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UWSA election raises rift between student association and student groups

UWSA president Kirt Hayer was the subject of three separate complaints to the Elections Advisory Board alleging collusion, discrimination and other misconduct. The UWSA’s board is structuring a formal process to address the allegations, which Hayer denies. (Photo by Keeley Braunstein-Black)

The University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) general election has attracted scandal for the past three years, and the 2022-2023 general election was no different. Three complaints to the Elections Accountability Board (EAB) had been made against incumbent president Kiratveer (Kirt) Hayer, who ran for the UWSA presidency unopposed, over the course of the election.

The accidentally sort-of-secret scandals

The first complaint to the EAB was made on March 3 by Kanwalpreet Kaur, who was running for vice-president of external affairs. Kaur alleged that Hayer stated he did not want Jonathan Henderson, the incumbent vice-president of external affairs, to win the election and pressured Kaur to drop out. The EAB suspended Hayer from campaigning for the rest of the election.

The second complaint was made on March 3 by Amy Volvoshanovskiy and Ursella Khan, who are the election campaign facilitators for the UWSA. Volvoshanovskiy and Khan alleged that during the campaign training, Hayer was condescending and disrespectful to them as facilitators and had spoken openly about his dislike of the UWSA.

The third complaint was made on March 7 by Henderson and accused Hayer of “collusion, discrimination and, at the very least, not campaigning in good faith.” Volvoshanovskiy and Khan concluded that Henderson was being targeted by Hayer as an Indigenous student and noted that other candidates also did not feel safe with Hayer. The EAB ruled that the result of the presidential component of the election would be suspended until a full investigation could be undertaken.

The full details of the complaints can be read on the UWSA website. The UWSA announced the results of the EAB rulings in brief tweets, Instagram stories and Facebook posts, announcing the first two complaints on March 7 and the third on March 9. The voting period for the UWSA general election began on March 7 and ended on March 9.

Whether the student electorate was able to read the details of these complaints and take them into consideration before voting is questionable, though given that only 769 students voted in the election out of an eligible 9,272 students (the election had an 8 per cent participation rate), this detail is only a small part of a much larger student-engagement issue faced by the UWSA.

Grassroots student representation

After the election passed and the internal EAB investigation began, leaders of student groups started to take matters into their own hands.

On March 16, a coalition of 14 student groups sent the UWSA an open letter arguing that Hayer should be removed from the election. This letter cited both the complaints to the EAB as well as another, a complaint made by former UWSA executive Mahlet Cuff in the 2020 election regarding Hayer targeting the Devote slate candidates and anonymous allegations that Hayer made racist and disrespectful statements on multiple occasions.

The open letter further expressed disappointment in the lack of transparency regarding the complaints from the UWSA and hope that the UWSA would take appropriate action. The full letter can be viewed on the UWSA website. The post linking to the letter stated that the UWSA would address the letter at the March 30 board of directors meeting.

Émilie Rae Hoeppner, co-chair of the University of Winnipeg Neuroscience Student Association, director of the STEM Peer Mentorship Program (SPMP), coordinator of the Queer Student Association and one of the signatories of the letter, says the letter began in the STEM Discord, where students were talking about the complaints and how they were being handled by the UWSA.

“It got to a point where a lot of members from our student groups were speaking up, and we felt that, as execs, we had kind of a choice to make (about) if we would represent them,” Hoeppner says.

Hoeppner made a Discord channel for the student-group executives, and membership spread through word of mouth. “We had a huge Discord, a huge chat, and it was very collaborative,” they say.

Kiera Pond Augusto, president of the University of Winnipeg Physics Student Association, supervisor and mentor for physics and advanced computer science in SPMP and one of the coordinators and signatories of the open letter, says the letter was started by Mira Koop, another signatory, over a year ago, but she didn’t finish it and passed the draft on to Pond Augusto.

The day before the group was planning to submit the letter, they emailed all of the student groups listed on the UWSA registered student groups page and invited them to the Discord to collaborate on the letter.

