Wednesday’s UTSU All-Candidates’ Debate did not follow the typical debate format, as the candidates seemed to be debating more with the audience than with one another. The only officially contested position was Vice-President Internal and Services, for which both Corey Scott and Nathaniel Tang are running. In the remaining positions, the Unite For Action slate’s candidates are running unopposed following StudentsFirst’s (the other slate) decision to “boycott” the elections.
Though seated in the middle of the audience instead of at the front of the room, StudentsFirst’s presence was felt from the start. In his opening, the debate’s moderator Dave Meslin said, “let me just say that I’m disappointed to hear that there’s only one slate,” at which point an audience member chimed in “so are we.”
Though Meslin said plainly that “I don’t want to get into a debate this evening — it’s not the appropriate time or place and nor am I the appropriate moderator to talk about the events that have happened over the past few weeks and whether they were appropriate or not.” He suggested carving out some time in the debate to discuss “possible reforms in the elections procedure” for the future, saying “let’s talk about it in the context of ‘the system’s broken but we can’t fix it for this year.’”
Debate between candidates
The first candidates to debate were the only two running against each other. Corey Scott, UFA’s candidate, is this year’s Vice-President Campus Life and a former member of LGBTOUT, where he served as the Coordinator for External Relations, Coordinator for Internal Relations, and the Homo-Hop Coordinator over the years. Scott cited his experience with clubs and services in both these capacities, claiming that as VP Internal he hopes to “bring a little bit more life to our services, make sure that we’re doing commuter brunches regularly, that the university is allowing us to do commuter brunches regularly because after a while they wouldn’t let us, because apparently we can’t cook food even though many other groups do, and I want to make sure that we’re extending those to the professional faculties so that everyone can benefit from the services of the union not just Arts and Science students. We want to make sure that we’re bringing commuter students back into the union and that we’re getting them involved in the university community.” He also hopes to expand clubs funding, “get the cheques out earlier,” expand clubs training, and better promote UTSU’s services via social media.
Nathaniel Tang, the independent in the race, conceded that his experience was not as “well-grounded” as Scott’s. Tang cited acting as a “casual staff-member selling metropasses” as his experience with the union before outlining five priorities: fiscal transparency, democratic renewal, information accessibility, electoral fairness and reform, and health and dental opt-out reform, claiming he could save students “almost $300.”
The first question came from Brent Schmidt, StudentsFirst’s would-be VP Internal candidate who began by saying “as a former candidate for this position I have a vested interest in it.” Schmidt asked “specifically Corey [Scott]” about accountability and transparency, claiming “if that’s going to be on your poster I’d like to hear about what we’re actually going to change to make sure students like myself don’t feel excluded.”
Scott responded with plans to “use the Board of Directors more effectively […] to make sure they are working for you,” as well as expanding union office hours.
Tang said, “yeah, the Board of Directors should be more accessible and they should be more out there,” also saying he would put more documents online and “respond to emails promptly, either within a few seconds or within 48 hours.”
Things became tenser later in the question period, when Schmidt asked, once again “more to Corey […] why is it now that you’re running for a position that it’s all of a sudden important to listen to conversations about how to better our students’ union? Wasn’t it important throughout the year, at commission meetings, why is it only important in election season?” which drew applause from some members of the audience.
Scott responded, “well, to be fair, there are a lot of conversations I have that you’re not always a part of, and quite frankly, we do listen to a lot of clubs,” also drawing applause.
The discussion took a turn once again when an audience member asked that people “avoid generalizations about students in their questions,” and fellow audience-member Tobias McVey shouted “you’re not the moderator, so could you please shut up?” drawing loud cheers.
Next to speak was Clara Ho, the UFA candidate for Vice-President, University Affairs. She said that in this position, she will “work to eliminate flat fees […] mobilize students from across faculties and departments to help to prevent program cuts,” and lobby to stop the sale of bottled water on campus.
Ho responded to questions of how she planned to deal with the administration with plans to “do a lot of research” and “be constructive.”
‘Islam Awareness Week’
Lena Elamin, the UFA candidate for Vice-President Equity, spoke next. “I love badminton, I love spoken word, poetry […] I enjoy long walks on the beach, I enjoy sipping tea on a horizon over the sunset,” she began. Elamin described an experience in high school where she was called to the vice-principal’s office, accused of a “bomb threat in the boys washroom […] because apparently, ‘my people on TV’ go into the boys’ washroom and write bomb threats there,” citing this as an inspiration for her work towards equity.
The first question came from Adir Kraffman, who asked with respect to “IAW,” “do you think it is appropriate to endorse a campaign that alienates groups of people and creates a toxic environment?”
Elamin asked him to “expand on that a little bit.” Kraffman responded, “right, I’m a Jewish student, and when I see the union that’s supposed to represent me supporting it I feel excluded.”
Elamin began, “for those of you that don’t know, IAW is Islam Awareness Week,” which brought laughter from the audience who corrected that IAW also stands for Israeli Apartheid Week. In response to the clarified question, Elamin suggested a forum or discussion, saying that “at the end of the day, we’re basically, we’re like, we’re all the same.”
