Candidates competing for positions on next year’s UTSU executive gathered last Thursday evening for an all-candidates meeting to present their rivalling platforms and answer questions from the floor.
Like UTMSU’s elections, which closed last week, two slates are running for the UTSU elections. Brighter U of T led by presidential candidate Ben Coleman and Change U of T led by Cameron Wathey are the two slates competing in this year’s elections.
Coleman currently sits on the U of T’s Governing Council; Wathey is UTSU’s current VP internal.
Shortly after campaigning began last Monday, criticism arose over Change U of T’s campaign materials distributed specifically at UTM. The flyers featured a word search puzzle with words related to the slate’s campaign platform. Among words and phrases included in the puzzle such as “equity”, “faith space”, and “exams”, the phrase “sexual assault” was also included.
On Wednesday, Change U of T posted a statement on Facebook regarding the campaign materials which, according to Wathey, have since been pulled.
“We in no way sought to trivialize the issue,” said the statement issued by Wathey and Frishta Bastan, who is running for VP equity.
“We felt that for us to omit sexual assault from the list of words to find would only serve to reinforce the stigma and the silence around a public conversation about sexual violence and rape culture on our campuses, which we believe is missing,” she said.
Both candidates for VP equity had addressed the campaign materials after being asked by Katrina Vogan, campaign manager for Brighter U of T, “What does it mean to trivialize an issue?” in the context of sexual assault.
“If you find yourself wanting to delegitimize a specific experience in order to boost your own campaign, I highly, highly suggest you think about why you’re doing what you’re doing,” said Khan in response to the question.
“The intention wasn’t to trivialize the word,” said Bastan during the forum. “Focusing on a cross word puzzle, on the flyer, instead of talking about the actual issues such as sexual violence is walking around the issue.”
On Friday, Celia Wandio, an anti–sexual violence advocate, announced she would be leaving the Change U of T slate to run as an independent candidate.
Wandio, a candidate running for one of two positions on UTSU’s arts and science board of directors, organized an online petition earlier this year to lobby university administration to improve the way in which the university handles sexual violence. The petition has since attained 686 signatures.
“I want to make it very clear that my team made efforts to accommodate my views when I expressed discomfort with [the controversial material],” said Wandio in a post on Facebook. “As someone who does anti–sexual violence work and who plans on continuing to do this work, it is so important that people feel safe with me. I need survivors—and students in general—to know that if they tell me they are offended or triggered, my first response will be to apologize.”
In an interview with The Medium on Saturday, Wathey said Wandio informed the team of her decision on Friday.
“We support her decision,” said Wathey. “It’s been a pleasure to work with her.”
The all candidates meeting, which was also streamed live online, was hosted in the Medical Sciences Building at St. George with approximately 100 in attendance. The meeting was moderated by the chair of UTSU’s board, Ashkon Hashemi.
Each executive candidate had three minutes to present an opening statement, followed by a 15-minute Q&A period from the audience. Each candidate was given 90 seconds to respond to the questions from the floor.
A question posed to both VP external candidates during the forum led to criticism by Change U of T candidate Agape Amponsah-Mensah, who claimed the question had racist connotations.
An audience member who identified himself only as “Nicky” posed the question, “How do you plan to better use resources and finances towards rallying students and running campaigns at other universities?”
When asked to clarify the context of the question, the student elaborated, “We’ve done campaigns, for instance, for Aboriginal and things like that, and although it is an important and pressing issue, there are a lot more students who aren’t Aboriginal who feel like resources could be used towards campaigns that affect a lot more students.”
Amponsah-Mensah dismissed the question and chose to respond to the original question.
On Friday, Brighter U of T released a statement acknowledging the student in question was a member of their campaign team.
“Brighter U of T would like to specifically condemn the question that was asked, and apologize for the fact that the question made the space less safe,” said the statement issued. “We have approached the individual in question, and he has spoken to the fact that he incorrectly phrased his question.”
According to the post, the student has since stepped down from his role on the campaign.
Ebi Agbeyegbe, UTMSU president-elect and current VP external, invited both VP external candidates to explain how they will contest rising tuition if elected.
Denike promised to lobby government officials, while Amponsah-Mensah pledged to focus on bringing OHIP to international students and eliminating deregulated fees.
Melissa Theodore, UTMSU VP equity, also posed a question to both presidential candidates asking what Coleman and Wathey think about white supremacy.
Theodore also asked the two candidates their thoughts on “white, cisgender, straight males […] taking up the limited spaces on the sexual violence committee”, a committee organized by Jill Matus, U of T’s vice-provost, students, and first entry divisions, to examine measures to prevent sexual violence, or take action when it occurs.
The committee, which comprises a total of 20 members, includes five undergraduate and graduate students, including Coleman.
“I am that cisgendered white man,” said Coleman in response to the question. Coleman further explained his decision to accept the invitation to sit on the committee, a decision he said was difficult to make.
“I can’t really guarantee what the university picks next in the biased process,” said Coleman reflecting on his reasoning to accept the invitation to participate on the committee. “So far I have been trying very, very hard to go to spaces where I listen to survivors.”
Also a member of Change U of T, current UTSU VP external Grayce Slobodian is running for VP internal against Brighter U of T candidate Ryan Gomes, one of three directors on UTSU’s board who represent the Faculty of Engineering.
Vying for the VP university affairs position are Brighter U of T candidate Vere-Marie Khan and Change U of T candidate Xinbo Zhang.
Voting will begin on Tuesday and will run until Thursday. At UTM, the polls will be open from 9 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. daily in CCT, Davis, and IB. Voting will also be possible online at utsu.simplyvoting.com.