At first debate, VP External candidates discuss SkyTrain, affordability and code interpretation

On Tuesday night, VP External Affairs candidates disagreed over the best approaches to take on the VP External portfolio in the coming year while avoiding confrontation.

Current AMS Councillor and fourth-year arts student Andy Wu, graduate student Remzi Xhemalce Fuentes and third-year arts student Kalith Nanayakkara debated how they would conduct advocacy for student issues like transit, housing and affordability if elected to the VP External role. Tensions flared in the Q&A portion of the debate, when an audience member raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest arising from Fuentes’s candidacy.

The night kicked off with a discussion of transit, as each candidate was asked how they would continue existing efforts to secure funding for a SkyTrain to UBC. Fuentes mentioned that current lobbying efforts have failed to sufficiently highlight the SkyTrain as a priority.

“I think that the basic need right now for our engagement is for [the government] to recognize our need for transport,” he said.

Wu and Nanayakkara echoed his statements but also provided a plan on how they would conduct this lobbying. Wu said that while advocacy at the provincial level will be easy to leverage with the upcoming provincial elections, more challenges will arise at the federal level. As VP External, he said he would advocate for the SkyTrain as a cross-party issue on the federal stage.

Nanayakkara, on the other hand, mentioned that he would present the issue as one that affected students, staff, businesses and residences alike.

“I would be advocating on behalf of students and framing this issue as not just a student-focused issue but rather an economic and socially significant one,” he said.

While Wu and Nanayakkara found common ground over several issues, Fuentes stood out when answering certain debate questions. In response to a knowledge-testing question about what the University Neighbourhood Association does and the importance of working with them, all candidates mentioned the need to work collaboratively for affordable housing. However, Fuentes also mentioned that if elected he would work with them to combat the issue of racial profiling, a topic which is not conventionally addressed by the VP External portfolio.

“There's a lot of racial profiling and discrimination happening,” Fuentes said. “People don't come out and say it sometimes to the AMS, but people have told it to me.”

Another key topic of the debate was the issue of affordability relating to tuition fees, housing and food security. Although each candidate affirmed that affordability would be their priority when lobbying the federal and provincial governments, they had different promises on the subject.

Wu and Nanayakkara both shared affordability goals that were centred on student tuition activism, while Fuentes focused more on student living costs.

Wu’s plan is for the AMS to advocate for free tuition in the long run by fighting for the elimination of tuition for those that fall below the low-income cutoff in BC.

“Mere access to post-secondary education is an integral part of helping all citizens fulfill their potential in life and it should not matter whether you can afford it or not,” Wu said. “I think that should be the baseline on which AMS does its external advocacy.”

On the other hand, Nanayakkara shared plans to lobby the federal government for the elimination of interest on student loans and for the provincial government to change their moderate standard of living allowance, so as to account for the high cost of living in Vancouver.

Nanayakkara also mentioned that he would advocate for a cap on international tuition fee increases and increase support for Indigenous student access to post-secondary education. The other two candidates followed suit, stating that they too would commit to fighting for affordability for Indigenous and international students.

In combating affordability, Fuentes said that he would focus his lobbying efforts specifically on student housing and food insecurity.

“For me, it's not acceptable to be in any university as rich as this one when more than 30 percent of our fellow students are suffering from food insecurity,” he stated.

Fuentes said that the AMS should help UBC’s Food Bank engage with other stakeholders, and further support cheap student-led options like Sprouts and Seedlings.

Up for interpretation

Matters came to a head in the Q&A portion of the debate, when GSS President Nicolas Romualdi asked Fuentes — who is also running as VP External Relations of the GSS — what he would do in the event that he won both races.

Fuentes responded that he would not step down from either position and that he is ready to work long hours to work both full-time jobs simultaneously.

“I believe that the GSS and the AMS should work together a lot more than what they currently do,” he said. If elected, Fuentes argues that he would use the two positions to encourage more engagement between the AMS and GSS.

There was debate in the room as to whether or not holding office in both positions would violate AMS code Section 2, Article 1: Conflict of Interest, which states “No Executive Member of Council shall hold a significant position, including but not limited to executive positions, within a Constituency, Student Resource Group, or Affiliated Institution student association.”

Chief Electoral Officer Ahsan Sahibzada said he is aware that Fuentes is running for both roles and added that in a discussion with AMS Archivist Sheldon Goldfarb they confirmed that the GSS is not a constituency.

Sahibzada reached out to The Ubyssey after the debate to say he 'misspoke,' during the debate and the discussion with Goldfarb was separate and not in relation to Fuentes's candidacy.

“He was allowed to be a candidate simply because he is a member of the AMS and there is nothing in AMS code stopping him from running in both races,” said Sahibzada.

But Romualdi noted that even though the GSS isn’t a constituency, Fuentes, if elected, would also work for the Graduate Student Association (GSA), which is a separate legal entity from the GSS but employs the same executives. The GSA is an AMS constituency, so AMS code would be violated.

Even if Fuentes is allowed to run in both races, Romualdi said the conflicts of interest that would arise while exercising both duties should dissuade voters. Fuentes didn’t think it was a problem.

“To the best of my knowledge, I do not see any conflict of interest,” he said.

Eventually, it was settled that if Fuentes were elected to both positions, AMS Council would approach instances of conflict of interest on a case-by-case basis.

After the debate, Sahibzada clarified to The Ubyssey that the AMS Elections Committee stands by its interpretation of the code and will still allow Fuentes to run in both positions.

This article has been updated to clarify that the discussion around whether the GSS is a constituency of the AMS occurred in a separate conversation and was not directly related to Fuentes's candidacy.