Ameera Karim, Dermot Gordon O’Halloran, Michael Junior Samakayi win UTSU by-election executive positions

Arjun Kaul wins uncontested Vice-President Operations race

Ameera Karim, Dermot Gordon O’Halloran, Michael Junior Samakayi win UTSU by-election executive positions

After no candidates ran in the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Spring Election for a large number of executive and director positions, Ameera Karim, Arjun Kaul, Dermot Gordon O’Halloran, and Michael Junior Samakayi have won the positions of Vice-Presidents Student Life, Operations, Professional Faculties, and Equity, respectively.

The VP Equity race was uncontested in the initial election but delayed due to outstanding appeals to the Elections and Referenda Committee.

The by-election saw 1,071 voters, a turnout of 2.9 per cent — 531 fewer voters than the 4.2 per cent turnout of the Spring Election.

Karim won the most contested executive race, garnering 344 votes and beating out runner-up Spencer Robertson by 94 votes. There were 410 abstentions, accounting for 38.3 per cent of votes cast in this race.

Kaul ran uncontested and received a yes vote from 89.2 per cent of participating students, with 377 students abstaining and 75 voting no.

O’Halloran’s competition, Muskan Sethi, withdrew from the race midway. Therefore, O’Halloran was elected Vice-President Professional Faculties with 130 votes. There were 120 abstentions in this race, totalling 46.5 per cent of votes.

Samakayi won by the largest margin of the contested executive elections — 376 votes were cast in his favour over the 164 votes cast for runner-up Hanya Wahdan. There were 531 abstentions, equalling to 49.6 per cent of the vote.

The UTSU Board of Directors also saw 16 positions filled, still leaving two seats unfilled.

UTSU executive candidates debate focuses on orientation, mental health, equity

Crowded by-election playing field comes after minimal engagement in general election

UTSU executive candidates debate focuses on orientation, mental health, equity

Issues of transparency, club funding, mental health, and equity took centre stage at the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) by-election executive candidates debate on April 11. Candidates for Vice-President Student Life, Vice-President Equity, Vice-President Professional Faculties, and Vice-President Operations competed for votes in a crowded election.

The debate was moderated by Board of Directors Chair Eric Bryce and began with a land acknowledgement and equity statement given by current Vice-President University Affairs Josh Grondin.

VP Student Life

The VP Student Life election is the most contested race of both the general and the by-election period, with four candidates running. The three candidates at the debate were Ameera Karim, Spencer Robertson, and Bhanu Priya Sharma. Miharu Ho was unable to attend due to an academic conflict.

Robertson also previously ran for Vice-President External Affairs in the general election, but ultimately lost to Innis College Director Lucas Granger. He also ran unsuccessfully in 2018 for VP Campus Life, which is now called Student Life.

Candidates were asked about the Student Choice Initiative — the provincial government’s mandate for an opt-out option for certain student fees starting September — and how they would make up for a loss in funding.

Sharma emphasized the importance of creating an open discussion between students and herself, suggesting that this could be a possible way to not have students opt out.

Karim suggested the possibility of holding training sessions for club leaders in order to help them gain corporate sponsorships. She also proposed holding drop-in hours at the UTSU office, helping clubs find cheaper alternatives for their needs, and making the Student Commons bookable for clubs.

The Student Commons is a planned student-run hub to be located at 230 College Street that is a decade in the making, whose much-delayed opening is set for June.

Robertson hopes to open the door to more constructive criticism from club leaders. He also wants to make the Student Commons bookable and reduce the amount of time that non-U of T clubs can use the space.

Candidates were also asked how they plan to better involve clubs and groups in orientation going forward.

Sharma plans to implement bimonthly video chats with club leaders. For orientation, she wants an action plan for emergencies, a water station, and a booth for international students to get help.

Karim wants the Clubs Carnival to feel like less like a “filler event.” She hopes to use this position to collaborate with colleges and to train them to make orientation feel more special.

Robertson described this year’s orientation as a “nightmare,” adding that he wants to create a space where students can give feedback and assess where orientation can improve.

One audience member asked if candidates would grant funding to anti-abortion groups, and all three adamantly said that they would not.

“The answer is a hard no,” said Robertson. “We shouldn’t fund clubs that take away the rights or safety of students.”

Karim agreed, stating that these clubs create an unsafe atmosphere on campus, and that the VP Student Life should listen to students concerns about these groups.

“There’s clearly a line between freedom of expression and hate speech,” she said.

Sharma concurred with both candidates as well, saying, “While every student has the freedom to voice their opinion, it would also be a hard no for me to give them funding or space at the Clubs Carnival in which they could promote a hurtful topic.”

Another audience member asked about corporate sponsorships and where the candidates would draw the line in allowing clubs to attain corporate sponsorships from controversial or socially irresponsible companies.

