The Spring 2021 elections for the executive team and the Board of Directors of the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) have officially ended. However, some UTM community members have come forward with allegations of misconduct and harassment against the UTMSU and the Build Back Better UTM slate.
UTMSU Election Results
On March 19, the UTMSU released the unofficial results of this year’s elections, and the student slate Build Back Better UTM team was declared victorious for all available executive positions. Mitra Yakubi was re-elected as president, Lai Wei as vice-president internal, Maelis Barre as vice-president external, Merica Joy Carlos as vice-president university affairs, and Ryan Tomlinson as vice-president equity.
The only other candidates running in the executive team elections besides the members of the Build Back Better UTM slate were Laiba Khan and Maryam Yousefipournigjeh, who both ran for the vice-president equity position.
On March 22, an Instagram account named Transparent UTMSU (@transparentutmsu) began posting on the popular social media account, criticizing the integrity of the Spring 2021 elections. The account posted multiple allegations against the Build Back Better UTM slate, accusing them of violating the UTMSU Elections Procedure Code (EPC).
The Medium spoke with one of the executives behind the Transparent UTMSU Instagram account Shen Fernando, a second-year political science student at UTM. Fernando spoke about the allegations they’ve made against the UTMSU and Build Back Better UTM and how Transparent UTMSU was formed.
“Transparent UTMSU is a sort of movement or call to action on behalf of the frustrated students who have faced these past spring elections and were honestly quite fed up with the things that were coming out,” stated Fernando.
The members of the movement, which include UTM club executives, alumni, and past UTMSU election candidates, met online on the popular community discussion website Reddit. Multiple students messaged Transparent UTMSU after receiving unsolicited Build Back Better UTM campaign messages on WhatsApp and LinkedIn, despite never giving the slate members their numbers.
After expressing similar grievances towards the UTMSU and Build Back Better UTM, the students came together to discuss their experiences and formed Transparent UTMSU.
“Eventually, we accumulated a Google Drive full of evidence, showing the various ways that BBB [Build Back Better UTM] was contacting students, as well as the various responses that students were giving back,” stated Fernando. “We even got signed testimonies from club executives, talking about their perspective of being pressured by BBB into endorsements, particularly newer clubs. Their executives were handling the pressure of having to get club status. For that, you need the [UTMSU’s] approval.”
After posting on Reddit for a while, Transparent UTMSU expanded to Instagram, where they have been getting a lot of attention from the UTM community.
When asked about the main goal behind Transparent UTMSU, Fernando stated that they hope to start a discussion about accountability and transparency within the UTMSU.
“In this past election, there was no accountability for the actions taken on by BBB, and we felt as though the elections procedure code, or the EPC, was quite vague,” argued Fernando. “Only about an eighth of it concerned online regulations for a primarily online election.”
Allegations of Misconduct and Harassment
The two main charges Transparent UTMSU made against the union and Build Back Better UTM were the invasion of privacy and harassment. Regarding the allegations of harassment, Fernando stated that students would receive multiple messages from Build Back Better UTM members despite ignoring their previous messages or leaving them on read. In some cases, the student would block the account sending them these campaign messages, only to receive more messages from another account.
“Within the UTMSU policy guidelines itself, it describes harassment as a vexatious action, and it was causing annoyance and frustration to the students,” said Fernando. “Even if the students weren’t saying ‘no’ or ‘stop,’ some students just don’t feel comfortable saying that to a group on campus that is so well known.”
The second allegation against Build Back Better UTM and the UTMSU is the invasion of privacy, specifically regarding the campaign messages sent through WhatsApp and SMS. According to Transparent UTMSU, the unsolicited messages were sent only on behalf of the Build Back Better UTM campaign, and none of the students received campaign messages on WhatsApp or SMS from the two independent candidates.
“When we first began this, we were thinking, ‘perhaps they were able to get [the students’ phone numbers] from a group chat, perhaps they were able to get it from other sources. We really wanted to debunk our own claims,” stated Fernando. “But eventually, when we started talking to the students, we got testimonies back saying that they never gave out their numbers to any of the BBB candidates, nor were they involved in a group chat where they could have possibly met a BBB candidate.”
This led Transparent UTMSU to question the actions of Build Back Better UTM and wonder if misuse of resources had occurred and whether the slate’s candidates had access to the UTMSU database.
“When you give your personal information to places like UTMSU, you expect that it’s going to be kept within UTMSU and it’s not going to leave there, and it’s not going to be used for purposes other than what you specified,” argued Fernando. “However, what’s happened within these elections has proven that that potentially is not the case.”
Another concern Transparent UTMSU had regarding the union’s elections was the vague definitions and regulations within the EPC. While the UTMSU Policy contained a more detailed and inclusive definition of harassment, the EPC remained ambiguous.
“This is where we were really concerned because students would be able to essentially perform any of these actions within the vagueness of these categories,” stated Fernando.
