By Alexander Salojin, photo by Trevor Swann

With the recent Student Union Building referendum, questions arose regarding the overall integrity of the referendum process. Since the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) is a democratically-elected body, it is reasonable for students to expect the process of referendums to follow established procedures of a democracy. But the lack of a formal procedure for referendums creates loopholes, and provides the representatives of CUSA with potentially limitless power.

Referendums in a representative democracy are traditionally only held on elections, not matters of policy. CUSA’s established procedures may be examined using the CUSA constitution, policies, and bylaws. Reviewing these documents, it becomes clear that referendums are a rather hazy concept, open to loose interpretation that could lead to a kind of soft despotism by the elected representatives.

The constitution makes little reference to the process, aside from declaring that referendums may be called for by members of the association, otherwise known as the electorate (Article IV, s. 2.0: g) or “a majority of all members of Students’ Council” (Article VI, s. 3.0) for the purposes of amending the constitution. Thus, it does not limit the triggering of the referendums to the student council or any other body, nor does it expand on how the electorate may affect one and on what matters.

For example, in 2009 a petition was created to call for a referendum on the disaffiliation of CUSA from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). It was signed by more than 2,300 students, in response to which CUSA created a counter-petition. The former petition was bluntly ignored by the CFS and no referendum has taken place. A petition is not a method of calling for a referendum that can be found in any of the CUSA documents, and neither is a counter-petition valid to cancel one, making the whole situation absurd.

CUSA’s “Policies” document references referendums slightly more generously, but only in regards to the procedures that must be followed after the referendum has already been called for. If the call for a referendum lacks a formal and documented procedure, the rules behind holding a referendum are brutally ignored or created along the way.


In the most recent referendum, school ombudsperson Jim Kennelly, was responsible for also being the chief electoral officer (CEO) and a chairperson on the Electoral Board. However, CUSA’s “Policies” document prohibits the CEO from being a non-member of CUSA, and Kennelly is not one. However, Kennelly was allowed CEO as it was eventually decided that the rule around the position’s qualifications was too confusing. The fact this policy was not followed during the referendum shows how dysfunctional the process can be.

Furthermore, Ombuds Services is meant to be an independent office, financed by the university and CUSA. Their involvement in the referendum spells a potential conflict of interest and as mentioned in the electoral code: “CUSA Council may, following a two-thirds majority vote, remove the CEO for cause including conflict of interest” (Section 3.2).

Additionally, in the lead-up to the referendum the CEO stated that in order for it to be valid, 15 per cent of the student body would have to vote. This isn’t a standard that can be found in any documents available to students, making it unclear how that number was decided upon. 

It’s time for an amendment in the constitution to frame the referendum process in a comprehensive, democratic procedure. Interestingly, in the bylaws there is a specific procedure to increase the fee students pay for the Unicentre, stating it may be adjusted through a two-thirds majority vote in favour of all members of Students’ Council (Article IV, section 1.1: c, d). This renders the recent referendum entirely meaningless.