FEAR AND LOATHING ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Jen Gerson

The faux-debate begins, candidates strive to make a faux-difference…Screw tuition fee freezes. What we really need are microwaves…Protest. Because it’s better than achieving something…Unpleasantness and Dislike on the RSU campaign trail.

The microphones poised, the water poured and the questions planted. Ten promising and ambitious university undergraduates come to the table, ready to participate in the democratic process in front of a crowd of fellow candidates and friends of candidates.

Of the 20,000 students at Ryerson, these 10 hope to win the votes of the 1,500 who bother to turn out. They hope to lead the student union of Maclean’s 18th best university in Canada. There is nothing more petty and depraved than the annual student union election campaign.

It’s a cruel and deformed hybrid: Too much promise to kill, too ugly to take seriously. Like a cross between a popularity contest and a Grade 6 speaking competition with talking points. United. Connected. Elected. Diversity. Lounge space. Microwaves. How do you feel about the tuition fee freeze? “I am for a tuition fee freeze… I’m on OSAP myself.” “I think we should keep our tuition fees low for sure. I know some people who work four or five jobs.” “As an international student, tuition, it kills me. Tuition is killing me.”

In the engineering student lounge, the students who bother to look up from their pages of equations and poker games are clear about what they want. A better student lounge. The lighting in this glorified basement nook is garish, the seats are ripped and the microwave hasn’t worked since forever. Almost a week before the debate, Nora Loreto, three-time veteran of RSU elections, is doing what will get her re-elected as VP education: She’s talking to people.

Occasionally she gives a noogie or pulls on a scarf. Loreto is good at getting liked. She laughs. She plays. Muhammad Ali Jabbar, who appeared out of nowhere to claim the presidential candidacy on the Ryerson Students United slate, stands next to her and recites his talking points.

Rumour has it that the slate waited until the posters were almost on the wall before deciding who would run for the big P. Loreto has the most experience. Chris Drew has an iota of charisma. Jabbar has the Muslim Student Association.

***
Despite a disappointing turnout, these debates are always loud. Excessive applause. Excessive applause. “We have one question from the floor and then each speaker will have the chance to answer the question and make concluding remarks within one minute and then go ahead,” the moderator says. I ask: “Can we have a not-planted question? Maybe from the student press perhaps.

Like, one question? At all?” “If you want to stay afterwards, the student press, then you can interview anyone you want.” “That’s great, but that’s not actually a debate.” Another student’s question is evaded by the estimable speaker representing the “United” slate. Or maybe it was “Elect Connect.” The presidents are called to the table. Excessive applause. Ali. Ali. Ali. “It’s gonna be funny to see if any of you have the guts to take a question from the student press.”

A student with a round head comes to the front and asks me if I am going to have to be asked to leave. “Are you seriously going to ask a student to leave?” He glares. “That would be very amusing.” Nora Loreto tells the election officials that it isn’t entirely unprecedented to give the student press a question. But first comes a message from the third slate. From the presidential candidate who ran on a whim. The man who has no chance of winning, Gligor Lojovic.

“We keep hearing about all these ridiculous things like fight Coca-Cola. Tuition fees. Tuition fees. “Well, Ryerson does not control tuition fees. Ryerson is not the only school that has to pay tuition. I mean, there are a lot of schools all over the thing. There’s nothing we can really do. “And I’ve talked to a lot of the students too. Fourth year, whatever. Nobody really knows or cares about RSU. “20,000 students. Not even 100 here. Clearly they’re doing something wrong.

Even her bringing up her not being able to ask a question. Realistically, who is here with a non-biased view? “Everybody here is a friend of a candidate. We have more candidates than people listening to a speech about the president of the school. And everybody pays for this. “It’s ridiculous.” I got my One Question. Four students offer to give up their chance so that I can get it. So perhaps I should ask something a tad less self-indulgent. Maybe something about tuition freezes. Or student parties. Or microwaves. Something That Matters. But I’ve cared about only one thing during my time here at Ryerson. “…The RSU has systematically destroyed relationships with the Eyeopener this year. My question is this: What do you plan to do to fix it? Just what do you plan to do to fix it. That’s it. I just wanna know.”

I got the answer I was expecting.

***
We liked current RSU president Rebecca Rose. She was in my year and my program. She shaved her head and wore big earrings. As VP education last year, she stood to stem the tide against her more conservative counterparts on the RSU executive. She declined a free room in residence. Which would be easy to do if one was wealthy. Then she won the presidency and had a hand in imposing “content restrictions” on one paper on campus.

She tried to do the same to the Eyeopener. When NightViews, the part-time students’ paper wrote a story accusing her and her slate of ballot stuffing, the editor was fired by CESAR and the masthead was replaced. The offending paper was taken off the racks and substituted with something more palatable to Rose.

From any other, we would have explained this as mere folly by a one-time politician with unexplored quasi-fascist leftist leanings who, after completing her eight months of wielding some semblance of pretend authority, would spend the next 10 years of her life drifting from degree to degree, managing to live off the dregs of Academic Institutions as a Professional Student Politician.

***
Chris Drew approaches me after the debate to inform my poor befuddled soul as to why such harsh action was taken against NightViews. The paper, he explains, was not really a newspaper, but a newsletter. A newsletter that had screwed up on an election story! Boy, if he screwed up at his job, he’d be in line for a firing.

I’ve been asking Drew when he was going to run for president for the past three years. If God had conspired to create the perfect Liberal backbench MP, he would have created Drew. Drew has been speaking in couched terms and wearing dress shoes and collared shirts since first year. In a lucid state I can envision his future: He will have a blond wife and two kids. If he escapes the bureaucracy, he’ll become an MP in some backwater, riding the cusp between Conservative and Liberal strongholds.

The highlight of his career will come in his late thirties, when he’s handed an inoffensive government portfolio like Minister of Veterans Affairs. I tell Drew that I’d leave the politics to him if he’d leave the journalism to me. I should probably leave the arguing to him, too, I think as I grab my tape recorder and go to another journalism class, late, yet again. “You know, I always make fun of student politicians for caring too much about student politics,” I say, reflecting on the past four years of debates I’ve covered in this school.

“The ironic thing is, I probably care more than any of you.”

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