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TMSU elections candidate forum discusses financial mismanagement, privacy concerns and engaging commuter students

By Gabriela Silva Ponte and Racy Rafique

Toronto Metropolitan Students’ Union’s (TMSU) candidates participated in a candidates forum held on March 20. 

Students running for executive positions on the Board of Directors discussed the past year’s financial mismanagement, privacy concerns for students after the previous vice president equity downloaded potentially vulnerable information and how to make campus more engaging for commuter students. 

There are 12 students running for five executive positions on the Board: president, vice president operations, vice president equity, vice president education and vice president student life. 

Six of the candidates are running as part of a slate—either Dream or Team Revolt. The other six students are non-slate candidates.

Marina Gerges is running for re-election as TMSU president unopposed after four other candidates were deemed “ineligible” to campaign, as previously reported by The Eyeopener.

Candidates were given the opportunity to introduce themselves and answer questions on why they should be elected for their respective roles. TMSU Deputy Returning Officer (DRO) Cherie Daniel hosted the virtual debate on Zoom. 

Voting for the 2023-24 academic year began on Tuesday, March 21 at 10 a.m. and will continue until Friday, March 24 at 5 p.m. Students can place their votes online through their my.torontomu portals.

Here’s what you missed at the 2023 TMSU elections debate:

Candidates for president

Marina Gerges (no slate affiliation)

Q: How are students that are taking classes both online and in-person going to benefit from the TMSU?

Gerges: I would love to start a rental service at the TMSU where we can give students laptops for a specific amount of time, for however long they need it, and then they’re able to return that. I know a lot of classes are in-person but there are classes that will have quizzes and exams, where you’re bringing your laptop to the class. If you have a Mac and a portable laptop, sure, but if you have an old and big laptop that you don’t necessarily want to carry around and want one just for a short period, 100 per cent the rental service for the students’ union would be amazing.

Q: Is there anything that you believe your presidency would be able to provide to the students in terms of overall morale and quality of life for the students on campus?

Gerges: One of the biggest things that we can do is events and social gatherings. And it doesn’t always have to be something big but it’s just about providing a space where students can communicate with new people and really see that they’re not alone in this academic struggle at times and they’re not alone as a first-year or even as a mature student. There’s always a space for every student here on campus.

Q: Are we able to access the budget for the 2022-23 year? Is it coming soon on the website?

Gerges: Because of the financial mismanagement investigation, the budget was held up and it wasn’t presented at the Semi-Annual General Meeting when it should have been. But it will be presented at the Annual General Meeting, which is on April 12 from 6-9 p.m. It will be voted on by the membership and we will have somebody there that will explain everything about the budget.

Q: What specific services do you promise to provide to students if elected?

Gerges: I want to advocate for more prayer spaces as well as make sure that the student advocate service is completely taken care of. It’s one of our most popular services and it 100 per cent needs more student advocates. I also want to address the housing situation that students are going through. I definitely want to give away housing grants and emergency grants. 

Q: How do you plan to increase campus group funding and communication with campus groups?

Gerges: I think campus groups are the backbone of the school, where you have student leaders that take time out of their day just to create events for their peers and use their own money. Thankfully, the groups have been able to be reimbursed and it’s been much better than it has in the past. I think that in terms of communicating with campus groups more, I really want to establish a relationship more than just emails, more than just grant applications. I want to make sure that there are update checks with campus groups, leaders and executives. And that could mean a meeting every week or every two weeks where the executives are meeting with all of the presidents. 

Q: What strategies can the TMSU use to regain trust from students and increase voter turnout?

Gerges: This financial mismanagement investigation is something that is 100 per cent going to address our legacy and our relationship with students. Back in 2019, when no action was taken, we did lose a lot of students’ trust and they wanted to see action being taken. I hope that with what we’re doing now, yes, it may be late but it is happening. And I hope that students can see that we are trying to right the wrongs that were done.

Q: What’s your take on the ability to strengthen the TMSU generally across campus as someone who is re-running for president?

