Muntaka Ahmed elected UTSU president in close race

UTSU health and dental referendum failed, student aid program Fund passed

Muntaka Ahmed elected UTSU president in close race

Muntaka Ahmed has been elected president of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) for the 2020–2021 academic year. The race for UTSU president was a tight one, with runner-up Bryan Liceralde losing by only 156 votes by the final round.

The third presidential candidate, Arjun Kaul, was eliminated in the first round with 745 votes. Ahmed was elected with 1717 votes.

Neeharika Hemrajani was elected VP Student Life, Alexandra McLean was elected VP Equity, Tyler Riches was elected VP Public and University Affairs, and Dermot O’Halloran was elected VP Operations. The latter two ran uncontested. 

The VP professional faculties position remains open as there were no candidates.

The referendum to increase the fee for the health and dental insurance plan by an additional ten per cent has failed. The vote saw 2135 students vote no and 2133 students vote yes, thereby not meeting the two thirds majority requirement for referenda to pass.

However, the referendum to establish a Student Aid Program Fund with a $1.00 fee per semester did pass with 68.8 per cent of students voting yes. The program will come into effect this fall semester. 

Ahmed’s presidential platform focused on equity and she hoped that by running she would provide a pathway for others who do not see themselves represented in leadership positions. 

In addition, Ahmed wishes to implement more engaging programming beyond Orientation, Frost Week, and Unity Ball and also improve upon the union’s consultation with student groups.

4818 students or 12.7 per cent of the electorate voted in this election. Academic and division directors were also elected in this voting period. Full results are available here.

Opinion: Muntaka Ahmed’s equity-based platform lacks systemic change

Despite great experiences in student leadership, Ahmed doesn’t promise tangible progress

Opinion: Muntaka Ahmed’s equity-based platform lacks systemic change

Muntaka Ahmed has robust experience in positions of power. She has worked as an executive assistant in the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), vice-president finance for the Muslim Students’ Association, and a marketing co-director of the Bangladeshi Students’ Association. This strong resumé assures student voters that, if elected, she would bring experience and expertise to the position of UTSU president, for which she is currently running.

However, this confidence fades when you take into account systemic change. Ahmed has good points that would have been beneficial and electable — if our period of time was not so strongly defined by political unrest. Considering the fact that the last calendar year was dominated by protests — most notably student protests — a drastic change in various systems worldwide is a sentiment that does not elude the UTSU. 

However, I failed to see any considerable changes to the UTSU system within her platform. A glaring example is the lack of a clear political stance on sustainability initiatives on campus, as well as the fact that, while she did prioritize advocacy for better mental health services, she does not specify exactly how this is to be implemented.

Her ticket seems to centre itself on expanding the definition of the UTSU beyond a group of few executives with immense authority and into the hands of the people who it represents. However, her platform fails to do exactly that by not being transparent about how she will implement her goals.

I believe a racialized Muslim woman can create immense change in the role of president, but based on her platform, I’m not too confident about any notable differences to the UTSU’s operation and goals — something that voters like myself are looking for. 

Nadine Waiganjo is a second-year International Relations student at University College. She is an Associate Comment Editor.

Opinion: Arjun Kaul’s platform tackles a diversity of issues

The seasoned executive’s campaign promises to continue advocating for students

Opinion: Arjun Kaul’s platform tackles a diversity of issues

Arjun Kaul’s platform for University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) president promises to cater to everyone on campus. His focus prioritizes diversity and accessibility, as well as improving representation and outreach for underrepresented and marginalized campus communities. Furthermore, Kaul is a candidate who seeks to represent all student voices — not just those who fall under privileged groups. 

However, his platform suffers from a lack of depth due to its broadness, though the diversity of goals is nonetheless admirable.

Kaul is the union’s current vice-president operations and seeks to help students be involved in the decision-making process of the union. He wants to keep financial transparency and accountability so that students are fully informed on how their money is being used. When it comes to environmental justice, Kaul’s platform focuses on environmental sustainability and promises to reward campus clubs for sustainable operations. He also claimed that he will push for the divestment from the fossil fuel industry. 

He also seeks to advocate for mental health services in a compassionate and intersectional way. As he noted on his Facebook page, he wants to “help students cope with the problems that affect them directly.” This hands-on approach, as Kaul wrote, would involve addressing mental health through campus events, as well as through improved mental health services.

Facilitating peer support programs and improving alumni support is also a priority that Kaul highlighted in his platform.

