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Report on the 2015 General Assembly in Halifax

Taking a break at the AGM at  the McNally Auditorium at St. Mary's University

Taking a break at the AGM at the McNally Auditorium at St. Mary’s University

On Thursday, 2 July, 2015, I attended the joint National Advisory Council/Board meeting at the Halifax GA. On Sunday, 5 July I attended the Annual General Meeting of the RASC and the National Council Meeting which followed immediately afterwards. Roger Nelson from Calgary and RASC President James Edgar were the co chairs for the National Council meetings. At the second National Council Meeting Patrick Kelly of the Halifax Centre took over from Roger as co chair.

RASC National board has re elected James Edgar as President and elected Chris Gainor as First Vice President. Colin Haig stepped down and Robin Foret from Calgary Centre has become Second Vice President. Randy Attwood is Executive Director and Karen Finstad remains National Secretary.

Many national reps and board members at the National Council meeting expressed congratulations and excitement over the opening of our new observatory.

The big announcement at the Thursday National Council meeting was that the RASC had purchased SkyNews magazine. A few months ago the owners of SkyNews quietly approached the RASC board of directors recently, asking if the RASC would like to take the magazine over as they wanted to retire after two decades of publishing. Of course if this publication went to some other publisher it is very likely that it would no longer be a benefit of membership for the RASC: SkyNews has given the RASC a special deal on member subscriptions for years. The national RASC board entered into negotiations and investigations to determine the value of the business and legal issues involved. Despite efforts to keep the negotiations quiet, as the sale approached the RASC board had to deal with a competing offer. However Terry Dickenson seemed anxious that the RASC offer should succeed and the day of our National Council meeting the deal was finalized. The RASC paid $211,000 for this publication. The RASC is not running SkyNews: The magazine remains a separate business entity which the RASC board is treating as a major investment. SkyNews will pay dividends to the RASC. Terry Dickenson is stepping down as editor, staying for a while as editor emeritus, Gary Seroniuk stepped into the editors position. The national board is discussing the possibility of incorporating the Journal as an insert in SkyNews.

Thursday BBQ at Dr. David Lane's Abbey Ridge Observatory

Thursday BBQ at Dr. David Lane’s Abbey Ridge Observatory

Denis Gray gave us a report on the RASCs new web site under development. You can view the new site at: http://www.new.rasc.ca. This new site uses Drupal 7, which is an improvement over the older Drupal 6 it is running now. NOTE: There is a recent release of Drupal 8, but Gray is reluctant to load it as it is so new. He prefers to wait until Drupal 8 has been out for a while and worked out any “bugs”. The new web site can easily be scaled to better fit into both computers and hand held devices. 500 pages, 6,930 images, and vast store of documents, etc., need to be imported to the new site from old site. Key content has already been brought over and mostly tested. The new site should be live by July 31, clean up complete by August 31. The new site will include centre facing capabilities, including the ability to store centre forms, lists of officers, and allow centre administration of member data. One of the reasons that this new RASC web site was needed was due to the requirement for the site to comply with Canadian Anti Spam Legislation (CASL). Full compliance is required by 2016. The new RASC web site can host Centre websites for a hosting fee. This offer isn’t something our Centre will take advantage of as it is a pretty basic package and wouldn’t look as good or have as many features as the web site we have now: this is primarily a perk for small centres with limited resources. Gray also wants to include a searchable national event calendar service on the new web site that will list the upcoming activities of all centres across Canada.

All RASC Centres are reporting similar experiences to our Centre, with regards to having a relatively small core group of volunteers who do everything compared to their total membership. Several Centres are reporting that this situation has resulted in “burn out” issues. There was some discussion by the Council regarding perks for volunteers, including exclusive observing time at the Centre’s observatory and starbeques. Our Centre should consider this and come up with other possibilities. One thought expressed by several delegates is that they find that new members don’t feel comfortable volunteering to do outreach because they don’t know enough about astronomy: they are uncomfortable responding to questions from the public at public events. Several Centres report getting the new members trained in observing so they can feel comfortable answering questions from the public, which is helping to correct this situation. I note that Centres who engage in a large amount of outreach all have burn out issues, which brings to mind our recent discussions about how our Centre has gradually drifted from doing a lot of member viewing sessions to almost exclusively public outreach. The London and Mississauga representatives initiated a discussion about balancing public outreach with “inreach”: that is to say, doing things specifically for club members. I agree that our Centre should focus more on “inreach” activities. Some Centres report having established forums for their member’s astrophotography, which brought to mind a recent discussion regarding member’s astrophotography with Danny Sklazeski and Mike Bradley. As a result of that conversation I recently started an astrophotography page on our website where I can display the works of our members. I agree that encouraging members to submit their astrophotos is a good “inreach” activity.