Gerges: I’m pretty confident. I spent this past year learning everything I had to learn. I have all this knowledge and I’m not going to lie; I have thicker skin now and I know what to expect more. And even more than that, I’ve had to deal with things that I didn’t know I would have to deal with. But I do believe that because I’ve been able to take it on, I will be able to handle it even better. In the future, whoever’s in this position doesn’t have to worry about half of the things that I’ve had to deal with. Students don’t have to be intimidated about running for the TMSU. Or even worse, being discouraged from running for the TMSU because of how it may affect their reputation. I don’t want that to be a thing. And that’s what I’m trying to move away from.

As Gerges started her concluding statement, one attendee spoke out about a question which had been sent to Daniel but not been answered.

“As I said, all questions that are pertinent to the elections have been addressed. There are some others that are in the chat that I recognize are not applicable to this candidate’s forum and so therefore, I will not be addressing those as they are personal and they’re not anything to do with the election,” Daniel said in response.

Shortly thereafter, another attendee spoke out.

“I actually had one question that is completely related to this election and has been ignored in this which is completely unacceptable,” he said.

Daniel thanked Gerges, disregarding the attendee.

“This just shows the corruption of the TMSU,” the attendee said.

A third attendee spoke out in agreement but all three were quickly muted on Zoom by Daniel and the forum continued.

“I can’t see your questions,” Gerges said in response to the attendees accusing her of ignoring the questions.

Candidates for vice president operations

Success Daka (no slate affiliation), Nathan Sugunalan (Dream), Mahira Shoaib (Team Revolt)

Absent: Angie Awadallah (no slate affiliation)

Q: What is the most important role in the position of the vice president operations?

Sugunalan: VP operations is kind of the backbone of the union. Every process, every procedure kind of flows through VP operations. Also to make sure that everything is on time, to facilitate whatever change in whatever service happens—whether it be an advocacy service, whether it be funding for an event, everything goes through VP operations. Everything is touched by this portfolio, so making sure that you’re diligently on time with any type of request or any type of issue, that’s what I would say is the most important aspect of this role and something that I would love to live up to.

Daka: Particularly with managing the budget and engaging with students to make sure that they’re actually informed about the budget, as well as the directors. One of the criticisms I had for this year was that we had problems because all the tight timelines were so short. I would make sure that actually, every board member understood exactly what was on the budget, how we’re spending the money and how it’s going to be impactful. 

Shoaib: The most important part of the VP operations job is creating budgets and approving them and being totally transparent and accountable. So I’ll be transparent with whatever I do, any kind of budget or funding that would be approved. I would be fully transparent to the public. I would like to make the right decisions, work along with the team and fund the groups that need funding.

Q: How exactly will you plan on supporting the international student body?

Shoaib: For international students, a big thing is funding because they do require it from the transition for them to come to the university. So I will want to make the transition smoother, open new funding for international students and introduce more student groups to them so that they don’t feel left out. Making sure their voices are heard. 

Daka: It’s important that we have discussions about how tuition fees increase. A lot of international students end up having to live on residence, there’s a lot of fees involved on residence that we could push back on, especially the mandatory meal plan. Also implementing a service where international students can come in and meet other international students because a lot of times, they find it hard to interact with people when they come to the country for the first time. It’s also important that we actually reach out to international students, which is a big part of my campaign. What I’m looking to do is actually reach out and listen to what exactly they think they would benefit the most from the union.

Sugunalan: I’d love to have a student group that international students are familiar with—kind of like a home away from home. From there, they can build more trust with people who are more familiar with it, they can go meet with other students and get more connected within the community. I would love to facilitate a system in collaboration with other student groups and open up surveys to listen to international students much more so they can actually tell us what they want. Then from there, we could have regular check-ins on whatever service that we develop and see how it’s addressing things and we can fine-tune whatever service we have to accommodate.

Q: What methods of transparency will you folks be taking to stay true to your vow of transparency?

