Racism scandal rocks UWSA executive

Blackface photos and sparse apology leave unanswered questions

Update: Following the rescheduled board meeting held on June 16, the UWSA executive has been placed on paid administrative leave until the Human Rights & Diversity Office completes its investigation.

The 2020/21 academic year hasn’t even started, but the newly elected executive of the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) is already facing a scandal. With calls from students mounting for the executive to resign, an apology from the president and vice-presidents leaves many questions unanswered.

The scandal

The scandal has its roots in the February campaign season for the most recent UWSA election. The Envision 2020 slate of candidates, comprised of Jibril Hussein (president), Breanna Belisle (vice-president external affairs) and Melanie William (vice-president student affairs) won, defeating the incumbent Devote slate, comprised of presidential candidate Mahlet Cuff (who served as vice-president external affairs in 2019/20), Noelle Sagher (vice-president student affairs in 2019/20) and Shawna Péloquin (who ran for vice-president external affairs).

On June 5, Cuff posted to social media alleging that the Envision 2020 executive team was complicit in a campaign of racist and misogynist harassment against her and her colleagues by University of Winnipeg (U of W) students David Teffaine and Sam Cohn.

Teffaine and Cohn “cornered us in the hallways while we were moving our posters and screamed at us, as they were working alongside (the Envision 2020 team),” Cuff wrote on Instagram. “They made us feel unsafe to walk the halls alone and were the cause for one of the worst months of stress and anxiety I have experienced this year. They circled our office multiple times, for hours, in the evening and during the day. They surveilled us from the mezzanine.

“They circled our second-last board meeting, instilling fear in anyone having to leave the room. We had to be escorted to and from work every single day.”

The executive team of Hussein, Belisle and William appeared in a response video alongside Teffaine, denying the allegations by Cuff. The video was shared on the Instagram account for the UWSA executive.

On June 8, a photo of Teffaine wearing blackface at a 2016 Halloween social resurfaced. The caption from when the photo was originally shared on Facebook states that Teffaine is dressed as “Bill Cosby.” Another person in the photo, costumed as a police officer, is identified in the photo as being dressed as “Darren Wilson the black cop killer,” referring to the 2014 killing of Black teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., which was an inciting event in the Ferguson Uprising.

The response

In the wake of the photo, the UWSA executive’s video with Teffaine was deleted and their Instagram page scrubbed of content. The Envision 2020 Facebook page has also been deleted.

The UWSA executives released a statement on June 8, in which they apologized to  “everyone who has seen and been affected by the actions and conduct of David Teffaine,” stating that they were “blindsided and disturbed by the photo that had surfaced and do not condone this conduct.” The group distanced itself from Teffaine, stating that he “will not be involved with the UWSA, in any capacity.”

Teffaine himself made a public statement, apologizing for the blackface photos “from a Halloween party years ago.” Teffaine also distanced himself from the UWSA executive, saying he “never told (them) about these actions, and I put them in positions that they never should have been in.”

Both the UWSA executive’s statement and Teffaine’s apology specifically address the blackface photo. Neither mentions the alleged harassment, nor do they specify the Envision 2020 team’s relationship to Teffaine. Neither Teffaine nor the UWSA executive have responded to The Uniter’s requests to clarify that relationship.

The people involved

David Teffaine’s involvement in local, provincial and student politics goes deep. He ran for MLA representing the Manitoba Liberal Party in the Swan River riding during the 2019 provincial election, but came in behind PC victor Rick Wowchuk and NDP runner-up Shelley Wiggins. According to Facebook, he also worked as a constituent assistant for the Liberals.

At the U of W, Teffaine was a member of the university’s Board of Regents before his dismissal after the blackface photo resurfaced. The Board of Regents, along with the university’s Senate, governs the university, working closely with the UWSA. Teffaine successfully ran for his position on the board in the October 2019 UWSA byelection.

Teffaine and Sam Cohn, a fellow U of W student, were part of the four-person team that created an app called Post-Ed (formerly known as Connexus) meant to connect post-secondary students to events happening on university campuses. Teffaine and Cohn were also delegates with the U of W’s team at the 2020 JDC West business competition. 

While the UWSA executive and Teffaine haven’t responded to The Uniter’s questions about Teffaine’s relationship to the Envision 2020 executive team, it’s clear that he worked very closely with them during and after their campaign. In addition to the recent video, posts on social media from as recently as March 19 identify the members of the “Envision 2020 team” as Teffaine, Jibril Hussein, Breanna Belisle, Melanie William and Kierra Ryner.

While Hussein, Belisle and William were all elected to the UWSA executive, Teffaine and Ryner were not part of the slate of candidates in the election. However, on Nov. 10, less than two weeks after winning his seat on the Board of Regents, Teffaine and Ryner violated UWSA campaign bylaws by campaigning for the 2020 UWSA election before the allowed timeframe. On Nov. 20, Teffaine was again found pre-campaigning in violation of the same bylaws. 

A decision by the Chief Election Commissioner disqualified Teffaine from participating in the upcoming election. Teffaine appealed the decision, but his appeal was denied on Feb. 10, four days before candidates for the 2020 election were announced. It’s unclear why Teffaine was part of the “Envision 2020” team despite being barred from participating in the election.

