Making sense out of a near loss

Will it translate into something more substantive?


Some of the time, I feel like I’ve had an epiphany that there is no Medium, no UTM Students’ Union, no UTM Debating Club, no Hindu Student Council, but only this one division: students who go to campus events and students who don’t. This feeling comes out most clearly when, on some days, I see members of one of these groups in the morning for a newspaper interview, those of another at a cultural food lunch, those of still another in the atrium looking at paintings, and finally all at once the same evening at a poetry gala in the Blind Duck. You realize that some 30 students are involved in everything in one way or another,  and the rest of the almost 13,000 UTM students turn a half-interested eye on their doings now and then but, hey, school comes first. Now and then you tend to agree.

So the question that naturally arises when a proposal is voted down and the voter turnout is, if not approaching democratic levels, better than usual (it was 25% or 3,100 of us, give or take), is what to make of it. Outside of this editorial, the question of what interpretation to take of the facts is dealt with in four ways this week: a news article with an interview of the union’s president, a letter from a senior student, a letter from a UTMSU board member, and video interviewing random students around campus.

The conclusion I take from it is that nobody has set the Thames on fire. We’re not looking at a startling new grassroots movement wherein a group of radically disenfranchised students has decided to throw down UTMSU’s decisions. Nor do the figures readily support that. The margin of majority is so small (about 70 votes) that chance could have accounted for it. Thus, when the president, Raymond Noronha, said that “students don’t want an expanded Student Centre”, I’m not so sure he’s right. A better summary would be “Slightly more students don’t want it than want it.”

But in fact, I doubt most students really even voted on the expansion. Judging by the opinions we’ve gathered, they voted against paying more fees. (Maybe the unequivocal zeal for paying less that the Canadian Federation of Students fosters in its members worked too well.) They often said that they want to be around to experience what they pay for—a complaint that, surprisingly enough, I find less reasonable than UTMSU’s serene response: that we enjoy what we didn’t pay for.

It’s because of this, I think, that Noronha’s answers more or less put the loss down to misconception and “rumours”. Not that there was no misinformation; not many people we spoke to got the numbers exactly right. But I think that’s the other extreme from the “radically disenfranchised” explanation. Perhaps students are neither outright opposed to UTMSU nor simply misinformed, but have—at least those who aren’t swamped in their schoolwork—some discrimination as to which fees they’ll accept and which they won’t. After all, besides the closeness of the vote, the recent outcry about UTMSU having voted down an increase in the Health and Counselling Centre’s budget shows that students are willing to pay for some causes they deem important. And the reason they don’t deem the Student Centre expansion important probably comes down to a lack of use of it—and that brings us back to the bit about the few interested students. So no, the fact that the referendum failed isn’t so much a sign of students’ sudden engagement in campus politics as it is a reminder of the opposite fact. (Not that this is another tired call to get involved.)

And perhaps the union was aware of that. After all, it would seem a bit unusual that they went all out campaigning for the “yes” votes this year even though the same terms were passed last time around (but invalidated due to human error)—unless they suspected, apparently correctly, that our tolerance for in-your-face campaigning was about maxed out.

The main pragmatic question is what happens now, and nobody has talked much about it. I believe that’s because it won’t be clear what they’ll do until an official interpretation of this year’s results is decided on and solidified, which will probably happen over the next couple of months and be passed on to the incoming execs. They might ask themselves: Was UTM just misinformed? Then make it clearer. Was UTM scared about fees? Then negotiate a better agreement with the university, and if that fails, make the costs less explicit and get angry at the Medium for printing it clearly (hey, it worked last year). Were the various anonymous Facebook pages too effective a platform of dissent? Be more hip next time. Or… Do students just not want a Student Centre? Hard to say what they’d do then. That one might stump them.