On March 23, Transparent UTMSU submitted an appeal to Fahad Dayala, chair of the elections committee, outlining the amendments they would like to make to the EPC. The appeal was approved the following day on March 24, and Transparent UTMSU received a written commitment from Dayala and the UTMSU’s Board stating that the amendments will be put into place for next year’s election.
In addition to expanding the definition of harassment, Transparent UTMSU was able to establish a regulatory measure for campaign messaging. From now on, candidates will only be able to message students who they follow or are followed by slate members on the given social media platform.
“This is a huge victory in that sense because students can now just not follow these candidates and essentially ignore them,” said Fernando. “If these candidates message them at any point, students can say no or stop, and if the candidate continues to message them, it is basically violating their consent, and that is harassment which can result in five to 25 demerit points.”
Fernando went on to state that this victory is not the end of Transparent UTMSU and that they will continue to advocate for UTM students in the coming years. They plan on being more vigilant during the Spring 2022 elections and campaign for students’ rights, as well work to improve the EPC.
“Our goal was to create a discussion, get people advocating for their rights and for the rights of other UTM students, and to really show the Chief Returning Officer (CRO) and the elections committee that we are serious about this,” said Fernando. “We’re going to put our money where our mouth is and we’re going to show them that students can advocate for themselves.”
Fernando also stated that he has spoken to several people who were previously involved in the UTMSU and are interested in rejoining the union.
“We’re not trying to defame anybody. We’re not trying to attack these candidates personally. We just want greater accountability, accountability, and transparency,” stated Fernando. “I think that UTM as a whole would benefit from just being more open and having better regulations within the elections.”
The Medium reached out to current UTMSU President Mitra Yakubi, who was re-elected for another year, and the CRO in charge of the Spring 2021 UTMSU elections, Juliana Salsa. In an email correspondence with The Medium, Yakubi discussed the allegations made by Transparent UTMSU against her slate Build Back Better UTM and the EPC.
When asked about how members of the Build Back Better UTM team were able to WhatsApp message students who allegedly never gave their numbers to them, Yakubi stated that anyone who was contacted during the campaign had actually met and interacted with the team members in the past.
“The students who were messaged, either through direct messaging on social media platforms or through WhatsApp, were all folks with whom the executive candidates had met and interacted with in some capacity throughout their journey at UTM,” stated Yakubi. “We did not want this election to be a popularity contest, so we reached out to students regardless of whether we were friends with them or not, similar to if this was an in-person campaign.”
Yakubi also stated that she believes there are areas within the EPC that can be improved and updated. Candidates faced many unforeseen difficulties during this year’s elections as this was the first online election for the UTMSU. Yakubi said that she hopes the CRO can make use of the feedback from the students who participated in the election and help make the election process more efficient.
When asked about Transparent UTMSU’s mandate and the allegations made by the members against Build Back Better UTM, Yakubi stated that, as a team, they believe in a democratic, transparent, and accessible union, and were in line with the rules of the EPC.
“The CRO and the Elections and Referenda Committee reviewed the allegations, determined that some were unfounded, and confirmed with our team that there was insufficient evidence to issue additional demerit points,” stated Yakubi.
Regarding the behaviour of herself and her team during the campaigning period, Yakubi argued that they tried to contact as many students as possible on multiple social media platforms and that their messages were pre-approved by the CRO.
“We were often caught between not reaching out to people but wanting a high turnout, reaching out to students but not wanting to oversaturate and bother students, not reaching out to students but being told it’s a popularity contest,” stated Yakubi. “Our honest intention was to reach out to students, share our vision for the upcoming year, and ensure that students participated in the electoral process.”
UTMSU’s Chief Returning Officer Juliana Salsa confirmed that the members of the Build Back Better UTM slate had presented their campaign materials and content to her for approval but also affirmed the concerns presented by Transparent UTMSU regarding the lack of regulations for online election within the EPC.
“As it stands in the EPC, there are no restrictions regarding what social media/online platforms can be used for campaigning,” stated Salsa in an email correspondence with The Medium. “Therefore, candidates were not required to get that approved by me.”
Moreover, Salsa stated that she has also been working towards improving the EPC and has already submitted her recommendations to the Elections and Referenda Committee (EARC). Similar to the amendments presented by Transparent UTMSU, Salsa expanded on existing sections within the EPC, providing more distinct definitions and guidelines.
“I also recommended that the EPC includes clearer definitions of harassment, sexual violence, and discrimination which is defined in the UTMSU Harassment, Sexual Violence, and Discrimination policy,” stated Salsa. “Currently, the EPC just references the policy.”
This year’s online election was a first for the UTM community, and both candidates and students struggled with adapting to the new platform. However, the UTMSU appears to be dedicated to improving its guidelines and willing to listen to students’ concerns. Transparent UTMSU started a discussion within UTM regarding accountability and transparency and are already working with the UTMSU to strengthen their policies and guidelines.
“Although this election was not like what we had traditionally been used to as a community, we had amazing conversations with students about the issues impacting us most and got clear direction about what students want us to work on,” Yakubi stated. “We’re excited and look forward to working with our members to continue advocating and improving the student experience here at UTM.”