The unaddressed allegations

A June 10 statement from Sagher said that she discovered the violations that led to Teffaine’s disqualification. That’s when the harassment began.

“It was clear that (Teffaine) made it his goal to target myself and (Cuff) in hopes of creating a different UWSA executive team that would follow all his directions and that he would actually lead, without being elected,” Sagher wrote on Instagram.

“That night, his friend circled my office. For three hours. I was so terrified that I locked the doors, shut the lights off, and hid my body on the ground. He kept going up the stairs to peer into my office to watch me. From that day on. I was surveilled, stalked, and harassed.”

Sagher said she went to the Chief Elections Commissioner Shenal Fernando for help, but verbal warnings were the only action taken.

“The CEC failed me,” Sagher wrote. “I sat in his office crying, multiple times, telling him I was going to hand in my resignation because I did not feel safe on campus. He told me ... ‘It’s just politics.’”

Sagher said that the head of university security was “furious (that) no action was taken to ensure my safety as an employee and UWSA member. Senior administration was contacted immediately, and I had to be walked to and from my office. I couldn’t walk down a hallway without checking to make sure they weren’t there first. I couldn’t walk to my own vehicle alone. Security had to watch the doors at my meetings around campus.

Teffaine “was routinely spotted circling my office and watching me and my colleagues ... He circled (a UWSA board meeting) for over two hours. Four different people spotted him at four different times throughout the meeting.”

Sagher says Hussein, Belisle and William were aware of Teffaine’s conduct.

Teffaine “once cornered myself and (Cuff) with (Hussein, Belisle and William) ... He was so close to (Cuff’s) face – visibly making them uncomfortable – and clearly using intimidation to try and defeat us. We couldn’t break their circle. Head of security viewed the footage and told me this was a serious incident and violated various University of Winnipeg bylaws and that their status as students was in jeopardy. Again, the CEC told me it was just politics, and the incident didn’t warrant any consequence. I guess that’s the price I pay as a woman of colour.”

The alleged harassment coincided with an anonymous smear campaign on social media. On Feb. 24, a Twitter account using the alias “Anthony Kerman” made unsubstantiated claims that a former UWSA vice-president internal affairs had embezzled money, donated the money to the provincial NDP, and that Cuff and Sagher “covered up” the alleged theft by enforcing non-disclosure agreements. 

The UWSA unequivocally denied the allegations in a Feb. 26 statement, reiterating that the former VPIA left the UWSA for conflict-of-interest reasons. An investigation by The Uniter found absolutely no evidence to substantiate the claims made by “Kerman.” The investigation did, however, find that the VPIA had a history of volunteering for political causes, a potential conflict of interest for the UWSA, which supports the UWSA’s version of events and discredits “Kerman’s.”

In a February 26 voice call with The Uniter, the person behind the Twitter account declined to identify himself. When asked for the source of the claims of embezzlement, “Kerman” again refused to identify them, saying only that the source of the claims was someone involved with the UWSA “who is close to me, someone who I care about, someone who is under NDA (non-disclosure agreement).”   

The Uniter has been unable to verify whether Teffaine participated in making the anonymous allegations, whether Teffaine was the “someone who is close to me, someone who I care about” that “Kerman” claimed as the source of the unsubstantiated allegations or whether other members of the executive knew of the misconduct. Cohn denied his involvement with the account in a conversation with The Uniter.

The optics

The potential fallout of the situation goes beyond the U of W campus. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's multiple blackface scandals have been a public relations nightmare for the Liberal Party of Canada. As a former Liberal MLA candidate, Teffaine may have brought similar scrutiny on the provincial Liberals. It’s also potentially significant that Teffaine, a white man photographed in blackface, has been accused of racist and misogynist harassment by members of the first UWSA executive made up entirely of Women of Colour. 

It’s unclear whether Cohn has similar political connections. He follows the University of Winnipeg Campus Conservatives on Facebook, but the organization did not respond to The Uniter’s request to verify whether he is a member.

Students and student groups online are voicing their concern. The comments on the UWSA’s apology for Teffaine’s blackface photos are scathing, with multiple users saying that they will not return to the U of W as students unless the current executive resigns. The UW Women's and Gender Studies Student Association released a statement calling on the executive to step down unless they address why they denied the allegations against Teffaine in a video, why no action was taken before the photo resurfaced, why the executive hasn’t acknowledged their own complicity in the situation or how the executive “can continue to be representatives of the Black, queer and POC students on campus after it has been made clear that your recent (in)actions have harmed them?”

The silence

But those waiting for answers to those questions shouldn’t hold their breath. The UWSA executive currently isn’t making any statements beyond their apology. When reached by The Uniter, they stated that the UWSA executives won’t be doing interviews until the Human Rights & Diversity Office has completed its investigation of the incident and a board meeting has been conducted. The next board meeting is scheduled to be held over Zoom on June 12 at 7 p.m. Students interested in attending can find more information here.

The UWSA executive, David Teffaine and Mahlet Cuff all declined to be interviewed for this piece. The Human Rights and Diversity Office, Chief Elections Commissioner and U of W Security did not respond to requests for comment. The Uniter has not independently verified any of the allegations by Cuff or Sagher.

Published in Volume 74, Number 25 of The Uniter (May 1, 2020)

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