Robertson said that he hopes to be in a financial position where he could decline money from unethical companies, saying there are times when the UTSU needs to draw the line.

Karim said that she would not want to take money from any company that creates or promotes an unsafe environment, and hopes to work with club leaders to help them find money from ethical sources.

Sharma stated that while she would recommend that club leaders refuse funding from organizations that would “take away the rights” of students, the decision would ultimately be left up to the club leaders as to where they get their funding.

 

VP Professional Faculties

The candidates for VP Professional Faculties — Dermot Gordon O’Halloran and Muskan Sethi — took the stage shortly after to discuss how they would represent and bring attention to students in their constituencies. O’Halloran is a music student and Sethi is in Chemical Engineering.

Sethi wants to engage with professional faculty students by being open to feedback and finding out what type of support they need from the UTSU.

O’Halloran pointed out that many professional faculty students do not realize that they are even a part of the UTSU. He echoed Sethi’s point that the UTSU needs to be more open to feedback, and wants to implement more physical advertising for the UTSU, pointing out that he never saw any campaigning in the Faculty of Music.

Both candidates said that they did not know that the first election was even happening, and O’Halloran only found out about the by-election by reading The Varsity.

An audience member asked about U of T’s new mental health task force and how the candidates plan to lobby the administration to make sure pro fac students are better represented.

This task force was proposed by U of T President Meric Gertler in response to student protests against perceived inaction on mental health issues.

In response, Sethi said that she wants to make students’ voices heard at Governing Council meetings and use available channels to advocate for all students.

O’Halloran took issue with the fact that there are only three student representatives on the task force but said that making resources available would alleviate many of those concerns.

 

VP Operations

Arjun Kaul is running uncontested for the VP Operations, and as such, his portion of the debate was structured as a “fireside chat” moderated by Bryce.

Kaul believes that, as VP Operations, he would have to split his time between managing finances and enforcing the governmental structure of the UTSU.

In terms of funding, Kaul believes that he can cut through unnecessary features of the role to help students directly. He cited the $301,000 the UTSU spends on the help desk and questioned how much this actually supports student wellness.

Outgoing VP Operations Tyler Biswurm said that no one is fully prepared for the role and that there is a steep learning process. Kaul responded that he intends to read over the bylaws in detail and seek public testimonials.

 

VP Equity

For the final portion of the debate, candidates for VP Equity Michael Junior Samakayi and Hanya Wahdan took the stage.

When asked about the best way to tackle issues of equity on campus, Wahdan said that she hopes to understand how the UTSU can work with different faculties on campus and how they can produce a more positive image. She also wishes for the UTSU to have a seat within each faculty and train members to create a more positive environment.

Samakayi pointed out that there were issues of representation that need attention, citing the mental health task force as an example. He said that it is impossible to represent 50,000 students, as the UTSU currently does, without diverse representation. Samakayi also added that he wants people to start thinking more about accessibility, and he hopes for students to feel welcome and not marginalized.

As for how the UTSU can better respond to issues of inequity, Wahdan said that mental health is a major priority and that she wants to look closer into why “recent events” on campus are recurring.

Samakayi agreed with this assessment and said that a more diverse and representative body is a solution. Both candidates were adamant that empathy is a key attribute to the ideal candidate and that everyone should be comfortable to speak out on issues of inequity.

Voting ends today at 5:00 pm and students can cast their ballots at utsu.simplyvoting.com.

Candidate Profile: Michael Junior Samakayi

Vice-President Equity

Candidate Profile: Michael Junior Samakayi

Michael Junior Samakayi is a third-year Political Science student running for Vice-President Equity.

Through his experiences as the current UTSU Woodsworth College Director, former Accessibility Advisor at the Student Success Centre, and founding the U of T American Sign Language Club, Samakayi wrote that his eyes were opened to “the gaps in the system on campus which affects marginalized groups, students with disabilities, and women.”

Samakayi was motivated to run because of his desire to play a more active role in improving the lives of not only current students, but also of generations of students to come.

As a deaf student, Samakayi has witnessed the barriers that students with disabilities face in trying to succeed at this university. He hopes that, by supporting students from marginalized communities, all students will be lifted up in the process.

Samakayi’s platform incorporates a number of different initiatives, including improving mental health services. In order to achieve this, he plans to lobby U of T to review the university-mandated leave of absence policy, which he called a barrier to education.

He also believes that the UTSU has a key role to play in communicating with U of T administrators and various student societies on improving mental health services.

“When we talk about the University of Toronto having an excellent reputation for quality education, that’s not possible if we don’t have the kinds of supports that we need in place to support students’ mental health,” he said through an interpreter.

On the topic of the UTSU’s accessibility, Samakayi hopes to reform the decision-making process for executives. He plans to do this by notifying the student population when the UTSU is about to make “crucial decisions,” so that students can voice their concerns and opinions prior to board meetings.