Daka: We can have independent organizations come in to look at the way we operate and put out a report based on their findings. As well as publishing our budget on time and our audits. 

Shoaib: I’m making the students’ union financial audit reports for the past five years available to the general membership and submitting a budget for the 2023-24 term for approval to the Board within the first 100 days in office. I’ll also compile and publish a report on exec work hours on the TMSU website for the last two years.

Sugunalan: I want to develop surveys and town halls where students can actually come in and give us the feedback that they see. From there, we can publish reports on those. I think that would be able to connect student opinions with each other so they can really understand how whatever action the students’ union takes is affecting them. One thing I would love to develop is creating a web page on the TMSU website with a live operating budget. That way no one has to wait for an audit that will come one time a year. They can see in real-time how we’re spending whatever money that we’re spending. I would also love to contract an external consultant to come in who can give us an annual performance report. Because at the end of the day, the union is huge. Students have so much to deal with in their lives, they can’t go back and just read like 1000 articles or 1000 things or 1000 Reddit posts to deep dive on whatever issue there is.

Q: The TMSU is currently looking into financial mismanagement from the 2021-22 term’s budget. How will you ensure the mistakes from the past are not repeated?

Sugunalan: We’ve already taken really great steps by introducing an actual audit committee that will be more specialized in looking at this. When we brought in our bylaws, we brought in external directors that actually have a lot more experience and expertise within these fields. I want to bring even more professional expertise that can stay with us more long-term and actively throughout the year to advise us. All of this comes back to financial transparency and how to ensure these things don’t happen again. I also want to just review our bylaws again to see what more we can do. 

Shoaib: Being transparent about whatever is in process and completing and publishing the reports are important. To avoid this situation, we should hire a more experienced audit group that can keep track of the expenses that are going on and coming into the TMSU. Knowing the bylaws and working within them would ensure that we avoid these kinds of situations. And if these situations do occur, even for a small amount, we should take action and create a proper investigation.

Daka: The bylaw changes that we made this year addressed that to a pretty good degree with the external directors and the extra checks we put in place—before you would even be able to get to the point of substantial financial mismanagement. So making sure that the bylaws are adhered to and external directors are actually involved in doing their job is a good failsafe currently. And we can adjust it within the policies since we still haven’t changed those as we go on.

Q: How will you support taking legal action against the previous executives?

Sugunalan: I’ll support any legal action that needs to be taken and necessary by listening to the legal counsel that we have. These are things that have always been talked about around, not only within the union but outside of the union. I’ll build on taking legal action moving forward by listening to general counsel, listening to the students to see how they feel about how they think that this union should be organized and how it should be held responsible. 

Shoaib: I would take suggestions and listen to the counsel. I’m totally supporting whatever the counsel says because that’s how we can work along and create a positive environment.

Daka: Following through with whatever legal advice that we get but moreover, making sure that it’s actually done. I think being able to actually complete the process of taking legal action against people that have mismanaged funds with our union is a great deterrent for future mismanagement. In the position of vice president operations, you do need to have the type of personality where you just get things done. And that’s what I think I have and how I would contribute.

Candidates for vice president equity

Aya Bakir (no slate affiliation), Trevohn Baker (Team Revolt)

Q: So you’re both running for the position of VP equity and we understand what is under your portfolio. How do you believe that you will be able to assist in overall inclusion, campus life for students that are incoming and those that are in between, who were mostly online? Especially knowing that some students in first year that are now going into maybe third or fourth were mostly online and may have had different things that come forth to them and as a result, they would need someone in your position to advocate and assist them. 

Baker: I want to hold recurring equity town halls. These equity town halls will be an opportunity for students to come and vocalize the experiences in which they have been presented and advocate for the different resources that they see and that they feel are best for them. One of the main things that I want to do is increase food accessibility. We have the Good Food Centre currently up and running. But I believe that it’s not as accessible to students as it appears to be. I also want to increase trauma-informed resources. I especially want to advocate for the creation of grief resources. I know that is one issue a lot of students have experienced and expressed on our campus, myself included. Having lost both of my parents at a young age, I would have loved to have resources that would have allowed me to better advocate for myself and better protect myself while navigating the social climate at Toronto Metropolitan University.

