In 2003, a slate of moderate (what their opponents would label as right-wing) student politicians called “Evolution, Not Revolution” achieved what had seemed impossible: winning Concordia University’s biggest student vote of the year and taking control of the Concordia Student Union executive against an established radical left-wing that had controlled it for years. Even though public opinion was clearly on their side, the mainstream of the student body didn’t vote, because they didn’t care.
When the corrupt left controlled Concordia
A little bit of history.
In March 2001, after it came about that a vice-president (Sheryll Navidad) had been embezzling close to $200,000 of student money (through blank cheques signed by the president, whose name rather ironically was Rob Green), a political opponent of that president named Chris Schulz couldn’t ride that outrage to electoral victory. Instead, the leftists would continue to control the student union, thanks to a large bloc of support from Palestinian activists, anarchists and left-wing radicals (of which there was certainly no shortage at a university like Concordia).
By this time, Concordia politics had been consumed by the Palestinian/Israeli debate, thanks mostly to the Second Intifada that had begun the previous fall. The two factions of politicians were defined not on their position on taxes, abortion, gun control or social services, but on whether they believed the Palestinian freedom-fighters were fighting a just cause against an evil, racist Israeli oppressor or whether they believed that the only peace-loving democratic state in the Middle East was defending itself against terrorists who wanted to drive all the Jews into the sea.
The Link, the student newspaper I wrote for at the time, had been the subject of a petition for dissolution because it chose not to cover a protest organized by Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, which was then Concordia’s most active student group. A tense couple of months, highlighted by a bold statement of defiance from editors at the paper (the cover above, which was quickly parodied by leftists who attacked the Link as undemocratic) culminated in a referendum endorsed by the CSU which sought to give the union the power to remove student funding to the paper (and other independent organizations) if it didn’t meet certain democratic criteria. That referendum was contested by both the Link and its competitor The Concordian, and so the ballots were sealed after other votes were counted. Hearings on that contestation never took place, and to this day nobody knows for sure what the result of the referendum was.
A few weeks later, the leftists banded together and took over the Link’s annual general assembly, appointing members of their cabal to the paper’s board of directors. The ensuing conflict forced the paper’s shutdown over the summer. In the end, very little changed, and the natural turnover at a university meant that the issue was just about forgotten by the next year.
In the fall of 2001, 9/11 hysteria combined with an over-the-top radical leftist handbook and a huge overreaction to it in the media prompted the first student backlash. Only a few weeks after the terrorist attacks, the CSU called a general assembly of its members to vote on a motion to ban three companies from campus. Bell Helicopter, Bell Canada and Nortel were seen as evil because of their involvement in exterminating peasants in Colombia or something like that. Cooperating with the evil military industrial complex was enough to make them evil. But, surprisingly, students actually showed up, especially those in engineering and commerce (with some nudges from the university administration) who wanted jobs with these companies and couldn’t care less about leftist conspiracy theories or anti-capitalist rhetoric. Not only was the motion defeated, but the students started adding motions to the agenda to restrict the CSU’s powers and give more to the engineering and commerce student associations (for example, the ability to appoint students directly to the university’s board of governors). The left suddenly started panicking that the democracy they held so dear had suddenly turned against them. They had to start coming up with excuses (like that the meeting had lost quorum) to ignore its orders.
At the same time, a petition was being passed around demanding a new election. It took advantage of a bylaw that provided for the recall to election of a president (and her executive) if a petition was submitted by 10% of electors, or about 3,000 students. The petition was a huge success, but the president (Sabrina Stea) resigned before it could force a new vote. Appointed interim president while a new election was called was her only remaining executive, a man named Patrice Blais. Schulz tried again to run for president, but one of his executives was caught on tape offering a patronage appointment to a third party in exchange for that party pulling out of the race. The chief electoral officer disqualified his entire slate based on a tape she had been handed only hours before the vote was to begin. That decision was quickly reversed when lawyers got involved, but not before about 500 students had already voted with Schulz and his team crossed off the ballot.
Schulz won the election anyway, but the CSU’s judicial board overturned the results on a 3-1 vote, supposedly because the number of disputed ballots was more than the margin of victory. (The opposing minority pointed out that Schulz won even though his name was crossed off 500 ballots, so he would only have gained votes had those ballots been marked differently.) The CSU’s council of representatives decided that another election in February was a waste of time (the general election is in late March) and Blais stayed in office until June, even though the students had made it clear in September they wanted a new government in place immediately.
In March 2002, fresh off the outrage of an invalidated election result and an executive with no mandate, not to mention the growing engineering and commerce blocs on his side, Schulz tried for a third time. His chances were so high, even his opponents thought he would win. But he didn’t. Instead, he lost against an executive headed by one of Green’s former vice-presidents. It was heartbreak for Schulz and for the silent moderate majority of students who wanted to rescue their student government from the arrogant, corrupt radical left. If it wasn’t going to happen now, it wasn’t ever going to happen.
