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.
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.”
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.