The UTSU and Varsity executive debates SHANNA HUNTER AND DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

The University of Toronto’s Students’ Union (UTSU) elections always pass quickly — sometimes too subtly. Most students, who are already bogged-down in an endless stream of deadlines, encounter little more than a few posters and Varsity articles.

Last week, we experienced what the common orthodoxy holds to be the most important part of a good election campaign: the debates. They were held by the UTSU itself and The Varsity on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. 

From cautious incumbents to activist successors 

The fact that both debates were sparsely attended and garnered little sustained attention is not surprising. It is true that, as an organization, the union has drastically improved under the last few administrations. Today, the executive has a respectable record of administrative and financial transparency. But, as highlighted in my previous columns, the ongoing lack of student participation and engagement with the UTSU remains a challenge. 

This year, we have observed a more cautious and soft-spoken executive that is reluctant to make sweeping and potentially divisive statements. While these are not necessarily pejorative labels, critics argue that this has made the organization unresponsive and feeble towards the most pressing student problems. Particular incidents include their alleged ‘silence’ concerning the university-mandated leave of absence policy and inconsistent class cancellation policy, as well as a lack of mobilization against the existential threat posed by the Student Choice Initiative. 

Another criticism has been an alleged lack of accessibility, first brought to attention by Vice-President Operations Tyler Biswurm’s comment that the UTSU is comprised exclusively of “insiders” who “don’t speak for the normal person.” This idea is multifaceted. First, there is the claim that UTSU activists maintain a closed, insider culture, making it hard to get involved unless you are a part of the ‘club.’ Second, there are institutional barriers that fail to take into consideration the needs of students, particularly those from marginalized communities. 

The executive wanted business as usual, and considering the union’s state when they got elected, this was an admirable goal. This, however, is not the case today among this year’s candidates. The most consistent theme of the debates and the election more generally is the apparent consensus on the need for a more activist union. The main disagreements came from how aggressive and adversarial this activism ought to be. 

President

The two presidential candidates, Joshua Bowman and Bryan Liceralde, come from different backgrounds. Bowman, who has been involved in student politics for several years, encapsulates the image of the “insider.” Nevertheless, he maintains that his experiences as a low-income student, who has both worked part-time and commuted, keep him in touch with accessibility issues. These words have been met by action as, for instance, he proposed the correct decision to extend the nomination period for elections. 

Meanwhile, Liceralde is a newcomer to student politics. I confess that prior to the beginning of the election, I did not know who he was. He claims that this outsider status, including the relative inexperience that it brings, benefits him. In The Varsity’s debate, he said that he comes from the “front lines” of the student body and therefore understands its problems. He calls his platform “visionary.”

On this initial front, Bowman holds the advantage. The election of an outsider like Liceralde strikes me as somewhat radical. Liceralde has failed to demonstrate how, from a purely pragmatic and experiential perspective, he will be better at performing the day-to-day aspects of the role. Bowman has the experience and understands how the union works, especially as a UTSU Director this year. While Bowman can be considered an “insider,” this is offset by his actions to increase accountability. 

Bowman emphasized three policies and priorities “more so than anything”: the creation of a first-year council, restructuring the student aid program, and an audit of mental health services on campus. Liceralde, on the other hand, proposed a removal of breadth requirements, a review of the university’s mental health policies, and changes to the student aid program — which would impact his salary as president.

What can be observed here is that both have relatively similar goals, and I cannot determine any areas of substantive difference. It is clear that both individuals, if elected, would pursue the same abstract objectives. However, I maintain that Bowman has a much more practical hold on these issues. 

Vice-President External Affairs 

VP External Affairs candidates Lucas Granger and Spencer Robertson both indicated their strong disapproval of the provincial government’s changes to student aid, and have indicated that mental health would be their top priority. They disagreed on which tactics ought to be used to accomplish their goals. 

Robertson takes a more provocative approach, arguing that progress can be achieved by lobbying the provincial government. While his language is not aggressive, this does suggest a more adversarial approach. In contrast, Granger emphasized a cooperative relationship with the municipal level of government. 

This demonstrates the main issue of this campaign, and I believe that Granger proposes the better option. The provincial government has already shown innate hostility to student unions like the UTSU, and it seems unlikely that it will change its mind as a result of a more vocal organization. In contrast, a cooperative strategy with the municipal level, an organization more willing to strengthen the UTSU, will ultimately be more productive. 

Vice-President University Affairs

With four candidates — Christopher Chiasson, Avani Singh, Sharon Ma, and Ramtin Taramsari — the University Affairs portfolio is the most contested race and may be more important than the presidential race. All of the candidates attacked and proposed changes in the same areas: the administration’s response to mental health and the class cancelation policy. 

They all proposed an undoubtedly activist approach with the main differences coming from the degree of aggression and adversarialness. The Varsity’s moderator recognized this, indicating their “disagreement in method” on whether or not they should focus on “mobilizing students or communicating with the U of T administration.”

Chiasson was the most extreme, going so far as to claim that the university does not care about students on multiple occasions. He argues that protests are the best option, forcing action by university administration through “[making] their lives as inconvenient and shitty [as possible], until change happens.” 

By contrast, Singh appeared to be the strongest advocate for a more balanced, cooperative approach, indicating her understanding of a “link” between demonstrations and working with the administration. She made an effort to emphasize the administration’s “humanity” and good intentions. 

I believe that Chiasson’s approach would be unhelpful. It is difficult to make strong, productive changes without building relationships and a sense of common purpose. Chiasson’s idea leaves no room for this. There is a place in holding respectful demonstrations to draw attention to your cause, but you cannot question their intentions and humanity and hope to get things done. 

We need cooperative, not adversarial, advocacy 

These are, in my view, the most salient issues in this election. They demonstrate where student concerns are and what the state of the UTSU is. Consequently, they substantially impact how one votes. These grievances and efforts to create change are legitimate, well-intentioned, and well-needed. 

However, I believe that the elected candidates should not get too carried away. Activism and advocacy ought not to turn into adversariness toward the university administration and the provincial government. We should keep in mind the importance of administrative competence and building relationships with these organizations. This means a slow and frustrating process, but one that is more likely to yield results.

Sam Routley is a fourth-year Political Science, Philosophy, and History student. He is The Varsity’s UTSG Campus Politics Columnist.

Disclosure: Avani Singh served as the Chair of the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc. — the not-for-profit corporation that publishes The Varsity — from May 2018 to March 17, 2019. Singh has recused herself from the role of Chair and is taking a leave of absence from the board for the duration of the UTSU election period.

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