By Alanna Rizza
Sam Harris* sat in his parked car on a bitter night, knowing he shouldn’t be behind the wheel. A thick layer of dust had collected on the windshield, illuminated by the dim, overhead lights of the parking garage.
He felt anger and frustration overpowering his sense of rationality. Mental breakdowns had become part of his weekly routine, but this felt different. For a minute, he lost sight of his ability to control his thoughts. He contemplated turning the keys in the ignition and driving through the glass panes of the Student Campus Centre (SCC), or running his car over the first person to cross his path.
With his cellphone pressed tightly against his ear, he listened to his girlfriend speak softly over the phone. The soothing timbre of her voice settled his rage. But thoughts about his political decisions, about how he was manipulated, and how he was threatened by some of the people closest to him, continued to play on loop.
Harris was involved in student politics for half a year before he reached his breaking point. The responsibilities he was given—financial burdens, managing egos and extinguishing day-to-day conflicts—were all contributing factors. And he’s just one of dozens of other students responsible for running a multi-million dollar organization—also known as the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU). Behind the scenes of student leadership, there have always been brutal internal politics that hinder the way the student union is governed. More often than not, these leaders step into their positions with little experience managing money or people, let alone serving as a voice for close to 36,000 undergraduate students on campus.
Student politics at Ryerson date back to 1948, when the school was founded. At the time, the RSU was called the Student Administrative Council. In a book about the history of student initiatives at Ryerson, history professor Ronald Stagg wrote that at time, the nasty politics “inhabited the student union’s ability to act.” Former union executives created their share of controversies as a result of director resignations, impeachments, personality conflicts and large deficits.
The first major financial crisis happened in 1970, when then-president Barry Hales left behind a deficit of about $50,000 (which would translate to $320,000 in today’s financial climate). Things didn’t get much better. In the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s, the student union and the Ryerson Centre staff (now known as the SCC) bought a small farm and a ski lodge in Blue Mountain as an investment, according to Stagg. They later sold both properties because they could no longer afford them and the Ryerson Centre had to cover the remainder of the operating costs.
Historically, the student union has consistently managed to tarnish its own reputation, as well as the university’s, as a result of internal conflicts.
Today, even after 69 years, student politicians continue to get wrapped up in petty conflicts and are often left to suffer the consequences.
After a four-year streak of default candidate victories in the years leading up to 2015, the RSU elections finally saw genuine opposition from students with varying political ideologies. In February of that year, old and new student politicians crammed together in the back of the Ram in the Rye, huddled around a screen as they anticipated the election results. The smell of beer, fried food and stale sweat was overpowering.
Andrea Bartlett, who would soon be elected RSU president, hurried down Church Street to the pub, flustered from singing the national anthem at a Rams hockey game.
The atmosphere was tense and anxiety was mounting. When the results were projected on the back wall, bottles of cheap champagne were popped open. Bartlett felt like her eardrums were about to burst. Her team won all five executive positions.
“Holy shit, we did it,” Bartlett thought. And then she remembered that she was only twenty-two years old, with no idea how to run the RSU. The thought of collaborating with different students and leaving her comfort zone appealed to her, but the year to come was something she never could have prepared for.
Bartlett’s presidency was tainted by lawsuits filed by men’s issues and pro-life groups, an alleged theft of $90,000 and the controversial layoff of former executive director of communications and outreach, Gilary Massa.
Towards the end of her term, Bartlett wrote a blog post on Medium comparing the RSU to the tip of an iceberg—there were a lot more issues than she thought, including ongoing lawsuits from past years and several conflicts of interest. She was receiving weekly death and rape threats.
Most politicians accuse their colleagues of partaking in student leadership in order to enhance their resumés, yet they’re quick to say their own intentions are genuine and are driven to serve the students.
“There’s always some sort of ulterior motive, and whether or not you recognize it at the time, it usually becomes pretty clear. And let’s be honest nobody likes to work with someone who’s selfish and not a team player,” she said.
