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To next year’s unions: less controversy, more engagement, please

Reviewing this year’s SCSU, UTGSU, UTSU, and UTMSU

To next year’s unions: less controversy, more engagement, please

Thanks to last year’s levy increase, The Varsity has expanded its tri-campus and graduate affairs coverage. We are proud to comprehensively report on the governance and election cycles of four major student unions: the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU); the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU); the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU).

With the emergence of a common threat — the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative — student media and governments must remain committed, more than ever, to serving U of T students, earning their trust, and defending campus life. So let’s remember, student unions: our job is to keep students informed, and yours is to represent them.

As the academic year comes to an end, there is no better way to inform students than to review campus politics from the last year. All four unions must do better if we are to have meaningful student democracy.

For next year, let’s hope for more competitive and contested elections, more engagement with the membership, and unequivocal freedom of the press to cover student politics.

The SCSU

SCSU elections were the first of the season, and the most controversial. Unfortunately, controversy had been striking the union all year. In the fall, multiple food safety scandals raised serious concerns about sanitary practices on campus. Yet the union did not respond with meaningful action.

In December, the Board of Directors voted unanimously on a motion put forward by Director of Political Science Raymond Dang that would regulate and limit student media access to board meetings. Dang accused student media of “abusing their positions” and “misrepresenting the reality of the situation.”

The duty of media is to freely and independently hold those in power  to account. During the 2019 SCSU elections, Dang expressed some regret for the policy. But it nonetheless demonstrated anti-democratic tendencies on the part of the union.

SCSU elections were, however, the most competitive and contested of the four unions. Two slates faced off, making for an engaged race, and ending in a split executive. But everything else was pure chaos.

One presidential candidate, SCSYou’s Anup Atwal, was questionably disqualified early on for multiple campaign violations. He made noise when he claimed that fellow presidential candidate, Shine Bright UTSC’s Chemi Lhamo, hit another candidate with a table, which Lhamo denied. Post-disqualification, he was exposed by The Underground, UTSC’s student paper, for making transphobic remarks about Vice-President (VP) Equity candidate Leon Tsai in a leaked group chat.

Controversy did not conclude once the election results were released. President-elect Lhamo became the target of an online harassment campaign due to her views on Tibetan independence. The story became a world headline.

Some U of T students agree with demands for the nullification of her election. But it is important that students respect democratic outcomes and demand change through voting or running as candidates themselves. Most importantly, it is unacceptable that an elected candidate face threats of violence.

Drama continued when the board refused to ratify Rayyan Alibux, who had been elected as VP Operations. Concerns were raised regarding Alibux’s involvement in Atwal’s transphobic remarks. In a Varsity op-ed, Alibux reasonably questioned the legality of the SCSU’s decision. The SCSU later reversed its decision and ratified Alibux.

The new SCSU must correct for the anti-democratic tendencies of its predecessors and ensure that elections are run competitively and fairly. And of course, it must cut the controversy.

The UTGSU

In December, the UTGSU Annual General Meeting (AGM) failed to meet quorum. As such, it was unable to pass important motions, including its 2017–2018 audited financial statements. Members were frustrated and some worried that the organization would financially default to the university.

At the General Council meeting immediately following the AGM, conflict arose between Varsity journalists and the council. The journalists were offered seating on the condition that they would not photograph or live-tweet the events, the latter of which they purposefully ignored as directed by The Varsity’s editors.

Live-tweeting helps ensure transparency, allows The Varsity to keep a public record of governance events, and makes meetings accessible to those who cannot attend. But The Varsity’s journalists were asked to leave.

These issues were resolved only recently. Over the course of several months, The Varsity had to defend its interest in reporting on the events of the union, and we still differ in our views of how the union’s activities should be scrutinized. Ultimately, journalists’ attendance at UTGSU meetings is still subject to challenge from UTGSU members.

The union’s elections were overwhelmingly dominated by incumbents. Five of the seven individuals elected are returning to positions they held last year. This suggests that insiders will retain control of the organization, and that little is likely to change.

Moreover, only five per cent of eligible students voted, demonstrating that engagement with the union is very weak. This undermines the credibility and mandate of the elected representatives.

Nevertheless, The Varsity is able to provide a valuable service to our readership, which overlaps with the UTGSU’s membership, by reporting on the union’s activities and working to increase awareness. We hope the UTGSU works to smooth out its operations, address engagement, and, in time, fully accept the importance of our presence in the room.

