This article was written by Liam Devitt, Oseremen Irete, and Sorcha DeHeer
We don’t know about you, but we here at The Meliorist thought this past school year was the worst. Online school left us feeling isolated. Tuition hikes left our wallets empty. COVID left us with perpetual dread that we really wish (oh, we so wish!) would go away. But come Fall semester, things could be a whole lot different.
The Trudeau government has promised that the general population will be able to be vaccinated by September. The U of L has announced that they are planning a “significant return” to campus in the Fall. Things could be a whole lot different come September, and U of L students will be looking for a Students Union that can help them get through it all.
Enter the Power Panel. The Power Panel is Sorcha Deheer, Editor-in-Chief, Liam Devitt, News Editor, and Oseremen Irete, Arts Editor. We had to come up with a different name for ourselves for this piece because our lovely Science Editor, Edward Hsiang, is too busy doing science things (pipetting?) to grill SU candidates. We also wanted to sound cool and self-important.
We’ve profiled each of the candidates for ULSU Executive Council positions. Sorry General Assembly candidates, but there are so many of you and only three of us! Our goal in these profiles is to demystify student government and make super clear what each of these candidates stand for so you can make your decision when you enter the voting booth. Or, well, open the link in your email. The voting period begins March 2 and ends March 5. Make sure to vote!
We asked each candidate some basic questions about why they were running and their platform, then we grilled them on the issues specific to their position. We asked the VP External candidates about advocacy and government relations, the VP Student Affairs candidates about clubs and sexual violence policies, and so on. The lists of questions were collaboratively drafted by the Power Panel.
We also asked each candidate some questions about trust and accountability. Often, student politicians are criticized for doing the position for the line on their CV and to cozy up to university administrators and government officials, rather than doing it to fight for students. In that spirit, we asked each candidate if they would commit to not seeking letters of reference from university administrators. The answers may surprise you!
Holly Kletke really likes student government. She’s served one year as First Years’ Representative and two years as Fine Arts Representative with the ULSU. She even served a term as a university Senator. Now she’s shooting for the top by putting her name forward for President.
“I’m running for President because I see the value in our organization. I see the potential that we have to make a difference and work towards a positive student experience at this University,” said Kletke.
Beyond that, Kletke had trouble elaborating on her platform points and taking strong stances on issues.
When asked about the proposed partial return to campus in the Fall and what she would be looking for in that reopening plan, Kletke only said that she wants student concerns to be heard and trusts the University will make a safe plan. We asked her what she would be looking for in the reopening plan in terms of policy, and she called that a “pointed question.” She did not provide any specific policy recommendations on this point.
Kletke wants to take a soft approach to her relationship with the University administration, using words like “collaboration,” rather than more confrontational language. She called university restructuring in the face of provincial cuts “unfortunate.”
“It’s an unfortunate issue, but I don’t think it’s an issue that we couldn’t encourage University administration to take in more student input,” Kletke said.
Similarly, she described the way she would approach provincial government as “professional” but “relentless” in bringing a student voice to government. She pointed to the Council of Alberta University Students’ (CAUS) campaigns against the Kenney government’s cuts to post-secondary education as an example of this.
But when asked what specific strategies she would use to push back against the Kenney government’s austerity agenda, she repeated that she just wants student concerns to be heard, and did not point to any specific advocacy or activism strategies she would employ as President.
When asked, Kletke expressed support for the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA) in their fight for a fair contract in the current round of bargaining. She said she would also support them if they strike, but feels personally that striking is not the best strategy.
Kletke was firm that she is running to work for students, and not for personal gain. However, when asked if she would seek reference letters from university administrators, she called the question “unfair,” and repeatedly refused to give a straight answer to the question. “I think that leadership positions on campus are very important, and crucial, not only to my own personal and professional development as a professional and as a student. I also think that with leadership opportunities—there’s no shame in finding out what happens,” she said.