Madison Chisolm, co-president of the University of Winnipeg Psychology Student Association, supervisor and mentor for psychology in SPMP and another signatory to the letter, characterizes the UWSA’s relationship with registered student groups as “strained.”

“During my time as co-president, I couldn’t even count how many times I’ve emailed them to try to figure stuff out to get funding or apply for something,” she says. “I hear back maybe half the time, and when I do hear back, it’s like a week later.”

Pond Augusto says many student-group executives have become intermediaries between the UWSA and students who don’t feel comfortable approaching the association. “But they should feel more than comfortable going to the UWSA, never mind that the executives (of student groups) feel uncomfortable going to the UWSA,” she says. She cites transparency, especially around UWSA executive salaries and the mechanisms for interacting with the UWSA, as major issues.

Hoeppner notes that there have been “first steps” by the UWSA to improve the relationship between the association and student groups, such as all-executive meetings, but because the UWSA’s contact information for many student groups is out of date, some group leaders haven’t known about the initiative until they found out from another executive. They also note excessively long processing times, especially around funding matters and group registration requests.

Reza Saker Hossain, vice president student affairs, said in an email statement to The Uniter that the UWSA takes the letter “very seriously.”

“Concerns and opinions of our members are important to us, and we want to listen to them,” he says. “Student groups contribute to the UWinnipeg student community in so many positive ways. We want to listen to them and work towards building a stronger relationship.”

Notes from the March 30 board of directors meeting

The EAB determined that they would uphold the election results and Hayer’s presidency on March 24, when they met with the board of directors to confirm their decision. They did not announce the decision publicly until March 30, a few hours before the board of directors meeting, where students were directed to bring their concerns regarding the handling of the situation by the EAB.

At the meeting, Hayer made a statement regarding the situation, opening with “as someone in a leadership position, I expect a certain amount of politics, but this has gone too far.” Hayer denied the allegations, said that his mental health has suffered as the process has gone on and said that he hoped the situation would ultimately bring the student community together and that the UWSA would move on to business.

Later in the meeting, there was a discussion circle regarding the letter. Pond Augusto expressed disappointment in the EAB’s decision and highlighted that the six-day delay in releasing the investigation result after it had been presented to the board exemplified the UWSA’s transparency problem, which some members of the board agreed with.

“It feels like that information was hidden or kept from students in a way that we should not be doing,” Clifford Stornel, parttime/mature students director, said.

Saker Hossain emphasized that the concerns raised by students were important, and the board has a responsibility to be accountable to them.

Hayer reminded the attendees that, despite the allegations, 75 per cent of votes had been cast for him (6 per cent of eligible students). Hayer also claimed to have evidence of collusion by other candidates and says he has been seeking legal counsel.

Shawna Péloquin, community liaison director and former UWSA president for 2020-2021, mentioned that, given the low voter turnout in the election, “part of (the UWSA’s) responsibility is to gain the trust of those students so that they have faith in our elections.”

Péloquin noted that, as a former president, she’s well aware of how stressful the position can be, but felt that Hayer had not taken this responsibility to gain student trust seriously.

“I have not felt safe in the UWSA this year. My meetings have been tarnished by Kirt reminding me of an election where he was physically following people I was running with, and (at) the last board meeting I was at, I had to be escorted by security, and I have not forgotten that,” she said, stating that there had been continued gaslighting of Indigenous leadership in the UWSA. The Uniter has not independently verified Péloquin’s claims.

She continued, saying that she “started in student politics really excited to make change.”

“I love the UWSA. I love the work that we’re targeting and the values we align with, and, unfortunately, I have to close my chapter with the UWSA because I have to put my safety first, and in the past three years, it has been targeted and tainted by individuals actions,” she said.

At the end of the meeting, the chair of the board, Anjola Aderinto, noted that understaffing at the UWSA exacerbated the transparency and communication issues around the EAB decision.

The UWSA board has made a statement on their Instagram, saying they will undertake a formal process to address the complaints.

Published in Volume 76, Number 24 of The Uniter (April 7, 2022)

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