In this year’s University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) elections, Students United was the only full slate to run, while independent candidates ran for the positions of Vice-President Internal and Vice-President Equity.
Led by uncontested presidential candidate and current Vice-President External Atif Abdullah, under Students United, emphasized working with other student unions and challenging the provincial government’s recent changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program and mandatory incidental fees. For Abdullah and his team, advocating for free education and protecting the existence of student clubs, especially in light of the Student Choice Initiative, is key.
Students United’s platform also included goals to develop fair academic policies such as limits on late assignments and a permanent self-assigned sick note policy. They are also dedicated to fighting racism, homophobia, anti-Indigenous racism, and other forms of oppression on campus.
These are all laudable, progressive goals. As I described in a previous column, it is imperative that UTM students stand up to the provincial government’s detrimental cuts to our educational and campus experience. We need a UTMSU that prioritizes this fight — and we may just get that with Students United.
But before we look to the future, students should be concerned about the nature of the election itself. Similar to last year, this year’s elections consisted of a single slate, with at least half of the positions being uncontested. Uncontested races mean that the sole candidate will almost certainly win by default — this is problematic, especially for big roles like the presidency. In the last two years, participation in elections has dropped significantly. The last year that UTMSU elections consisted of two or more slates competing against each other was 2017.
A single slate race weakens choice for students, and is not acceptable at a campus with a variety of students from different backgrounds and perspectives. Student democracy cannot function if it does not mobilize and channel these differences through competitive elections. Without the willingness of students to run for office and offer choice to voters, it is no surprise that voters show little interest and engagement. Last year’s elections had a very low turnout at 13 per cent. This means the voice of the vast majority of students are not heard.
This year, student organizations like The Medium and the UTM Campus Conservatives have actively spoken out against the UTMSU’s undemocratic behaviour. While such criticism is itself necessary for a healthy democracy, it also calls into question the degree to which the student population shares this sentiment. I have heard complaints from peers who claim that the UTMSU does not represent them, or does not focus on the problems they feel need to be addressed. These students are also likely to ignore the elections when they do come around.
With little student engagement and participation, it is clear that the student union will not be an accurate representation and reflection of the student body. At a time when the provincial government seeks to weaken student democracy, voice, and campus life, it is imperative that students are more involved and engaged than ever.
We need more students to run for office, not only to advocate for student democracy if elected, but offer voters choice through the very decision to run. In turn, voters can be more motivated and engaged and turn out in higher numbers, and therefore ensure that the union is more representative and has a strong, legitimate mandate to govern.
The results of this year’s UTMSU elections finally came out on Sunday evening. Unsurprisingly, Student United claimed victory for all five positions — including large margins for the two that were contested by independent candidates. Their success speaks to the power of slates, especially ones that are unchallenged.
Even though the new executive has built a strong platform dedicated to standing up for students against a hostile government — and we should hope that they are successful in their goals — the UTM student body needs to show greater interest in campus politics such that we have vibrant, competitive elections. While having a dedicated team is certainly part of the solution, it is not enough unless the student body is committed to stand up for itself.
Sharmeen Abedi is a fourth-year Criminology, Sociology, and English student at UTM. She is The Varsity’s UTM Affairs Columnist.