The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) organized an event called Meet Your MP’s! at the Hart House Music Room on January 23. The informal meet and greet session was attended by nine Members of Parliament from electoral districts in Toronto.
The MPs spoke with students about topical issues being discussed in parliament, as well as their experience getting started in politics and working in Ottawa.
The event stemmed from a trip Jasmine Wong Denike, President of the UTSU, made to Ottawa as part of ongoing efforts from ADVOCAN to lobby the federal government. ADVOCAN, founded in 2015, is a coalition of student unions from across Canada that are part of the U15, a group of Canadian research universities.
Unlike the Canadian Federation of Students, it has no membership fee or memorandum of agreement. ADVOCAN is pushing for increased funding for undergraduate research, data collection, and removing the cap on the Post-Secondary Student Support Program.
“I served as VP External last year and President this year. I have this incredible advantage insomuch as I represent students at U of T,” Denike told The Varsity. “I’m able to access these people because of who I am, but a typical student is not, and that’s something that I wanted to try and bridge the gap between,” Denike said about the motivations for the event.
She continued: “It’s important that students get involved especially while they’re still young because the government is listening to youth and they want to know what’s going on. So they might as well take advantage of it, right?”
Shea Sinnott, a graduate student from OISE, publicly spoke out about her concerns regarding the progress towards electoral reform after Denike made her opening remarks: “If nothing else, I hope that you’ll go back to Justin Trudeau and tell him that the time for [electoral reform] is now. And Canadians, I believe… want electoral reform. In other words, please make every vote count or we will vote you out,” she told the MPs present at the event.
Adam Vaughan, MP for Spadina–Fort York, spoke in response to Sinnott’s frustrations, explaining that there are technical aspects of carrying out a referendum that must be considered. “Currently in this country, referendums can only be held on constitutional matters. There is a question now before us, courtesy of the parliamentary committee, to consider how we validate this decision with a referendum.” Vaughan explained. This process “will require opening up more than just constitutional questions to be judged by referenda,” he said.
Vaughan added that there were also questions on what constitutes a majority, voting thresholds, referendum questions, and funding that need to be answered before setting the ballot date.
Members of Votes That Count, a group of students and young people from the GTA that have organized around the issue of electoral reform, later spoke with each of the MPs about electoral reform. They took photos with each MP, holding a sign indicating whether the MP supported electoral reform or did not.
First-year student and member of Votes That Count Julia DaSilva explained the group’s concerns to The Varsity. “Basically, the issue is that [first-past-the-post] creates fake majorities that give undue amounts of power to the largest parties that is not proportional to the amount of public support they actually have,” DaSilva said.
“So the goal of this activity was to bring awareness to [proportional representation] in this setting, because we have so many MPs in the place. And just make sure they get the message to Justin Trudeau that he made a promise and we’re not going to let him break it,” said DaSilva.
Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, MP for Beaches–East York, was one of the MPs who was receptive to proportional representation. He also believes that it’s important to engage youth in politics, noting that students make up a huge part of their volunteer base.
“We’re part of constituency office programs with Ryerson, we have U of T students volunteering of course as well. Then we have the constituency youth council in our riding… so we have students come out every month to meet, to talk politics, and to volunteer in the community with us as well,” Erskine-Smith said.
Denike shared the sentiment: “It’s incredibly important that students remain involved because we are the future leaders of this country, as corny as that sounds, and if we don’t engage, no one’s going to listen.”