Bakir: Unfortunately, due to past neglect, there has been a disconnect between the services that are available. Students may not be aware that such services exist. So one of the biggest things that I would like to do is to advocate to bridge the relations between those services and the students. One of the things that I would definitely like to push for is to have diversity and inclusion training for all the TMSU staff members and I would really like to push that to other student groups as well to ensure we’re all on the same page in terms of creating a collaborative relationship to maximize the services we offer to students. One of the things that I would definitely like to push for is to have more counseling services, more trauma-informed counseling services available on campus, specifically to have more experts with BIPOC and LGBTQ knowledge attune to our students’ diverse backgrounds. 

Q: Can you advise on your understanding of the operations of the equity service centres? And what plan do you both individually have to support these centres under the TMSU in the new academic year?

Bakir: My first step would be to have training for all staff members to make sure that we’re all on the same page about what is acceptable work culture and what are the principles that we’re trying to advocate for and fight for in terms of the fact that we represent and we serve all marginalized students and all the student membership that we’re accountable for. The first thing we would do after that is to rebuild the relationship between them by holding dialogues and meetings to make sure that as VP equity, I know the full running of the equity centres, how they operate. I think that the gist of it is that there will have to be a long training in the summer period in order to make that happen.

Baker: I have worked in the equity service centers for three years and I’ve interacted with each and every single centre that we see thriving at TMU. I think advocating for training is crucial and it’s important. However, I think taking a very cautious approach to how we do that is important as well because we are going to be training essentially marginalized students. I believe it is essentially a bit tone-deaf to tell them how to navigate a space in which is created for them to thrive. I want to work with the Student Access Collective to bring resources for disabled students experiencing physical ailments. I also want to increase resources for the BIPOC Students’ Collective. 

Q: Parts of VP equity Google Suite were downloaded this term. How will you, as someone who has access to vulnerable student information, ensure that students will feel safe with their information in the hands of the TMSU?

Bakir: That is 100 per cent unacceptable and it is a huge violation of students’ privacy and the students’ union bylaws. I think that as VP equity—as any VP, as any student leader really—we hold a great responsibility to the students that we represent. In order to address that issue, I would definitely stress that we need to have Board training. We need to ensure that everybody is aware of what the repercussions are, whether organizationally speaking or legally speaking, in terms of violating the students’ confidence in us. My first step would be to advocate to rebuild the trust that students have lost in the organization and in previous members who have held this role in specific.

Baker: I believe that it is wrong. It is also against the bylaws and it violates the trust that students have with the organization, myself included. I know how terrifying it is to have your information contained by an individual, especially an individual that is not a part of the organization. I would be advocating for a strict debrief of the bylaws. I think we have a constant pattern of executives coming into their role without understanding the bylaws and essentially creating bylaws for themselves.

Q: What does equity, diversity and inclusion mean to you both? And what does it look like on campus?

Bakir: Personally, I come from Syria. For a huge part of my life, I’ve been a refugee which really limited my access to resources. Because of my status, I could not access education, I could not access employment. With my status changing, it meant all of these things changed and I’ve started to learn about how things work here. That experience taught me the importance of having a supportive community that supports you in terms of finding ways to navigate the systems that you may not be well rounded with. I’ve worked with newcomer immigrants, providing them with and finding them suitable housing. I’ve also worked with Albion Neighbourhood Services. I’ve made it my goal to continue raising awareness about issues that are not only happening here but are also happening in other parts of the world. When the Iranian uprising started, I advocated to provide support for Iranian students that are impacted on our campus. When the earthquake happened in Syria and Türkiye, I came together with a group of volunteers and we organized fundraising. I think the biggest thing about inclusion is making sure that everyone is included when it comes to access to resources and knowing that they can achieve the best that they can on campus with their studies, without having to worry so much about not knowing where to go. 

