UTSU executive candidates debate focuses on accessibility, advocacy

Two candidates miss first UTSU debate, Equity campaigning put on hold

UTSU executive candidates debate focuses on accessibility, advocacy

Candidates for University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) executive positions focused on mental health advocacy, the union’s accessibility to students, and government lobbying in the UTSU’s elections debate on March 20.

President

The debate kicked off with a discussion between debate moderator and current UTSU Speaker, Eric Bryce, and presidential candidate Joshua Bowman.

The other presidential candidate — Bryan Liceralde — was unable to attend due to a cold and an assignment due the same night.

Bowman began by saying that he understands the barriers that many students face at this university, as he is a low-income student from a single-parent household. He also added that he recognizes that he is a “white settler.”

Bowman plans to develop strong relationships with U of T’s many student groups and clubs. He asserts that such relationships will make addressing tough decisions easier when not everyone agrees on a particularly divisive or controversial idea, emphasizing the UTSU’s fiduciary role when it comes to club management.

He also mentioned that without the support of the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), he never would have been able to attend U of T and acknowledged that many other students are in the same position.

Bowman highlighted that it is therefore crucially important, now more than ever, to increase engagement if the UTSU hopes to convince students not to opt out of its fees. To that end, Bowman seeks to rebuild the UTSU’s relationships with student societies and create a first-year council.

Vice-President External Affairs

The first disagreement between VP External Affairs candidates Lucas Granger and Spencer Roberson arose on the topic of government relations, with Robertson seeking to focus on lobbying the provincial government, and Granger claiming that more can be done by collaborating with the municipality of Toronto on issues such as housing and transit.

Both candidates are in favour of leaving the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). According to Robertson, the high fees imposed by the CFS aren’t reciprocated in kind with actual benefits.

“I would like to see the internal contract they have over us turn to brimstone. I would hope the wind would blow through their hollow bones and turn into wind chimes.”

Granger echoed this sentiment, albeit less dramatically, claiming that while the CFS may have admirable goals, the organization is corrupt, toxic, and only advocates for itself.

When asked what their top priority was, both candidates turned to mental health. The debate came two days after a student protest on the topic of the university’s responses to mental health crises and its handling of mental health services.

On the OSAP cuts, Robertson — despite describing himself as a “fiscal conservative” — asserted that he was not in favour of Premier Doug Ford’s program restructuring. Granger, who said he is directly affected by the cuts, labelled them “cruel” and “heartless.”

Vice-President University Affairs

Of the four candidates running for VP University Affairs, Christopher Chiasson, Avani Singh, and Sharon Ma were able to attend, while Ramtin Taramsari was absent.

The candidates largely focused on mental health as their advocacy priority.

Chiasson wants to change the social and academic culture of U of T through the development of a student bar or a relaxing of academic policies, whereas Ma seeks to prioritize work on snow-day policies and an extension of credit/no credit deadlines. Singh hopes to address food insecurity on campus and course retake policies.

Singh and Chiasson sparred on the UTSU’s role in advocating for mental health services. Chaisson argued for a UTSU that is active in organizing students to protest against the university’s passivity in addressing mental health.

Singh, on the other hand, wants the UTSU to not only protest but also to act as a link between students and the administration.

While Chiasson agreed that lobbying is important, he also strongly pushed for forcing the university to act by “[making] their lives as inconvenient and shitty [as possible], until change happens.” Singh rebutted, saying that efficient action needs to come out of such protests.

Singh and Chiasson discussed the humanity of university administrators, particularly around the subject of mental health. Singh acknowledged Chiasson’s argument that the university only cares for headlines, but did say that “If you believe in the power of humanity, [U of T admin] do care about the students.”

Chiasson replied: “If the current admin is functioning off of goodwill and [the] power of humanity, then humanity must be fundamentally broken.”

Vice-President Equity

The Vice-President Equity candidate Hanya Wahden was slated to speak at the debate, however, campaigning for the equity position was suspended midway through the event pending the result of a last-minute appeal by Michael Junior Samakayi to join the race for VP Equity.

