A divided crowd of students sparked heated arguments between the incumbent and opposition slates at the UTSU All-Candidates Debate last Wednesday night at Hart House. Attendees demanded answers to questions of financial accountability and high salaries, partisan political stances, and equity on campus.
UTM full-time undergraduate students are members of the UTSU, paying $60 each year to the organization, which is based at St. George. UTSU provides the health and dental plan for students at the Mississauga campus. The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union disbanded from UTSU (then the Student Administrative Council) in the past; they independently provide their students with a health and dental plan.
While UTSU candidates are rarely present at the Mississauga campus, Team Unity claims “victories” for UTM on their website, siting the promotion of diverse food services, lobbying for longer library hours and reduced parking, and advocating for more multi-faith prayer space.
The most heated portion of the four-hour debate was between the three presidential candidates, with questions about the diversity of candidates, the fairness of the elections procedures, Israeli Apartheid Week, and the recent provincial tuition grant.
Many students expressed concern about UTSU’s endorsement of Israeli Apartheid Week and asked candidates for a definitive answer as to which side they support in the divisive issue. Shaun Shepherd, the current VP External and the presidential candidate of Team Unity (the slate with two UTSU incumbents and one UTMSU incumbent), would not give a concrete answer, but promised to discuss the matter with students. Brent Schmidt, the presidential candidate of Students First, and Rohail Tanoli, an independent candidate, both stated that they would not participate in IAW and asserted that UTSU should not take sides on politically contentious topics.
The debate focussed on topics around the division between various student groups on campus. A student stated that the Students First slate does not reflect the diversity of U of T and asked why the team should be elected.
“When we formed a team, the first thing that we looked at wasn’t the race that someone came from,” Schmidt said. “I do not think that’s a good reason to exclude us from being a good slate to run with. I think that diversity is more than just the way I look. In terms of experience, we’re all quite different.”
Schmidt discussed the ways in which the elections procedures laid out by the student union exclude opposition slates from participating. Without adequate upfront funding, non-incumbent slates have a difficult time buying promotional material like posters and banners, which instead primarily give the incumbent team exposure. At the UTM campus, Team Unity was the only slate to put up posters.
Tanoli appealled to the crowd to “build bridges, not walls”.
“That’s the problem with slates in general: you have to pick a side. Which is why I chose to go independent this year,” Tanoli said. “There doesn’t have to be ‘them or us’; it should be all of us.”
TA strike support
Earlier in the year, current UTSU president Danielle Sandhu endorsed the potential TA strike. Some students criticized the endorsement, arguing that UTSU should act in the interests of their undergraduate members. Munib Sajjad, the VP University Affairs candidate of Team Unity and the current VP External of UTMSU, alleged that UTSU did not formally endorse the results of the TA strike vote. According to Shepherd, Sandhu endorsed the strike personally, not on behalf of UTSU.
In a YouTube video of a press conference, Sandhu introduced herself as the president of student union and endorsed the strike vote, stating, “For all our members, we see the strike vote as incredibly encouraging.”
According to Carmen Reilly, VP University Affairs candidate of Students First, UTSU executives did endorse the potential strike. However, she does not think the student union should take a stance.
“When you have less than 10% voter turnout, I don’t think you can claim to represent the entire student body,” Reilly said. “It is not our role to get involved in politics, especially politics that are so divided or that possibly make people feel excluded or discriminated against, or like their views are not being represented by the people that they are paying so much money to.”
A campus bar
Students First, the opposition slate, came under harsh criticism for their proposal to build a campus bar. Although the team did not release their platform before the debate, they campaigned on the idea that a bar would promote a sense of community at U of T. Attendees from one side of the room doubted the inclusivity of a bar, reminding candidates that students of certain religions do not consume alcohol.
According to Team Unity, a campus bar would be an expensive project and excludes many students.
“I think it is important to foster a sense of U of T spirit,” said Karthy Chin, the candidate for VP Equity of Students First. “It [the bar] can be used for students to eat and socialize. I’m going to explore avenues of how I can increase accessibility for all students regardless of any background.”
Noor Baig, the candidate for VP Equity of Team Unity, stressed the importance of inclusion and the necessity of more multi-faith prayer space.
The VP Internal and Services candidates explained the steps they would take to improve budget transparency to help students understand the allocation of membership fees. This year, the group Stop the Salaries accused UTSU of grossly increasing wages and decreasing club funding.
Students First candidate Dylan Moore promised to publish monthly reports. He also proposed a review of expenditures, including wages, and promised to seek public feedback before making any reforms.
Corey Scott, a Team Unity candidate and the current VP Internal Services of UTSU, stated that he had posted the budget online this year and promised to continue to make himself available for students to ask questions and seek reassurance.
The candidates were asked to estimate how much they would pay the person elected to the position of VP Internal Services if it were their money to spend. Scott stated that he would trust the Board of Directors to set the appropriate wage and he feels that the current amount is appropriate to allow students to get what they need from the position. Moore stated that the position does require a great amount of responsibility and should cover living costs. He estimated a salary of between $15,000 and $20,000. Both candidates expressed concerns for publicizing individual salaries. According to Scott, it is illegal for UTSU to publish salaries, in order to protect the safety of their employees.
“Our staff members are part of the union,” Scott said. “They are part of the student union as well, and they’re working for students and working for the issues that we want to work for. They should be defended for doing that work and they shouldn’t have to disclose their salaries.”
Abigain Cudjoe, the VP external candidate of Team Unity, and Alexander Ripley, that of Students First, were questioned about the effectiveness of the Canadian Federation of Students, a lobby group to which U of T students collectively pay over $600,000. Cudjoe defended CFS, stating that the organization successfully advocates for students. Ripley also supported the CFS.
The Students First platform, released on Friday, proposes a referendum on continued membership.
The debate was broadcast live on UStream, and #UTSU2012 trended nationally on Twitter. The debate was available online but was abruptly removed on Saturday.
Students can vote throughout March 6, 7, and 8 at both the St. George and Mississauga campuses. The campaign period for UTMSU begins next week.