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Illustration by/A.I. Marin

History repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce,” said Karl Marx when, for the second time, a Bonaparte took over revolutionary France. The same quotation could easily apply to this year’s UTSU Annual General Meeting.


A year after charismatic UTSU opponent Sam Greene called for a vote against the Annual General Meeting’s agenda (leading to the meeting’s cancellation and subsequent rescheduling), Pierre Harfouche unsuccessfully attempted to pull off the same move.


Prior to the AGM, Harfouche proposed motions in support of fee diversion that, according to UTSU President Munib Sajjad, he was already told would be ruled out of order, in what seemed a ploy to prolong conflict between the UTSU and its opponents. Despite the monotony of this debate—which one student told me was akin to “watching angry paint dry”—some form of it will likely continue.

 

Student politics has the potential to centre around important political questions, such as the right to education. Unfortunately, the controversies that surround the UTSU often obscure these more fundamental questions.


Opponents criticize the UTSU because one political class dominates its elections, because some feel its politicians are paid too much, because until recently it did not offer an online voting option, etc. These criticisms can be applied just as easily to all liberal-democratic governments (governments that don’t even go so far as to have AGMs). Yet many of the faces we see leading the charge to delegitimize the UTSU are not the faces making similar demands at higher levels within movements such as Occupy and Idle No More.

 

While I imagine many students support the concept of online voting, I doubt that students spent their days angrily fretting about the absence of online voting in UTSU election before opposition demagogues worked to make it a polarizing issue. Rather than thinking about concepts like online voting in isolation, politically conscious students should analyze them from a strategic perspective.


Imagine you have a fundamental political disagreement with the way a student union runs. Unless your idea is a radical solution aimed at a radical populous in a radical context—i.e. you’re a CLASSÉ organizer during the Quebec student strike—chances are you won’t be able to mobilize students for the sake of your philosophy alone. Instead, you look for an issue that you can frame as being part of a catch-all philosophy such as democracy or anti-corruption. That is what I believe happens in the anti-UTSU movement, and it makes sense in a broader context of attacks on student unions.

 

At other schools, the ideological struggle inherent in campus politics is more out in the open. Inspired in part by the anti-OPIRG campaign of Conservative Stuart Clark at Queens, right-wing campus groups have campaigned against levies to PIRGs (student-run public interest research groups).


At Carleton and McMaster, conservatives told students to take back their OPIRG levies and to spend them on beer.  


At the University of Windsor, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, a pro-Liberal rival organization to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), was kicked out a year ago.  In a video published by The Windsor Star, the union’s OUSA-affiliated ex-president and self-described proud Liberal André Capaldi defended a 4.5 per cent tuition increase on the grounds that there were “limited resources.”


At the University of Guelph there have been back and forth battles over the student association’s membership in the CFS, which is also UTSU’s parent organization.


The role of student associations have been challenged at various schools, and seeing as these challenges are often politically motivated, it’s hard to take fights within the UTSU over minutiae at face value. People fight the UTSU and the CFS, for political reasons. While these challenges occasionally comes from far left critics (who denounce the UTSU and CFS for not putting enough effort into their activist roles), it most loudly comes from the right, or at least from nominal leftists corroborating liberal order rhetoric.

 

My deconstruction of the anti-UTSU movement should not be misinterpreted as a complete defense of the status quo. Rather, I would argue, when fights over issues such as fee-diversion dominate conversation, other debates are undermined. During the AGM, Petr Liakhov (a newspaper op-ed writer) asked whether the UTSU would organize demonstrations against tuition fees. Munib Sajjad gave him a vague, but enthusiastic answer that Liakhov was not satisfied with. This is an important area of contention, yet with fights over fee-diversion, as well as more explicitly left-right battles over issues such as Israeli Apartheid Week dominating debate, this potentially game-changing question went largely unnoticed.

 

For the foreseeable future , student leaders from Trinity, the Engineering Society and elsewhere will continue to clash with the leaders of the UTSU. While the words of these figures may make for great headlines, the subtext of these fights is of far more importance than what is said out loud. Hopefully we’ll get to a point where student governance is openly understood in a truly  political light. Then we can challenge tragedy and eliminate farce.

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