Last month, international student Nickol Saenz was elected as the next vice-president of student affairs for the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union. In her first University Students’ Council meeting as an incoming executive on April 1, she made public a complaint against the USSU general manager.
The full complaint is almost 50 pages long and includes communications going from December 2019 to March 2021 between Saenz and the USSU general manager Caroline Cottrell, and the current executive. In the document, Saenz alleges that she has been discriminated against by Cottrell on the basis of her invisible disability and immigration status during the time of her campaign.
Saenz cites an email from Cottrell, sent before Saenz’s election as VP of student affairs, in which the GM asks Saenz to carefully consider the demands of the executive position given her status as an international student registered with Access and Equity Services.
“If you are unable to take a full course load now can you let me know how you think you can manage a more than 40 hour a week job in addition to those classes,” Cottrell’s email reads. “I caution all international students who are attempting this while on AES.”
While international students typically cannot hold USSU executive positions due to a bylaw that requires executive members to take a reduced course load, Saenz’s registration with AES allows her to remain a full-time student while taking a reduced course load. She had disclosed her disability to the GM previously in communications regarding her health coverage through the students’ union, which are also included in the complaint.
The email ends with Cottrell mentioning keeping a record of her and Saenz’s communications.
“The job is intense and extremely detail oriented with multiple and competing deadlines and demands,” the email reads. “I am putting this on the record. I know you have had enormous struggles in the past. This email will go on your file for future reference if things go awry.”
Saenz, who declined to be interviewed for this article, writes in the complaint document that it was this email in particular that prompted her to take action.
“At this point I had decided that this has gone too far, and I decided not to reply and file this complaint,” she wrote.
In a statement to the Sheaf, Cotrell says that checking in with prospective executive members is a regular responsibility for her as someone that manages the students’ union election orientation.
“There was nothing unusual or different in my actions this year over other years and if offence was taken, none was intended,” Cottrell said.
Cotrell says that this check in is “for the sake of the individual specifically and the USSU generally.”
“The purpose is to ensure they have a good understanding of the role for which they are running, particularly given how challenging the work can be, and especially when combined with the demands of study,” Cottrell said. “This is due diligence on my part to ensure, as much as is possible, that candidates really know what the demands of the job look like.”
At time of print, the USSU has made no public statement on Saenz’s complaint and USSU President Autumn LaRose-Smith declined to comment for this article.
Saenz first contacted LaRose-Smith in March with her comments. The USSU executive’s response is also attached in her complaint document.
“On March 29th, 2021 the executive addressed this complaint with Caroline Cottrell, the general manager after consultation with the Human Resources team to ensure this complaint was dealt with properly,” reads a letter signed by LaRose-Smith, Kiefer Roberts, Jamie Bell and Jory McKay.
The executive also notes in their letter that Cottrell has given notice of her retirement, effective April 30.
Though Cottrell is leaving the students’ union soon, the International Students’ Association is still hoping for action by the USSU in response to the concerns Saenz raised. The InSA posted excerpts from Saenz’s complaint on their social media, calling for the USSU to take action and for students to reach out if they have similar complaints about the students’ union.
InSA’s main demands are a public apology letter and an updated policy for the students’ union to refer to when dealing with concerns on discrimination in the future.
“It’s a public mistake and it needs to be addressed publicly,” says Abhineet Goswami, InSA president and incoming USSU vice-president of operations and finance.
After InSA’s post, Tanzy Janvier, an Indigenous student and current councillor of the University Students’ Council, has spoken out on social media “standing up in solidarity and support alongside InSA in their efforts to eliminate discriminatory practices at the USSU.”
Janvier says that their experience with discrimination within the students’ union is behind their decision not to run for re-election as a USC councillor.
“I have also experienced and witnessed discrimination, ableism and racism during my time on the USSU. My experience on USSU has left me feeling disillusioned and distrustful about the union’s claims for student advocacy,” Janvier’s post reads.
“I am calling upon my fellow student peers, student organizations and Members of USSU Council to stand up in solidarity with InSA. Injustice for some is injustice for all.”