‘Beyond just words and empty gestures’: Student groups hold first Justice Forum with AMS elections candidates

Seeking to highlight social justice issues and make their endorsement process more open, multiple student groups collaborated to hold the first Justice Forum for this year’s AMS elections candidates.

On March 2, candidates for president, VP external, VP administration and the Board of Governors were quizzed on issues ranging from tuition freezes to the AMS’s relationship with the Interfraternity Council (IFC).

The organizers consisted of several AMS Resource Groups — the Social Justice Centre, the Women’s Centre, the Pride Collective and the Student Environment Centre — and UBCC350.

“The Justice Forum is a public event because we […] wanted to be accountable to our process of endorsement, so there’s a public record of why we make the decisions that we make,” said Women’s Centre Co-Chair Niki Najm-Abadi, a fifth-year political science and gender, race, sexuality and social justice major who co-emceed the event.

“We wanted to see today what these platforms actually mean, beyond just words and empty gestures.”

Advocating for Indigenous issues, increasing representation

The debate kicked off with a question to the presidential candidates on the role of the AMS in upholding Indigenous rights. Citing the “the Wet’suwet’en situation up north,” current AMS VP Administration Cole Evans expressed disappointment with the AMS’s “lack of advocacy going to the provincial government.”

“It’s up to student unions to make sure we’re leading those causes,” he said.

Pivoting to the issue of Indigenous representation, current Residence Hall Association President Harresh Thayakaanthan suggested creating new staff opportunities for Indigenous students. Meanwhile, current AMS Student Services Manager Ian Stone argued for providing more support and resources to student groups that advocate on Indigenous issues.

A complicated relationship with the frats

A recurring theme throughout the night was the ongoing changes in the AMS’s relationship with UBC’s fraternities. In November 2019, the AMS Council removed the IFC’s club status after finding that the IFC was on-compliant with the society’s code.

As the current VP administration, Evans defended the memorandum of understanding (MoU) that would allow fraternities some of the benefits given to AMS clubs, like booking event space.

Thayakaanthan acknowledged the “negative atmosphere around the topic [of fraternities],” but expressed support for an MoU that would allow the frats to receive continued training from the AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre — a sentiment that was later echoed by Aidan Wilson in the VP Administration race.

Meanwhile, both Stone and VP Administration candidate Sylvester Mensah Jr suggested that being members of a fraternity would be helpful in negotiating a new relationship between the AMS and the IFC.

Advocacy, safe spaces and student affordability

The VP administration forum between Mensah and Aidan Wilson featured a multifaceted discussion of safe spaces — from the emotional to the physical. While both candidates agreed that not all politically controversial speakers should receive a platform from the AMS, they diverged on the AMS’s expulsion policy and whether the Nest was primarily a student space.

Mensah brought up safety concerns, while Wilson argued that the space should be for everyone as long as no bylaws are broken.

The topics of homelessness and outside speakers resurfaced in the VP external and Board of Governors debates as part of broader discussions on student affordability and free speech.

VP External candidate Andy Wu promised to work on “expanding the scope of eligibility of the BC Rental Assistance program to students” if elected, while candidate Kalith Nanayakkara also expressed interest in being an “advocate [against] homelessness and the housing crisis.”

At the Board of Governors debate, candidates Max Holmes, Axel Kong and Jeanie Malone expressed their support for tuition affordability but remained skeptical about the feasibility of a tuition freeze. The fourth candidate, Brandon Connor, was not present at the event.

“If there’s ever a situation in which we’re going down the hole and we have to increase tuition, there is a fiduciary duty,” said Holmes. “I’m somebody who has never really seen [...] a justified tuition increase, though.”

Kong also floated the idea of lobbying for a greater tuition tax credit for domestic students, but faltered when describing how a stronger alumni network might help defray tuition costs for international students.

When asked about the university hosting controversial speakers, Malone mentioned her role as chair of the Board’s People, Community and International Committee and “the importance of framing freedoms, such as free speech […] within the context of equity, diversity, inclusion and mutual respect.”

Striking a similar tone, Holmes brought up his experience on the Board’s Property Committee and questioned “whether we allow any more of these off-campus speakers […] to come in, that not even people in our community really want.”

Kong stressed the importance of education and suggested holding workshops.

On March 3, the organizing groups released their endorsements and comments, but did not endorse any candidate for president or VP administration.

Many of the organizers and attendees found the Justice Forum helpful in solidifying their voting decisions.

For Thea Baines, a first-year arts student involved with the Social Justice Centre, this year’s Justice Forum showed “what each candidate is actually thinking about and what their actual goals for the future are” beyond “tokenistic words […] like intersectionality and safe space and diversity.”

“Up until now, I wouldn’t have had enough information to make an informed decision about who to endorse,” said Cameron Anderson, a first-year science student who is a member of the Pride Collective.

“I would say that it was relatively successful, we had almost all the candidates that we invited to come and in the future, we might try to invite all the positions.”