With files from Abhya Adlakha and Adam A. Lam

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.

Candidate Profile: Sharon Ma

Vice-President University Affairs

Candidate Profile: Sharon Ma

Sharon Ma is a fifth-year New College student majoring in Fundamental Genetics and its Applications with a double minor in Biology and Music History and Culture. She previously served as UTSU’s New College Director for two years.

If elected, Ma wants to address current university policies such as campus closures and the Credit/No Credit (CR/NCR) system. She would also lobby for student groups, specifically international students, affected by provincial tuition cuts.

Ma said that the university lacks a responsible campus closure policy, commenting on its inability to cancel classes and inform students in a timely fashion.

She added that the safety of students is put at risk when campus doesn’t close, and that they are especially disadvantaged when closures are announced late in the day.

“I just want to work with admin to create a fair and responsible snow day policy so students don’t get hurt,” she said.

On the topic of revising the CR/NCR policy, Ma wants to extend the deadline to the last day of classes from the current mid-semester deadline. This system is currently in place at UTM.

Speaking on the impending issue of provincial tuition cuts, Ma said she wants to advocate for international students so that they are not at risk of a tuition hike to make up for the university’s loss of revenue. She plans to lobby university administration and faculties to lower, if not freeze, international tuition fees.

When addressing the Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations, Ma acknowledged that although she is not very well-versed in the policy, she supports students’ ability to decide and advocate for themselves, as long as the university does not support hate groups.

Reflecting on the past year at the UTSU, Ma said that the union needs to improve campus engagement, with simple improvements such as updating the website and encouraging student groups to collaborate on events.

Candidate Profile: Spencer Robertson

Vice-President External Affairs

Candidate Profile: Spencer Robertson

Spencer Robertson is a third-year Urban Studies student running for Vice-President External Affairs. He is the founder and president of the University of Toronto Tabletop Gaming Club and ran unsuccessfully for Vice-President Campus Life of the UTSU last year.

While Robertson admitted that his experience is rooted in club matters and student life — he has sat on the UTSU’s Clubs Committee as a community member since June — he said that his “talent would actually be put to better use lobbying the government.”

His vision for the union centres on it serving its members, practicing financial discipline, and making a strong case for continued support in the face of the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI).

“[The union has] to show to students that they’re worth not opting out of,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of work.”

As part of an effort to increase affordability for all students, Robertson said he will push for unique transit benefits for commuters, such as a U-Pass-style initiative, and work to increase access to affordable housing for students who live both on and off campus.

He is also committed to advocating for more regulations on deregulated and international student tuition fees, and he wants to lead the UTSU out of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) due to what he sees as issues with transparency and good governance.

Robertson called the relationship between the UTSU and the CFS a ‘Faustian contract,’ more commonly called a deal with the devil. “Having played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons for a number of years, I’m familiar with Faustian contracts,” he said. “It’s never a good idea. Autonomy is obviously a beneficial thing we should have.”

On the matter of the SCI, Robertson will focus on protecting union services as well as students’ access to adequate financial aid through the Ontario Student Assistance Program. While he noted that the 10 per cent domestic tuition cut is helpful, he believes it does little to address broader issues with the financial accessibility of postsecondary education.

“I think we’re in a situation now on the provincial and municipal levels where we need a lot of that advocacy to happen,” Robertson said. “And I feel that I would be the most capable candidate to do that.”

Candidate Profile: Ramtin Taramsari

Vice-President University Affairs

Candidate Profile: Ramtin Taramsari

Ramtin Taramsari is a first-year Life Sciences student hoping to double major in Bioethics and Physiology. He is running for Vice-President University Affairs. Taramsari is also a voting member on the Arts & Science Council.

When asked about what made him run, Taramsari cited his past high school leadership experience and introduction to the UTSU as a first-year student.

“Ever since I joined my high school student council, I developed a passion… for just being a part of my education outside of just solely academics. I always liked the idea of helping run the student life portion of things,” he said.

Taramsari is running on a platform of financial transparency and wants to ensure that students are aware of what their fees cover.

