What we do and don’t know: The aftermath of the USSU elections

By in Features/News

On March 21 and 22, the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union elected four students to the executive by acclamation. Although only four students ran for the four available positions and the results were easy to predict, the election was not an easy affair due to extraordinary circumstances.

During the final hours of the election, outgoing USSU President David D’Eon issued a statement from his personal Facebook account. In the post, he said that his friends and colleagues had come forward earlier in the day with allegations of sexual assault against the incoming presidential candidate. He also asked that the incoming president step down in light of these allegations. Some of the student body rallied behind D’Eon, echoing his call for Coden Nikbakht to step down.

A total of 2,210 students voted in the executive elections, approximately 12.8 per cent of the undergraduate student body. Coden Nikbakht won the presidency with 46 per cent of the vote, while 37.6 per cent voted no and 16.5 per cent abstained.

The vice-presidential candidates won with more robust votes of confidence. Brent Kobes secured 62.8 per cent of the vote for the position of vice-president operations and finance, and Sheldon Moellenbeck received 63.3 per cent for vice-president academic affairs. Rose Wu received the most support, with 66.6 per cent for vice-president student affairs.

On March 22, students brought signs to the election-results announcement, prompting Nikbakht to withdraw. [Photo: J.C. Balicanta Narag]

On March 22, after the election closed, students attended the election-results announcement in the North Concourse of Place Riel with signs and waited until the chief returning officer announced the elected members of student council, the members of university senate, and finally, the executive team. The atmosphere was tense, and two Protective Services officers were on hand. The outgoing executive team was noticeably upset, and the remaining attendees seemed hesitant to praise the victors.

Typically, candidates attend the event to hear the announcements in person, and Nikbakht was the only absent candidate. Student demonstrators expressed displeasure with his victory and his absence and eventually began to chant “by-election.”

Kobes, Moellenbeck and Wu were reached for an interview, but they stated that they will not take over their roles as USSU executive members until May 1 and declined to comment. Nikbakht could not be reached for comment. However, he did issue a statement to media on March 23, explaining that he is deciding his next course of action and  that he will release another statement at a later time.

Brent Kobes, incoming vice-president operations and finance, has an emotional hug with another student after the election results were announced. [Photo: J.C. Balicanta Narag]

In advance of a possible interview, a list of questions was sent to the newly elected team, consisting of inquiries about whether they believe the controversy surrounding the election would impede their work in office and what they think students can expect from them. Even though the incoming executive members are currently unable to comment, students have not been silent about their displeasure regarding the election results.

Following the election announcement, students were invited to decompress in the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre. There, students discussed ways to move forward, including protests and removal from office, and later established the USask Campus Community Coalition Against Sexual Violence.

On March 23, students organized a protest in the North Concourse of Place Riel and called on Nikbakht to step down from office. Deena Kapacila, outgoing vice-president operations and finance; Crystal Lau, outgoing vice-president student affairs; Jessica Quan, outgoing vice-president academic affairs; and Leigh Thomas, a third-year regional and urban planning student, led the group. The protest received a high number of attendees, and multiple news outlets reported on the event.

[Photo: Heywood Yu}

That same day, USSU staff temporarily closed the Pride Centre, the Help Centre and the Women’s Centre, in accordance with legal advice from the union’s lawyers. In a Facebook post, Kapacila stated that the closures were not a decision made by the sitting executives and that they were not consulted. When asked why the sitting executive team was not involved in the centre closures, D’Eon explained that the executive members and staff members have different roles in the union.

“The executive oversees the policy, governance and overall direction of the union; the operations are handled by our staff,” D’Eon said, in an email to the Sheaf.

Maria Lammerding, a first-year international studies student, took issue with the closures of the centres and shared her concern with her mother, who called the union but received no information. Lammerding then called again and spoke to Caroline Cottrell, the general manager of the union.

[Photo: J.C. Balicanta Narag]

“I asked why the centres had been closed, and then she gave me the same spiel [as my mother]. She says, ‘Due to the legal advice we received,’ and I said ‘Well, what kind of legal advice would that be?’ She said, ‘I’m not willing to comment any further on this. I’ll tell you what I told everyone else today who called.’ And, I said, ‘Okay, I get that, … but the student centres are supposed to be open for us. It doesn’t seem appropriate for them to be closed right now,’” Lammerding said.

Lammerding stated that, when she continued to ask for answers, Cottrell hung up the phone. She noted that she has since filed a complaint about the staff member, as she was dissatisfied with the result of the conversation. D’Eon was asked to verify whether he received Lammerding’s complaint, but he did not respond.

D’Eon was contacted in his capacity as the chief spokesperson of the USSU and asked whether the union plans to release a formal statement regarding the election results, the closure of the centres or the allegations against Nikbakht. He responded that the union does not have a formal statement to release at this time and that there are formal procedures that must take place. He did not elaborate on these procedures.

D’Eon also did not respond when asked what the working relations have been like between the sitting executive and the union staff since he issued his statement on March 22. The sitting executive will remain in office until April 30, barring any disciplinary action. When asked whether the sitting executive will face any repercussions for interfering in the elections, D’Eon responded, “We are subject to the executive protocol policy and the elections portion of the bylaws.”

Kapacila and Quan were both disqualified from the election for the position of member of students’ council for St. Thomas More College and student member on the University Senate, respectively. Although no reason was provided, the USSU Election Policy stipulates that no candidate can defame or question the character of any other candidate.

The coalition against sexual violence is currently advocating for a special resolution of non-confidence of the president­-elect, which must have the support of 7.5 per cent of the undergraduate student body, or approximately 1,297 signatures, to be presented at a University Students’ Council meeting in order for a vote of non-confidence to be called. At the time of publishing, the online “Petition against Coden Nikbakht for USSU president” had received 247 signatures.

A separate group of students has also created a petition, titled “USSU President David D’Eon step aside and respect our democratic rights.” At the time of publication, the online petition had received 38 signatures.

“My Union has shown to be incredibly unprofessional and power hungry, going to the point of trying to ruin a man’s reputation,” the petition reads. “If Coden happens to be guilty of said crimes, we’d like the case to be handled by the proper authorities, not the court of public opinion.”

Nykole King / News Editor