Kaul wants to engage all students of our campus community, and that is his strength as a presidential candidate. While his platform is ambitious, Kaul’s clearly recognizes the shortcomings of the UTSU, and the gaps that must be filled moving forward. 

Hafsa Ahmed is a third-year Political Science student at UTM. She is an Associate Comment Editor.

The Breakdown: UTSU Elections 2020, student aid, health and dental referenda

Two vice-presidential positions have candidates running unopposed, another with zero candidates

The Breakdown: UTSU Elections 2020, student aid, health and dental referenda

Content warning: mentions of suicide.

With its nomination period having begun on March 2, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) election period is now in full swing. The voting period began on March 21 at 12:00 am, and will run until March 25 at 5:00 pm. Votes can be cast on the UTSU’s online voting portal.

For the UTSU’s most senior position of president, students will have a choice between Muntaka Ahmed, the union’s current executive assistant clubs; Arjun Kaul, the current vice-president operations; and Bryan Liceralde, a candidate who ran for the position last year.

The vice-president professional faculties race has no candidates, and two positions — vice-president operations and vice-president public and university affairs — are uncontested.

This election also features two referenda: one to establish a levy for UTSU’s student aid program and the other to increase the fee for the UTSU’s health and dental plan. The UTSU announced that this year it has “disbursed more than double the amount of student aid that was disbursed in the last 2 years combined.” In order to expand and guarantee the continuation of this program, the UTSU is asking for a $1 levy per semester devoted to student aid.

UTSU who?

The UTSU has been U of T’s official student union since 1901, and represents nearly 40,000 full-time undergraduate students at the St. George campus. The UTSU previously represented undergraduate students from UTM as well, until late 2018 when the UTSU and the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union agreed to separate.

The executive team is currently led by the president and six vice-presidents whose portfolios include operations, external affairs, equity, student life, professional faculties, and university affairs. The UTSU merged the portfolios of vice-president external and vice-president university affairs at the UTSU’s Special General Meeting on February 12, reducing the number of vice-presidential positions to five for the current election.

The UTSU is governed by its Board of Directors, which is made up of 16 college directors, 13 professional faculty directors, six directors from academic communities, one director elected by the Transitional Year Programme, and the executives.

According to its website, the UTSU’s two key functions are advocacy — such as lobbying the government and university in the interests of students — and providing students with services such as grants, clubs funding, and the health and dental plan.

UTSG undergraduate students are required to pay $49.80 in fees to the UTSU each semester, which are broken down into a variety of categories. These levies include support for the Downtown Legal Services and a fee for student buildings.

Due to the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative, $23.73 of these fees per semester were previously deemed “non-essential” and students were able to opt out of them in the fall. Following the Divisional Court of Ontario’s ruling in November, which struck down the initiative, the UTSU’s operating budget was restored. Students must additionally pay $187.43 per semester to the UTSU in order to access its health and dental insurance plans, unless they have an equivalent health plan.

The UTSU has continually struggled with engaging with students, an issue that is not always shared by student unions at other universities.

Last year’s election saw three executive positions and 18 directorships go unfilled. The voter turnout was recorded at 4.2 per cent, and the subsequent by-election to fill the remaining positions had a voter turnout of 2.9 per cent.

Referenda vote

Recently, the UTSU has reported a large increase in health insurance claims. As such, the UTSU is asking to raise the fee for its health and dental insurance plan by an additional 10 per cent, on top of the 10 per cent increase already mandated by the UTSU’s bylaws.

The referenda is motivated by the claim that the “current fee will not be able to sustain the increasing costs of the Plan, let alone increase coverage levels to cope with student mental health difficulties,” according to a post made by the UTSU.

The student mental health crisis has been a major focus for the UTSU this year, as students have called on the university for greater support and more streamlined services. Since June 2018, there have been four publicized student deaths by suicide on campus.

This has prompted major protests and student advocacy, resulting in the creation of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health. While the task force’s work has led to a redesign of the university’s mental health services, other incidents, such as the controversy surrounding the university ombudsperson’s comments on the university-mandated leave of absence policy, show that many students are still dissatisfied with the status quo.

Editor’s Note (March 24, 2:20 pm): This article has been updated to reflect that the voting deadline had been extended from 5:00 pm on March 23 to 5:00 pm on March 25.