Samakayi believes that the UTSU has challenges with racism and accessibility, but he does not believe that the UTSU has intended to act in inequitable ways. He sees this as being part of a larger problem of people not realizing that their actions can inadvertently create barriers for others, something that he seeks to combat if elected.

— With files from Josie Kao

Candidate Profile: Miharu Ho

Vice-President Student Life

Candidate Profile: Miharu Ho

Miharu Ho is a first-year Rotman Commerce student and one of four candidates running for Vice-President Student Life.

Ho works at the Sidney Smith Commons, which she said has given her the chance to not only get to know other students, but also to learn more about different campus resources.

As a first-year student, Ho understands that her candidacy may raise some eyebrows. However, this has not stopped her from trying to be as involved in U of T campus life as possible, which she said is her reason for entering this race.

If elected, Ho would prioritize inclusivity and accessibility for orientation week. She sees the high cost of orientation and the fact that students may not be able to stay overnight in downtown as some of the barriers that first years face in participating. She aims to reach out to first years to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to enjoy the event that will “set off [their] whole year.”

Having participated in orientation week as an incoming student, Ho found that the wide variety of events helped appeal to a broad section of first years. When asked what she would change, Ho reiterated her commitment to promoting greater inclusivity. She also mentioned advertising to promote the event to first years.

On the topic of how the Student Choice Initiative might affect the UTSU’s ability to fund clubs, Ho emphasized the integral role that campus clubs play in creating a diverse environment for student life.

The Student Choice Initiative is the provincial government’s mandate for an opt-out option for certain student fees starting September.

Ho added that matters of club funding should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis to ensure sustainability.

When asked how she would increase student engagement with the UTSU, Ho said that she hopes that her campaign as the only first year running for an executive position encourages more first years to get involved with the student union.

She also seeks to improve access to information about the UTSU, especially for first years, saying that “no matter what year we are, we can participate and we can be involved.”

Ho sees having only one year of campus life under her belt as a strength rather than a weakness, saying that her lack of experience “provides [her] with more of a drive and more of a passion to just really get into this position and use all the information [she] can get.”

Ho believes her commitment to staying up-to-date on the UTSU and campus news in general will help her manage the learning curve of filling an executive position.

With files from Andy Takagi

Candidate Profile: Bhanu Priya Sharma

Vice-President Student Life

Candidate Profile: Bhanu Priya Sharma

Bhanu Priya Sharma is a fourth-year Health Studies and Urban Studies student and one of four candidates running for Vice-President Student Life.

Sharma is currently the Events Coordinator for the Indian Students’ Society, the Outreach and Communications Coordinator for the High School Partnership Program subcommittee of the University of Toronto International Health Program, and the Upper-Year Representative for the Urban Studies Student Union.

When asked why she was running, Sharma told The Varsity that encouragement from current student politicians after the general election two weeks ago motivated her to begin her candidacy.

Sharma praised current VP Student Life Yolanda Alfaro’s work, saying that she hopes that she will not to be “extremely different,” but that she will have “different priorities.” Among them is addressing student funding for clubs in light of the Student Choice Initiative, which is the provincial government’s mandate for an opt-out option for certain student fees starting September.

She advocated heavily for accessibility and equality in funding by treating all clubs equally in the application process for funding, “no matter what their club is, or how large it is, or how small it is.”

She also wants to prioritize the expansion of UTSU services like free feminine hygiene products, free snacks, and cheap coffee and to make them available to students all day instead of during the UTSU’s business hours only.

For increasing student engagement with the UTSU, particularly in the face of low turnout in the March elections, Sharma wants to create open hours for students to come and engage, particularly as she was someone who was relatively apathetic to student politics just a few weeks ago.

On the topic of orientation, the largest responsibility for the VP Student Life, Sharma hopes to reach out and better communicate with student societies, clubs, and unions — something that she feels was missing from the 2018 orientation week.

Candidate Profile: Dermot Gordon O’Halloran

Vice-President Professional Faculties

Candidate Profile: Dermot Gordon O’Halloran

Dermot Gordon O’Halloran is a second-year Comprehensive Studies student in the Faculty of Music running for UTSU Vice-President Professional Faculties.

O’Halloran is the managing editor of The Youth Journal, a non-partisan online publication about politics that is angled toward young writers. He was previously an administrative assistant for former Toronto city councillor Mary Fragedakis and is currently a volunteer for New Democratic Party MPP Peter Tabuns. He was a campaign volunteer for both representatives.

O’Halloran is running “to make sure that a representative who cared about the position and the continuity of the union was sitting on the executive committee.”

He believes that it would be good for the union to have an executive from the Faculty of Music, one of the “smallest professional faculties on campus,” which he notes is “not something that happens often.”