Visit to the Burke-Gaffney Observatory

Visit to the Burke-Gaffney Observatory

Like our Centre, several other Centres report issues trying to recruit people to volunteer to serve on their governing board. The New Brunswick Centre is considering increasing term limits for their executive (they have 1 and 2 year terms like us but want to increase it to 3 or 4 years.) Many Centres have executive members who repeatedly cycle through executive positions as no new members coming in are willing to commit to serving on the governing board. Looking at the lists of past members of the national executive as well as several Centres you will find that this “recycling” of executives is a phenomenon that has been with the society for some time.

Membership in the RASC is 4,900. NOTE: The RASC currently has 436 unattached members, who form our 3rd largest “centre”. Many Centres reported having large membership but very small turnout at Centre meetings. Mississauga Centre reports good attendance at their meetings due to bringing in speakers, which is similar to our experience. Charlottetown Centre shut down due to being reduced to only 5 members. Montreal Centre is has membership challenges as there are 6 astronomy clubs for a population base of 3 million, resulting in competition for members. Halifax Center reports that they have maintained a constant membership, but reports problems retaining new members. NOTE: The old RASC policy required a minimum of 20 members to form a Centre. Now the only requirement is that you fulfil the requirements of a centre- there is no minimum number of required members now.

Ladies of the Shore, a Mi'kmaw group, blesses the attendees before the banquet

Ladies of the Shore, a Mi’kmaw group, blesses the attendees before the banquet

Multiple Centres reported aging membership and challenges engaging youth (specifically Kitchener Waterloo, and Mississauga Centres). Other centres report success in engaging youth by using social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ as we do. Rocky from Kitchener Waterloo reported that his Centre is getting tremendous demand for public outreach and attribute this to their Facebook page. This is encouraging in light of our recent efforts to renew our website and establish a presence on these social networking sites. However, Mississauga reported problems with web site maintenance: Specifically they were having problems finding volunteers or members to post information on their Facebook page or web site.

Multiple centres reported that paper newsletters are a thing of the past. All of the Centres appear to be switching to modern websites and social networking sites. There was some discussion concerning the usual issues of e mail vs forums. The consensus with regards to disseminating information to members seemed to be that if you fail to sign on to the forum to read the posts for whatever reason, you miss the info, whereas if with e mail your members will certainly get it, and will have to delete it without reading it to miss the information.

On the first break at the Thursday meeting I was approached by members of the Okanagan Centre who confessed that they weren’t in favour of our centre when we first applied to RASC but admitted that now that we’ve seen what we’ve accomplished over the years (in particular our new observatory) they now think we’re pretty amazing. I believe the objection at the time was that our Centre wasn’t associated with a specific city: the only other Centre like this is the New Brunswick Centre, which has meetings which circulate between three different cities in New Brunswick.

Several RASC Centres are seeking new meeting places. Many universities are now either starting to “pull up the drawbridge” (as one delegate put it) to charge for meeting space and/or are bouncing out the Centres by selling the meeting space to the highest bidder. The Kitchener Waterloo Centre is getting kicked off campus even though they do a lot of outreach there. Calgary Centre is now meeting at a seniors center. Several Centres have been forced out of elderly schools they used for meetings as those aged buildings are being closed due to issues with mould and/or asbestos, either for renovations or demolition. Toronto Centre is moving temporarily back to University of Toronto from the Science Centre while work is done there.

Doug Montgomery from Vancouver Centre talked about their Centre finally having found a place to call “home” at SFU. However Vancouver Centre has already had some issues there: For example Montgomery reports that they located their sky camera on roof of a building at SFU, only to discover that it is now effectively off limits because you need a paid union member to do work on the equipment or to be present when Centre members work on it.

