Sana Ali, the vice-president, external candidate for the Renew slate, withdrew from the UTSU election late last week in an open letter posted on Facebook that detailed her grievances with the campaign’s conduct and internal dynamics.
The letter quickly found traction, with more than 300 shares, 1,500 likes, and dozens of supportive comments. In an exclusive interview with The Varsity, Ali described a tightly-orchestrated campaign characterized by a level of secrecy and micro-management that “put [her] on edge.”
Late Sunday afternoon, Renew released a lengthy, emotional, two-part video responding to several of Ali’s claims and casting doubt on her version of events. “I was very disappointed,” said Sajjad, of Ali’s public departure. “Things seemed fine, and our team was very shocked.”
Ali claimed in her letter that Renew’s platform was a “laundry list of points that have changed almost imperceptibly from past incumbent platforms” that was “more assigned to me than arrived at.”
In the aftermath of their victory, members of Renew have suggested that the process of drafting the campaign platform was more open than Ali has indicated. Sources close to the campaign described weekly meetings during which candidates were free to pitch ideas and platform points, and claimed that Ali did not speak often during these sessions.
Campaign Orchestrated by Veterans
Renew’s campaign was overseen by Alistair Woods and Brodie Metcalfe, veterans of the York and Ryerson student unions respectively. Woods will serve as chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario next year.
Ali claimed in her interview with The Varsity that Woods and Metcalfe handled many facets of the campaign, from the website to debate preparation, to platform and messaging. Sajjad denied that his campaign had anyone serving in an “official” capacity, though several sources close to the campaign confirmed the nature of Woods’ and Metcalfe’s involvement.
It also fell to Woods and Metcalfe to condense the ideas pitched during pre-campaign meetings into the bullet points that eventually became
Renew’s public platform.
“When I decided to run for this position with this team, I was under the impression that I would have the opportunity to apply myself in order to create something good for students,” wrote Ali in her letter. “I have now been disillusioned. I was pulled on board this team to fill a space and fulfill a pre-set mandate, not to bring my brain.”
While Ali stressed that “the UTSU and this team are made up of some very well-intentioned and progressive people,” the letter was also an unsparing critique of her former running mates, calling them “close-minded and set in their ways.”
Although candidates wrote their own statements and debate speeches, Ali said that after submitting hers to the campaign managers, the version posted and distributed to media outlets “didn’t resemble the one I sent in at all.”
Cameron Wathey, another vice-presidential candidate on Team Renew, said he had a different experience, and that his statement and debate speech “came from the heart.”
Ali says her candidate statement would not have been radically different from the edited version that was ultimately attributed to her name. “I don’t disagree with the things the team is trying to achieve,” she says. “I disagree with their methods.”
During the all-candidates debate, Renew’s candidates repeatedly claimed “not to know very much” about a number of controversial issues, including fee diversion and online voting.
Ali alleges that was a result of Woods and Metcalfe instructing the candidates to be “evasive” in the debate, telling them “not to actually answer the difficult questions everyone obviously wanted answered.”
Ali cited the process behind setting Renew’s position on online voting to The Varsity as an example of her disagreements with the campaign.
“I don’t get why we are against online voting and I said so to my team,” she says. “Our campaign manager replied, saying that it doesn’t actually raise voter turnout in the long run, it’s not secure, and that there are different systems.
“He added that our stance would be that we’d ‘investigate the options’ but the understanding was that we as a team had no intention of actually instituting it.” (The Elections & Referenda Committee voted unanimously in late February to implement online voting for elections beginning next fall if the system passes a security audit, meaning it will likely be in place when the by-election necessitated by Ali’s withdrawal is held.)
“There was never any question of them changing their minds. It was a matter of changing mine,” says Ali. Her withdrawal letter decried Renew’s campaign “groupthink” and “attempts to squash dissent and individuality within the team.”
Following the Plan
“It had been made clear that our managers had been doing this for years,” says Ali. “They had a plan and they took no time putting it into action, and telling each of us exactly what to do every hour of every day. We had to think very little, but do a lot.”
At one point, Ali says, Metcalfe asked candidates for their Facebook passwords.
Ali said she was told to surrender her password “so he could comb through and make sure there was nothing the opposition could use against [her], and so our statuses could be updated during campaign period when we’d be too busy.” She refused — the only candidate to do so.
Ali also claims there were attempts to prevent discussions with students who had publicly criticized the union. “I found that there was an active desire to suppress any kind of communication I may have with the ‘opposition,’ even at times when it was completely civil and benevolent,” she wrote.
“I can finally say I understand where the colleges are coming from,” Ali told The Varsity in the days following her withdrawal, speaking specifically about the attempt of several divisions to divert fees from the union.
“I think U of T students need a union, a strong union. I wish that the people on Renew could see that if they want to actually save the union they have to let go of their death grip on it and let the ‘opposition’ have a say, because they are just as much a part of the union as anyone else,” she said. “I also wish the ‘opposition’ would recognize that there is too much to be lost by dissolving the union altogether, and redirect their energies to breaking through this state of corruption.”
“There needs to be a change”
Complicating matters, Ali’s withdrawal came late in the race, after polls had opened on Tuesday.
Ali faced criticism from some students over the timing of her withdrawal. Some seemed particularly skeptical of Ali’s claim that she perceived the lack of competing or opposition candidates as “a massive call for reform,” questioning why she waited over a week to withdraw.
“It is hard to admit to yourself after you’ve taken on something so publicly that you actually don’t believe in it at all. That night, I finally admitted it to myself that the more I learned about what I’d gotten myself into, the more I disliked it. It was at that moment I knew I had to get myself out immediately,” said Ali. “The next morning I posted the letter.”
Chief returning officer Eric Luong said that ballots cast for Ali were not counted. No official vote count for the position of vice-president, external, was released.
“It has been difficult grappling with the guilt of having to do this to the people that I worked so hard with for the past three weeks,” said Ali, reflecting on the tumult since posting her letter. “I can only hope that my words can serve as a wake-up call to our new UTSU executive, so they can recognize that there needs to be a change.”
Watch Team Renew’s two-part video response to Ali’s open later below: