I think we’ve reached a point in our campus culture where students want more. Not to give the same millennial fuck-the-system narrative, but at almost every forum we’ve seen so far in this election students have asked about protests, about taking aggressive action, and about doing more than the same old “advocacy” that doesn’t seem to be working.
I don’t think students are wrong to be angry, and it makes sense that they are frustrated with an endless cycle of consultation and meetings and “trying our best.” That doesn’t mean Students’ Union executives aren’t doing difficult, important work, and I do think that there have been some successes thanks to that continuous, incremental change. But as being a student continues to get more and more expensive, students are less inclined to be satisfied with incremental change, especially when they graduate before they see any difference. Students don’t want to hear that these candidates will “advocate” without hearing how. They want to hear that candidates have their backs, that candidates are ready to fight, and that candidates are as angry as students are.
This presidential race so far hasn’t kept up with the shift in student culture. Yesterday’s Myer Horowitz forum showed that they are becoming increasingly aware of this. When pressed again on whether they would be willing to support large-scale protests, Ushakov replied saying that the SU isn’t a labour union and so it can’t function the same way — despite the fact that student strikes, much like labour strikes, can and have happened. Ushakov also said, perplexingly, that protests can be an option when things get really bad, but in the same breath talked about how students are going hungry right now. It’s unclear to me how bad things have to get before Ushakov is willing to take a real stand.
Larsen mainly echoed his earlier responses about supporting student movements if necessary (but still seeming reluctant to instigate any).
Scott actually surprised me on this one. He said that he spoke with the International Students’ Association president after Friday’s forum, when it became clear that the audience was unsatisfied with the lukewarm answers from the presidential hopefuls, and is now more willing to support protests.
All three of these presidential candidates are well-versed in traditional advocacy, but I am curious whether or not they have any experience organizing the kind of grassroots mobilization that may become necessary in the coming years. The set of skills required to meet with members of government is often very different from the set of skills required to lead a protest. The fact that the candidates have avoided talking about protest at all suggests they probably don’t have experience raging against the machine.
After today’s forum, I am increasingly convinced that Ushakov is not willing to do what it takes to make sure students’ interests are being represented, but I am conflicted about which of the other two candidates would make a better president. I appreciate that Larsen was honest about how he regrets not being more vocal in his opposition of Bill 5. I appreciate that Scott seems willing to adapt to what students actually want. I think both will have to be willing to step up as president more than they have so far as candidates, but I think both have the potential to reflect on those changes in student demands and try to do better.