B!KE
Statement House
Theatre Trent 2022
Arthur News School of Fish
A Trent bus pulling up outside of Bata Library during dusk, with the Student Centre in the background. Photo by Rishabh Joshi.

Ice Cream, You Scream, We All Scream for a Better Student Union

Written by
Nick Taylor
and
and
April 12, 2022
Ice Cream, You Scream, We All Scream for a Better Student Union
A Trent bus pulling up outside of Bata Library during dusk, with the Student Centre in the background. Photo by Rishabh Joshi.

By all accounts, the TCSA had a successful year. Well, perhaps not by this account. 

This time, last year, the TCSA was wrapping up their Spring Elections, and its newly elected members were likely engaged in some reflection about how the TCSA could bolster voter turnout amidst a pandemic that had complicated the already-fraught question of student engagement. 

During the 2021 TCSA Spring Elections, 921 votes were cast, representing only 9.67% of the 9 508 eligible voters. In order for referenda to be considered valid by Trent University, the TCSA elections must reach a quorum of 10% of its membership, composed of Trent’s undergraduate student body. Fortunately the TCSA’s by-laws and procedures do not require 10% voter turnout for the election of its Board of Directors, which has allowed the organization to persist despite these abysmal figures. 

The TCSA also failed to reach the 10% threshold in their Fall 2020 elections, garnering just 683 votes which represent 7.19% of then-eligible voters. Even before the pandemic, the TCSA was struggling to meet this figure, hitting just 10.63% and 10.64%, during the Fall 2019 and Fall 2018 elections, respectively.  

This year, the TCSA incentivized voting in their elections: there were prizes for attending the Meet the Candidates event, there were prizes for voting, and there was even an ice cream truck distributing free frozen treats to students, because nothing says ‘civic duty’ quite like chocolate and vanilla swirls. 

The TCSA’s Spring Elections did in fact achieve quorum, with 18.63% of students casting ballots, but likely due to the sheer volume of referenda questions on the ballot, including Arthur’s own levy increase, as well as a question from the University that sought to establish an ancillary fee to fund a position in Trent’s Housing Office. 

On the day before the Spring Elections opened, Arthur Newspaper orchestrated a ‘Vote No’ campaign across our socials, which saw more engagement than anything we’ve ever posted. (Our Instagram post reached 3 900 accounts, and was shared over 800 times.) Later that evening the TCSA’s executive members joined in, publishing a statement that voiced their dissent. 

I’ll return to the housing referendum later in this article, but I bring it up here because I firmly believe that voter turnout would have been much lower if the University had not tried to offload the cost of someone’s salary onto students, and if Arthur and the TCSA’s Executive had not roused students to this fact. 

Beyond the nine different referendum questions posed to students, what stands out about this year’s Spring Elections is that every candidate who ran, did so uncontested: seven positions, seven candidates. I think this presents some pretty obvious and glaring questions about the role of democracy in our student union. Of course, students can ‘vote no’ to uncontested candidates, but what does it mean if your only options are having a representative you didn’t want, or having no representative at all? 

With only seven candidates running, it also meant that seven positions would be left vacant moving into the fall – commissioners for part-time students, queer students, students with disabilities, racialized students, gender issues, ethical standards, and environmental sustainability. The TCSA does run by-elections every fall which historically serve to elect the first-year representative positions, but these elections have increasingly been used to fill vacant positions. 

With half of the TCSA’s Board positions filled after this year’s Spring Elections, I’m left wondering what the union plans to do to quell this crisis of engagement, and I hope that when the union takes a long hard look, it does not individuate the issue, or try ameliorate it with incentives for casting ballots, or attribute it to generalized student apathy. I hope the TCSA looks inward and identifies this crisis of engagement as the symptom of a greater, more structural problem – a problem they’ve created for themselves. 

All of this – the difficulties meeting quorum, the positions left vacant – amounts to a crisis of engagement, a crisis that stems, in my mind, from the TCSA’s inability to make itself meaningful to the almost 10 000 students it represents. Of course, effectively representing a group of nearly ten thousand people who occupy different identities and experiences is an inherently difficult responsibility. Throw a global pandemic into the mix, and those needs become even more complicated, especially for students with disabilities and international students. But the problem isn’t COVID-19, the problem is that the TCSA has long been woefully ill-equipped to do the work of a student union. 