Blaine Badiuk thinks “we need to do better.” A former President of Student Association of Grande Prairie Regional College (SAGPRC), Badiuk is throwing her hat in the ring for the same position at the ULSU. She believes her experience makes her the right person for the job.
She is firm about not publicly taking an adversarial stance when it comes to working with university administration. She will continue to work the way she says she found success at SAGPRC, which is by collaborating with the university to work in the best interest of students and calling them out behind closed doors when they are wrong.
“It’s about students. Without students the university doesn’t exist and we don’t exist. It’s the one thing we both want.” Instead she wants to take the university to task using the words it loves to plaster on billboards and bus stops. “They want to be a destination university, we can help with that,” she said.
As for dealing with the government, Badiuk said the relationship has to be “one of both collaboration and fighting back.” The education major is not a fan of the current provincial government due to their consistent cost cutting approach to the sector, but says she will maintain a “non-partisan” position and fight to ensure “the best outcome for students” if the UCP’s austerity policies are to go through.
Some of Badiuk’s own platform points may appear unpopular to students but her platform is focused on “setting realistic advocacy goals.” She insists on not fighting the university on tuition increases which she believes are necessary in the current fiscal climate. She will lobby for graduation grants, and increased loan eligibility and funding to allow students access post-secondary education. She also wants to review SU fees, and is interested in moving towards a credit based fee system and small user pay for facilities like the fitness center for those who use them the most to keep costs down for those who do not.
She also wants to bolster the Health and Dental Plan. She promises to undertake a “comprehensive review” of the plan, as she says in her profile on the ULSU website. In the profile, she calls the lack of coverage for private counselling in the plan “radical.”
In her opinion, a return to in-person learning in the Fall is a hasty decision on the part of the University.
“Based on the evidence we have, it is very unlikely that the majority of students will be vaccinated by September unless the wildest dreams of our federal government come true,” she said, maintaining that if elected she will not return to campus unless she has been vaccinated.
For Badiuk, COVID-19 has also exposed the fact that the quality of instruction often does not measure up to what students are paying. She will push the university to lean on its highly rated Faculty of Education to provide professional development opportunities for instructors.
While she would not explicitly offer her support for any potential faculty or staff strikes, Badiuk says she is not against strikes but maintains that she wants to work for “the best interests of students” and her position will depend on that.
She believes anti-racism training should be widely available for students and staff and wants to hold the University to account on its Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) plan and ensure marginalized groups help create the policy.
While she admits the position does look good on a resume, Badiuk says she already has the experience from her time at the SAGPRC and is running because she believes she can “make a genuine difference.”
Badiuk would not commit to not seeking recommendation letters from university administrators but argues that it does not mean someone is doing it just for their resume but “demonstrates they did an effective job and are worthy of an endorsement.”
VP Student Affairs
If there’s one thing Amy Mendenhall wants as VP Student Affairs, it’s communication. Mendenhall is a self-described activist who most recently worked with the organizers of the Black Lives Matter protest in June. She wants to listen to students, marginalized communities, clubs, levy organizations and indeed everyone to hear what they have to say, and then do what they say.
“If someone has a problem or needs something, I’m there, and I get it done,” said Mendenhall. She pointed to her experience lobbying the Red Deer city council to implement an anti-bullying bylaw in 2006, “educating” people in online comments sections about LGBTQ issues, and raising money for natural disasters when she was in high school.
Mendenhall’s number one issue is bringing the campus community together in this time of crisis. She shared stories of speaking to students with inadequate internet access who have to drive for hours to get to campus to use the WiFi. She’s spoken to students who feel isolated and alone. Mendenhall, with events, online or in-person with COVID depending, wants to bring the community back together.
Clubs have been having a tough time during COVID, and Mendenhall wants to have a Zoom meeting with clubs first thing if she is elected to get the ball rolling on reinvigorating student life.
While she does not have student government experience at the U of L, she says was a student representative with the Red Deer College Students Association when she was a student there.