If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566

Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454

Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600

Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200

U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

Talking about wanting to die

Looking for a way to kill oneself

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain

Talking about being a burden to others

Increasing use of alcohol or drugs

Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly

Sleeping too little or too much

Withdrawing or feeling isolated

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention

UTSU executive candidates debate focuses on accessibility and equity

Debate moved online to encourage social distancing

UTSU executive candidates debate focuses on accessibility and equity

This past Wednesday, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) held its executive candidates debate. In accordance with university recommendations against large gatherings, the debate was held over video conference. Candidates discussed topics ranging from the long-delayed opening of the Student Commons to how to decide which clubs receive funding.

The debate was moderated by Jacob Lorinc, who formerly served as editor-in-chief of The Varsity, and is currently a reporter at the Toronto Star.

A full debate, however, was not possible for the vice-president operations and vice-president public and university affairs positions, as they are uncontested.

President

There are three candidates for the presidential race: Arjun Kaul, Bryan Liceralde, and Muntaka Ahmed. They discussed different topics, including the opening of the Student Commons and how to mitigate the negative effects that the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) had on clubs’ funding.

The SCI was a provincial mandate that was struck down in November, which allowed students to opt out of incidental fees that were deemed “non-essential.”

All candidates agreed that opening the Student Commons — a project that was approved in 2007 — is crucial, though it may be delayed even more due to the COVID-19 precautions in place.

Ahmed focused on the student-facing side of the commons, and, if elected, said she would create a Student Commons management committee to collect student input. Her goal is to establish the Student Commons as a community hub that students can use to meet a variety of their needs — for instance, refilling one’s Presto card or withdrawing money from an ATM.

Kaul would seek to increase student engagement with the commons by publishing a guide of student services that would be available in the building, and also proposed creating a management committee that would include representatives from across campus.

Kaul suggested the incorporation of for-profit operations within the Student Commons. He would prioritize student jobs in its operations while working with surrounding businesses to create new sources of income for the UTSU.

Liceralde pledged to include a rooftop restaurant, space for drama groups to rehearse, and a computer lab.

On the topic of the SCI, the candidates agreed that in the case of similar policy returning, the president should work with campus organizations and clubs to ensure that they are able to continue operating using the UTSU’s more sizable resources.

Kaul suggested working on a case-by-case basis and meeting with club leaders. Liceralde would set aside 10–20 per cent of the UTSU budget to ensure clubs continue operations.

Vice-president operations

Current Vice-President Professional Faculties Dermot O’Halloran is running uncontested for the vice-president operations position.

On the topic of transparency in the UTSU budget, O’Halloran stressed that more transparency in finances is important for accountability; he suggested that this could mean increased engagement with the UTSU from U of T students — which has been a lasting concern in the union.

When asked if there is any part of the UTSU budget that he would cut, O’Halloran responded that he did not see anything worth cutting.

To ensure accountability and improve attendance within the Board of Directors — the governing body that oversees the Executive Committee’s functioning — O’Halloran said that executives and directors should maintain a less adversarial relationship. To achieve this, he would increase director involvement in UTSU projects.

Vice-president public and university affairs

Tyler Riches is running uncontested for the vice-president public and university affairs position. He currently sits on the UTSU’s Board of Directors as a University College representative.

This is the first year that the vice-president public and university affairs position has been offered, as it is a combination of two former roles: vice-president external and vice-president university affairs. When asked how he views the role, Riches responded that the role should be mostly about advocacy and making sure that student priorities are the focus of every platform.

In his opinion, the biggest concern for current students is feeling unsupported by the university. Riches further said that there should be more room for student voices in Simcoe Hall.

Riches also discussed what advocacy initiatives he would undertake as vice-president public and university affairs.

He hopes to advocate for more student grants from the federal government, and he would provincially lobby to get back the interest-free grace period for student loans and the free tuition program under the Ontario Student Assistance Program. In addition, he would lobby for rent control and support for sexual assault centres that have recently lost funding.

Vice-president equity

There are two candidates for the vice-president equity position: Vibhuti Kacholia and Alexandra McLean.

The two candidates discussed rebuilding trust and engagement in the UTSU within the U of T community.

On rebuilding trust, Kacholia would prioritize collaborations with other campus groups, such as the Black Students’ Association. McLean agreed, saying that the UTSU lacks engagement because they employ a “one-size-fits-all approach,” instead of tailoring outreach to specific communities.

The candidates proposed different strategies to improve equity at the UTSU. While Kacholia would increase transparency and presence by improving communication, and having a UTSU presence at all club carnivals, including college-based ones, McLean would create a diversity and equity first-year council to increase the focus on equity within the first-year community.