As VP Professional Faculties, he would aim to be “very open and accessible” for professional faculties students to “come and meet” with him in person. He hopes to learn about students’ concerns “in great detail” in order to “advocate them properly on the executive committee.”

His priorities would include improving student engagement with the union by “advertising the programs and benefits of the UTSU.” He cited low turnout in the previous UTSU election as motivation, as only 4.2 per cent of eligible students voted. He would address this by introducing “physical advertising materials” in the Faculty of Music, which he says are currently absent.

To further improve engagement, he would work on building relationships between the union and professional faculties professors, whom he believes may be willing to help by forwarding relevant email communications about the union to students.

On responding to controversial decisions affecting the professional faculties, such as this year’s proposals for a merger of the forestry and architecture faculties and for constructing a new building near the Faculty of Music, he said he would “listen and seek out” students of affected faculties through direct consultations and town halls to become better informed to address their concerns.

He also said that he would “seek to address” the “lack of a ban of sexual relationships between students and faculty.”

Candidate Profile: Muskan Sethi

Vice-President Professional Faculties

Candidate Profile: Muskan Sethi

Muskan Sethi is a third-year Chemical Engineering student running for Vice-President Professional Faculties.

Sethi listed her experience as a professional faculties student, saying that “I know what the gaps [are] and what our community needs overall,” adding that she served in various capacities in the U of T Engineering Society for the past three years. She is currently serving as the Alumni Outreach Director.

Sethi’s platform has two main facets, with the first being to support student societies. In the wake of the Student Choice Initiative, this commitment is aimed to ensure that student life is not affected.

The Student Choice Initiative is the provincial government’s mandate for an opt-out option for certain student fees starting September.

“As an engineer, we love to optimize,” said Sethi, who hopes to navigate possible cuts to funding by optimizing resources and fulfilling the goals of the UTSU, even with the cuts looming over the union’s future.

For her other platform point, Sethi would commit to improving mental health resources on campus, with the goal that “no student is left behind when it comes to mental health challenges and everyone has the resources that they deserve and they need.”

When asked about the current state of the union, Sethi believes that the UTSU has been working well with other student societies to lobby the provincial government. However, Sethi was critical of the UTSU’s slow action and lack of initiative on mental health, a problem that she believes has been a pressing issue at U of T for several years.

On the issue of improving outreach to students, Sethi plans to organize town halls and release surveys in order for students can better voice their concerns.

She also emphasized the importance of presenting a united front of students when lobbying university administration, especially when it comes to the recent issues with space allocation for the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design and its merger with the Faculty of Forestry.

Sethi hopes to work with student societies that are stakeholders in these issues to reach solutions that are beneficial for everyone.

— With files from Silas Le Blanc

Candidate Profile: Spencer Robertson

Vice-President Student Life

Candidate Profile: Spencer Robertson

Spencer Robertson is a third-year Urban Studies student and one of four candidates running for Vice-President Student Life.

Robertson is running for VP Student Life because he “[knows] what it’s like… to start a club from the ground up” from his experience as president of the University of Toronto Tabletop Gaming Club.  

He ran unsuccessfully last month for Vice-President External Affairs and last year for Vice-President Campus Life, which is now VP Student Life.

He is also a community member of the UTSU’s Clubs Committee, which allocates funding from the union to student clubs. This experience has informed him of the substantial risks of the Student Choice Initiative to campus life and has helped him develop plans to optimize clubs funding following likely cuts to the union’s finances.

The Student Choice Initiative is the provincial government’s mandate for an opt-out option for certain student fees starting September.

“As much as the [VP] Student Life position is part-time, I don’t think it’ll be a part-time position next year,” said Robertson. He believes that, as a result of reduced clubs funding, clubs representatives would increasingly wish to meet with UTSU representatives to discuss the changes.

While he wishes to give clubs the maximum amount of funding the union can afford, he said it will be unlikely that current funding levels can be maintained. His overarching goal is to ensure that the union is “functional and accommodating to students and student clubs, while also being financially stable and sound.”

To respond to the cuts, he plans for the UTSU to focus on financially supporting smaller clubs on campus, which do not have revenue streams available to larger organizations. He also wishes to meet with larger clubs to discuss the reasoning behind their potential cuts.

Robertson plans to assist clubs in securing alternative streams of revenue. For example, Robertson said that he could work to write rough drafts of contracts to help clubs seek funding from external organizations.

On orientation, Robertson wishes to increase accessibility to commuter students, possibly by creating a place to stay overnight in the Student Commons, following its expected opening in June. He also plans to reach out through the U of T subreddit to receive feedback from students to better plan events.

Robertson further hopes that the Student Commons can expand storage and office space for clubs on campus, though he notes that the building’s functions would ultimately result from discussions between the executives.