Bartlett was particularly frustrated about trying to balance personal opinions with what she thought was actually best for students. She believes that failure to separate personal feelings from decision-making harms the RSU and the students because what executives want may be different from what the students want.
But in the end, students are the stakeholders.
Conflict and tensions have existed on most executive teams in recent memory, something Nora Loreto experienced personally.
In 2007, when Loreto was elected president, the point of political turmoil on the executive team was conflicting opinions regarding the RSU’s membership with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), the country’s largest student advocacy group to which the RSU currently pays an annual membership fee of about $500,000.
That year was filled with grievances, filed complaints and a lot of crying board members.
Loreto recalls a time when board members physically blocked her from getting to her office. Another day, during a fight with then-vice-president student life & events, Abe Snobar, he refused to leave her office and she was forced to call security—something she said she did multiple times throughout that year. Snobar confirmed that they had many heated arguments, but does not recall security being called.
Snobar said Loreto’s support for the CFS was the cause of friction between them. Loreto was elected as the CFS-Ontario treasurer during her presidency and went on to work with the federation for about three years after.
“You’re either with them or against them,” Snobar said. “She knew I was adamantly against the CFS, so she did whatever she could as president and the person being responsible for staff to make my job harder.”
Snobar shared a similar opinion with The Eyeopener back in 2007, along with his experience of feeling “roadblocked” because of their ideological differences.
But to this day, Loreto sees it differently.
Loreto believes Snobar couldn’t say he hated her for being a “strong woman,” so she said he used her pro-CFS stance as “an easy narrative” to justify their rivalry. She also recalls keeping her relationship with an elected CFS executive secret because she knew if anyone, especially Snobar, found out, it would have been used as a “political tool.”
“They would say, ‘Nora is just a puppet of the CFS because she’s screwing around with this guy who’s been elected’—this guy is now my partner and we have children together.”
Loreto was pro-CFS up until the very end. She walked across the stage at her graduation with a sign that read, “This degree should have been free.”
At the end of her presidency, she was overcome with depression. She locked herself in her apartment for two and a half months and developed a fear of flying that took her almost a decade to get over.
Currently, Loreto works for the Canadian Association of Labour Media in Quebec, which provides training, news and online services to union activists. She also published a book about how unions should progress in reaching out to their members and eliminate anti-union rhetoric. Snobar is currently an alumnus Board of Governors member at Ryerson and a brand manager at the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation.
It’s common for some RSU presidents and vice-presidents to worry about becoming irrelevant to students’ lives, wrote Stagg. Eventually, they realize they’ll no longer have their title.
In summer 2016, Bartlett was lying in a bunk bed alone in Vienna, Austria, looking up at the ceiling. Her RSU presidency was over, her four-year relationship had ended and she had to move out of her condo because it was under construction. Newly graduated and unemployed, she thought to herself, “you have nothing—why are you in Austria?”
When she came home from her trip, everything came crashing down. She realized she got so caught up in creating the slate, putting on a strong face, and trying to shut out her true emotions because of the bylaws and policies she was bound to.
“I went from ‘Andrea Bartlett, President of the RSU’ to ‘Andrea Bartlett who likes to sing and hang out with her dog’.”
Despite the drama and all of the things that went wrong, she never regretted her experience—one of the few things most student leaders can agree on, including Loreto.
In August 2016, she was back at Ryerson for the first time in at least five years. She was on a conference call when she stepped onto Gould Street and thought back to the time when she was involved in the process of shutting down the street for pedestrians.
But Loreto’s memory was soon interrupted by a pro-lifer yelling about abortion being evil. She thought about how she would work to ban those “pieces of garbage” from showing their faces on campus when she was president.
Distracted by all of the changes, and by the protesters, she was unable to focus on the voices at the other end of the phone line. But when she cut through the Quad into Kerr Hall, everything was just as she remembered it—and she realized she never really left.
*Name has been changed for anonymity