Mendenhall has “zero tolerance” for sexual violence. She is committed to making sure that University and SU policy is strong, including with regards to Greek Life, who has had consistent trouble with sexual violence. She is herself a Delta Eta Iota member. She made clear to The Meliorist that she is not running because she is a DHI member or to be a Greek Life voice on the Executive Council.
On campus reopening, Mendenhall was clear that she wants the reopening to be safe and well-executed. Further, she wants reopening to be contingent on vaccine availability.
Otherwise, her platform is light on specifics. It looks like Mendenhall is relying on the campus community to tell her what needs to be done, and then she’ll do it.
As for taking reference letters from university administrators, Mendenhall emphatically committed to not seeking letters: “I don’t need to boost my resume. I am here because I want to do good.”
Brent Nordhagen did not respond to our request for an interview.
His profile on the ULSU website says he was VP Internal and VP Social for the Students’ Association of Grande Prairie Regional College while he was a student there.
He outlines two campaign points in the profile, one on mental health and one on “Diverse Event Experience.”
His mental health platform consists of creating a group that would make students aware of the mental health services available to them on campus, and creating a technology-free room where students can de-stress and relax.
For events, Nordhagen wants to create a “Open Sex Educational Week,” where there would be various events hosted talking out sex and sex ed. He provides an example of a transgender speaker coming in to talk about gender transition. It is unclear if this is a different idea entirely than the already-existing and very similar Sexy Week put on by the ULSU the week of Valentine’s Day, or if Nordhagen is unaware of Sexy Week’s existence.
VP Operations and Finance
Mark Serebryansky wants nothing more than to give back to students. He wants to “see that all students are supported and leave the position better off.” To show his dedication to this, he has committed to not seeking letters of reference from University administration.
Serebryansky has previously worked with the SU as Residence Representative and sees the value in the work that can be done. He has previously worked as a residence representative and Serebryansky has years of volunteer experience, including working with 5 days for the homeless and Windy City Canine Rescue. He notes that fundraising is an important part of the position as VP Operations and Finance and believes his volunteer experience is a great asset to the job.
Serebryansky believes that the SU has previously lacked hands-on strategic planning and hopes to remedy this should he be elected. His vision for the SU involves spearheading several long-term projects, including weaning the SU off of levy fees as the main source of funding.
By optimizing the revenue generating spaces in the SU Food Court, Serebryansky believes that less strain will be put on students to fund the SU. This project doubles as a reactive measure should the current provincial government make levy fees optional, as the governing UCP campaigned on. Serebryansky notes, however, that the businesses that take up shop in the food court should be there to support students, rather than just make money. He would like to see them offer grants and otherwise create a “supportive student environment.”
Additionally, Serebryansky proposes that a percentage of each transaction made at all businesses in the SU Food Court could go to help fund the SU Food Bank. As for The Zoo, Serebryansky feels that a full review needs to be done, with the help of consultants, in order to maximize its profit. With the pandemic, the SU has been operating study spaces in the ballrooms. Serebryansky wants to continue doing this, in the hopes that those students will spend money at The Zoo.
Possible projects could include re-evaluating the Emergency Grant application process to ensure that it is only as invasive as it needs to be and looking into additional financial support.
As for short term goals, Serebryansky would like to re-assess the Health and Dental Plan to ensure that there is a balance between affordability for students and affordability for the SU. He did not elaborate on whether or not this could increase costs to students. Lastly, Serebryansky wants to look into developing Galileo’s Lounge to better accommodate studying.
In response to the possibility of the provincial government instituting an opt-in levy fee model, Serebryansky fears that not much could be done except setting up reactive measures. Nonetheless, he committed to pushing back as hard as possible in this situation and fighting for student’s interests. Personally, he has never opted out of a levy fee.
When asked about the potential return to campus in Fall 2021, Serebryansky believes that it is possible given that safety measures are followed and no major developments in the virus are seen in the meantime. He believes that being able to connect with other students has helped those in residence weather the pandemic and wants to see those benefits reach the wider University community.