At the National Council meeting on Thursday

At the National Council meeting on Thursday

The RASC constitution committee is still waiting for the CRA to be ratified in Ontario and other provinces. Implementation by government has been deferred repeatedly by legislatures. Calgary just updated their bylaws to bring them in line with the CRA, as has Kitchener Waterloo and Toronto. Calgary is offering their new bylaws to other Centres to see. The basic recommendation from all involved in this process is to simplify your bylaws by pulling your policies out of your bylaws and putting those policies in a policy manual. Colin Haig reported that RASC HQ can offer a template for bylaws for Centres.

Colin Haig reported money for maintenance for the Hamilton observatory was a challenge, as members wanted to constantly buy new stuff for the observatory rather than putting money aside in order to maintain what they already had. Other Centres report similar habits and our Centre must be careful not to fall into the same trap. Outside of the meeting I talked to multiple Centre delegates regarding observatory maintenance. Most report that in their first year of operation they discovered what the true cost of operating the observatory was, and that it usually wasn’t what they’d planned for. Okanagan Centre told me they have an ongoing yearly $6000 “infrastructure support grant” from BC Gaming they use for observatory maintenance and I will be in touch with them now that I’ve returned to get details on how they worded their application for this grant so that we can make our own application for this financial support.

London Centre is sponsoring the 2016 General Assembly. The London Centre intends to include the Astro Cats astronomy trade show as part of its GA next year. In order to combine the two events the date of the GA has been moved up to the May long weekend in 2016. This will mean that reports from centres will be needed a month earlier than usual in order to have them available for the 2016 GA. As the Astro Cats show charges much less for their event than the fee for registration for a typical GA, the London Centre has convinced the Astro Cats organizers to slightly raise their registration fees and has significantly lowered the 2016 GA registration fee. They intend to make up the difference in revenues by having speaking events including a lecture by Robert Jedicke, an education committee teacher’s workshop, and other fund raising functions in conjunction with their GA. The RASC will purchase a booth at Astro Cats (as they did this year) to help subsidize this event.

I learned that the Kitchener Waterloo and Calgary Centres have an astrophotography contest every year: I that we should do this also. These Centres pass out astrophotography awards at an annual banquet: This is another thing that I think we should do. At the Council meeting there was some discussion of the possibility of having a national astrophotography contest, where the winning photos would be submitted for use in the RASC calendar.

There has been some discussion at our Astro Cafés regarding the possibility of us starting a star party to bring in astronomers from across Canada. I had a chance to discuss this with Doug Montgomery from Vancouver Centre and several delegates from the Victoria and Okanagan Centres (Prince George Centre had no delegates at this year’s GA). Montgomery is keen on this idea and believes that he can get the Vancouver Centre to support and assist us with such a project. The Victoria Centre and Okanagan Centre members that I discussed this idea with all seemed keen on the idea as well. Now that I’m back I intend to contact the Prince George Centre to see what they think of the idea.

I learned through discussions that many centres rent out their loaner scopes, charging a dollar an inch of aperture/mo or week.

Randy Attwood handed out prototype postcards (see attached photo) with membership information and a space for our centre to put in our contact information: Randy wants us to show it to our members and report back on it. The idea will be that when you order the cards they can print in your centre information. Randy says the plan is for the RASC to just charge us for postage to send us the cards: HQ will pick up the tab for printing.

Only 15 observer certificates were handed out by the RASC in 2015. Halifax Centre has started handing out their own observer certificates which are simplified versions of the RASC certificates. This is something our Centre should consider as an “inreach” activity.

The RASC is investigating the possibility of buying a reasonably large telescope in the 24 to 36 cm aperture range and setting it up at Sierra Remote Observatories in California to permit remote access to clear skies for RASC members.

Me at the banquet with Dr. Jim Hesser of the Victoria Centre (who will be one of our speakers in 2016)

Me at the banquet with Dr. Jim Hesser of the Victoria Centre (who will be one of our speakers in 2016)

The RASC is thinking of revising the award system to a system with pins 5, 10, 15, and 20 years service and retaining the existing service award as a high level national award. There was some discussion of Centres creating their own awards for service and of course we’ve just initiated our own Founders Award which we handed out at our recent SCC Observatory grand opening.

The RASC is now promoting astronomy related tours in association with MWT Associates. There is a proposed Mauna Kea trip next year.

Randy Attwood announced an initiative to start a fund raising committee for the RASC to bring in additional revenue. Of course most NGOs have such committees with members actively lobbying for donations and support, and the RASC can benefit from such a committee.

Clear Skies,

Charles Ennis, President, SCC RASC


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