At the UTSU’s Special General Meeting, a motion was proposed to endorse the Idle No More movement. Although the motion faced considerable opposition, it ultimately passed. The argument used by those speaking against the motion was that, in order to represent all students, the union must not take a stance on such a “political” issue. Time and time again, students have seen this argument, along with calls for electoral reform put forth by the opposition. While the calls for electoral reforms have some basis, the argument for an apolitical union does not. Unions are meant to be political, though not partisan.
Historically, student unions have organized politically and taken stances on issues dealing with human rights, social justice, and equity. Students have frequently mobilized on campuses in the past: during the Vietnam War; to demand democracy in Tiananmen Square; and at U of T they pressured the administration to divest from apartheid-era South Africa. These are just a few examples among hundreds.
It is in the mandate of student unions to take such action for one reason: the union must ensure the voices of all of its students are heard. It does this by providing an outlet for marginalized groups to express themselves. Some might say that by doing this the union is putting down students who hold opposing views. However, these voices are already adequately represented in society and at the university. The union is not raising the voices of a few above those of others; it is merely leveling the playing field.
Those who are opposed to the union’s political advocacy claim the union should only speak on student issues. Yet even when it comes to student issues, the idea of pushing for lower fees, criticizing the government for its lack of funding, and standing in solidarity with striking students in Quebec are still all unacceptable. It is clear that under the guise of an argument against all political advocacy, most of those who call for no advocacy do so because the union does not espouse their particular political points of view.
There is also the fact that the union was elected with a mandate of political advocacy, and that the Idle No More motion was backed in a vote at the general meeting. Despite problems with the electoral system of the UTSU, the vote count tells a story. The last slate that came close to beating the incumbent slate, Change, didn’t disregard the principles of social justice and equity.
Finally, there is also a moral imperative — on some issues the union must take a stance, particularly if the university is involved. As students at this university, it is our responsibility to ensure that the university acts ethically, from its investments to its labour practices. Universities are supposed to be society’s projection of an ideal society and, as such, students have to demand justice for all. If we as students don’t collectively demand justice, then who will?
Abdullah Shihipar is a second year student studying cell and molecular biology and a member of the Arts & Science Students’ Union executive.
The views expressed here are solely his own.