Durham’s failed election

After weeks of silence, former Durham College student association executives are speaking out about the cancellation of DC’s election.

Threats of violence. Allegations of corruption. Disagreements between executives and staff. These are just some of the reasons college leaders pulled the plug on the March vote, leaving the SA in the hands of a court-appointed receiver, Bill Aziz. Ontario’s Superior Court appointed him to oversee the creation of separate student associations for each school.

As of now, despite students paying a base annual fee of $96.31 to the SA, the college’s student body is not being represented. While UOIT’s election went ahead, Durham’s was cancelled halfway through the campaign.

The president steps down

The college’s election failed because threats and intimidation ran rampant this year, according to a sworn declaration of facts by DC’s vice-president of Student Affairs, Meri Kim Oliver. It all began when the SA’s former president, Vianney Nengue, resigned because of the stress of the job.

“It compounds…then distrust comes in somewhere in the year and it just snowballs. When I say snowballs, it snowballs really, really fast. Tension builds over the year,” says Nengue.

“It compounds…then distrust comes in somewhere in the year and it just snowballs. When I say snowballs, it snowballs really, really fast. Tension builds over the year,” says Nengue.

They later learned from Robyn Walter, the former SA vice-president of Whitby-Pickering, that Nengue resigned well before the Feb. 7 Annual General Meeting.
According to Oliver’s statement, Nengue, a representative of Durham College, had not attended town hall meetings about the then-impending election. The February agreement mandated his attendance. DC officials later learned Nengue had resigned several weeks before the meetings began. No mention of his absence was made to DC leadership.Prior to his resignation, DC, UOIT and the SA reached an agreement in February that outlined a process for Durham College to have a separate SA. Rules were put in place to control the executive and staff’s behaviour.

Within days, DC lost three representatives. Walter, like all candidates running for re-election, was forced to take a leave of absence to run for office. She later withdrew from the race. Colton Porter, an appointed board member, and Michael Laing, the board chair, also took leaves to run for office.

Even though the SA was mandated to have seven board members and two executives from DC, only two people represented the college: Travis Fortnum, who had just been appointed as Media, Art and Design director, and Jankhan Patel, the part-time vice-president international.

The election gets underway

Eventually, despite this drama, the campaign began, but soon there were other problems going back to the previous year.

According to court documents and Walter, last summer, someone threatened to use a weapon against her. The threat came from a candidate for office.  This man’s name has been redacted from evidence, and it’s not clear what the weapon was.

According to Walter’s affidavit, the man, who became a candidate in this year’s election, had the support of the SA staff, Nengue, and interim president Israel Nieto, who was later appointed to replace Nengue. Despite a no trespass order by Campus Security, the candidate was allowed to run this year.

The candidate resumed his aggressive tactics, according to Walter. His target this time was Colton Porter, who was running for president. According to the court documents, Porter said he was cornered in a campus bathroom and told by a third party, “[the candidate] will destroy you.” Porter said he eventually dropped out over fears for his personal safety.

Sources later confirmed this man was Ali Syed.

Syed confirms he was the subject of the complaint, but denies involvement. “I can’t speak to the validity of the allegations, but it was definitely not directed by me as Mr. Porter had claimed,” he says.

Regarding the no trespass order, he says, “I needed permission from [Office of Campus Security] every time I’d like to visit Whitby and the Student Centre.” He says he was unable to visit Whitby during his campaign.

Regarding the no trespass order, he says, “I needed permission from [Office of Campus Security] every time I’d like to visit Whitby and the Student Centre.” He says he was unable to visit Whitby during his campaign.

Syed says he can’t comment on the situation involving Robyn Walter.

When the March 1 Student Association meeting rolled around, the representatives that took their leave tried to gain admission but were not permitted, according to Walter’s affidavit.

At this meeting, with almost no DC representation, Nieto assumed the presidency.

Oliver’s statement alleges SA staff members, not executives, organized this meeting. In part, her statement reads “…it has become apparent that the SA is being run by its senior staff members [general manager and interim general manager] as opposed to elected officials.”

SA staff members are unelected. They assist the SA in its management and operations. The February agreement said the independent student associations would be able to decide their staffing once formed. Oliver’s statement claims, “[current] staff members are inherently conflicted.”

According to Oliver’s document, “there have been negotiations by the most senior employees…with existing executives and board members to secure certain payouts.”

Troubles begin

Another contract member is the chief returning officer, an office currently held by Colin Ramdeen. When Oliver met Ramdeen, she said he had no knowledge of the February agreement. He did not seem to be aware of the terms of the February court order or the framework for the elections, she testified.

The statement accuses Ramdeen of making inappropriate decisions, and posting incorrect information on the SA website. It alleges he said clubs could not endorse candidates when they could. He also, allegedly, wanted candidates to give operational details on an SA that would not exist for months. Oliver’s affidavit reads, “These issues serve to undermine the process, by making it more difficult for Durham College students to participate.”

Oliver’s statement says the elections committee, which had no DC representation and was chaired by SA general manager Erica Britton, designed this requirement to “seek to determine which candidates support a structure that is…in keeping with a model that will support their future employment prospects.”

A new court order

The result of the affidavits signed by Oliver and Walter was a new court order. It was this court order that appointed Bill Aziz as receiver. He had previously been appointed as the chief operating officer for the SA at DC and UOIT.

Aziz now holds absolute authority over the SA restructuring. He controls the property, the holdings, the records, and the money. He has experience in this area. He has served in leadership positions at 13 corporations, and has restructured five others.

On March 14, the DC election was suspended, but a new one will be held in the fall of new school year. In the meantime, a newly-formed student committee will be responsible for working with Aziz to develop the parameters of the new Durham College SA.

No announcement has been made about the fate of former SA representatives or employees.

Durham College and SA officials were contacted for this article but declined to comment, on the basis that the matter is before the court.

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