Wednesday, March 16, marked a first for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU): a candidates debate for their annual elections. This year, students competing for executive positions debated one another about various student issues.
Candidates were called up by position to give opening statements, followed by two questions from a panel comprised of the editors-in-chief of The Varsity, The Newspaper, and The Medium, followed by questions from the audience.
Questions pertaining to campus activism, such as efforts by the Black Liberation Collective (BLC) and the Black Students’ Association, as well as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, were raised.
Civil fraud suit
In a post-debate interview, The Varsity asked both presidential candidates whether they would continue the legal action initiated last year against two former UTSU executives and a former executive director.
Jasmine Wong Denike, presidential candidate for Hello UofT, began by praising the activism that Sandra Hudson, the former UTSU executive director named in the suit, has done and continues to do. Hudson is a founding member of Black Lives Matter-Toronto and is involved with the BLC.
Denike said that if elected president, she would have a fiduciary responsibility to UTSU members.
“If there’s money that is unaccounted for, it’s very, very important that the UTSU investigate that,” Denike said, adding that she would review the entire case and ensure that it is handled equitably and respectfully. “It’s very important that we aren’t trying to make things more difficult for anybody. We aren’t, we just want to ensure that students are properly represented and students aren’t losing things that they should have.”
Madina Siddiqui, 1UofT’s presidential candidate, said that she would communicate with the UTSU’s lawyers to determine the best course of action. “Honestly, I am not Harvey Specter or Mike Ross,” Siddiqui said. “I’m not a lawyer, but if elected I will sit down and talk to the lawyers and figure out the best possible solution for students and make sure that students don’t get hurt and that way we don’t waste students’ money.”
Canadian Federation of Students
A question from the panel addressed the presidential candidates’ stances on the UTSU’s membership in the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), which has long been a topic of contention.
“To be honest with you, I don’t really have a personal opinion,” Siddiqui said. “If students don’t like it, we can talk about it. It’s whatever students need and want and it’s their opinion [that matters],” she added.
Denike has worked with the CFS throughout the year as the UTSU’s vice president, external. She told the audience that she has had the opportunity this year to learn about the CFS’ strengths and weaknesses.
“So my personal stance on the CFS is that they do a lot of amazing activism work… there’s no doubt about the amount of change that they’ve managed to help implement for students across the country,” Denike said, adding that she directed her focus to whether students are getting the most out of the CFS.
“It’s also important to focus on what students want, and it’s also important to focus on whether or not U of T students are getting everything that they can be getting out of the CFS… if those students aren’t getting what approximately $750,000 a year is giving them, then I’m open to discussing that with students and keeping that line of communication open with the CFS as well,” Denike stated.
In 2015, the UTSU paid $769,218 in fees to the CFS, a figure that stood at $752,227 in 2014.
The Varsity asked the vice president, equity candidates whether they intended to promote the BDS movement.
Malkeet Sandhu, candidate with 1UofT, said that she would mobilise and support the work of Palestinian activists. “At the end of the day, what Palestinians are going through is unjust, that can’t be denied,” she said.
“However, there is a lot more to solving this issue than just passing a motion at an [Annual General Meeting]. I believe that there’s already [sic] countless Palestinian activists on campus and we need to support them and we need to do this by mobilizing with them on the ground through rallies and protests,” Sandhu said.
Farah Noori, Hello UofT’s equity candidate, came out in support of the BDS movement in her platform and acknowledged the challenges of gaining momentum at U of T.
“I would push it through ethical divestment just because I feel like that won’t necessarily make you take a specific stance on it, it’s legitimately about human rights violations,” she said. “We could support the Palestinian people through that.”
Sania Khan, current UTSU vice president, equity and advocate for the BDS movement, did not find either of the responses satisfactory and rephrased the question that The Varsity had posed to the candidates. “I’m going to rephrase a question… only because I feel that the responses were sub-par and vague and not congruent to both of your platforms,” Khan said at the debate.
Khan asked what the candidates were going to do to strengthen the BDS movement as a human rights movement.
In a post-debate interview with The Varsity, Noori attributed her rushed response to the BDS question to her anxiety. “The debate was something I was dreading for [sic] since the start of becoming a candidate. I honestly just went in and I couldn’t even process myself thinking, there was just a lot of anxiety that I was dealing with at that moment,” she said.
Noori later told the moderators that the format of the debate was not necessarily accommodating for all students, herself included. “Hopefully if I’m elected, that’s something I would want to reformat,” Noori said.
Hello UofT’s Lucinda Qu and 1UofT’s Andre Fast are both running for the position of vice president, external. The panel asked the candidates whether the UTSU should take a stance on issues of global importance.
Qu responded that she would strive to represent students in this regard. “We should do whatever our membership thinks we should do,” she said. “If they want activism, we should be activists. If they want us to be more impartial, we should be impartial. We serve the students.”
Qu’s team distanced themselves from Qu’s remarks in a statement published on Hello UofT’s Facebook page later that night. “The Hello UofT team wants to stress that populist claims such as this one do not accurately reflect the views of our team. We believe that in order for equity work to happen successfully, the voices of marginalized minorities must be prioritized in discussion,” part of the statement read.
Fast stated that the UTSU should take stances on global issues. He indicated the UTSU’s past involvement in the movement to divest from fossil fuels and encouraging engagement with politics around the time of the federal election as examples of where the UTSU has taken a stance.
“I agree [we] should represent what students at U of T want,” Fast said. “We’re a part of a global community, and global issues such as climate change impact us too.”