Joshua Hirsch is running for VP Operations and Finance because he loves student leadership and advocacy. This passion was born out of his previous work with the Students’ Association of Medicine Hat College. There he served as Treasurer and sat on the Board of Governors.
Hirsch’s primary focus is on Covid related issues, specifically financial difficulties and a lack of university provided services and support.
He pointed to the lack of services that students are able to receive from the university, while continuing to pay the same amount in tuition and fees. Hirsch did not elaborate on how these services would be made more accessible. He does, however, want to spearhead a financial literacy program. The program would be geared towards managing Covid related financial worries, such as loss of income and finding alternative sources of income.
Hirsch wants to bring in external professionals to facilitate these workshops. He believes that this is the best way to support students struggling with finances, stating that providing direct financial aid wouldn’t be possible.
When asked if these programs would be inclusive, Hirsch strongly stated that all of his initiatives would be inclusive and free from discrimination. He also noted that he would ensure all SU initiatives were held to strict standards of inclusion and diversity. Hirsch did not elaborate on how programs would be evaluated to meet these standards.
Hirsch wants to cut back on the fees that students pay to the SU if possible and ensure that those dollars are going towards things that students can capitalize on.
He said his years working in restaurant management would prove useful when dealing with The Zoo. Hirsch does not have any specific plan moving forward for the campus pub, but would like to see more events hosted to foster a greater sense of community. Relating back to his Covid specific platform, Hirsch wants to build as many in-person connections as possible.
As for the possible return to in-person classes, Hirsch believes that it may be possible as long as it can be done safely, and it does not present a burden to students. He noted that in-person classes could be stressful if students feel that they cannot be on campus safely.
When asked what his plan would be if the provincial government instituted an opt-in levy fee model, Hirsch was adamant that he would be on the front lines lobbying to make sure students are protected. He has never opted out of a levy fee.
Hirsch told The Meliorist that he is running because he wants to bring the student voice to the administration, not for a line on his resume. Despite this, he would not commit to not seeking references from University administration. He notes that he was not planning on seeking references but that this could change in the future.
In response to accusations that the student emergency grant application is too invasive, Hirsch says that there is a balance between protecting the grant and protecting the student’s privacy. He concedes that if students are deeply concerned about the invasive nature of the application, it could be re-assessed to ensure the balance is being maintained as much as possible.
Ryan Lindblad is the incumbent VP External, and he is running again. He’s hoping that his record of advocacy will win over students. But, unlike last time, Lindblad is not running unopposed, with newcomer Ezekiel Kiyeny throwing his hat into the ring. So, Lindblad might not only have to run on his record, but propose new ideas as well.
Lindblad said that there is a lot of work ongoing in his position that he would like to continue. “Even though there are many long and sleepless nights because of the stress, it’s still work I’m happy to do… because you see positives come out of it in a way,” he said.
Lindblad started this position in the midst of the pandemic. He thinks that students should look at his record of advocacy and see that he was able to keep the advocacy efforts of the SU still going strong, even during the pandemic. He mentioned meeting with government ministers and participating in CAUS’ snow penguin protests and lawn sign campaign as examples of this.
“I think students should trust me because I’ve shown I can adapt, that my passion comes through, and that whether or not it’s initially predicted how I would have conducted my efforts [in the pandemic], I’ve not let up on the issues that I think students need help on.”
Other accomplishments Lindblad pointed to were the hiring of an Indigenous counsellor in Counselling Services in the face of major layoffs, the creation of an SU Indigenous Relations Committee. Outside the university itself, Lindblad spoke about his work with CAUS, working on issues such as the creations of “superboards,” which Lindblad claims the Minister of Advanced Education is “walking back.”
Lindblad was very clear in what his advocacy priorities are if he wins re-election. He wants the provincial government to tie tuition to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for predictable increases in tuition, for both institutions and students. He’s demanding that the provincial government invest $30 million in mental health services across Alberta and invest $5 million into services related to campus sexual violence.
