Affordability, mental health, and student rights were all discussed in today’s forum, but the candidates really showed their true colours when asked about how they intend to repair the relationship between Indigenous students and the Students Union.
All three candidates — Reed Larsen, Ilya Ushakov, and Shane Scott — served on the executive last year, and acknowledged that relationships have been “strained.” I would say that’s an understatement.
The process of drafting and passing Bill 5 has created considerable tension between Indigenous students and other members of the SU. Aboriginal students have voiced concerns about not being sufficiently consulted, and even walked out of a council meeting in protest.
Scott was the first to bring up Indigenous issues in today’s forum, asking the other candidates how they would handle the current relationship between the SU and Aboriginal students. Scott himself gave a fairly bland answer to his own question, and for someone who has brought up Indigenous issues as a cornerstone of his platform, I’m disappointed that Scott’s most tangible idea for reconciliation is just listening better. At least he explicitly mentions Indigenous students in his platform, unlike his opponents.
Larsen responded with the importance of taking Indigenous voices more seriously (which is said in every single election but obviously, as we’ve seen with Bill 5, often doesn’t happen) and spoke about reaching out to Indigenous students instead of always expecting them to come to SU spaces, which is an admirable sentiment. Yet by giving no examples of groups he would like to reach out to, or ways to make sure that feedback from those groups will actually be implemented, I’m skeptical that Larsen’s promises will result in real change.
After hundreds of years of colonization, it’s saddening to see that the best these candidates can come up with is vague platitudes and the same old buzzwords about consultation, with no evidence of results. Both Larsen and Scott seem to fall prey to this. Good intentions are important, but good intentions are not the key to decolonization. Using Indigenous people as tokens election after election does nothing to change power structures or empower students.
Ushakov, however, seems even less concerned than his opponents about the reality of Indigenous issues. When questioned about Bill 5, he reiterated his platform point regarding the SU’s brand, which he calls “igniting the flame.” He said that he supported Bill 5 as an improvement on the status quo, and that the key is for the SU to just provide more effective communication with Indigenous students. The problem is not that Indigenous students are unaware of the SU’s perspective — that perspective has always been made abundantly clear — the problem is that the SU isn’t listening to Indigenous students enough. Ushakov seems to have no tangible plan, or really any intention at all, to change this.
Candidates were further pressed to give actual examples of how they will improve relationships with Indigenous students by Deirdra Cutarm, former president of Aboriginal Student Council, who, obviously unsatisfied with their previous responses, stated, “I don’t want to be another item on your goddamn checklist to prove that you’re progressive.” This is not the first time that Indigenous students on campus have expressed their anger about being tokenized, and yet student politicians still seem to be struggling to hear them.
In response, Larsen acknowledged that he is part of a white settler society and therefore will not always have the answers. Shane provided a similar answer about echoing the voices of Indigenous students.
Acknowledging one’s own privilege is an important step, and obviously the voices of Indigenous students are the most important in these conversations, but if you are willing to put yourself in a position of power within that white settler society by running for elected office, it is not enough to just say that you have power and be done with it. None of the candidates for president are Indigenous, which means that they will inherently be speaking on behalf of Indigenous students without sharing their experiences of colonialism — they would do well to recognize that. Rather than pretending that isn’t the case, candidates should speak with Indigenous students about their priorities, and reflect those priorities in their platforms. Continuing to make meaningless promises about consultation means nothing if that consultation never results in actual campaign points. Consultation itself should not be the campaign promise, change should be.
This will continue to be a major issue in this election. The student at today’s forum put it best: all three presidential candidates need to take responsibility for the failure to create a meaningful relationship between the SU and Indigenous students, but they must also be wary of using Indigenous people as tokens to demonstrate their progressivism. I’m glad they’re talking about these issues, but we must all demand more from student politicians when it comes to treating Indigenous students better.