Federal election inspires hope, concern on campus

Mixed house draws mixed feelings from University of Manitoba student groups

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hosted a townhall at University of Manitoba’s Max Bell Centre on Feb. 1. Photo by Quincy Houdayer.

Canada woke up to the same prime minister but a new parliament Tuesday, with Justin Trudeau holding his position as leader despite losing the popular vote to the Conservative party.

The Liberal Party of Canada, which has governed with a strong majority since 2015, was demoted to a minority in the House of Commons, where Conservatives were elected to 121 seats to the Liberals’ 157.

Other changes include an uptick in support for the Bloc Québécois, who won 32 seats, and a drop for the New Democrats, who lost 18 seats to finish with 24.

Several student groups on campus took on federal advocacy during the election. Among those were the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations-led Get Out the Vote campaign, which UMSU participated in, and the Students for Consent Culture’s (SFCC) #VoteWithSurvivors campaign.

Now that campaigning is over, students are looking ahead to the next four years.

In the midst of shakeup, UMSU president Jakob Sanderson sees opportunity.

“I think what’s encouraging for myself and for anyone in this student group and across the country is that we’re going to have an opportunity here coming up where the parties are going to have to work together,” he said.

“We want them to work together around progressive issues that are going to improve the quality and accessibility of education for students across the country.”

Sanderson said he sees the split as an opportunity to get “a lot of listening ears” and that the union is “excited to get in and talk with all parties.”

While, according to the UMSU president, the union saw “a lot of student interest in voting” and “a lot of student interest in getting to learn more about the issues,” there were some challenges with engagement that will be more closely examined in the coming weeks.

“We have to find creative ways, especially on a commuter campus like the University of Manitoba, to reach out to students,” he said.

While voter turnout in 2015 jumped to 68.3 per cent of registered voters — the highest it had been in decades — voter turnout dipped to 65.95 per cent this year, not including voters who registered Monday. Data on youth voter turnout in 2019 compared to 2015, which also saw a considerable leap compared to 2011, was not available as of press time.

“I think sometimes not every student is going to want to walk by a table in the middle of [UMSU University Centre], and not all of them follow us on social media,” Sanderson said.

“So how do we reach out to students in more creative ways […] There’s always ways for improvement, I don’t have all of the answers in terms of how we’re going to be able to do that, but I think we can look at what are the types of students we’re not reaching well enough, and how do we try to go where they’re going.”

Sanderson said the next four years of heightened bargaining will be a chance for student issues to make their way to the forefront of the conversation, and said the onus will be on student leaders to hold Parliament accountable when those issues arise.

“I think that this presents an opportunity for our Parliament to, frankly, look more like the country,” he said.

“This is a country that has a wide array of views, and I think the U of M campus is a microcosm of that.”

Other students involved with federal advocacy work on campus were less hopeful.

SFCC advocacy co-ordinator Karan Saxena, who worked within the #VoteWithSurvivors project, said the future seems unclear.

“It was worrisome that not a lot of issues relating to survivors was brought in the forefront,” he said.

SFCC is a non-profit organization dedicated to anti-sexual violence initiatives. The #VoteWithSurvivors campaign included four recommendations to federal leaders, including committing to the calls to justice released by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), implementing independent oversight services for students seeking accountability in cases of campus sexual violence, mandatory sensitivity training for federally-appointed judges and providing additional abortion services, supporting sexual health education and investigating forced sterilization of Indigenous women.

Saxena noted that there was not as much discussion on these issues during the campaign as SFCC had hoped for.

“Even with Indigenous issues, we saw some party leaders barely scratching the surface by talking about these issues in a very surface-level sort of way,” he said.

“They didn’t really dive too deep into how they were going to rectify a lot of the harms that are being created by neo-colonial policies […] so it’s really hard to tell where we’re going to be, what we’re going to be seeing.”

Saxena noted a particular disappointment for SFCC was what he called a “lack of real commitment from a lot of politicians” on Indigenous issues.

“We were still disappointed with the amount of regard shown toward Indigenous issues, especially with missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, after we have read the report, we know what the calls to justice are,” he said.

Another concern was the possibility of additional restrictions being placed on reproductive rights in Canada.

In an Oct. 2 debate, the Liberal, Bloc Québécois and NDP leaders argued Conservative leader Andrew Scheer would not support women’s rights should he become prime minister. Scheer maintained that while he remains personally opposed to abortion, he would not vote in favour of reopening the debate.

“There’s a lot of grassroots activists trying to bring these issues to the forefront so we don’t have to reopen the abortion debate again and all of that, and there was not a lot of commitment put toward not reopening this issue,” Saxena said.

Both campaigns had found similar ground in several areas — Saxena said the #VoteWithSurvivors campaign gathered a lot of interest from students “and a lot of student activists throughout post-secondary institutions.”

Accountability from the new House of Commons is another mutual goal for both groups post-election season.

“I think a lot of what is going to come next is going to be based on our demands,” he said.

“I think, going forward, we’re going to be looking at what politicians are allies and what politicians need to be held accountable for the things that they have proposed to combat sexual violence, and even colonialism.”