“My platform revolves a lot around making sure that the UTSU is shown in its best light. I know that stereotypically people don’t have the best perception of the UTSU, and I think a lot of that sprouts from the lack of financial transparency because a lot of people don’t really understand where the money they’re using actually goes to,” he said.

Taramsari also added that by creating better transparency between the UTSU and the student body, he hopes to build more trust in the student union.

Taramsari emphasized the importance of building trust between university administration, student unions, and the students. “I think that one thing definitely to focus on would be to make sure that students do feel like we’re here for them. And in light of that, like I said, things like the financial transparency really help [that] because I think that a lot of it spouts from mistrust.”

Taramsari also plans on lobbying the administration to create more gender-neutral bathrooms. “I’ve noticed that other universities and other campuses that I visit, there’s a lot more focus on gender-neutral washrooms. I know that we do have a few on campus, but I do find it odd that in this day and age we don’t have more of them and they’re not more readily available than they are,” he said.

Candidate Profile: Hanya Wahdan

Vice-President Equity

Candidate Profile: Hanya Wahdan

Hanya Wahdan is a second-year Engineering Science student running for Vice-President Equity. Wahdan has little experience in student politics so far and is running uncontested.

Wahdan wants to create a more open and inclusive environment at the university by opening “dialogue between different people.”

“That is something I want to try and introduce here, to open the dialogue about more controversial topics and not just hide away from them because I know there will be disagreements,” she continued.

“And finally, make it a more inclusive environment for everyone, not just the majority or the people who live here or the people who look a certain way.”

Wahdan went on to say that, though she feels like part of the minority at the university, if she and other marginalized students fight for representation, they can be included as well. When asked what she could do to make the UTSU more equitable, Wahdan said that there is no “major part” that goes against her values or where she feels the UTSU is “acting inequitably” — but also expressed the disconnect she felt with the UTSU, hoping to work on “small areas” if elected.

Candidate Profile: Christopher Chiasson

Vice-President University Affairs

Candidate Profile: Christopher Chiasson

Christopher Chiasson is a fourth-year political science student at Innis College running for Vice-President University Affairs. He is a first-time candidate in the UTSU elections, with previous campus experience including serving as the Director of Operations for the University of Toronto Model United Nations (UTMUN).

As a candidate for VP University Affairs, Chiasson envisions the UTSU resolving universal issues such as implementing a transparent campus closure policy amid inclement weather.

He also cited accessibility to quality toilet paper, expanded breaks between class times, and a revised course cancellation policy as three major policies for which the union should lobby the university administration and faculties.

Chiasson said that the quality of toilet paper could affect a student’s perception of their student union, inevitably influencing their decision to opt out.

“Every single time someone goes to the washroom and sees that cashmere-like two-ply, they’re going to feel that and think, ‘Wow, UTSU is looking out for me.’” 

When advocating for expanded breaks between classes, Chiasson  noted that walking from one end of campus to another would take much longer than 10 minutes. “I’d love to see Meric Gertler attempt to make it from Bader to Sid Smith in 10 minutes. It just can’t be done.”

He further explained that other universities such as Ryerson University and York University have better policies in place in regards to course cancellation policies, giving the option to CR/NCR a course until the end of the semester.

Chiasson believes that autonomous student bodies can get much done while establishing a healthy relationship with the university administration.

When reflecting on the UTSU’s past year, Chiasson commended the efforts made toward diversity and inclusion, specifically focusing on accessibility in terms of campus spaces and events.

Looking toward the uncertainty of student funding amid the Student Choice Initiative — the provincial government’s plan to mandate an opt-out option for certain incidental fees — he also said that the UTSU should do more to advertise its services in order to maintain the support of students.

Candidate Profile: Avani Singh

Vice-President University Affairs

Candidate Profile: Avani Singh

Avani Singh is a third-year Rotman Commerce student running for Vice-President University Affairs of the UTSU.

Singh singled out the lack of transparency in a campus closure policy for UTSG as something she hopes to work on. She particularly wants to lobby for a clear policy with contingencies, as well as a place for “affordable, nutritious, 24-hour food” for students who are unable to leave campus.