The TCSA is excellent at maintaining a certain continuity. Students rely on the TCSA to administer the benefits plan, to ensure the transit system functions, to provide grocery assistance – all of these are vital facets of the TCSA’s role as service providers. The TCSA also has plans to allocate funds from the now-defunct Peterborough Housing Co-op to provide direct rent supports to students, which I think is a great example of the role the TCSA can play in altering the material conditions of student life.    

But when it comes to operating as a vehicle for structural change, well, you might find that the keys don’t really fit in the ignition. After all, where has the TCSA been in the movement to get Trent to divest from fossil fuels? Where were they when the Board of Governors approved tuition increases for international and out-of-province students? What have they done to advocate for students with disabilities navigating virtual learning? Why weren’t they mass-purchasing N95s for students who couldn’t access them themselves? What have they done to advocate for Trent to change the name of Champlain College, or lobby against land commercialization at Trent? 

N95 masks. Illustration by Brazil Gaffney-Knox

Of course, this is not to say that the TCSA has not done any important work in recent years, but that more often than not, any political work that the TCSA does engage in, comes in the form of statements and reports, rather than actually lobbying the University, or protesting, or doing much of anything to realize concrete, material change. 

In this sense, our student union comes to serve as a microcosm for the wider issues we face under neoliberalism – that too often, our elected representatives find themselves in the service of capital, rather than the people who voted for them. In the case of the TCSA, we find our representatives worshiping at the altar of corporatism, or bureaucracy, or perhaps the University itself – which is really just corporatism and bureaucracy dressed up in a green gown. 

In an ideal world, student unions would represent the last vestiges of uncommercialized space on campuses that have largely succumbed to corporatism. However, in the past year the TCSA has taken to offering up their Instagram as advertising space. In February, they published two different advertisements – one for TACMAC, “a Canadian social enterprise connecting young people with small businesses,” and the other for Severn Court Student Residence – the private residence infamous for having been host to a COVID superspreader event last year that resulted in the death of one of its tenants.

Over the month of February the TCSA made four separate posts promoting ‘Boost,’ a mobile food ordering app owned by Compass Group Canada – the same multinational food conglomerate that owns Chartwells, and provides the overpriced and nutrient-lacking food served in Trent cafeterias. Promotion like this raises the question: why are student union resources being used to advertise the services of a nearly $39 billion dollar food corporation? Why does the TCSA want to ‘partner’ with Chartwells at all? 

My argument could perhaps be dismissed as ideological, or ‘anti-capitalist’ but I think there is something else to be gleaned here – in a place where we are constantly being advertised to online and in-person, one easy way to retain the attention of your membership might be to not advertise to them. I think this problem’s genesis lies in the TCSA’s perception of itself, in that it sees itself as a mere extension of the University, rather than a body whose purpose is to oppose it. Or at the very least, hold it accountable. 

The TCSA’s focus on administering services, and inability to effectively lobby or organize, renders them indistinguishable from the University. Students need to be able to see that this is their union, that functionally, it belongs to them: they pay the salaries and fund the programs. If the TCSA operates as an extension of the University, they risk contributing to a culture that is hostile to student engagement, one that eliminates entry points for students. 

One example of this self-identification with the institution comes from a TCSA Board meeting I attended on February 13th, during which the TSCA Board of Directors had the opportunity to vote referendum questions onto the ballot for the Spring Elections. One such referendum question was the ‘Off Campus Housing Support’ question I mentioned earlier. There was a presentation from Trent Housing and a lengthy discussion ensued, during which I and a few members of the TCSA pointed out that the University shouldn’t be getting students to fund the 'solution' for a problem Trent helped create. The minutes for that meeting detail this conversation well. 

When it came time to vote, I was surprised to see that 77% of the voting members present voted in favour of putting the referendum question on the ballot, despite the ample evidence provided that this initiative was not in the best interests of students. As I mentioned previously, the TCSA’s own executive would go on to make a statement against this referendum the day before voting opened to the student body. It seems that while there are a few members paying attention and working hard to advocate for students, the culture of the TCSA is one that ultimately has allegiance to the University, not the students it claims to represent. 

Again, students might be forgiven if they were unsure where the University ends and the union begins, especially when it has become a trend for members of the TCSA executive to finish their contracts, and take up employment at the University. In fact, the last two Presidents of the TCSA, Ann-Majella McKelvie and Brandon Remmelgas, now work for Trent in the Housing Services department, McKelvie as an Administrative and Project Coordinator, and Remmelgas as an Occupancy Management Coordinator. 