How does Lindblad think he will get this done? He said that he will rely on the partnerships the ULSU has with other student unions in the province and country through CAUS and CASA.
Lindblad was open that everything did not go his way during his term. He noted that he had trouble delegating work to GA members initially, and wishes he was stronger on this point sooner. He noted that not all of the projects that he wished to undertake were able to be completed.
On campus reopening, Lindblad stated that he would not support a return to campus that put students at risk. If re-elected, he says that he will work to make sure that the reopening of campus is safe and the plan is informed by advice from public health experts. He noted adequate cleaning and physical distancing as key points that he will be looking for from the University in their plan.
When asked about reference letters from University administrators, Lindblad felt like he could not give a definitive answer to the question. While he said that he was working for students—claiming that him running for this position again should be proof enough that he is not doing it for the resume—he said he has “no immediate plans” to seek letters from administrators, but would not directly commit to not doing so.
When asked if his refusal to commit might imply a conflict of interest, Lindblad responded: “I say this fully knowing that it might be perceived that way, but I’m just trying to be honest and I think, you know, at the end of the day, that’s very true. But also, we’re students who have no idea where the next couple of years are going to take us.”
Ezekiel Kiyeny wants to shake up the status quo and “bring in a new way of handling issues” to the ULSU if elected VP External. Running against incumbent Ryan Lindblad, Kiyeny believes it is time to “bring new changes, new blood [and show] that there are other things that are possible.”
Kiyeny notes that student governance is not about one person being in the position for as many years as possible. “I’m not attacking anybody but we need change,” he says.
For Kiyeny the primary issue is government cuts to post-secondary education. If elected, he wants to take a more aggressive approach towards lobbying the government for increased funding informed by his experience as Class Representative and Secretary General in the student union at Kisii University in his hometown of Eldoret, Kenya.
“This is the time for students to actually take a position [and] to demand for their rightful funding.”
Kiyeny’s nose for numbers is evident, after all this is someone who already has a Bachelor of Commerce and an MBA. He is aware of the hits the budget has taken – often down to very specific dollar amounts – and where exactly the university has sacrificed not only at the expense of student supports like mental health, but also staff.
Kiyeny is conscious of how trying to fill the funding gaps created by government cuts could affect the University. Kiyeny is wary of corporate funding that could come with strings attached. He also is wary of the use of international student fees as a financial buffer, especially with COVID-19 border closures limiting international travel.
“Some universities are relying on international students […] they pay higher fees and that is running the university. Universities in Australia are closing because they don’t receive international students.”
He wants to “pressure MLA’s” and partner with other universities through CAUS to negotiate with the provincial government as a group. However, it is unclear what specific plans he has to get a UCP government that cuts more than a TikTok transition video to change their stance on post-secondary funding.
While funding and tuition are very important issues that affect all aspects of the university, his platform beyond that is limited at best. When asked about how he would build student power he said by reaching out to campus clubs and organizations and using sports to bring the student body together, but once again lacked a detailed plan as to how.
Kiyeny positions himself as a man of the people and wants the focus to be on the student voice and not his.“I’m going to represent what [students] actually give me to take to the government. It will not be my own words but I will actually be taking the message from the students.”
He committed to not receiving recommendation letters from university administrators and wants to develop a relationship with the university based on solving problems facing students.
He is adamant he is not just doing this for his resume and believes he will gain the trust of students through his advocacy.
When it comes to a return to in-person learning Kiyeny thinks “the safety of the students should be the priority,” and supports efforts to get students back on campus if safety is first and vaccinations are widely available and accessible.
Becca Parkkari is running for the position of VP Academic on a platform that is heavily focused on student mental health and increasing undergraduate access to research opportunities.
She is “passionate about factors that contribute to student success,” the most important of which she believes is mental health and If elected VP Academic, which will likely happen since she is running unopposed, she wants to give students “an opportunity to manage their stress” especially considering the negative effects of the pandemic on mental health.