Netanyahu changed everything
It wasn’t until the Netanyahu riot of Sept. 9, 2002, that Concordia politics truly changed. Hillel, the student Jewish religious group, had taken a more political role in response to the very political SPHR, which had increasingly dominated CSU politics. It invited former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give a speech on campus, and the university, pressured by influential donors, wanted so much to show it wasn’t afraid of the Palestinian activists that it turned down a request from its own security department to move the speech elsewhere. Despite the high security (complete with metal detectors), a riot broke out when pro-Palestinian activists stormed the lobby of the Henry F. Hall Building and started a standoff that only ended when a window broke and police discharged pepper spray inside the building.
The event made international headlines, which was a bit overkill since no one had died or even been seriously injured. But both sides had a barrel full of gasoline to fuel their partisan fires: the pro-Palestinian side was accused of using violence to stop a peaceful speech they didn’t agree with. The pro-Israeli side was accused of sacrificing the security of students to bring a war criminal on campus in a deliberate provocation (I’ll let you ponder for a moment the obvious flaw in this line of reasoning). The university took the extreme step of banning all events on campus related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a few weeks until everyone calmed down.
But they didn’t calm down. Instead, the CSU council (led by a career student politician with no soul named Adam Slater) pounced on controversial flyers being handed out at a Hillel table which said “We’ve JIHAD enough” and provided information on joining the Israeli military, and by a vote of 8-1 ordered Hillel’s funds frozen and its privileges revoked. Once again, the move made headlines as the leftist activists ordering the shutdown of the Jewish student group. Jews from around the world wrote letters to the CSU, the university and other media demanding that the decision be reversed. Having once again underestimated their opposition, the CSU president partially reversed the decision four days later. But Hillel wouldn’t get full access to their funds for weeks.
The right takes over
There was no recall petition this time (with elections happening every year in March, and nearly a month of lead time required, the timing is rarely sufficient for such an exercise), but during the next election in March 2003, the vote wasn’t even close: the “Evolution, Not Revolution” slate, whose main platform point was to represent students without going all crazy-activist, defeated the left-wing slate (called “Clean Slate” and headed by the former judicial board judge who wrote the dissenting opinion in favour of Schulz) by more than two to one. More than 4,000 students voted in the election, completely obliterating the previous record for student voter turnout.
Though each party had all-new members unconnected to previous iterations, behind the scenes they were run by the same camps: Blais on the left, Schulz and his successors on the right. A look at who was putting up posters in support of each campaign was enough to see the dominance of the same political factions.
This time, the leftist coalition of about 1,500 Muslim students, Palestinian activists, anarchists, anti-capitalists and other leftists had been overwhelmed by a new coalition of Jewish students, engineering and commerce students, and members of the silent majority who were fed up of the CSU and wanted change.
In 2004, the incumbent party (now called “New Evolution”) won again. The left, which through each election softened its image more, couldn’t convince enough students to vote for them, and couldn’t shake off the reputation their predecessors had created.
In 2005, 2006, and 2007, the hand-picked successors of the current executive won the election each time, relying on a rock-solid political machine and still-prevalent fears of what would happen if the left ever regained control.
When the corrupt right controlled Concordia
But as Concordia became a one-party system again, the inevitable corruption began to take hold. Some of the stunts were incredibly transparent, not to mention petty. With the chief electoral officer, judicial board and council chairperson all appointed by the CSU council, it wasn’t long before they were filled with grossly unqualified partisan hacks who would check with the CSU executive before making just about any decision.
At the Concordia Student Union, corruption and financial scandal hit about once every five years, not coincidentally the amount of time it takes for all the students to graduate and be replaced by new ones who haven’t learned from past mistakes. (Except that many of the people involved in current CSU politics, like Blais, Steven Rosenshein, Slater and others, were still fighting their petty student battles almost a decade after arriving at this university, unable to let go.)
A new dynasty
This week, after a year of gross financial mismanagement, lawsuits and accusations that generated more headlines and was enough to temper the executives’ pats on the back, change is coming back to the CSU. Actually, the slate named “Change”, which was supposed to succeed the current executive, lost by more than 500 votes to a party called “Vision”, backed by Blais and former CSU president Mohamed Shuriye, who had been part of the Evolution dynasty but broke off from it to join the Rebel Alliance. Vision also won more than 2/3 of council seats, solidifying their control over the union for the next year.
It wasn’t a complete reversal (Blais and Shuriye are moderates, not leftist radicals), but it wrestled control from arrogant established power brokers who had clearly become too corrupt for students to accept anymore. And while there are still contestations to resolve, it looks s though the election couldn’t be stolen, despite some questionable decisions like disqualifying people based on what they say.
It’s hard to say whether this is a momentary hiccup or a true regime change. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict doesn’t dominate CSU politics the way it once did. Neither do traditional left-vs.-right issues. Instead it’s dominated by people who have been involved for 10 years now and have obsessed themselves with settling old grudges and scoring petty political victories that have no meaning and no use. The younger students are too afraid to confront their puppetmasters who perpetuate unofficial political parties based primarily on a personal conflict between two people almost a decade before.
Whichever party controls the Concordia Student Union though, you can bet that in a few years the scandals will return, and the cycle will continue. The only constant is that the politics never end, even if the political issues are so trivial that nobody but the politicians care about them.