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Founding the Federation
2017 celebrates a lot of milestones: 150 years since Canada’s Confederation, University of Waterloo turns 60, and of course, Federation of Students is celebrating 50 years as Waterloo’s undergraduate student union.
To mark this milestone, we reached out to two of Feds’ founding members, Richard Van Veldhuisen and Dr. Gerry Mueller, to tell us their accounts of how Waterloo’s undergraduate student union came into existence.
Van Veldhuisen and Mueller were both studying engineering at Waterloo when they became involved in student politics – Van Veldhuisen because he wanted to affect change on campus, while Mueller found politics to be the natural transition from his involvement in journalism.
Prior to the existence of a student union, Waterloo students were represented on Students’ Council. However, Students’ Council was in a state of turmoil, as presidents kept resigning and the leadership was constantly shifting, Van Veldhuisen said.
“The year before founding the Federation of Students, nearly all the Executive members of the Student Council couldn't continue,” Mueller said. “They were on academic probation or had failed their classes, because back then, you didn't get paid and you still had to do school - even the president.”
Though it had much the same structure, Students’ Council functioned very differently than it does today.
“What was called the Student Council was really a creature of the University,” Mueller said. “And in some sense it was a token institution that allowed the University to claim that students had some power to determine affairs that affected them, but really with no legitimacy other than what the University allowed.”
In addition, Mueller described “odd rules” and policies that many students disagreed with, but were unable to provide input on or challenge at the time.
“One time it was said the Deans couldn't speak to the student newspaper and everyone, of course, thought that was ridiculous,” Mueller said.
“Because of this turmoil, I made it my single focus during my term to reorganize the student government structure and develop a new constitution,” Van Veldhuisen said. Together with other Students’ Council members, Van Veldhuisen worked to write the constitution that would lay the foundations for forming a student union.
But instead of calling the new organization ‘University of Waterloo Student Union,’ like many university student unions are named, the founders decided to go in a different direction and name Waterloo’s student union ‘Federation of Students.’
Van Veldhuisen proposed the unique name and others were in agreement.
“We didn't want to use ‘council’ because we had already had that, and this was going to be something different,” Mueller said. “Because it was Canada’s Centennial that year , everyone's mind was on Confederation which lead to ‘Federation,’ so I think it also came from that.”
Once the constitution was ratified, first by a student vote and then by the Board of Governors, the next step in the creation of the new student union was to be legally incorporated. Finally, Federation of Students was born.
In addition to working on the constitution, Van Veldhuisen worked towards incorporating the new student union before he graduated as a civil engineer and focused on his career and family. Recently, he returned to University of Waterloo for the celebration of Feds’ 50th anniversary.
“I thoroughly enjoyed being involved in the recent 50th anniversary celebrations,” he said, adding that he still keeps in touch with many of his former classmates.
After graduation, Mueller worked in the chemical engineering field before training as an Anglican priest and returning to the University of Waterloo as a chaplain at Renison College.
Reflecting on the Feds of the past and the Feds we know today, Mueller feels they served two different but equally important purposes.
“When we were leading, we had to push for a lot of basic things, like teachers being able to talk to the student paper, as I mentioned,” Mueller said. “I think we cleared the way for the Federation of Students to be more of a service. Definitely, today, it's more of a service to students; it's able to offer so many things. Back in my time we couldn't offer as much because there were so many hurdles we had to jump over.”
The dedication and perseverance of Mueller, Van Veldhuisen and many others brought into creation the Federation of Students and student governance structure at the University of Waterloo as we know it today.
To learn more about student governance at Waterloo and how you can get involved, visit feds.ca.