Parkkari says she has been advocating for her own academic needs since she was in elementary school and believes this has prepared her to advocate for student mental health. Beyond her personal experience, she has also worked for the past four years at the Center for Suicide Prevention, a branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association and believes the resources and connetions gained from that experience will help her pursue her mandate.
She would like to partner with organizations in the community such as Lethbridge Family Services who offer a variety of mental health related programming and wants to lobby the government to increase student mental health funding.
Pakkari says University mental health services have not been accessible to students during the pandemic and wants to encourage more group sessions and improve online access by bolstering programs like Therapy Assistance Online.
How exactly can the service be improved? She is unsure but would like to meet with those behind the program to figure out how it can be improved.
Outside of university and community services, Parkkari says her priority is for students to know how to access services available through the ULSU. She wants students to feel like they “are actually effective for their academic and mental health needs.”
However, when pressed about how exactly ULSU’s services could be improved to support student mental health she did not give a specific answer but would like to hear from students about what they need.
She does want to work to extend the ULSU’s Health and Dental plan so it is “able to reach more students and implement a health plan that is beneficial to trans students and any students with health needs that are not currently covered.”
When it comes to a return to campus, Parkkari says the plans in place for a return in the fall “are good and as long as things continue to improve with the numbers and vaccine rollout we’re in a place to come back.”
“I think it’s great we have a plan on how to return. I’m not sure if implementing that plan would be the best thing for student health. Opening and bringing back students is important because those are experiences that cant have online, health of the students is more important. If we’re opening early we are putting these students at risk.”
Parkkari wants to streamline the process of accessing research opportunities by creating a sort of job board for students with available opportunities. As Arts and Science faculty representative, Parkkari says her connections with the faculty will be essential in creating an environment that makes research opportunities accessible to students.
Parkkari is running for this position unopposed.
The Power Panel’s takeaways: cut down on the buzzwords and give us policy
We are not endorsing any specific candidates. However, we will provide a brief analysis of the races. We hope that this analysis will aid you in making a decision.
On the whole, we, the Power Panel, had one issue with the majority of the candidates: too many buzzwords and not enough specifics. Many of the candidates had trouble elaborating on vague platform points and giving us clear, well-defined stances on issues. Just because this is student government, does not mean that we cannot have candidates that know the issues and know what they will specifically do on each point. Being committed to ‘advocacy’ means little if you cannot say who and what you are advocating for or against.
Further, many candidates seemed like they were only willing to ask students what they needed after they had won election. You can do that before you win, and indeed before you start campaigning. Start a focus group, reach out to some students. It does not just have to start once you’re elected. Student politicians should show students that they know what they are going to do when they are running for office. A vague commitment to consultation does not cut it.
This student election has been characterized by low engagement from students. At its peak, the viewership of the SU Debate on February 25 was a measly 25. Of course the pandemic and online learning have not exactly set the stage well for high student engagement with the election, but if candidates stopped hiding behind buzzwords and campaigned on policy initiatives, then maybe students might be more engaged.
We were disappointed in some candidates’ lack of knowledge of key issues like discrimination, the experiences of marginalized students and the Sexual Violence Policy. These are big issues that affect many U of L students, and we wished more candidates were able to show fluency in these issues.
A common refrain we heard among candidates was, paraphrased: “we need to make students aware of the value of the SU.” While awareness is one thing, proving that the SU has value is another. Students will not suddenly change their minds about the SU if a student politician just keeps reminding them that the SU is important. Students will change their minds if a student politician proves to them that the SU is important. And that proof comes in the form of action; concrete, tangible policy that makes a difference for students. Not buzzwords.
Regardless of who wins these races, (and we are happy that most are races, not acclamations), students must hold them to account on the things they promised. As the future seems ever-more uncertain, the U of L deserves an SU that they can trust and will make good on their promises. Here’s to hoping that that will be the case.
UPDATE: Mark Serebryansky sent us a higher-resolution photo of himself than the one used in this article before. We have updated the article with that photo.