Baker: Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) means the liberation and the freedom of all students. We are very lucky and also very unlucky to have such a unique campus in which many students are subject to racism, many students are subject to transphobia to violence. For me, EDI means protecting these students, it means including them in the conversations. A lot of the time, students like myself—a Black disabled orphan—do not have the space to advocate for themselves. For example, I’m the only Black male in my year of Creative Industries. I felt extremely othered. Having spoken to a handful of other black Black students in The Creative School, I realized that is a shared experience.

Candidates for vice president student life

Ozi Molokwu (no slate affiliation), Shahram Farhadi (Dream)

Absent: Kareena Bhatia (Team Revolt)

Q: What wider variety of unique events will you bring to TMU that have not been done before? 

Farhadi: We are all here to have fun at university. But we are also here to educate ourselves and learn and grow a career. Some of the events I have planned are semester-end galas. I’m planning to hold an old Hollywood-themed Gala in the fall and a Met Gala one in the winter semester. I’m also trying to do a culture jam. I believe that we all have a culture and culture is a big part of our life. We want to all showcase that. I’m also planning on creating professional events as well. We have so much space and I believe that we can use Gould Street right in front of the Sheldon and Tracy Levy Student Learning Centre and have a career expo. Many student groups specific to their faculty have held career fairs but I believe that as the TMSU, we can hold a university-wide one. Having all those companies where people can network with them, speak to them and build a career. I’m also looking into university-wide conferences. I believe all students can benefit from workshops, coming in and understanding the corporate culture, how it works and using that opportunity to build yourself, build your career, build your transferable skills and your professional development.

Molokwu: I love the idea of culture jam, I wanted to do that as well. But I believe that culture jam should be a year-round thing. So I think all of the events that we have throughout the year should reflect different cultures, different perceptions, different themes. So for the pub nights, we can diversify. We did an Afro Fusion this year, we did a purple pop night that focused on R&B music. Just making sure that people are being seen throughout different times of the year, in our pub nights, in our karaoke nights, our TinyDesk concerts. I also want to introduce a red table talk in which we would be bringing up different topics and discussing what is happening on campus and how it’s impacting students. I would love to be able to host a career fest for all the students. But I don’t know every single student’s particular career path or interest. So what I would rather do is increase funding for student groups that have been created to explore those things and empower those student leaders to take that initiative so that every student really is seen in terms of providing opportunity. Another thing that I really want to implement are rental services for student groups, course unions and maybe students in general. I think that by providing tables or DJ equipment or photo booths—things that are tangible to every student group and all the student leaders who want to create their own initiatives—it could save them a lot of money so that they could put that toward other more important things that would benefit the students. 

Q: How will you engage commuter students and non first-years into TMSU events? 

Molokwu: I think it could be cool for more mature students to have actual events at off-campus pubs or bars and have actual poker nights or even 19-plus events that are happening. In terms of commuters, it is important for us to have certain pub nights that do not start at 10 p.m. Just making sure that there is that flexibility and that if we are doing events off campus, making sure that there’s an easy access route or providing or working with TTC or even bus services to make transportation in general easier.

Farhadi: When you’re mature, you’re focused more on your career, your term is sort of ending and you’re now trying to see how you can build your life with your network, build your LinkedIn and get your life established. My plan is to collaborate with all student clubs and societies and provide services together. In terms of our first year commuter students, TTC service will be beneficial. I can get these connections, get this TTC service, where, if it’s too far for you, you can take that TTC. Whether it’s the TTC or it’s a bus that we rent, just providing that for those people who commute and may not have as much money, actually, to be able to commute. One thing I’ve also been planning is holding events like a casino night and going external with the clubs near campus. Many other universities do this and I don’t know why we haven’t yet done this. I think if we can start doing this, we’ll be on top of our events. I think a lot of people would be very interested in these events because they’re external, because it’s new to them, because it’s something different that they’ve done and it’s not always the same thing at TMU.

Q: How feasible do you believe your events are, given the financial and time constraints that we currently are facing? 

