Fotang and Ali fight head-on at the presidential debate, with one clear winner

With two opposing approaches to advocacy, it's clear who is the stronger candidate in the 2023 Students' Union presidential race.

With only two forums down in the 2023 Students’ Union election, the presidential race is proving to be a tense one. The two candidates, current vice-president (external) (VPX) Christian Fotang and former arts councillor Haruun Ali, have extremely different approaches to the presidency.

Each candidate has vastly different ideas on what they think the Students’ Union (SU) should look like, and what it should be used for. Ali brands himself as the newcomer, who wants the SU to return to its union roots. In contrast, Fotang is the established executive who wants the SU to continue on its current path.

While Ali’s plans could best be described as overly-ambitious, Fotang’s approach to the presidency is more realistic.

Ali’s platform promises students too much, and would deliver too little

Ali has marketed himself as the new candidate with different ideas on how to better the lives of students. But, I’m not convinced this is true.

Despite wanting to be a new voice, many of the ideas Ali lists in his platform are legacy projects, like STRIDE campaign school, the pronouns campaign, and implementing exploration credits. These are initiatives started by past executives, which candidates hope to continue if they’re elected. If Ali wants to be the bearer of fresh ideas, he needs to bring them.

Many of Ali’s so-called new ideas already exist — just under another name, like the advocacy office Ali is hoping to create. The SU is essentially already an advocacy office, which conducts research that gives them the information and data they need to advocate for students effectively.

Instead, Ali wants student leaders from SRAs, clubs, and student groups to take over and do their own advocacy. Ali believes an advocacy office would provide these student leaders with the tools and resources to advocate for their own issues. 

“We will be empowering students to take a stand, and we as a union should be there to support them,” Ali said.

Historically, the SU has advocated for students on their behalf. The ideas that Ali brings to the table don’t take into consideration the resources the SU already has, like advocacy research. Without doing his due diligence in researching the measures in place, how effective can his policies really be?

“You talk about the broken trust that we have between the Students’ Union and students, and I think part of that is just putting a platform that’s just a make-a-wish list,” Fotang said to Ali. Fotang raises a good point.

Many of Ali’s ideas and responses throughout the debate show that there are some things he didn’t take the time to understand or educate himself on. He wants to be different compared to previous presidents, but was unable to put in the research to get there.

For example, Ali wants to move tuition discussions from the committee level, to General Faculties Council to allow more student voices. Fotang raised that this change would need to be done through the Board of Governors — not something that can just be imposed by an SU president.

In contrast, Fotang wants to continue off the work he started as VPX, while ensuring that students who have felt ignored by the SU are now being prioritized. He’s been an executive for two years now, and has an idea of what the SU’s limitations are.

Fotang wants students to understand where the SU’s power really lies. He knows that there are some things he wouldn’t be able to achieve readily, which require added support from different levels of government. This is unlike Ali, who makes a bunch of promises — both new and old — that he won’t necessarily be able to keep.

However, what concerns me about Fotang’s platform and campaign is his willingness to write off initiatives because the work has already been started. Some things, like transit safety, were left out of his platform because he had secured funding and support from the city, he said in the forum. But, this doesn’t mean the fight is over.

Despite these concerns, Fotang is more realistic about the goals he’s hoping to achieve. Even though he has a tendency to label initiatives as done after advocacy wins, this is a much better alternative than Ali, whose lofty goals will be hard to realize.

Ali wants to rebuild the union to better represent students. But, Fotang’s ideas are likely to be the ones that will achieve that, not Ali’s.

Ali said he is a “voice that can capture all of campus” but lacks consultation

While Fotang praises the advocacy goals student leaders have achieved, Ali is much more critical.

Throughout the debate, Ali mentioned several times that the SU has largely failed students.

Ali’s big approach to solving the SU’s issues is making it more like a union.

I agree that the SU hasn’t been the supporter that students need. But if Ali is so concerned with how they’re failing students, why isn’t he making the necessary changes? Instead, he’s continuing projects that he seems to believe have let students down.

Besides, his plan to turn the SU into a union doesn’t involve any tactics that a union typically uses. Instead, Ali throws around the idea of mobilizing the student body, which seems to be more about community organizing.

When Ali talks about his plans for rebuilding the SU into a real union, he outlines plans to revamp the website and organize Annual General Meetings (AGM). These, contrary to Ali’s beliefs, are not union tactics — why don’t his plans include striking, picketing, or boycotting?

As well, in his opening statements, Ali said that he can provide “a voice that can capture all of campus.”

Frankly, I find this mentality dangerous. Ali doesn’t automatically know what students need, or what their issues are. This is abundantly clear, as he didn’t reach out to the Indigenous Students Union (ISU) for consultation before beginning his campaign.

“We had heard from other student leaders that they were unable to get through to the ISU, so instead we tried to consult with Indigenous students themselves.”

But, hearing that it’s difficult to get into contact with someone isn’t an excuse not to try at all. Fotang tried to set up a meeting with the ISU, but when unable, met with a former ISU exec instead.

The pitfall of Ali’s approach was highlighted by the fact that he assumed that he knew what consultations the ISU would have made — despite the fact that he never reached out.

“Specific funding for Indigenous students, support for them, is absolutely crucially important,” said Ali. “That’s something [the ISU] would’ve told me if I had reached out and met with them.”

There is an incredible diversity to our campus, which Ali acknowledged in the debate. But he seems to believe that his experiences represents all of us, when they don’t.

Unions are meant to represent the voices of those they represent. How can Ali represent us, when he hasn’t figured out what it is we want? How can he represent students, especially marginalized people, when he doesn’t even reach out at all?

Fotang’s opening statement had the opposite sentiment — he sees that students don’t feel heard, and he wants to do what he can to listen.

“I recognize that the system is not working for many, and I want to bring my attention back to our campus community, and ensure that no one feels left out,” he said.

Fotang acknowledges there are gaps in his knowledge — he doesn’t assume he has all the answers. Throughout the debate, Fotang frequently mentioned all the entities and people he’s worked with this year. While this seems like a way for Fotang to prove he has connections, it also shows that he has done work in these areas before. His plans are more concrete than Ali’s, whose ideas rely heavily on students doing their own advocacy.

The presidential debate gave the candidates an opportunity to go head-to-head, which really showed their strengths and weaknesses. Fotang is sticking with the connections he’s made for future advocacy, while Ali wants to emphasize the roles students can play.

Ali criticizes Fotang for wanting to maintain the SU’s status quo. But, Fotang’s vision of the SU is much more appealing than Ali’s ideas — which wouldn’t be as revolutionary as they were made out to be.

CORRECTION: This article was updated at 10:29 a.m. to reflect that Ali’s advocacy office is for student leaders in governance, not students-at-large.

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Katie Teeling

Katie Teeling is the 2023-24 Editor-in-Chief at The Gateway. She previously served as the 2022-23 Opinion Editor. She’s in her fifth year, studying anthropology and history. She is obsessed with all things horror, Adam Driver, and Lord of the Rings. When she isn’t crying in Tory about human evolution, Katie can be found drinking iced capps and reading romance novels.

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