The UTMSU

This year, the UTMSU made significant changes both internally and externally. During their AGMs, the UTMSU and UTSU voted unanimously to separate.

With this separation, funds paid to the UTSU by UTM students will instead be paid to the UTMSU to directly improve campus life there. This is a step in the right direction. According to incoming President Atif Abdullah, one way these funds could be used is to create more bursaries for UTM students.

After intense debate at the AGM, students voted to reject online voting in UTMSU elections. This was disappointing. As UTM is a commuter campus, online voting is the most accessible means to involve students in campus governance. Incorporating online voting could have increased voter turnout at UTM, which was 13 per cent last year.

It is clear that the UTMSU has not made itself accessible to students. In this year’s election, the Students United slate swept all five executive positions. There was no other slate, and the majority of positions were uncontested.

If students were engaged, the race would have been more competitive. UTMSU executives should take a closer look at how they operate and what they can do to improve student engagement, and not just during elections.

For starters, the UTMSU should be more transparent by letting The Medium, UTM’s student paper, do its job. Earlier this year, a conflict between the two was publicized. The Medium has its flaws, including questionable journalistic standards, but nonetheless serves as an important voice at UTM, keeping students informed about their elected representatives. As such, the UTMSU should invite criticism from The Medium — not seek to limit it.

To its credit, the UTMSU has been able to introduce a U-Pass and the course retake policy, and extend the credit/no credit deadline. These have taken years to develop and implement and are important to UTM students. If the UTMSU worked to increase transparency with The Medium and facilitate engagement among students, it could achieve much more. 

The UTSU

At the UTSU AGM last fall, slates were banned from future elections. Slates had previously enabled teams of candidates to run under organized platforms.

UTSU President Anne Boucher claimed that independent candidates, as opposed to slated candidates, would offer voters a better understanding of the individual running as opposed to the team to which they belong. Many also criticize slates for an elitist culture that favours insiders. In theory, these are valid perspectives that justify the ban.

But the same night that slates were banned, another remarkable phenomenon took place: the UTSU failed to maintain the required quorum of 50 attendees. This despite being one of the largest student unions in Canada. This spoke to the UTSU’s longstanding and fundamental engagement problem.

The UTSU’s attempt to make elections more accessible to outsiders by banning slates, when the union continued to face, and had yet to resolve, its engagement problem, turned out to be a huge miscalculation. The casualty was the 2019 UTSU election.

This year, no candidates ran for three of the seven executive positions, including the crucial VP Operations and Student Life roles that are needed this summer to draft a budget and prepare for orientation. There were also no candidates for 18 out of 28 Board of Director positions — which means it will be unable to meet quorum and function. The 10 positions that had candidates were all uncontested.

The lack of candidates and contested positions is extremely concerning, and reflects the lowest level of engagement in recent history. Voters responded in kind: turnout was 4.2 per cent — the worst of all four unions this year — and no executive candidates garnered 1,000 votes.

This contrasts with the three previous spring elections, where candidates tended to surpass this threshold and voter turnout was at least double. In those elections, there was at least one full slate competing.

In practice, slates serve to ensure that a given team fields candidates for all available positions, and by running under an organized platform, more easily engages voters. Only after securing a record of stronger engagement and turnout should the UTSU have considered a slate ban.

As it stands, the 2019–2020 UTSU has an extremely weak mandate to govern. The current UTSU has been forced to hold by-elections in April to address the unfilled positions, before the new term starts in May. Given that these elections will occur during exam season, we have low expectations for the quality of campaigning and level of engagement from students.

Next year, the UTSU’s priority must be to market itself better, recognizing that students do not feel heard, represented, or connected to it. It must launch a campaign that builds a better relationship with students to justify its existence and its fees, and improve voter and candidate turnout for next year’s election.

Externally, it must be more vocal vis-à-vis the university administration with student concerns like the weather cancellation policy and mental health resources. And, of course, it — alongside the three other unions — must lobby the provincial government to minimize the impact that the Student Choice Initiative and Ontario Student Assistance Program changes have on student life and finances.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

Students United sweeps UTMSU elections, executives win over 1,000 votes each

Slate claims two contested positions, other three candidates win uncontested

Students United sweeps UTMSU elections, executives win over 1,000 votes each

The Students United slate dominated the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) 2019 election — unofficial election results were released on the UTMSU’s Facebook page today.

The slate ran mostly unopposed — the only races in which they faced opposition were the Vice-President Internal and Vice-President Equity elections. Both of these were won by margins greater than 500 votes.

Atif Abdullah, current Vice-President External, won the presidency uncontested by a margin of 1,231 votes, accruing 314 ‘no’ votes.

Kai Ng and Miguel Cabral won Vice-President External and Vice-President University Affairs, respectively, both by margins greater than 1,200 votes.

Vice-President Internal-elect Sara Malhotra won in a contested election against Luke Warren. Malhotra garnered 1,483 votes, 1,110 more than Warren, with 164 spoiled ballots.

Habon Ali won the election by the smallest margin of the two contested elections, winning 693 more votes than her opponent Saarang Ahuja. The race also saw the largest number of spoiled ballots at 188.

Reviewing the 2019 UTMSU elections

Students United’s pledge to resist Ford cuts is laudable, but a one-sided race is concerning

Reviewing the 2019 UTMSU elections

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.

Candidate Profile: Atif Abdullah

Slate: Students United, President

Candidate Profile: Atif Abdullah

Atif Abdullah is a third-year Computer Science student running uncontested for President under the slate Students United.

The current UTMSU Vice-President External, Abdullah is seeking presidency to lead the union through the “challenging period” of likely funding cuts due to the Ontario government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI).

His top priority as president would be to ensure that student clubs, societies, and groups are “supported as heavily as possible” by minimizing any negative impacts from the SCI.

He also values the UTMSU’s academic policy work, citing the UTMSU’s successful lobbying for a course retake policy at UTM, whereby students can repeat one credit and have the second grade used for their cumulative GPA.

Abdullah said that he is working with the UTMSU to implement “Self-Assigned Sick Notes” as a pilot project within six months, as an alternative to the current sick notes system.

Speaking on the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), an organization that represents student unions across the country, Abdullah said that the CFS–Ontario has done “amazing work,” which he saw as a representative on its Ontario Executive Committee this year.

He particularly lauded it for providing support and resources to northern and rural universities, which might not have been able to access them otherwise.

Discussing a media policy, Abdullah said that he believes student media “should have every sort of access to any public meetings, any public settings, [and] any executives that are elected by students.”

Speaking on this year’s conflict between the UTMSU and The Medium, UTM’s student newspaper, he recalled that both parties have acknowledged mistakes made in their interactions. He spoke in support of a cooperative relationship with the press, saying that the organizations “don’t have to love each other… but there needs to be a level of respect and trust between the two organizations to actually be able to work together.”

On how he would respond to postsecondary changes by the provincial government as president, Abdullah said he would work with the CFS and other student unions to push back and ensure that the UTMSU has a “unified voice” across Ontario.

He also said that the UTMSU is currently trying to meet with Training, Colleges, and Universities Minister Merrilee Fullerton and parliamentary assistants for direct advocacy against the changes. He also noted that the UTMSU has met and will continue to meet with elected MPPs such as Progressive Conservative MPP Sheref Sabawy.

Abdullah added that it is too early to tell what funding cuts the union could face as he was not sure whether the list of essential services was finalized based on consultations with Sabawy.

Citing a lack of information, he said that it is “a little hard to gauge what our plan is going to be next year.” However, should cuts occur, he plans to avoid discriminating an student group funding based on whether students opt out of individual fees, saying that the union represents all UTM students, regardless of their choice to pay fees.

On separation from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), he said that UTM students should expect a similar medical and dental plan under a different insurance provider. He also said that he plans for a continued positive working relationship with the UTSG-based UTSU, which includes collaborative advocacy for policy changes.

— With files from Kathryn Mannie

Candidate Profile: Luke Victor Warren

Independent: Vice-President Internal

Candidate Profile: Luke Victor Warren

Luke Victor Warren is a third-year Digital Enterprise Management student running for Vice-President Internal as an independent candidate. His position is one of two contested executive races.

He said that he previously also served as an associate to the VP Internal and as an assistant to the Board of Directors.

When asked about his decision to run, Warren said, “I’ve been a part of the UTMSU for two years, I’ve worked a lot with the union.” He added that “all of my fondest memories have always been because of the union and I’m running because it’s about time I give back to the community that’s done so much for me.”

“I feel the impacts of rising tuition, I feel that there’s a lot of issues that students are facing,” said Warren. “I personally come from a low-income background… I just want to continue the good work that the UTMSU does.”

Warren said that he knows how much work the role takes and has “basically been doing the job,” which to him entails managing human resources, arranging meetings, conducting outreach, and being active within the UTM community.