Both candidates raised the issue of affordable education, arguing for lower or eliminated tuition fees.
“When education is unaffordable it means it’s inaccessible to a lot of people and I think that is definitely the role of the UTSU,” said Fast. Qu suggested she would participate in active lobbying to increase affordability.
Siddiqui and Denike also fielded questions that targeted their individual behaviours.
Hashim Yussuf, a UTM representative on the UTSU’s Board of Directors and organizer with the BLC, criticized Denike for being on a union that slashed funding for the Black Students’ Association, yet still choose to appear at the BLC’s March 15 demonstration on U of T’s birthday.
“Showing up to a rally, especially during election period, is not enough, it’s almost nothing, practically,” Denike said. “If I were to be elected, I would love to be building and creating spaces of support, and building a framework that can assist the Black Liberation Collective and any other students on campus who want to be able to fight for their rights.”
Siddiqui came under fire for her remarks at the UTSU AGM held in November 2015, in which she accused several members of the current UTSU executive of being inebriated at work.
Siddiqui declined to comment on the matter and said she would rather focus on student issues. “This is not about personal issues or anything like that… I want to talk about and focus on student issues,” she said.
The debate between candidates for the position of vice president, university affairs, saw Hello UofT’s Shawn Williams and Andy Edem of 1UofT face off.
Mid-way through the debate, Edem misgendered Williams, despite both of them introducing themselves with their names and pronouns. Edem immediately apologized. “First of all I have to make an apology to you, I’m really sorry. I try as much as possible to use appropriate pronouns or the pronoun that somebody actually prefers, but we’re all human and sometimes we make slip-ups and this is one, so I thank you for calling that out,” Edem said.
Late on Sunday March 20, 1UofT released a statement in which they reiterated their apology to Williams.
Both candidates were asked how they would lobby the university administration in favour of students. Edem said that the role of vice president, university affairs should not only be about mobilizing students, but also about “being able to analyze policies and see where they don’t benefit students,” and then approach the administration accordingly.
Williams’ answer was focused on “actively engaging with students so that we know what it is that students want, what their needs are, and how they want us to go about addressing these needs.” Williams advocated working with administration effectively to ensure that both sides were appeased and avoiding an antagonistic relationship between the students and the administration.
Each candidate put forward plans to clearly and effectively work with the administration for the betterment of student life at U of T.
During the vice president, internal & services debate, Hello UofT candidate Mathias Memmel asked for an anonymous twitter account to stop posting disparaging remarks about members of 1UofT. “Whoever is @Real1UofT on Twitter… it’s not cool to slander other people, especially the opposition. I don’t appreciate that, so please stop,” Memmel said.
Internal & services, professional faculties, campus life
Memmel debated 1UofT’s with Carina Zhang. Both candidates discussed their plans for the union’s budget.
“I want to introduce participatory budgeting, not only to improve transparency, but in wanting you to be part of the decision, and inviting you to be part of the process,” said Zhang. She wants to create more job opportunities for students and more international student scholarships and internships.
Memmel talked about the resources that could be channelled into improving mental health services. “There’s a lot of promises that have been made in the last five years about how we’re going to improve CAPS and how we’re going to make these changes, and I haven’t seen any results,” he said.
“We have a plan to cover the full cost of a student’s counselling sessions with a psychologist and up to 20 of those per year… and with our network with our new health and dental provider, we can make this happen,” Memmel said.
For the new position of vice president, professional faculties, Ryan Gomes of the Hello UofT slate faced Charlotte Mengxi Shen from the 1UofT slate.
Gomes is the current vice president, internal & services of the UTSU. He began his opening statement by outlining the history of bad blood between the UTSU and U of T’s 11 professional faculties and emphasized that communication between them and the vice president, professional faculties is important in order to address the needs of both sides.
“I know that the vp profac needs to sit down with every profac, determine what key issues they are facing and support them,” Gomes said.
Gomes also touched upon the issue of tuition and the implications specific to professional faculty students.
Mengxhi Shen began by stating that she wants to expand job opportunities for students. “If I get elected, I want to focus more on working with campus groups to bring more job fairs for other profac students.”
She also discussed wanting to facilitate the exam deferral process. “I also want to work with University of Toronto administration to be more accessible and easier for students, so in profacs like engineering, if a student defers one final exam they might have to stay for an extra year just because something happened in their lives. And that’s not fair,” she said.
Other areas of importance for Mengxi Shen are the lack of UTSU events for professional faculties other than engineering and the lack of study spaces specifically for professional faculty students.
There are three candidates vying for the vice president, campus life position: Shahin Imtiaz of Hello UofT, Lera Nwineh of 1UofT, and Alessia Rodríguez, who is the current vice president, campus life and is running independently. The idea of fostering a sense of belonging at U of T was central to all three candidates’ discussions.
Imtiaz mentioned the creation of a new campus life app to better reach out to students; Nwineh wants UofT students to have more “positive experiences” through events, and Rodríguez argued for an increase in face-to-face communication.
Many candidates interviewed by The Varsity immediately following the debate’s conclusion felt that both they and their opponents performed well at the debates.
Rodríguez mentioned how “it is very hard to say what I want to say in 30 seconds.” In his interview, Nwineh said he wished he had talked more about “how I want to improve the student experience.”
Voting takes place in person and online between March 22 and 24.
Disclosure: Shahin Imtiaz is a former associate science editor at The Varsity.