On Tuesday, March 20, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) hosted the first of two spring election debates. Moderated by Jaren Kerr, Varsity alum and current Staff Reporter at the Toronto Star, the main topic of the debate was advocacy. Running unopposed, candidates for Vice-President External, VP Equity, and VP University Affairs were given the opportunity to elaborate on their platforms. The two candidates running for President followed with a debate that conformed to a more traditional structure, with candidates responding to and rebutting one another’s points in real time.
It is unfortunate that so many candidates this year are running unopposed. As pointed out by Grondin — himself unopposed — such lack of competition is indicative of the UTSU’s failure to reach its constituency. It is also unfortunate, consequently, that VP candidates at the debate did not have an opportunity to discuss their ideas in contrast with opponents’.
Kerr did ask insightful follow-up questions aimed at clarifying holes in candidates’ statements. When unopposed VP Equity candidate Ammara Wasim stated it was not her place to judge the validity of students’ claims of the UTSU being anti-Black or transphobic, Kerr followed up with a reminder that judging the strength of such claims would in fact be a part of her role.
The VP candidates at the debate, all part of the Compass slate, remained relatively open-ended when presenting their platforms. Wasim and Grondin both seemed reluctant to pinpoint any concrete, single issues they would focus on if elected. While it is important to stay mindful of constituents’ fluctuating needs, both candidates wasted an opportunity to present clearly defined intentions. As uncontested candidates, Wasim and Grondin had no direct challengers — elaborating on their platforms would not have harmed their campaigns, and in fact might have served to motivate other candidates in clarifying their positions on controversial or overlooked issues.
Yuli Liu, candidate for VP External, expressed her support for student consensus multiple times, for instance when asked about membership in the U-Pass and other transit discounts the UTSU could pursue. While consensus is important, it is also helpful for students to see how their incoming VP External evaluates and anticipates their different needs, especially on issues that have long been discussed in the community.
All in all, the VP debates would have been a better vehicle for fleshing out the strengths and weaknesses of candidates’ ideas if all candidates had opponents to debate with in the first place. Without the watchful eye of oppositional candidates, it is regrettable that VP candidates at this debate were not able to sufficiently address potential shortcomings in their platforms.
Fortunately, Compass presidential candidate Anne Boucher was very clear about her positions on Canadian Federation of Students membership and Student Commons space allocation. In addition, Boucher expressed how her past experiences with the UTSU and running as an independent helped shape the Compass slate’s hope for a more “human” UTSU. Articulate and composed, Boucher presented herself as an experienced and knowledgeable candidate leading the biggest slate of this election season.
Independent presidential candidate Michelle Mabira also stood out as an invested activist candidate. Mabira was the sole candidate who used her experiences navigating the UTSU’s bureaucracy to explain how she personally understood the reality of the UTSU’s difficult relationship with student groups. This perspective was important in a night themed around advocacy, where so many candidates expressed their dissatisfaction with the UTSU’s longstanding inability to connect with students. Mabira successfully established herself as a candidate fully invested in student advocacy, at the receiving end of some of the UTSU’s alleged neglect in the past, and who is hoping to rectify these actions.
Four out of five candidates at the UTSU’s first debate represented the Compass slate. While all these candidates spoke of their hope for a more human UTSU, Mabira stood out as a true figure for advocacy, using personal anecdotes to humanize not only her ideas, but herself as an emotionally invested candidate. The fact that the VP positions were uncontested worked to the detriment of Compass candidates — and more importantly, it is harmful to students who remain relatively ill-informed of the intentions of their future executives.
Angela Feng is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Anthropology and Cinema Studies. She is The Varsity’s Campus Politics Columnist.