Farhadi: Rather than focusing on just TMSU revenue, we should look at the revenue of all the student groups. Because my goal is to work with all the students and all the course unions. I think many of the issues we’ve had in the previous time is that we don’t work with the student clubs and I don’t understand why. That way we can combine our pools of resources, our pools of revenue and combine them into amazing events. 

Molokwu: We do have enough funding. I personally don’t want to take away from student group funding. Yes, I want to collaborate with student groups but I don’t want to take away from their funding because I know student groups have different goals. I personally would take the approach of collaborating with the university, since the university is the common denominator as to why we’re all here. Funds can come from the university for events that are meant for and wanted by students. We need to remember that we act to advocate and push the university to do things for students. We shouldn’t put the pressure on students to be able to find the funding and then hustle to make those bigger initiatives. It’s for us to then work on our relationship with the university and make sure that that funding is available, because we’re paying for it. 

Q: VP student life is one of the hardest positions due to many responsibilities they have in terms of big scale events and taking care of all campus groups. What is your take on these responsibilities, especially in terms of organizing big scale events without necessarily getting professional help or resources?

Molokwu: This is a difficult, time-consuming position. It is hard. I am an international Black female student—the only Black female in an executive position who has been in an executive position for a few years now. I am one of three Black students on the Board. It is difficult to communicate with the university, it is difficult to communicate with people in the student centre sometimes. It is difficult to communicate with external vendors, to be taken seriously as an executive. I do this work because it is important for students who aren’t usually seen or who are exploited by the university, for them to be able to have opportunities outside of a certain month, outside of a certain week, outside of a particular day.

Farhadi: I’ve worked so hard and many times I’ve doubted myself. When in doubt, when things were hard, I was able to come out effectively and be able to do what I wanted. Currently, I’m a part of the Accounting Course Union, as a VP of events. There’s a lot of discussion around virtual or in-person events and I told them that we can do it in person. I believe that as long as you have the passion, commitment and you’re brave enough, that essentially proves to anybody that you can do this position. You have to care for students, you have to care about their ideas, what they want in an event because it’s not your student life, it’s all of our student life.

Candidates for vice president education

Sherry Pourghaz* (no slate affiliation)

Absent: Abeeha Ahmad (Team Revolt)

Q: Could you provide the student body that is listening with what you believe the importance of your position is and how you will elevate the position moving into the new school year?

Pourghaz: My most important goal would be to reduce stress for students. In order for them to achieve a high performance in their academic life, they should have an easy pathway in the TMU community. I think the students of TMU need a political advocate for student needs that would prioritize their problems regarding fees, jobs, course load, food insecurity, housing issues. I will be that person that goes to the university, goes to the City of Toronto and asks for more support for the student body of this university.

Q: This year, the TMU community heard about plans to add an additional reading week for students. Would you go through with this plan? If so, what is your plan of action?

Pourghaz: First of all, we have to understand that there are certain hours of class that a student has to complete in order to finish a course or to graduate. We have to be cautious about this topic because we do not want to reduce the quality of the student’s education. As vice president education, I have to have a conversation with the registrar’s office to find the gaps in the school year to put in that extra study period. Then, I would review student opinions or surveys. After deciding what option is better, I would go talk to Jen McMillen, vice-provost, students or I would have a conversation with the vice president academic of the university to lobby for the potential study period. We would need to explain to faculty why it would help students’ academic life.

Q: As a VP of education, you’ve indicated that you are striving for discounts on Grammarly, Adobe and more. How else do you believe your position will facilitate an engaging student life overall on the campus?

Pourghaz: We are a commuter school. Our students are using public transportation every day. So unfortunately, over the years, we have seen the union try to provide discounts or reduced fees for these students. But unfortunately, it was an unsuccessful attempt. So this year, I’m willing to start the conversations again to see how we can provide a special discount for TMU students.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity

*A previous version of this article listed this source under a different name but has since been updated to reflect the source’s preferred identification.

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