The University of Winnipeg Students’ Association’s (UWSA) byelection nomination period has been underway since Sept. 28. Virtual campaigning and voting due to COVID-19 may not be the most unusual part of this election cycle.
In addition to electing representatives to the University of Winnipeg’s (U of W) Board of Regents and the UWSA’s Board of Directors, students will vote for a new UWSA president and vice-president external affairs, following a tumultuous few months of student politics.
Elections for the UWSA executive – which consists of the president, vice-president external affairs and vice-president student affairs – are usually held in the winter. Last March, Jibril Hussein, Breanna Belisle and Melanie William of the Envision 2020 slate were elected president, vice-president external affairs and vice-president student affairs, respectively.
That election campaign was messy, involving anonymous online allegations against Natasha Reimer Okemow, a member of the previous executive team who was removed in September 2019 for unknown reasons. Mahlet Cuff and Noelle Sagher, of that team, were running in the 2020 election. The Uniter was unable to find any evidence supporting these anonymous allegations, which the UWSA denied.
In February, David Teffaine, a close associate of the Envision 2020 slate, was barred by the Chief Election Commissioner from participating in the election for pre-campaigning (yet, he still participated as Envision’s “campaign manager”). Numerous other complaint rulings were issued throughout the election.
In June, a photo surfaced of Teffaine, then a member of the University’s Board of Regents, wearing blackface. Furthermore, Cuff and Sagher allege that he harassed them and their running mate during the election and that Hussein, Belisle and William were aware. The newly elected executives quickly distanced themselves from Teffaine
According to a statement on their website, the UWSA’s Board of Directors “approved a motion to send a formal request to the UWinnipeg Human Rights and Diversity Office to investigate the experiences of harassment and discrimination.” Hussein, Belisle and William were also placed on paid administrative leave.
Later in the summer, both Hussein and Belisle resigned from their positions. In Hussein’s resignation letter, he made multiple allegations about the UWSA, saying it is the “most toxic environment” he has ever experienced, and that it “perpetuates the same pervasive racism and prejudice they claim to actively be against.” He alleges that a board member told him “you are using your blackness as a shield.”
Hussein also cited personal health issues as reasons for stepping down. William, who was part of Hussein and Belisle’s slate, did not resign and remains on leave.
A statement provided to The Uniter by UWSA communications manager Shreya Jhunjhunwala addresses these allegations, but does not provide any details.
“We’re very concerned for the experiences shared by Jibril, Breanna and other students and former executives, and acknowledge our part in creating an environment where students of colour have been unsafe and unsupported,” she says.
“We’re listening and are committed to changing the way we work to address the gaps in our organization for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour,” Jhunjhunwala says.
“We are currently engaged in a process to review and restructure (the) UWSA elections process, issues management process and safer-space policies,” she says.
“The Board of Directors is currently working with an external consultant to restructure the organization in order to ensure the integrity of UWSA democratic processes, to create anti-oppressive leadership models and to minimize the harm caused to students from underserved communities,” Jhunjhunwala says.
The external consultant is Catalyst Consulting. It is currently unclear what this process means for the UWSA. However, its structure remains somewhat convoluted. Since Reimer’s removal in 2019, the UWSA has not had a vice-president internal affairs. The position no longer appears in the UWSA’s general bylaws.
Since June, the organization has not had an operational elected executive (due to the administrative leave and resignations). This absence of leadership comes at a time when universities are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and students are faced with unprecedented burdens.
A statement on the UWSA’s website notes that the “Board of Directors is meeting almost weekly to oversee the suspended business matters that subcommittees chaired by Executive Directors manage.” It also states that “in the absence of Executive Directors and regular subcommittees, full-time staff members of the UWSA have picked up pieces of each portfolio, along with their regular duties.”
Kirt Hayer, founder of a student group called the Cultural Celebration Club and unsuccessful candidate for UWSA president earlier this year, believes Hussein’s allegations of racism and dysfunction.
“I do think that there is racism in the UWSA,” Hayer says.
Still, he says that his overall experience at the U of W has been positive.
“I’ve spoken to many close friends and people on campus about racism while campaigning, and the overwhelming majority of people I’ve talked to feel that U of W is an inclusive and welcoming environment and have not experienced racism on campus,” Hayer says.
When asked about whether he will run again, Hayer says that, despite his good experience earlier this year, he is not interested in running for the UWSA “in its current state.”
“I am also a more in-person type of guy, and the online format does not suit me, so I will not be running in this election,” he says.
The byelection is for the following positions: president, vice-president external affairs, education director, environmental ethics director, PACE director, part-time/mature students’ director, recreation and athletics director, science director, student living director, women and non-binary students’ director and board of regents representative.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the byelection will be held virtually. Both campaigning and voting will happen online. The nomination period ends on Oct. 8, the campaigning week is from Oct. 19 to 25, and voting will occur from Oct. 26 to 28.
Jibril Hussein, Breanna Belisle and Melanie William did not respond to The Uniter’s request for comment.
Published in Volume 75, Number 04 of The Uniter (October 1, 2020)