by a confusing new "ward" system (which grouped students according to their faculty, age-group or residence) and an absurdly low voter turnout. Some elected councillors had received the support of only five per cent of the students within their ward. Additionally, students were generally displeased with the existing fee-structure, which saw $35 paid to the CSU – $20 in union fees and a $15 student union building (SUB) fee. In particular, the SUB fee was unpopular, as it had collected $340,000 dollars of students' money without even confirming the viability of the building's construction.
More than 3,000 students cast their ballots. Ultimately, option "E" received only 304 votes. Instead, option "B" was selected, which saw the CSU remain, but with reduced fees. The results surprised many, as although frustration with the union was current and relevant, approximately 90 per cent of the voters saw it necessary to have a students' union in some variety. As one student observed, the CSU "is [not] of much use, but some good may come of it yet. We can hope anyway."
There are parallels to The Muse's frequent referendums to increase the "student newspaper fee." Conceding a toonie for improvements to The Muse does not seem like a heavy tax; yet, for years students have actively obstructed its progress. Perhaps 2012-13 is the year that students can look beyond current frustrations and consider the future – hopefully the opportunity is not tired of knocking.