Inside the executive’s office
From Left to Right: Ben Coleman, Akshan Bansal, Jasmine Denike, Sania Khan and Ryan Gomes
Photo Credit/Stefan Bird
the newspaper had the opportunity to sit down with most of the executives from the University of Toronto Students’ Union to ask a few questions about what the upcoming year will hold. In attendance were Ben Coleman (President), Jasmine Denike (VP External), Ryan Gomes (VP Internal and Services), Sania Khan (VP Equity) and Akshan Bansal (VP Campus Life). The following has been edited for concision, but otherwise is what the executives said verbatim.
This interview initially appeared in our Frosh Week 2015 print edition. It was accompanied by this piece which provides some background information on UTSU politics.
HORNBY: Students are often too busy with their own studies to focus too heavily on student politics. Please tell us why students should find you relevant?
GOMES: I would say there are two ... perspectives…. [Firstly,] we provide a lot of services ... [and we] collect fees from students, so … I believe students should care because they’re paying money into those services. More importantly, it’s about what they get out of it. We provide a lot of services whether it’s printing, selling metropasses, tickets or the health plan. We provide ... advocacy services both to [U of T] admin and [on behalf of] marginalized groups as a whole. I would argue that as an organization we are a forum for members to discuss issues and that’s a good thing for people on campus.
The second perspective I guess you could argue [is that] we’re relevant because I guess we’re different from previous years. But I would argue that the more compelling one is that we’re here for students to give them services and I think we’re relevant because we can directly impact students’ time here at the university.
HORNBY: What are some, if any, major accomplishments you have been able to put forward over the summer?
COLEMAN: The summer ... is different than other times of the year…. Orientation is huge, ... and a lot of the UTSU’s work happens after orientation. We can do some advocacy and organizing over the summer … but we can’t do it in full force until students come back. Ideally, when we’re engaging students with these issues, we don’t want to just decide we’re running a campaign…. We want to find the activists out there who’d be willing to care about it, and empower them to create change and to organize…. I think it’s better if we empower all the different students who care about issues as opposed to trying to run every campaign ourselves….
Frankly, as much as we think that we’re the greatest as UTSU executives because we run and try to convince students we’re worthwhile to have in office, we’re not experts.... It would be foolhardy for us to think that we’re the experts.... Our job is to find the students who really know those issues, who have lived those issues, who represent those issues … and empower them to create the change they seek....
DENIKE: We’ve got a whole bunch of different things planned. For me, the Federal elections have already started.… I’m working with groups on campus to ... create a democracy week at the end of September, which we’re really looking forward to pushing.... I’m looking to create a campaign focused on sexual violence prevention on the U of T campus specifically. We are running the CFS No Means No campaign and I want to continue running that, but I’m looking to update it and also make something a bit more relevant to U of T students.
MORGENSTERN: It was no secret that past UTSUs had various enemies both in the public and especially in the cybersphere. Have you experienced similar flack from the public? Are there any experiences you’d feel comfortable sharing?
DENIKE: I don’t think we have enemies, that seems like a very harsh word.
BANSAL: Throughout the year there’s going to be students that have concerns about the services we’re providing and how we’re providing them, but I don’t think we’ve received anything on a personal level relating to how we’ve done our job so far. People have been fairly understanding that we’ve just started our terms … and give us a bit of time before they make the judgement about how this executive is performing.
COLEMAN: There is the occasional internet troll, but there are no more trolls about UTSU than there are about anything else.... I don’t know what the deal is with this ‘Ben Coleslaw’ (laughs).… I really don’t like the idea of thinking there are enemies out there, you see this actually … with the Harper government.… It’s fine to say I disagree with these people, … [but] once you start thinking of someone as an enemy you stop listening to their criticisms. Hopefully by the end of the year I have no enemies.
KHAN: It creates defensive politics, you’re constantly having to release material and be on [the] defense as to why you are competent, why you’re adequately doing your job. It takes away from the actual work that should speak for you. So the more we personalize this position, the more we’re going to allow for ‘trolls’ to really hammer into who they think we are, and the more vulnerable we’ll be to that. But the more we actually speak to the work that we do, ... it allows for people who otherwise would have material to work with ... to realize that amidst all this, ... they’re still doing something for us.
MORGENSTERN: Two of the issues that have been big stories this summer have been the successful motion to start a CFS committee and the unsuccessful motion to start a BDS committee. Would any of you like to talk about the stories of how those motions came up?
GOMES: The motion wasn’t made necessarily with my or Jasmine’sinput.… I do think in terms of the committee itself moving forward, ... the objective … is to get input from all different groups on campus and from the CFS itself because I don’t think you can accurately judge how the CFS has performed unless you’re also asking for their own input. That means talking to different student groups, talking to different clubs, student governments and trying to involve as many people as possible when going through the discussion process.
In terms of the story behind it, there have been a lot of grievances with how the CFS per se operates on our campus, and I think that this committee is just something to investigate and kind of re-evaluate our relationship. I cannot think of any external organizations the UTSU is related with that we wouldn’t try to re-evaluate our relationship with every few years, and we’ve been members of the CFS [for] a little over a decade now. I think it’s fair to take a look and see if it’s benefiting students.
HORNBY: We know you have been talking openly with the Engineering Society to make sure they stay in the UTSU. Are you willing to use a similar approach to improve strained relationships with other colleges such as Trinity or Victoria?
GOMES: Engineering is a bit of a unique case.... They are a professional faculty, they do a lot of the advocacy services that we provide to the colleges on their own, and they also have a lot of duplicated services.... There are very stark differences between how [Engineering and the colleges] operate and work as organization[s].... In general, I think it’s our job as an exec to make sure that all the different colleges and divisions feel like the UTSU is working with them to represent them in addition to all the other student groups our portfolio includes.
MORGENSTERN: I read [Gomes’] report, and I noticed it did not consider that it’s not just engineers but all UTSU members who have an investment in student services, including those that are duplicated by engineers. Have you considered what effect a deal with the engineers would have on other UTSU members?
COLEMAN: Because this is being worked out still, and nothing’s come to the board, people are hearing little bits of what’s going on. This will come before the board of directors, it’s our goal that we figure out what works best.… We’ve been trying to advertise our board meetings, you’ll see that every board meeting has a Facebook post from the UTSU, … and we’ve had a lot of people who aren’t board members come to our meetings and it’s a really good thing.... We’re not trying to ... run everything [as executives], we give ownership of how this is decided to a broader group of students.
HORNBY: A decade of pro-CFS slates have been ineffective at convincing the provincial government to freeze or lower tuition fees for students. Do you have a new approach to tackle this issue on behalf of students?
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COLEMAN: I always like to think of the end goal as what you want to see as opposed to ... get[ting] caught in ‘I want no tuition.’ That’s not the actual thing you want. The thing you want is for anyone to be able to access university, and that’s a much broader issue than just the cost. A large part of that is whether your parents went, or what your socioeconomic background is, what your high school was. It’s important to not have ‘no tuition’ as the end goal.… We want everyone to be able to come here.… We want marginalized people to be able to attend university.... What you need to do is put that as your goal in the long run. Because the UTSU works on one-year cycles, [you must] have realistic goals that get you one step closer.... I think if you get really obsessed with one particular way of getting everyone to attend university you often overlook the best ideas.