By Eddy Kara
The Concordia Student Union (CSU) holds annual elections for their executives and councilors. Their mission, as mentioned on their website, is “to defend student rights and to act as the highest student representative body, so two things are essential: that (1) we are beholden to students (our membership) and that (2) our funds are used responsibly to represent students, and in the interest of students’ rights!”
In 2016, I ran for the General Coordinator position, along with others in our team called “Empower Concordia”. Having worked on political campaigns in the past, I had a working assumption of what to expect. It quickly became apparent to my team and I, however, that running for the CSU was nothing compared to other campaigns I had experienced in the Canadian political arena. My team and I quickly realized the brevity of the restrictions imposed upon non-incumbent candidates, leading me to share my experience with others with political aspirations at Concordia.
As I wade into the political campaign process, I quickly began to realize that many of these restrictions seemed purposefully imposed by the incumbent team. They varied from social media posts being controlled, to being harassed to change wording on posters. This specific example involved a particularly pedantic request to alter our campaign posters from “Vote for Empower Concordia as your next executive team” to “Vote…to be your next executive team”. The reason provided for such an altercation was the CSU team claiming it to be too “deterministic”. The latter case occurred early on during the campaign, after the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), Mohammed Al Naggar, had approved all our posters. Puzzled, our next step was to gather letters from three different professors from the English department who, puzzled as we where, backed up our complaint; that ultimately both posters communicated proper English of the exact same thing. Furthermore, they unanimously agreed that the CEO’s request was abusive. Another interesting instance included an incident in which we quoted, on our own Facebook page, several quotes between one of our candidates and their opponent. We believed this to be a good strategy as it allowed those at school with less knowledge and time to follow the campaign to educate themselves on the position of the candidates. To nobody’s surprise, we where summarily asked to remove the posts under the guise that they “did not reflect reality”. We were punished for posting such a thing (as well as asked to apologize), a restriction any regular candidate seeking public office would never have to deal with and a direct violation of our section 2 Charter Rights.
In addition to such actions, our team experienced an uneven application of the rules. As we endured similar requests from the CEO on a daily basis, the incumbent CSU team, ‘Act Together’, was given privileges. One example included the tabling hours each candidate group was entitled to. It was at this point that the favouritism became apparent. We were only given two hours for tabling while the CSU-backed slate ‘Act Together’ had tabling priviledges almost every single day. In one specific instance, we where asked about our ‘misplaced’ posters, and being utterly suspicious about this, took it upon ourselves to inquire with Security. We soon discovered that it was members of another election team that ‘misplaced’ our poster, leaving us in violation of the rules. This was just another example of the CEO acting on the offensive, often with an accusatory tone, instead of investigating the matter thoroughly before making accusations.
Another fallacy occurred during a campaign event in which we where attracting Concordians to our table using a wheel to determine which TimBit flavour they’d receive. This was an attempt to attract attention and to get to know our constituents through an informal get together. Instead, we were sanctioned for not having approval to use a gaming wheel. Furthermore, the CEO came to us addressing a recent ‘complaint’ of bribery! Demanding an explanation, we sent a detailed response explaining what constitutes bribery under the law and how this incident did not even resemble such a definition. At first puzzled, we quickly realized this strategy was to delay the publication of a campaign video we had for eleven days as we awaited ‘approval’ following these complaints. In collusion with the incredibly active CEO, our ability to mobilize and reach our constituents was continuously hampered throughout the campaign. In a political campaign that relies so much on messaging and reaching out to constituents, this greatly hurt our chances.
Finally, we must address the issue of the ‘debates’, or more specifically a form of Q&A session of which most of the questions are asked by CSU backed-slate’s supporters, and of which no debate rules exist, nor any independent moderators. The CEO took the role of ‘moderator’ and continuously attempted to favour the CSU backed slate, ‘Act Together’. Being a film producer, I arranged a videographer to be present in order to film the first debate for us, given that the CEO could not get CUTV to show up. Our hope was to use lines from our executives as ads. Conveniently, the CEO disallowed us from using any of this. Turning to the media, the Concordian chose only to write an article about ‘Act Together’ and none about us, while The Link openly endorsed Act Together, after only writing one article on our slate. Throughout this process, we emailed the CSU Judicial Board 3 times, hoping for their intervention on gross negligence and complete lack of standard of fairness. Only after emailing the fourth time, CCing the CSU General Coordinator Terry Wilkins at the time, did we finally get a response with the excuse that they had been having “technical issues until recently”. We subsequently sent them all the evidence 4 days later and never got a response since. Finally, we also discovered during the campaign that the CEO’s remuneration is determined only after his contractual term expires, which would mean that the compensation element of this contract for services missing is unclear, a scheme that is grossly problematic.
As I continue with my future endeavours, I feel it is my duty to advise Concordians interested in running for CSU, to make sure they are aware of what transpires during these electoral processes. Having worked on two federal electoral campaigns in senior staff positions, I must admit that never have I ever participated as part of a campaign as restrictive and abusive as the CSU’s. This should be a cause for concern for all of us at Concordia as freedom of expression (s.2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s.3 of Quebec Charter) should never be restricted during elections. Furthermore, access to free and fair elections is something all of us should strive for. I feel that if an independent audit of the electoral system at Concordia where ever to occur, the results would resembles those of an illiberal democracy. It is important not to give in, to run to affect change and get involved because reform of this scale will never happen by itself.
Photo: Flickr, Commercial use permitted