Recognizing that talking about the insularity of student politics leads to stunted engagement

This year’s VUSAC Elections Forum brings up important questions about the future of Victoria College’s student government—but only to an audience of just over 400 people.

VUSAC’s Spring elections have been in full force since February 27th, when nomination packages became available to all Vic students. When the nomination period closed on March 13th and the list of candidates became available on the Facebook group “Spring Elections Forum,” Chief Returning Officer Taylor Cenac announced that all positions, save for Vice President Internal and Board of Regents, were uncontested or unfilled. Following VPI candidate Alexa Breininger’s withdrawal from the race, the Victoria College community is more than likely looking at its council for 2017-2018.

The Facebook forum immediately picked up on the odd nature of these elections, particularly that most council positions have only one person running, and in the case of Sustainability Commissioner and Vice President Student Organizations, no one. These positions represent the entirety of Victoria College’s student body, through voting on behalf of students at council meetings and by planning events with student funds. Questions have been posted daily in the group since March 13th, and have brought up important issues in regards to accountability, equity, and student services. Most questions were asked with the hope that the only candidates in the race can respond to the challenges facing the student body effectively in the year to come.

On the forum, VCU member Nickolas Shyshkin noted that the group has an incredibly small audience in contrast to the Victoria College population and asked, “What are you doing right now during your campaign to inform students who are not in this forum, not on Facebook, disengaged, or disenchanted with the entire process of the election and student politics?” The forum holds most, if not all, of the candidates’ platforms, while many others use their personal Facebook or Instagram pages to campaign. For the over 2000 members of the VCU not in the group, most of the uncontested campaigns and the forum’s posts are completely unavailable.

The “Vic Bubble,” the self-named and ever-evolving small group of involved students at Vic, has come up in elections prior to this year. This year, the discourse has expanded far beyond the three posts found in last year’s forum. While a worthwhile discussion amongst those involved at Vic, there is something ironic in talking circles about the bubble when a small-sized elections group perpetuates it (even taking up pages of The Strand). Trying to discuss the exclusivity of Vic results in a strange cyclicality: are those aware of the bubble only those within in it?

I began my involvement at Vic through VUSAC. My game plan for Open Vic in May 2013 was to march up to then-President Jelena Savic, introduce myself, and ask to join the Listserv for updates on first-year positions. Within the first few weeks, I knew I wanted to run for Member-at-Large, which has since become the Councillor position. Reflecting on this with my first-year roommate, she recalled having no idea that those positions were open until I mentioned that I was already running. She hadn’t been in Toronto for Open Vic—that Listserv, while a helpful tool to connect those already interested, only informed those that had been dead set on joining before school had even started.

Joining a club, levy, or student government means committing time beyond school, but in effect, their entire purpose is to function as an educational—and completely optional—addition to your degree. The purpose of these groups on campus is to help you get experience beyond the classroom. While it would be to the benefit of organizations to pay their volunteers, most of these unpaid positions require a willingness to work on something as a passion-project. With VUSAC especially, the accountability extends far beyond just “doing your part”—there’s the necessity to be a representative for everyone at Vic, especially those beyond the immediate, most involved group.

“People shift in and out of VUSAC, and the ephemerality of our roles is the reason there is a lack of systemic change,” said Shailee Koranne, current Communications Coordinator and Equity Commissioner candidate in a statement on the group. Koranne highlighted a discrepancy by stating how pressure differs for the council: “While we take on these jobs on our own accord, we are not experts—we are your peers. We are learning as we go. By the time we get the hang of it, we are moving on from council. And the cycle repeats itself.” Things tend to shift slowly in student organizations due to turnover. Since my own time on the council two years ago, VUSAC has grown immensely, though, for many, it may not seem like enough. Their transparency, advocacy, and outreach has been worked on over time, but it has been a slow process, due to the arrested development in discussing “Bubble Politics.”

VCU member, Thomas Trimble stated in the group, “the easy answer is to blame the ‘bubble,’ or to blame the office space that isn’t large enough to accomodate [sic] any number of students anyway, but that doesn’t nearly go far enough. It’s especially apparent this year, since truth be told you are all already seen as being part of the same social circle, that the system isn’t working. That you are friends is not in itself a bad thing, but it shows the problem, that one group is seen to run the adminstration [sic], quite honestly to the detriment of newcomers.” There can only be a handful of people on a student government, it’s simply meant to be a small-scale representation of the whole. After spending time with a group for so long, a bubble will kind of just… form. The standard to which VUSAC must be held makes this so problematic, but debating the bubble’s existence doesn’t affect change.

Steve Warner, the current Vice President External, said poignantly in a post while prefacing a question about whether accountability measures can engage students, “[It’s] not to say that accountability measures aren’t important—they obviously are—but it’s my experience that people care more about student governments when we show what impact we actually have in everyday life, rather than when trying to engage people in politics they just don’t care about.”

Trying to figure out “Bubble Politics” only continues to perpetuate them. Outreach has been getting better each year in terms of VUSAC’s expansion, but there is still work to be done on many fronts. Like anything else, there are faults in the system, but those reaching out to be involved should be doing so to effect change. Talking circles about the “bubble” only continues to be self-involved, especially while there are so many Vic students on campus who may not even know there is a bubble to pop. Outreach starts when that self-involvement takes a breather and focuses on engagement, instead.