UMSU quiet on Palestine because it bungles everything

Weak-willed leadership typical, but unions must state solidarity

UMSU has not been entirely silent on what professor of Holocaust and genocide studies Raz Segal has called “a textbook case of genocide” of Palestinians, but they also haven’t done anything more proactive than sharing suicide hotline numbers on Instagram “in light of recent international events.”

Generations of UMSU leaders have gutted the union as an entity for organizing around students’ rights, leaving it a glossy exoskeletal springboard for greenhorn careerists with gleaming smiles to launch to lofty, stodgy law schools.

In recent history, UMSU execs have repeatedly made humiliating decisions which run counter to the union’s self-proclaimed purpose — to advocate for students.

Who could forget UMSU’s initial audaciously milquetoast neutrality on the 2016 UMFA strike under then-president Tanjit Nagra, only to backpedal and support UMFA several weeks later? The decision came on the heels of students like myself emailing UMSU in outrage that the union needed to be convinced to observe its responsibilities.

The incident is second in my mind only to Adam Pawlak resigning from a now-defunct post as UMSU vice-president internal after being appointed a minister’s assistant in Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government in 2017.

Past the decisions they make during their appointments, the professional trajectories of former UMSU presidents lay bare the incompatibility between the union’s purpose and these people’s aims.

Nagra ran for the Liberals in the 2019 provincial election when the party was running on the mind-bogglingly boring promise to spend cannabis revenue on raising awareness about meth. Jeremiah Kopp waltzed from UMSU into commercial litigation, following in the footsteps of his predecessor Al Turnbull. Turnbull’s tenure was coloured by his joking on Instagram about intending to ogle his tutees’ breasts.

Although, Kopp has spiced things up now by joining reserve infantry in the Canadian Armed Forces. That Kopp is comfortable publicly associating with an organization which has been embroiled in scandal after nearly a dozen military leaders were investigated, removed or retired from their posts due to sexual assault allegations is contemptible.

These former presidents’ fickle careers should raise eyebrows. I would expect someone with a background in union leadership not to dabble in conservative politics or immerse themselves in capitalistic pursuits like commercial law, never mind an institution like the military, which is designed to kill people.

This might read like a petty tabulation of flawed individuals’ political evolutions. People can change their minds, after all, and most of us would probably go back on our principles for a cheque in this economy.

But we’ve got to question why so many UMSU execs scurry from the union to rub shoulders with right-wingers and corporatist sleazeballs. Unions and their leaders are supposed to resist capitalistic encroachments on our lives, not align with them.

UMSU covering its ears and humming loudly in the face of genocide is just business as usual for a union that has morphed itself into a CV stuffer. Even so, this spinelessness echoes the gauche ineptitude of execs past and throws into sharp relief UMSU’s failure to function as a union ought to.

Recently, a group of Winnipeg academics known as Palestine Teach-in Collective was censured by Liberal MP Ben Carr for not appearing “balanced.” Aside from the fact that panels are meant to present specialized, focused perspectives on a topic, the comment was highly inappropriate. Politicians’ partisanship should never, ever trespass into the realm of scholarly inquiry.

In spite of some U of M community members participating in the event, including Vanier Scholar and PhD student Fadi Ennab, UMSU ex-officio board member and UMGSA president Christopher Yendt said nothing in response to Carr’s overstep. Nor has UMSU commented on Arij Al Khafagi’s suspension from the college of nursing after she posted criticisms of Israel to her personal social media account.

UMSU hasn’t even chimed in on issues affecting other student unions. York University threatened to revoke its recognition of three student unions after they released a statement supporting Palestinians’ right to resist occupation. This statement echoes UN general assembly resolution 45/130 that Palestinians have the right to resist through armed struggle.

York’s admin is trying to set a precedent which, were it to become ingrained in Canadian universities, could threaten UMSU’s existence. Has the union even commented on this? Nope. Neither has UMGSA offered support for York’s graduate student association, one of the groups affected by the administration’s threats.

While there’s a rancid little truism circulating that people shouldn’t have to take sides on genocide, a union, which is specifically formed to do something for one side, the side of labourers and the marginalized — a union has to take a side.

Solidarity statements are more than just vacuous performative displays, they’re vital steps to building networks. Unions call on those networks for material support. UMFA’s war chest was supplemented by donations from other unions during the 2021 strike.

Through showing solidarity, we remind each other that a free and flourishing life for any one of us depends on universal liberation.

Stating our solidarity with oppressed people, and with the people who vocalize support for the oppressed, is vital brickwork. We need to start building something that can last, and we can’t do that if the people we entrust with decision-making power only use it to jump to become cogs in the machine.

UMSU should have commented on one of these local incidents rather than dancing around the word “Palestine” in a snivelling and fruitless effort to wait out a storm. Posting suicide hotline numbers to Instagram without even mustering up the courage to write “Palestine” in the caption smacks of self-preservation, like an attempt to avoid attaching the execs’ names to controversy in Google searches.

Evading clear commentary on how the plight of Palestinians is affecting students in Canada is a deplorable failure to observe the union’s obligations.

When I check back in with UMSU president Tracy Karuhogo and her team in five years to see if they’ve followed their predecessors into right-leaning politics or capitalist shilling, I’ll remember they kept quiet when their one job during a genocide was to say something.

Correction: The original version of this article omitted former UMSU president Tanjit Nagra’s administration changing its position from neutral to supporting UMFA during the 2016 strike. The article has been edited to remove this inaccuracy and now reflects Nagra’s administration’s changing stances.