Her goals for lobbying also include “combatting” the mandated leave of absence policy, improving mental health coverage under the University Health Insurance Plan, and implementing a course retake policy.

She noted her experience in the Indian Students’ Society, Her Voice U of T, and with the Dean of Victoria College in developing an international student mentorship program.

Singh also hopes to increase financial and operational transparency, saying that the current executives have made good strides toward improving the transparency of the UTSU.

On the subject of the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) — the provincial government’s mandate that postsecondary institutions must provide opt out options for incidental fees — Singh says cutting funding for clubs would be a “sad choice” and hopes to work with the Vice-President Student Life in ensuring that the SCI is felt “positively” throughout campus. There is no one running to be Vice-President Student Life in these elections.

“I am just a student like everyone else, and I have not had experiences on student government side at the UTSU or collegiate level,” Singh said. “I feel like that gives me a very unique perspective of being able to empathize in a unique way, with all the students on campus.”

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 newspaper — 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.

Candidate Profile: Joshua Bowman

President

Candidate Profile: Joshua Bowman

Joshua Bowman is a fourth-year Indigenous Studies and Political Science student running for President of the UTSU.

Bowman is the current UTSU Social Sciences Director. As president, he would seek to lower barriers for students to get involved with the UTSU.

Bowman believes that his experiences on the executive of the Indigenous Studies Students’ Union and the Arts & Science Students’ Union have qualified him for the position, saying that these roles have prepared him to be resilient and willing to shoulder a large workload to succeed.

He also cited his experience with Fight for $15 and Fairness, a group that advocates for a provincial $15 minimum wage. He said that being a low-income student working a minimum-wage job has helped with his work on the UTSU’s Student Aid Committee, which provides financial aid to students.

His overarching priority is “to give students something that they can believe in.”

He believes that it is the responsibility of the UTSU to ensure that students feel represented by the union. This involves the union doing the legwork to directly approach and build relationships with student societies, clubs, and equity-seeking organizations.

He also aims to encourage first-year involvement in the union by creating a first-year council. The council would research what first years are experiencing and report its findings to the Board of Directors.

Bowman said that the UTSU has been doing “extremely poorly” when it comes to deciding when “to stay silent on issues.”

He criticized the union’s decision to stay “comparatively silent” on the university-mandated leave of absence policy, which can force students to halt their studies if their mental health is deemed to place themselves or others in physical danger.

Bowman added that he would also hold executives accountable for submitting activity reports on time, which has been a problem this year.

To respond to the Ontario government’s changes to postsecondary funding, Bowman plans to expand the union’s role in advocating against these changes, hoping that the UTSU will “be there at the doorways of MPPs.” He also aims for the union to better help students understand how these cuts could affect them.

In response to possible cuts to the UTSU’s funding, Bowman said that he is not yet certain about which services the UTSU should deem essential or non-essential, but aims to consult with outgoing executives to better understand which to prioritize. However, he notes that he will not be “bound by the decisions of [his] predecessors.”

To disincentivize students from opting out of the UTSU’s levy, he said that the union needs to maintain the quality of its student services.

He aims to prioritize student financial aid and to limit the negative impacts of funding cuts to the union’s operations.

On the Student Commons, a proposed student centre whose opening has been continually delayed, Bowman said that the most critical issue is the lack of information available to students. He added that another major issue is planning how to make the building’s services accessible to students, as well as raising awareness about them.

Bowman would support a vote to leave the Canadian Federation of Students, an organization that represents student unions across the country. He noted that while some representatives are “well-intentioned,” Bowman believes that it is not in the UTSU’s best interest to stay in the federation as it is inadequately represented.

He would leave it to the Vice-President External Affairs’ discretion to decide on whether the union should hold a referendum to leave the organization.

On the relationship with the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, Bowman prefaced by noting that he attended UTM in first year and commuted from Mississauga in second year. He believes that the two organizations need “to work together when it comes to advocacy especially.”

“We do have a lot of relationship-building to do.”

— With files from Blythe Hunter and Josie Kao