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First UTSU executive debate focuses on advocacy initiatives

Candidates for President, VP University Affairs, VP External, and VP Equity invited to speak at Tuesday debate
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Presidential candidates Michelle Mabira and Anne Boucher. ANDY TAKAGI/THE VARSITY
Presidential candidates Michelle Mabira and Anne Boucher. ANDY TAKAGI/THE VARSITY

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) held the first half of its executive debate on March 20. Centred on the union’s advocacy work, it featured candidates for the positions most concerned with student advocacy.

Debaters included the uncontested candidates for: VP University Affairs, Compass’ Joshua Grondin; VP External, Compass’ Yuli Liu; and VP Equity, Compass’ Ammara Wasim. Compass’ presidential candidate, Anne Boucher, and independent presidential candidate Michelle Mabira also debated. 

The presidential candidates

The only contested debate was for the presidential position. Boucher and Mabira debated issues ranging from staff layoffs to meeting disruptions to the union’s membership in the Canadian Federation of Students.

Both candidates pointed out that the UTSU has become unapproachable to students. Boucher is running a campaign focused on “humanizing” the UTSU; she said that the UTSU has become “corporate” in recent years and that though those years were necessary, the union must be brought back to the students.

Boucher also criticized the union for not being forthcoming with information, citing lack of clear information given on the Sandra Hudson lawsuit settlement.

In her opening statement, Mabira said, “I am running as a student activist, not a student politician.” Later, she criticized the UTSU for shutting down debate on issues such as the union’s recent service cuts, pointing to her involvement with the Save our Services, Support our Staff campaign, which has protested the UTSU at board meetings. She said that the UTSU needs to pause and engage with students.

Mabira claimed that after a Save our Services protest in which she participated during 2017 orientation, Boucher posted a picture “mocking” the participants. Boucher denied recollection of Mabira’s claim, but apologized if it did occur. 

Mabira did not support the UTSU’s decision to fire Vita Carlino and Maria Galvez, the union’s former Clubs Coordinator and Health and Dental Coordinator respectively, because she was distrustful of the financial report conducted by current UTSU President Mathias Memmel, arguing that Memmel does not have sufficient experience to be creating accurate financial reports.

If elected, Mabira said she would hire a third party to look at the union’s financials, though she reiterated that she would not immediately rehire the two staff positions until the finances had been thoroughly vetted.

Boucher, on the other hand, stated she would not consider hiring back staff. She noted that clubs funding went out ahead of schedule this year, and argued the union has “done fine” without the Clubs Coordinator position.

Another topic of the debate was the union’s efforts to leave the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). Mabira said it is “one of the most polarizing issues on campus,” and therefore she is choosing to remain neutral on the UTSU leaving CFS membership. This way, people with concerns on either side could approach her knowing that she is “going to listen to you no matter what you say.”

Boucher said that in her experience, she has found that most students are either ignorant of the CFS, or generally agree to leaving the CFS when they learn about the organization. She also argued that students who support staying in the CFS have been “poached” by the organization, and that they were not representative of the greater student body. Boucher argued that she and the union have a duty to support the majority over the minority.

The President portion of the debate exceeded past the slated 9:00 pm end time, but debate moderator and Toronto Star journalist Jaren Kerr assured those in attendance and watching online that they would continue to discuss the topics at the next debate.

The Vice-Presidential Candidates

Running for VP University Affairs, Joshua Grondin spoke about his plans to amend the credit/no credit system and improve health services at the university, especially opposing the mandatory leave policy that could remove students with mental health issues from campus without their input or knowledge.

The credit/no credit system as it currently stands does not give enough time for students to choose whether or not to use the option, said Grondin. An extension of that deadline would allow students to take courses that are “notoriously difficult” or courses that “they just find genuinely interesting. They would also be more likely to take risks with changing their programs without having to worry about being penalized for it forever.”

Grondin said that the mandatory leave policy, in its current form, does a disservice to students who were not made part of the decision. He would oppose any future policy that does not require students to be at the centre of such decisions.

Regarding how he would use his role to help students in conflict with university policies, he said he would use his connections as VP University Affairs to stand alongside student activism and work with such organizations to draft policies. He cited Silence is Violence as an organization that he hopes to work with in the future on sexual violence policy at the university.

VP Equity candidate Ammara Wasim talked about her trust in the concerns of the student body and said that if she is elected, she would listen to the complaints against the UTSU from student groups on campus and prioritize their needs and concerns. She said she would also lobby for affordable, healthy food to be provided to low-income students. 

Wasim also said she hopes to conduct an “equity audit” of services and departments at U of T to find “the gaps in those services and [try] to lobby the university to fix those gaps accordingly.”

VP External candidate Yuli Liu spoke about her views on leaving the CFS, her concerns for advocacy for international students, and her willingness to reach out in order to make change.

She said she wants to lobby for better policies for student housing and a cap on international tuition, of which there currently is none. Liu intends to seek out politicians that are willing to work with her and listen to the needs of U of T students.

“They have to view us as the first priority. I’ll send cards out, I’ll set up meetings. If they still don’t hear about us, that’s the moment when we can gather up and really respond loudly, and advocate loudly, because we have to get our problems solved,” she said.

VP Professional Faculties candidate Gallop Fan also gave a two minute introduction to the ?️oundless slate, which is only running two candidates. Some platform points included leaving the CFS, eliminating Wednesday classes so students can fully enjoy “Toonie Tuesdays” at Einstein Pub on College Street, and changing the official UTSU font to Comic Sans.

“Lets be honest, we’re running for the trolls,” said Fan of himself and his fellow ?️oundless candidate Alyy Patel. 

The President, VP Internal, VP Campus Life, VP Professional Faculties candidates will debate each other at the March 21 debate on Operations, and the relevant candidates will also debate at The Varsity’s President and VP Internal debate on Friday, March 23.