Last week, a series of private Facebook messages were anonymously leaked to Arthur Newspaper that appear to show Trent Central Student Association’s (TCSA) President Braden Freer compromising his ethical responsibilities in a conversation with Corey LeBlanc, the Vice-President of the Trent Conservatives student group.
The messages, which were verified by both Freer and LeBlanc, cover a variety of controversial topics including the prospect of de-federating the union from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), the recently rescinded Israel divestment policy, and how the Trent Conservatives group can ‘take over the TCSA.’
Whose anti-CFS motion is it?
At the start of the leaked messages, dated from the days before and after the union’s January 29 annual general meeting (AGM), Freer sent a draft motion to LeBlanc that would have asked the membership to endorse a petition to de-federate from the Canadian Federation of Students.
The motion argued that because the CFS considered a motion to join the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel in August of 2014, and because the TCSA successfully voted to rescind their own BDS policy (something which had not yet happened when the motion was sent) the values of the two organizations no longer align.
The motion was meant to be brought up at the AGM and LeBlanc, in an interview with Arthur, stated that he was going to propose it during the Any Other Business (AOB) portion of the meeting. The meeting never made it to AOB, however, because time ran out.
The origins of this draft motion are now in dispute as both Freer and LeBlanc point to each other as its author.
When asked who drafted the motion, Freer said, “It was drafted by [LeBlanc] and sent to me. He asked for context and edits. Specifically, he sent the wording and said if I wanted to present this, how would I present it?”
LeBlanc, however, denied this claiming that Freer sent him the motion unsolicited. “[It] was just sent to me by Braden. I did agree with the motion I suppose, I agree with the principles of it, but if you’re asking if that was my idea – that was not my idea and there was no previous discussion. It was simply posed as ‘Hey could you do a couple things in AOB.’”
Conflict of interest?
In addition to raising questions about the anti-CFS motion, the leaked screenshots also add yet another layer of contention to controversy surrounding the rescindment of the TCSA’s BDS policy against Israel at the January 29 AGM.
Prior to the meeting, at which he acted as chairperson, the screenshots show that Freer gave LeBlanc (also the president of Trent4Israel) advice on how his group could win the vote.
According to the screenshots, Freer told LeBlanc to seek the support of Dr. Asaf Zohar (a Trent Professor and Governor who supported the rescindment) saying, “If Dr. Zohar shows up… I believe it would go far. None of [the TCSA] directors or the cabinets would accept going against him.”
Freer also pointed LeBlanc towards an internet article on human rights violations in Gambia saying, “[I]believe you’re taking the ‘would we begin to BDS other states that have HR violations route’…That just popped up in my Twitter feed, thought it would be of assistance.”
Furthermore, he offered advice on how to obtain membership support and suggested that 30 students would be enough to get a majority vote.
When asked about this, Freer said “When I did it, I didn’t view it as coaching. I viewed it as a member wants to know how to change something because they disagree with it. I was, in good faith, telling them how to do it because if I didn’t help, then I’m not being helpful to our members.”
Helping members of the union is within the mandate of the TCSA President, but a conflict of interest could be seen to arise when that same President is also chairing the meeting where the motion is taking place.
In response to that, Freer disagreed that his personal attachment to the motion affected his ability to chair and maintained that he followed the official procedures professionally.
However, TCSA by-laws state that the chairperson of a meeting “is required to provide no public comment of personal belief on matters… while serving as speaker. He or she must remain impartial at all times on matters before the Board.”
Where the issue becomes unclear is whether or not private Facebook conversations should be considered a breach of this, particularly when they are with an individual who has a vested interest in the decision.
At the time the Facebook conversation took place Freer knew that he would be serving as chairperson of the AGM and at one point told LeBlanc, “I’ll have to stay away from inviting [students to the pro-rescindment Facebook group], can’t risk inviting someone who disagrees then calls my chairing into question.”
Planning a TCSA takeover
After the AGM took place, the screenshots show Freer congratulating LeBlanc on the success of the rescindment motion. It is at this point they begin discussing how the Trent Conservatives could “take over the TCSA.”
Freer begins the discussion by saying “As my by law change did not go through, I would encourage you to run for [Vice President of University & College Affairs].” He then says, “as well, I would encourage a Trent Conservative take over as many board positions as possible.”
While both Freer and LeBlanc maintain that there was nothing serious about the term ‘take over’—Freer arguing that it was an inside joke and LeBlanc stating that it was never serious—Freer explicitly states “I would suggest supporting [name redacted] for Prez. Looks like less of an overt takeover that way.”
The conversation also had Freer suggesting general advice on how to proceed, which positions would be easiest to run for, and Freer requesting that the two of them meet up for a “TCSA takeover planning session.”
When asked to contextualize this, Freer said “It was a running joke between myself, Corey, and [the Trent Conservatives President]. I thought of those two as very passionate individuals, and the response was ‘oh, it’s a takeover’ (sarcastically).”
LeBlanc echoed a similar sentiment in a separate interview, noting that he was laughing at the word ‘takeover’ in the conversation as though it were a joke. He also said, “I don’t understand what the story is here. Students get to vote in the TCSA elections, so if we had every single person that we ran elected – that’s not a takeover, that’s democracy.”
LeBlanc added that while there was some consideration amongst the Trent Conservatives to run for positions on the TCSA Board of Directors, “[Student Government] isn’t something that any of us want to get involved with immediately, and none of us have chosen to run.”
Nonetheless, Freer acknowledged that this whole thing looks bad on the TCSA, admitting that he feels the student body would be “frustrated” and “angry” about the content of this conversation.