The Dalhousie Student President Election was no Laughing Matter

April 2019

The Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) is the official independent representative body of students attending Dalhousie University. At present, students are obliged to pay over $150 in fees to the DSU each academic year. As they have no easy means to exit the union, Dalhousie students are in effect forced to have the DSU represent them.

The DSU has been the subject of several imbroglios during my brief time as a Dalhousie student. These have included the banning of Canada Day celebrations on Student Union Building precincts during the sesquicentenary of Canada’s confederation, the tacit approval of protests demanding the resignation of interim president Peter MacKinnon for his views on campus free speech, and the support of organisations participating in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. In 2016, 2017, and 2018, the DSU received a grade of F on the Campus Freedom Index, primarily for the undemocratic and restrictive aspects of its Elections Policy.

The DSU has expanded its range well beyond student government and has embarked on a trajectory of self-agrandisement. That it supports controversial and divisive policies largely unrelated to its mandate while it compels students to pay fees, runs counter to the most basic assumptions we have as Canadians about freedom of speech and association.

The DSU as it presently exists deserves neither the financial support nor the respect of the students it purports to represent.

To make this point clear to my fellow students, I, Adam, decided this year to run as a satirical candidate for the presidency of the Dalhousie Student Union. My platform was tastefully absurd, including the formation of a student militia, the creation of a collective farm to offset tuition fees, and the hiring of Benedictine monks to replace the campus copy centre with a medieval scriptorium. Dressing in a costume inspired by The Matrix, I stood in high places around the university campus and preached my message of absurdity, distributing my “Glorious Manifesto” as I went.

Like other candidates, I had to submit my campaign materials, including my poster and handbills (which contained my manifesto), for approval by the Chief Returning Officer (CRO) of the DSU. My social media content was similarly subject to censorship by the CRO should it be deemed offensive or in contravention of the Elections Policy, whose scope was sufficiently broad to require me to remove a post about “raiding coastal fishing villages to offset rising tuition costs,” because it aggravated someone sensitive to the Restigouche raid of 1981. In this case, I asked to appeal the decision. In a move indicative of the depth of the DSU’s understanding of procedural fairness, I was told that I could not appeal, as I had not been levied a fine, but they could levy one if I wished for them to do so.

This sort of micromanaging and unfair treatment was applied with great force to my campaign. My poster was removed by Rights and Equity Services on an anonymous insistence that it had offended someone. Unreasonable interference by the Elections Committee reached an apex when I was sent a set of specific instructions regarding what I could and could not say during the debate lest I face immediate expulsion, instructions not sent to other candidates.

I had not violated any election policy, and had not been made privy to any complaints against me (except the one about fishing villages). I had been cordial toward the other candidates, and, in fact, before the debate, two of them approached me and expressed support and admiration for what I was doing. I also naively thanked the CRO for what I had perceived as fair treatment considering my satirical status up until that point.

During opening statements and the two questions to which I was allowed to respond, the audience was overwhelmingly positive. As I had hoped, people were smiling and laughing. While the other candidates expressed their views, I stood in contrast as a caricature of the DSU.

The good mood didn’t last. In the middle of my second response, a member of the audience, the DSU’s current Vice President of Finance and Operations, interrupted me, in contravention of the debate rules. The moderator, who was the CRO, agreed with her comment, and noisily expelled me from the debate, although I had not broken any of the general rules or the rules imposed upon me specifically. Following my speedy departure, one of the candidates who has intimate DSU affiliation thanked the VPFO for her intervention, in contravention of the rules, and was not reprimanded.

The following day, I was disqualified from the campaign, in a note riddled with typos and baseless accusations. The CRO, using an extraordinary power of the elections policy, had fined me $220. The fine was for actions of my supporters after I had left the debate and over whom I had no control, the “senselessness” of my campaign, and the fact that certain members of the university community had been “disturbed” by my statements during the debate. Disqualification is automatic for a candidate who accrues over $100 in fines, and my name was removed from the ballot.

The following day, I wrote a detailed appeal of each fine, countering every claim made against me by the CRO. I issued a notice of libel and cease and desist to the CRO along with a request that my name be restored to the ballot pending a decision on my appeal. My name on the ballot, I said, would not harm the elections process (I could be disqualified later) while my removal would irreparably damage my campaign. My notice and request were ignored. Several days later, I received a response to my appeal, stating that it had been dismissed by the Elections Committee. They gave no argument against my appeal, simply stated that it was dismissed. I encouraged my supporters to mark an abstention on their ballots. At the end of the voting period the victorious candidate, who has expressed her deep affiliation with the DSU, was declared.

I have now appealled to the Judicial Board, which alleges itself (quite speciously) to be the highest level of recourse I can seek for my treatment. In fact, the DSU is subject to the power of provincial judges, although I doubt that in their power-drunk state, DSU officials are aware of this. One full week after the election, the detailed results, most importantly information on abstentions, remain unreleased to the student body. The DSU is trying to put aside the flagrant miscarriage of justice and democracy in its recent election.