UTSU debate: friendly competition or understated tension?
Last night the candidates for next year’s UTSU executive addressed questions from a campus media panel (including editors from TheVarsity, The Medium and the newspaper) and the U of T community. The debate featured the Hello U of T and 1 U of T slates, as well as independent VP Campus Life candidate Alessia Rodriguez.
Much of the event went by peacefully, illustrating the consensus views of the current UTSU culture—broad if imperfect commitments to equity work, mental health activism, and increased member engagement. A frequent refrain in many of the debates was, “I agree with my opponent.”
This is not to say there was no disagreement in the debate. Madina Siddiqui, the presidential candidate with the 1 U of T slate, centred her campaign around clubs funding and criticized the current UTSU (which includes Hello U of T candidates Jasmine Denike and Ryan Gomes) for allegedly cutting and failing to provide funds to certain clubs on time, including her own Afghan Students Association, while Hello’s Mathias Memmel criticized past UTSUs for failing to publish enough financial information.
But given the overall conciliatory tone of the event, it came as somewhat of a surprise when Hello VP University Affairs candidate Shawn Williams said that students rightfully “hated” the UTSU before this year’s slate came along.
Williams’ remark reminded me of an interview newspaper EIC Dylan Hornby and I did with the UTSU executive in the summer. Wanting to address the tension that has long maligned UTSU politics, I asked the executive whether they felt they faced the same flack from “enemies” as their predecessors. The executive team responded by taking issue with the word “enemy,” arguing that such rhetoric was counter-productive.
But whether words like “enemy” and “hate” are used or not, they are illustrative of one of the weirder dynamics in the UTSU—that it is simultaneously an extremely partisan community as well as a community where leaders will rarely acknowledge that such partisan divisions exist (even as Hello’s supporters came to the debate in bright green and purple shirts and applauded voraciously for their candidates).
Much has changed in the UTSU over the last several years. In one of the most exciting exchanges of the night, 1 U of T’s Andre Fast argued that the UTSU needs to play a leading role in fighting for free tuition, while Hello’s Lucinda Qu argued that UTSU activists need to listen to marginalized people to understand what struggles complicate their ability to pay for education. In the not so distant past, these two arguments would likely have come from the same side, with the opposite slate blatantly dismissing the fight for free tuition as too radical.
Shortly after her comment about how the UTSU had been “hated,” Williams said that the core mission of the UTSU should be engaging in a huge range of activist work on behalf of marginalized groups. Only four years ago, the opposition slate to the “pro-CFS” UTSU incumbency argued against taking “divisive” political stands and focused its platform on building a campus bar. Thus, in the same breath, Williams denounced past UTSUs while essentially expressing support for the agendas those past UTSUs were in part “hated” for. This seems like a good time to use a cliché—the more things change, the more they stay the same. The UTSU appears on track to remain an embattled, divided organization, yet the leaders of its two sides seem unclear about or unwilling to express what that division is about.
While my personal leaning is towards 1 U of T due to Fast’s activist-focused candidacy and Siddiqui’s connections with a number of prominent and progressive campus clubs, I feel both sides and their supports have serious questions to ask themselves. Division in U of T politics should not simply be about slates and complex historical allegiances, but instead about political goals. Hopefully policy-based discussions will dominate the rest of this campaign, and voters will be able to clearly identify which slate best aligns with their ideologies to decide who will best represent them.