Vice-president student life

The two candidates running for the position of vice-president student life are Tasnim Choudhury and Neeharika Hemrajani.

Orientation was discussed at length, as it is a large part of the responsibilities of the position. Both candidates agreed that making it as accessible as possible is a priority.

Choudhury noted that it is an accessibility issue that the yearly clubs carnival and street fest are often congested. She emphasized that there should be a concrete backup plan for heat and rain, and that orientation should cater not just to first-years, but to returning students as well.

Hemrajani would focus on collaborating with student groups and colleges to create a more campus-wide orientation.

The vice-president student life is also in charge of recognizing and distributing funding to clubs. Candidates were asked about how they would handle funding controversial groups, such as University of Toronto Students For Life, an anti-abortion group, and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), which has been accused of having contentious relationships with students from Hong Kong.

Both candidates agreed that they would likely not recognize these groups if they were to request recognition and funding from the UTSU. They both said that they would look at it on a case-by-case basis and lean on precedence.

Choudhury stressed the importance of free speech on campus and Hemrajani agreed that students’ opinions of clubs’ political stances should not factor into their recognition. However, they argued that some clubs do not add to a positive environment on campus, in which case they may not be recognized.

Candidate Profile: Lucas Granger

Vice-President External Affairs

Candidate Profile: Lucas Granger

Lucas Granger is a third-year History and Urban Studies student running for Vice-President External Affairs of the UTSU. He is currently the Innis College Director on the UTSU’s Board of Directors.

In an interview with The Varsity, Granger said that he plans to work with other student groups on campus against the Ford government’s changes to postsecondary funding, including the Student Choice Initiative, which will allow students to opt out of certain, non-essential incidental fees.

“We need somebody who knows how to collaborate, rather than just pretend [the] UTSU is a central, sole existence on campus,” he said.

Granger said that he strongly advocates for the UTSU to leave the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), a contentious national organization of student unions that some unions across Canada have attempted to leave in the past few years.

“I have firmly believed [in leaving the CFS] since I’ve been here,” he said. “When I moved into Innis Residence in my first year, I was living with people who were in the You Decide campaign, and that really shaped how I viewed the UTSU.”

Granger also hopes to start a “rent smart” campaign for tenants’ rights in Toronto, citing his own personal experience having difficulty finding an affordable place. “It’s bad, and people should know their legal rights… what signs of neglect are in rental buildings, and we should put that in one document that we can access on our documents page.”

On transit, Granger wants to expand the TTC’s student discount to include postsecondary students. He also believes that students at UTSG should be given subsidized access to the UTM shuttle. Currently, UTM students ride the shuttle for free, but UTSG students do not.

In advance of the upcoming federal election in the fall, Granger wants to start a campaign to let students know how to vote and where to access information on platforms, ideas, and candidates.

Doubts raised in emergency UTSU meeting over shortened nomination period for elections

Shortened period to accommodate procedure for levy referendum

Doubts raised in emergency UTSU meeting over shortened nomination period for elections

Directors raised questions about the accessibility of elections at an emergency University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) meeting held on February 15 to announce the dates of its elections.

In particular, directors were concerned about the shortened nomination period this year, which will run from March 11–15. This is about half as long as last year’s nomination period.

Social Sciences Director Joshua Bowman raised concerns about this shortened time frame, but his motion to extend the period narrowly failed. This was in part to accommodate an unspecified levy group seeking to hold a referendum that required it to submit a petition three weeks in advance of elections beginning.

To run in a UTSU election as a representative, students must seek nomination by collecting signatures from UTSU members.

Director candidates must collect at least 25 signatures by students who are UTSU members, and executive candidates must collect at least 100 signatures from their constituency during the election nomination period.

Director says elections should be more accessible, VP says nominations not “supposed to let everyone in”

“I just think that five days is simply not enough for [candidates] to collect signatures,” said Bowman, especially since the UTSU struck down slates at its Annual General Meeting in October. A slate is a group of candidates who run together in an election.

Responding to the concern, President Anne Boucher recognized that the nomination period was shorter, but said that the absence of slates this year should have minimal effects on signature collection.

She also said that “the actual threshold for signatures is quite low,” speaking from personal experience.

“It really only takes really just a few hours if you’re really going at it,” said Boucher. “Otherwise it really only takes a couple days.”

However, Bowman said that the absence of slates will make it harder for candidates to collect their required signatures.

“[If] you’re from a siloed community on campus, and you want to get involved, you have to go out and do all that legwork yourself,” without the assistance of slate members, said Bowman.