Somehow the TCSA – an organization fundamentally in conflict with the University – has become the perfect place for bureaucrats-to-be who are hoping to get a job with the University after their time at the union. That’s like if Trent wanted to hire someone who had worked at Arthur for years, publishing scathing investigations into the University administration. Perhaps this can be owed to the work the TCSA is engaged in – how much of it focuses on the administrative, and how little focuses on the overtly political. 

A stack of papers. Illustration by Brazil Gaffney-Knox.

An organization like this, where you are elected into a paid position by your peers, and entrusted to manage multi-million dollar budgets might be attractive to a student with careerist aspirations, someone who is seeking another line on their resume to propel them forward. This creates a situation wherein students who run for the TCSA are not those looking to do important activist work, and participate in social justice organizing, but those with more self-indulgent intentions. 

Of course, I am not trying to say that the TCSA is composed solely of narcissistic ne'er-do-wells. There are exceptions to this phenomena, but on the whole, I see a culture that attracts a certain kind of self-interest, and that is what I’m focussing on here. 

In the past calendar year, the TCSA has organized at least two craft markets, (one for the holidays, and one for ‘spring’). This would be less noteworthy if there weren’t multiple members of their paid staff selling their wares for their own small, side-businesses at these markets. I’m not sure that this constitutes a formal conflict of interest, but I’d say that using your paid position at a not-for-profit to create avenues for you to market your etsy-business is, well, not a shining example of ethical conduct. 

But this opportunism goes beyond trying to make a buck through your side-hustle, what's more serious is when this lack of professionalism affects union members' ability to do their work. The culture I’m trying to articulate here has created the conditions under which members of the TCSA executive fail to take their work seriously, and for some reason or another, end up leaving their post. Just last year, then-VP Campaigns and Equity Sean Mestieri, and then-VP Health and Wellness Jaime Waite, both resigned simultaneously over what was ostensibly interpersonal conflict with other members of the executive. Waite had been the second VP Health and Wellness to resign that academic year, with former VP Allan Fabrykant resigning the previous semester, but that’s a whole other story. 

This all paints a picture of an organization mired in resignations and controversy, whose members simply do not grasp the significance of the work they have been entrusted to carry out. This is conduct that someone might expect from a high school student council, but when it comes to a student union that represents nearly 10 000 students and manages over $13 million, that conduct is more than a little unbecoming. 

Of course, it would be unfair to construe the issues I’m identifying as isolated to one student union at one university. The reality is that this crisis of engagement is pervasive throughout student unions across the country. Recently, a satirical candidate and rodent, Remy the Rat, won second place in UBC’s student union presidential elections, which many attribute to a lack of student engagement. At UofT, the UTSU has failed to find anyone interested in filling the role of President for the upcoming academic year. Meanwhile, violations have plagued the student union elections at X University, and at McGill, the SSMU President has been on leave for much of the year, with other executive members resigning over unsafe work environments. 

Without question, the abysmal state of student unions in Canada can be attributed to a post-secondary education system wherein myriad factors constrain student autonomy – the unaffordability of post-secondary, the proliferation of surveillance technology on campuses, parallel infringements on the autonomy of faculty, the precarity of academic labour, and the overarching corporatization of the University. 

Herein lies a paradox: these structural issues impede student autonomy, but they are also what makes the fight for student autonomy all the more dire. The multiplicity of challenges facing students means that there are also a multiplicity of entry points to student activism, and the work of radically transforming our schools, and the systems that govern them: combatting the unaffordability crisis, realizing justice for international students, eradicating ableism on campus, interrogating land commercialization, lobbying the University to combat the housing crisis, decolonizing our campuses, divesting from fossil fuels, fighting for better working conditions for staff and faculty, dismantling the food monopoly on campus, and resisting the surveillance technologies the University employs

If you take anything and from this lengthy, and at times flagrant editorial, let it be the awareness that you have a right – maybe even an obligation – to reshape this place of learning, that the project of student activism should not be one of bureaucracy, self-serving careerism, or capitalist advancement – but that a union ought to represent the people it claims to. It is the work of student unions to ensure that student voices are heard, and that those voices become a collective, resounding call for change. 

It is the work of student unions to see that change through. 

B!KE
Statement House
Theatre Trent 2022
Arthur News School of Fish
Written By
Sponsored
B!KE
Statement House
Theatre Trent 2022
Arthur News School of Fish

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A rich text element can be used with static or dynamic content. For static content, just drop it into any page and begin editing. For dynamic content, add a rich text field to any collection and then connect a rich text element to that field in the settings panel. Voila!

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"Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system."
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