On Wednesday, March 8, all but one of the executive candidates for the University of Toronto Students’ Election spoke at the UTSU Executive Debate to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing the union.
The event was moderated by Chief Returning Officer (CRO) Bridgette Dalima for the first half and the anti-harassment officer Ellie Ade Kur for the second half. The four slates debating were Demand Better UofT, We The Students, Reboot UofT, and Whomst’d’ve UofT.
Anne Boucher, an independent candidate running for the position of Vice-President External, also participated in the event. Independent presidential candidate Joshua Hands did not attend the forum.
Many of the questions posed to the candidates were in regards to what they would do about rising tuition fees in Ontario.
Carina Zhang, who is running for Vice-President University Affairs with We The Students, affirmed her slate’s commitment to free tuition, saying, “We The Students aim to fight for free tuition for everyone, including domestic students as well as international students [sic].”
The other slates were focused on capping rather than lowering tuition, and many of the candidates emphasized their desire to hear from students and get them involved in lobbying for lower tuition.
Josie Wu of Demand Better, who is running for Vice-President University Affairs, said, “We want to work on having a cap on international student fee instead of just yelling outside asking for free tuition and wanting to make a visible plan [sic].”
Speaking for Reboot, Nadine Abd El Razek, who is running for Vice-President External, explained how she doesn’t feel that students are hearing enough about the issues.
“Our slate has a pretty good network in the municipal and provincial government… so we hope to use those connections to kind of get a better position. But I feel that it would first come from the students, and in order to make that happen we have to actually let the students know what’s happening,” she said.
Saarthak Saxena, who is running with the Whomst’d’ve slate for Vice-President University Affairs, stated that his slate is “looking to decrease the rate at which Governing Council increases the rate of tuition, and that’ll be from lobbying… I think we could reach out to UofT, hopefully, we’re not very good at that.”
Existence of Slates
Demand Better, We The Students, and Whomst’d’ve presidential candidates all agreed that slates are problematic and should not exist, whereas the Reboot candidate said that slates need to become institutionalized parties.
Andre Fast, with We The Students, said that the slate system makes the election process inaccessible to many students on campus.
Fast said that students should be consulted on the issue, but he supports making “elections accessible to the most people.”
Micah Ryu, with Reboot, said that parties should be institutionalized in order to make the electoral process more accessible. He stated that currently it is difficult to join slates unless you are an insider, but parties allow independent people to run in a party’s primary race.
Ryu claimed that with individual focused elections, “the individuals who already have the name recognition will continue to establish themselves further within the system.”
Mathias Memmel, with Demand Better, said that slates are “toxic” and should be banned. Slates, according to him, “support those who have agency already and have power.”
He believes that the slate system is not able to best represent the interests of students. In response to institutionalizing parties, Memmel stated that it was “probably one of the worst ideas I’ve heard in a very long time.”
He said that by institutionalizing parties, the UTSU will continue to be run by groups of insiders and to be inaccessible to individual students.
UTSU and Advocacy
The presidential candidates were also asked about their stances on the UTSU performing advocacy work.
Memmel believes “100 per cent… that the UTSU needs to make advocacy one of its core mandate.”
He stated that the UTSU needs to work with other groups on campus to lobby the university and the administration. He also said that the UTSU needs to be there to educate people when “there is bigotry and hate speech on campus.”
Reboot said that UTSU advocacy needs to be approved by the majority of students to “[reflect] their needs and their wants.”
Ryu stated that it is not the role of the UTSU to “talk down” to students about political debates. He said that the UTSU should give more funding to clubs and allow clubs to do the advocating because they have members who are passionate about these issues.
Whomst’d’ve said that the UTSU should try to remain neutral to avoid making portions of students feel disenfranchised, but that there are some issues that the UTSU does need to advocate for. The slate’s presidential candidate John Sweeney listed issues including tuition, transit, and the well-being of marginalized groups on campus.
We The Students is in support of advocacy, including lobbying the administration, as well as municipal, provincial, and federal governments on issues pertinent to students.
Fast stated the slate also wants the university to divest from fossil fuels and the private for-profit American prison system.
The candidates for Vice-President Equity were also asked whether they would work with the Black Liberation Collective (BLC) to address anti-Black racism on campus.
In October, the BLC staged a protest at the UTSU office, accusing the union of being complicit in anti-Black racism. The group is calling for more funding for Black student groups, a town hall on anti-Black racism, and an end to the union’s lawsuit against former Executive Director Sandra Hudson.
Michelle Mabira, speaking for We The Students, said that she agreed with the BLC about there being racism on campus. “Obviously there’s something wrong and we have to work to fix it, and it does involve putting your pride aside. Because if someone is telling you you’re doing something wrong, you have to put your pride aside for the sake and the safety of the students,” Mabira said.
The Demand Better candidate Chimwmwe Alao stated, “I believe we should be working with all Black student organizations in order to gain all their inputs and… how we can address this problem together, as Black students, and then make effective change within the UTSU.”
Keelie-Shay Eaid of Reboot took a different stance from the other candidates and repudiated the BLC for what she called their “intimidation tactics.”
“This is going back to October of 2016, they had actually… attacked the UTSU building,” Eaid said. “We would love to work with all Black students… but the BLC, not particularly, because of these intimidation tactics. They are not something that should be condoned because it is some sort of violence.”
Immediately after the candidates finished answering questions about the BLC, Ellie Ade Kur, the anti-harassment officer, took to the stage and addressed the issue.
“I think it’s very important that you draw a distinction between a protest and an attack, and just being very cognizant about how you’re speaking, particularly against groups of oppressed people that are speaking to their own oppression,” Ade Kur said.
The elections will take place online from March 14–16. The Varsity is hosting a presidential debate on March 13 at 7:30 pm.