He also said the timing of the nomination period during midterm season increases the difficulty of collecting signatures.

Vice-President Operations Tyler Biswurm disagreed, citing personal experience where five to 10 of his signatures were from his slate and acquaintances from his slate, and the remaining votes were “collected within the space of three hours.”

He noted that the nomination period “is not really supposed to let everyone in,” and functions as a screening process.

Bowman disagreed with Biswurm’s portrayal of the nomination period as a “self-selection process,” saying that he thinks that “we need to make the UTSU as accessible as possible.” He recalled Biswurm’s statements at the AGM, when the VP said that “All these people here are insiders, every single one of us… We don’t speak for the normal person. The normal person doesn’t care about the UTSU.”

Bowman continued by saying that they were not making the election “as accessible as it can be,” and therefore not addressing insider culture. He further said that the shortened time frame would make it difficult for commuter students to run.

St. Michael’s College Director Kate Strazds spoke in support of Bowman’s points. She said that “elections can be super, super stressful for some people,” and she believes that the three weeks following the emergency meeting to the nomination period is not sufficient time for the UTSU to advertise the election.

Biswurm reaffirmed that he believes the nomination period should function as a screening process.

He said that the UTSU has already moved to increase accessibility in elections, giving accommodations for campaign funds, and that the subject of insider versus outsider culture doesn’t have “much bearing here.”

Boucher also said it would be difficult to lengthen the nomination period as a levy group had requested a referendum to be added to ballots, but it must submit its petition to the UTSU’s Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC) “three weeks prior” to the start of the nomination period.

Moving the start date of the nomination period earlier would automatically make the levy group’s submission late.

Bowman moves to extend the duration of the nomination period, fails narrowly

Bowman then motioned to push the start date earlier by a week. University College Director Tyler Riches seconded the motion.

Boucher opposed Bowman’s motion, reaffirming that if the start date is pushed earlier, the levy group would automatically be unable to submit their petition on time.

Innis College Director Lucas Granger also spoke against the motion, agreeing with Boucher. “We have been kind of put in a corner by the ERC on this referendum question,” said Granger. “I do not want to see this referendum question fail before it can even start. So unfortunately, we’re stuck.”

Riches noted that, should the motion fail, he hopes that advertising for the elections will be effective enough to counterbalance the shortened nomination period.

Bowman’s motion ultimately failed, with six votes against and five in favour. The three noted abstentions were Vice-President University Affairs Josh Grondin, New College Director Arjun Singh, and Granger.

Compass slate sweeps UTSU executive elections

Elections see 25.3 per cent turnout, a significant increase from previous years

Compass slate sweeps UTSU executive elections

UTSU elections results were released shortly after 6:00 pm on March 28, revealing a clean sweep by the Compass slate of all executive positions. Of the 50,405 students eligible to vote, 12,734 did, a 25.3 per cent turnout. The majority of votes in all races were abstentions, with the exception of Nursing Director.

President-elect Anne Boucher received 2,376 votes; her opponent, Michelle Mabira, received 1,191. In this race, 9,167 voters — 72 per cent — abstained.

Boucher said she was “beyond grateful” upon hearing the results. “I’m so excited to begin, especially with the amazing team I’ll have with me. You probably hear this year after year — but expect change, because we’ll work our butts off.”

Vice-President Internal-elect Tyler Biswurm was elected with 1,946 votes; his opponent, 🅱️oundless’ Alyy Patel, received 899. There were 9,889 abstentions, constituting 77.7 per cent of voters.

The VP Campus Life race saw winner Yolanda Alfaro receive 1,668 votes and independent opponent Spencer Robertson take 1,140, with 9,926 abstentions.

VP Professional Faculties-elect Yasmine El Sanyoura received 535 votes to 🅱️oundless’ Gallop Fan’s 310, with 3,280 abstentions.

The three executive positions were uncontested and received over 70 per cent abstentions. VP University Affairs-elect Joshua Grondin won with 2,390 votes for and 422 votes against. VP External-elect Yuli Liu received 2,990 ‘yes’ votes and 693 ‘no’ votes. Ammara Wasim, VP Equity-elect, received 2,597 votes in favour and 936 against.

In addition to sweeping the executive positions, all Compass candidates were elected except Tiffany Tiu. Tiu, who ran for one of two Professional Faculty Director at-large positions, lost to fellow Compass candidate Christopher Dryden and independent candidate Virginia Wong.

Michelle Mabira declined The Varsity‘s request for comment.