After Elamin’s closing statements, Meslin read a quote of Matthew Gray’s from The Varsity, saying “UTSU’s election processes are institutionally biased towards incumbents.”
He suggested a 5–10 minute break to discuss electoral reform for the future, drawing a shout from Antonin Mongeau in the audience saying “5 or 10 minutes, that’s not enough, Dave, that’s not enough,” later saying “how about more candidates on the agenda next time?”
Meslin asked for a volunteer from the audience who disapproved of the elections procedure and had not asked a question yet to come down. James Finlay, two-time UTSU candidate from the Change slate was chosen. Drawing cheers from the audience, Meslin joked “Oh, I know you,” to which Finlay responded “I’ve been here twice.”
Finlay wrote down reform proposals from the audience on the board. The suggestions were pointedly in reference to StudentsFirst’s partial disqualification, ranging from decreasing the number of signatures required for nomination to lowering the confusion around the appeals process “if a digit is wrong […] as in the recent past,” or increasing the possible time period between disqualification and the requisite candidates’ meetings. Gray in particular suggested better communication, arguing that in the past, “candidates were not properly notified that their signatures were invalid.”
Though the discussion was slated for a maximum of ten minutes, the audience requested it be allotted more time. Meslin held a vote on whether to extend the discussion by a few minutes, and a strong majority voted yes.
No members of the UFA slate spoke during the electoral reform discussion.
Shaun Shepherd, UFA candidate for Vice-President External spoke next. A current Black Students’ Association executive, Shepherd discussed his experience working with the Faculty of Medicine on a mentorship program, and working with the office of recruitment to increase representation of students that have historically been underrepresented on campus.
Gavin Nowlan, this year’s Arts and Science Students’ Union president, described the administration’s past refusal to lobby the provincial government with UTSU if it discussed issues such as dropping fees, asking “where do you think the balance is between actually getting something done this election cycle, and listening to what the administration says about their prerequisites for helping us?”
Shepherd responded, “there is a fine balance, you’re right. […] Regarding working with the university, if it’s possible I’m all for it, however the reality is if the university is not willing to abide by our principled stance that fees should be reduced, then we may not have a proper relationship and that’s something I’m willing to work on.”
Danielle Sandhu, the UFA Presidential candidate, spoke last. Sandhu invited the audience to “join the team Unite for Action, because our team recognizes that we all have a diverse experience to contribute to the students’ union.” Sandhu, former VP Campus Life and this year’s VP Equity, described her experience in these capacities, as a commuter and as a student. “Through my work I’ve come to understand the true power of a students’ union, and how a students’ union can change lives,” she said. “After all, it changed my own. I want to see the students’ union continue to be a place where students feel safe, a place where they can be supported, a place where they can get involved.”
Sandhu addressed several questions regarding how she planned to build unity on campus, her plans for advocacy, and how to combat discrimination against Francophones. With regard to electoral reform, she said she didn’t feel comfortable answering that question given her current candidacy for president.
The questions changed in tone when Brett Chang, prominent member of StudentPAC, stood up toward the end of the question period and shouted, “What about the ordinary student? What about that student that travels one hour from Etobicoke each way, and can’t get involved on campus? Someone who wants to come here and have the greatest student experience possible. What about that student? Why aren’t we working for them? […] Why are we so focused on these special interests and not the students themselves? This is why I’m in student politics. This is why I was working on [StudentsFirst’s] campaign […] and this is why you have failed for the past four years, and this is why we are being called ‘Too Asian’ by Maclean’s.”
Sandhu responded that she was “confused by [Chang’s] definition of the ‘ordinary student’ […] because the ordinary student is racialized, the ordinary student is queer, the ordinary student identifies in many different ways and a student union’s responsibility is to cater to all members of that community, and that means that we especially need to safeguard the rights of those that are traditionally marginalized within our community and broader spaces. So beyond that I’m really confused as to your question, because you’re asking about this ordinary student, and to me there are 44,000 ordinary students at this university, extraordinary students at this university, who deserve a strong team that’s going to lobby for their rights, that’s going to protect their individual rights, and that’s going to build a student experience that they enjoy.” Sandhu referenced a working group she sat on about the Maclean’s article, saying “there are students that are taking action on these items and I would encourage you to come and be a part of that.”
Hart House Controversy
The debate’s drama, however, was not limited to the debate itself. Semra Eylul Sevi, Hart House Debates Committee’s director of communications, protested the fact that the CRO had opted to use an off-campus moderator instead of the HHDC, which she called “very professional,” arguing in a later interview with The Varsity that “the demographics in that room would have been very different if we had organized it. What I saw in that room is UFA and their allies and friends and their team that is running for election, their executives, and the team that would have been StudentsFirst and their allies and friends and a lot of media, and that’s all I saw. The average student who would have been walking down St. George that day were in actuality in the minority.”
Further, following the debate, The Varsity was copied on a complaint that the video recording of the event had been removed from the Internet. As of press time, the complaint had not been answered and the video was not online.
Editor’s Note: The original headline, “Disqualified slate dominates UTSU debate” has been changed.