Amidst the pandemic and personal difficulties, student participation at the highest level of student governance — the UVSS Board of Directors — is at an all-time low. The 2020-21 board had five directors resign. The upcoming election includes only two contested races, with three lead directors running unopposed and all 11 directors-at-large (DaLs) and the Director of International Student Relations acclaimed.
While UVSS cites the pandemic as the reason for some of these challenges, the pandemic didn’t stop them from comfortably hitting quorum at both the annual general meeting (AGM) and semi-annual general meeting (SAGM) and passing every UVSS-proposed policy on the table — which has been a long standing struggle for the UVSS.
For this election, the low number of candidates means that students won’t get to actually elect the majority of the UVSS board. As a student, you won’t have any choice as to who’s going to be a DaL or not, and will be voting to confirm — not choose — most of the lead directors.
Reasons for resignation vary
The UVSS board is composed of 11 DaLs, a part-time position that comes with an honorarium of $50 per month, and five lead directors, who work full-time and receive a regular salary and benefits. Four DaLs — Emily Hiser, Elisabeth Giesbrecht, Abdul Abuelazm, and Reeve Henderson — and Director of Events Sebastian Franco-Monroy resigned between July 2020 and January 2021.
The Martlet contacted all the resigned directors to understand the reasons behind their resignations. Henderson and Franco-Monroy declined to be interviewed for this article.
While everyone gave different reasons for their resignations, most of those interviewed cited COVID-19 as a contributing factor. Some former board members alleged an unexpected and divisive UVSS board environment as a reason for their departure.
While Hiser left on good terms with the board to focus on mutual aid projects after feeling frustrated with small, cumulative parts of the board dynamic and culture, Abuelazm alleged that the UVSS had a toxic work culture and said that being on the board was affecting his mental health.
The UVSS declined to comment on the nature of the resignations or the allegations.
Apart from Hiser, all the resignees were part of the cooperative that ran under the name of Inspire UVic.
Of everyone on the board, only four are seeking re-election. Dodds and current International Student Representative Dipayan Nag are running uncontested for campaigns and finance respectively, while Hernández is a candidate for student affairs. DaL Izzy Adachi is running for the director of outreach and community relations role.
An unprecedented election without slates or cooperatives
The election process has been changed again for the upcoming election, marking the second major UVSS electoral reform effort in two years. Candidates are now only allowed to run as independents. While UVSS board members are elected by the undergraduate student body — its electoral process can be amended by the board with little or no student body consultation.
In a previous board meeting in 2019, former director of student affairs Victoria Eaton said that the UVSS electoral environment “creates a combative, cliquey, and sometimes toxic environment.”
Previous elections allowed students to run under “slates” that resembled political parties that would usually sweep most, if not all seats. Slates were abolished for the 2020 election, and a hybrid model that permitted partial cooperation between candidates was introduced instead. This year’s UVSS board was the first board in three years with members from multiple cooperatives and independents.
In a September board meeting, this proposed electoral policy was voted down. After three back-to-back resignations in October — which consisted of some directors that had previously opposed the changes — the electoral policy change was retabled and passed in November.
While the UVSS has cited COVID-19 as a reason for the lack of nominees and high number of resignations, the electoral policy change also shifted the way UVSS elections are run. Given that this is the first election with this policy change, it remains to be seen whether or not this will impact nomination numbers.
Independent DaL Victoria Ritchie voted in favour of the change. While she felt the current board worked well together over the course of this year, the polarization on the board between members of the two cooperatives caused some disagreements.
Ritchie says that her experience as an independent was positive because it gave her the freedom to vote how she wanted without feeling beholden to either group.
Ritchie also noted that outside any complications the slate system may have caused, the UVSS as a whole faced a lot of challenges outside their control due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We faced a really challenging year,” she said. “It was quite challenging to do all this work in a very uncertain time where people were facing lots of issues with personal capacity, uncertainty in school, work, life and family.”
Successes in a challenging time
Despite the issues on the board this year, there has been a significant increase in student attendance at general meetings. The UVSS was able to meet quorum at both the AGM and SAGM this year. Since 2015, only two boards have been able to maintain quorum at one of these meetings.
The UVSS attracted student attendance with substantial prizes, including air pods, an iPad, and a bike. Alongside the prizes, students also voted on several key bylaw changes.
At the SAGM, the board’s motion to raise lead director salaries to $18.50 per hour passed. At the AGM, the board also added environmental sustainability and decolonization to the UVSS’s values, which was opposed by some board members in a tense meeting on Oct. 5.
This board also achieved some of the UVSS’s long-running advocacy goals on student housing, campus safety, and divestment. Other successes include lobbying UVic to expand the COVID-19 bursary into the winter semester and add a note on student transcripts regarding the pandemic.
With former DaL Marran Dodds elected in a board meeting to fill the lead director seat left vacant by Franco-Monroy and an uncontested byelection for Hiser’s DaL position acclaimed by Mariel Hernández, the UVSS will finish out its term with four empty seats.
This year, the UVSS Electoral Office decided to extend the candidate nomination period due to six empty seats — which included the seat for the director of events. Even after an extended nomination process, which produced a director of events candidate and saw a slew of new DAL candidates, there are only two contested seats.
While this reflects a trend of lower student engagement across B.C. student unions this year, and mostly uncontested elections have happened at the UVSS before, this brew of circumstance has left students with few choices for the board.
UVic undergraduate students can vote in UVSS elections for lead directors and on the referenda questions between 9 a.m. on March 24 and 12 p.m. on March 26 at webvote.uvic.ca. All of the Directors-at-Large were acclaimed.