Identity politics

On April 24, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) made a radical change to the way its members are represented. Gone are the directors representing faculties and colleges. Instead, a lone at-large director will accompany ten representatives for various identity groups that are not divided along faculty lines:

  • LGBTQ students,
  • racialized students,
  • indigenous students,
  • international students,
  • mature students,
  • students with disabilities,
  • commuters,
  • athletes,
  • women, and
  • first-year students.

To quote Robyn Urback’s scathing opinion piece on the matter, “This plan doesn’t include any council representation for the white, male, second-year student who lives on campus and doesn’t play sports — but he has his privilege, right?”

The UTSU board has brought in this overhaul in order to “better represent students”, but by defining which identity groups get special treatment, it has set up a starkly divided class system. Some groups get a special representative. Everyone else will have to clamour for the attention of that single at-large director.

Make no mistake: this is the worst kind of misguided tokenism. But at the same time, the tradition of faculty representation is not neutral; there are over- and under-represented interests embedded in the status quo, too. They’re just arranged differently.

Looking at the latest minutes available on UTSU’s website (which unfortunately are five months out of date), some topics of discussion in the board meeting include:

  • a rumoured new pricing strategy for tuition fees,
  • updating bylaws to meet federal legislation,
  • how to respond to private tutoring companies soliciting on campus, and
  • a proposed student residence.

Now, if you had to bring a group of people together to discuss these kinds of issues, would your ideal system be to split up their constituencies based on what subject they’re studying? Nonsense. These issues transcend faculty lines and have nothing to do with the differences between academic programs.

So what would a more reasonable constituency look like? Well, it depends on the issue. If you’re talking tuition fees, it might be a good idea to get proportional representation from each income bracket. Whether a student is rich or poor will surely impact their views on tuition more strongly than whether they study Political Science or Biology.

What I really want to talk about, though, is how this concept translates to the wider world of politics. In every level of government, elections are organized in geographic ridings. Naturally. Obviously. How else would we do it? You vote for a councillor, MPP, or MP to represent your neighbourhood, your city. It just makes sense.

Does it?

Are most policy issues geographic in nature? At the municipal level, they probably are. But at higher levels of government, constituency groups are more likely to be divided along lines of income, family structure, age, ability, and cultural values. A 75-year-old with arthritis living in Guelph is likely to have similar views on healthcare as would a 75-year-old with arthritis living in Sudbury. More so than the average Guelph resident, at least.

Ontario is in the opening stages of an election campaign right now. Imagine if, instead of deciding who should represent your neighbourhood or city, you had to decide who will represent your age bracket. I identify as an 18-25 year old much more than as a resident of Durham Region. I’d argue that the needs and interests of 18-25 year olds across Ontario are more cohesive than those of all residents in Durham Region.

Of course, I’m revealing a bit of personal bias here. I have never found much identity in geography. I was born in Ottawa, spent my childhood hopping between Whitby and Port Perry, went away to school in Kitchener-Waterloo, worked in Toronto and Hamilton for a spell, and now I live in Paris, France. I have family in the USA, UK, Sweden, Germany, Pakistan, Abu Dhabi, and Oman. My co-workers are six timezones to either side of me. I do not find my identity in geography.

Like the faculty division of student unions, geographic ridings seem like the natural default option for representing citizens. But the way these geographic boundaries are formed are steeped in social identity. For example, I agree that it makes sense to have different representatives for rural and urban areas — but not because of geography. There are cultural and social differences between city life and country life, and those differences are what’s really important.

Another reason to abandon geographic representation is just to call a spade a spade. Gerrymandering, the process of manipulating electoral boundaries, is a perennial problem in politics. But it’s really just a way to define constituencies by their social identities. Currently, it’s done in a sneaky piecemeal way to the advantage of incumbent parties. Why not remove the question of geography from electoral districts and let people vote based on their social or demographic identities rather than a geographic one?

Some would say I’m adopting a segregationist argument here, but nothing could be further than the truth. In the current system, politicians can say whatever they damn well please and claim to be acting on behalf of their constituents. But they’re really only acting for the continents that align with their values. And in Canada’s winner-takes-all electoral system, the majority of voters go without any representation until the next election.

We can do better. And as misguided as the UTSU’s restructuring plan is, they’ve done one commendable thing: they recognized that certain interests were being underrepresented, then turned the tables. Their list is incomplete and doesn’t account for the fluid, multifaceted nature of identity; the implementation was rushed; UTSU isn’t keen on taking criticism seriously. But this doesn’t mean that the status quo of faculties and colleges is the best way to represent students’ interests.

Sam Nabi Sam Nabi