Warren adds that he would like to push for changes similar to the course retake policy passed earlier this year during his term, to “help students in their academics [and] not feel so punished by mistakes that they make.”

Warren would “reduce redundancies” to offset changes in the union budget as a result of the Ford government’s changes to postsecondary education funding.

As for implementing a new health and dental plan following the UTMSU’s separation from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), Warren responded, “You just go out and find a new plan, it’s not impossible.”

“I know that people were upset [about the unions’ separation],” said Warren. “However it won’t be a impossible to find a new [plan].”

“Yes, [the UTSU] gave us the Health and Dental Plan, but aside from that… it was almost like a weird relationship, like you’re dragging a dead horse around.”

Candidate Profile: Kai Ng

Slate: Students United, Vice-President External

Candidate Profile: Kai Ng

Kai Ng is a third-year political science student running unopposed for Vice-President External under the Students United slate.

The current President of the UTM International Cantonese Union and as a UTMSU WeChat Team volunteer, Ng writes that he wants to address the provincial government’s recently announced changes to postsecondary funding.

These changes include the Student Choice Initiative (SCI), which requires institutions to develop an opt-out system for incidental fees, and adjustments to the Ontario Student Assistance Program.

Ng also hopes to combat food insecurity at UTM and start a campaign for the upcoming federal election that discusses student issues and provides information on how to vote.

Addressing the relationship between the UTMSU and the Canadian Federation of Student (CFS), Ng hopes to use the research and campaigning resources that the CFS provides to lobby the federal and provincial governments and to connect with students across Canada.

Ng believes that the recently announced 10 per cent domestic tuition reduction will be “beneficial for students,” but also notes that international students and workers will disproportionately face the effects of the cuts as the university has to make up for the reduction in tuition.

He also believes that the SCI is a threat to student unions and other levy-funded groups and hopes to run a campaign to educate students on the resources provided by student unions as well as lobby the university to protect levy-funded groups as they are “essential to student life.”   

 

Candidate Profile: Miguel Cabral

Slate: Students United, Vice-President University Affairs

Candidate Profile: Miguel Cabral

Miguel Cabral, a fourth-year student and current UTMSU Promotions Coordinator, is running uncontested to be Vice-President University Affairs with the Students United slate.

As part of his experiences, Cabral lists his current affiliations with the Middle Eastern Students’ Association and the Muslim Students’ Association — adding that being a part of and working with clubs and student unions has been what has made his time at U of T “very enjoyable.”

Cabral also recently ran to be on the UTM Campus Council, advocating for similar policies as his current campaign. Results for that race will be released on April 8.

As for his goals in policy, Cabral hopes to work on “fair academic policies,” saying that he is ready to advocate for extending the deadline to drop courses with refund, “a self-assigned sick note” policy, and “a midterm deferral policy.”  

Cabral also hopes to lobby the university to have campus space that is “reflective of UTM students’ needs,” listing study, leisure, de-stressing, and multifaith and prayer spaces, as well as more food options.

Editor’s Note (March 14, 8:28 pm): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Cabral lost the race for UTM Campus Council. In fact, the results have not been released yet, therefore Cabral is still in the running for the election. The Varsity regrets the error. 

Candidate Profile: Habon Ali

Slate: Students United, Vice-President Equity

Candidate Profile: Habon Ali

Habon Ali is a fourth-year student studying Biology and Environmental Sciences running for Vice-President Equity as part of the Students United slate. Her position is one of two contested executive races.

Ali describes herself as “a social being” and her love of social interactions helped to develop her “passion for community building and youth participation.”

If elected, Ali plans to tackle issues of food security, the availability of multi-faith spaces, and racism, homophobia, and anti-Indigeneity on campus. She is also looking to implement mandatory training on consent for campus groups and workers.

When asked about the UTMSU’s voting system, which uses paper ballots as opposed to online voting, Ali is open to reforms to increase students’ abilities to democratically engage with the student union. She supports the establishment of a working group to propose improvements to the current system, ranging from advanced polling to mail-in ballots.

Faced with the separation of the UTMSU and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), Ali and the Students United slate remain committed to addressing local issues at UTM, while also taking every opportunity available to collaborate with the UTSU on student issues.  

Off campus, Ali has experience as a member of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council and has worked on various initiatives including the Toronto Public Health’s Youth Health Action Network and the think tank Mosaic Institute. She has engaged on campus through Habitat for Humanity UTM and the Somali Student Association.