Oh resigns from MASU, cites systemic racism

At the Students’ Administrative Council meeting on Jan. 16, Tina Oh resigned from her position as vice-president external affairs for the MASU.

Oh cited systemic racism, which she said she has faced during her three years working with the MASU, specifically regarding her work in environmental activism, as the reason for her resignation. Oh has participated in various forms of activism, from being arrested while protesting a pipeline in October to spending a month in Morocco as a youth delegate at the United Nations COP22 climate change conference in November.

“I am announcing my resignation because I cannot work for an organization that neither supports nor understands the necessity of my environmental justice and anti-racism work,” Oh said in her address to council. “I cannot work for an organization that feels embarrassed that one of their vice-presidents is doing that work vocally and without shame.”

In solidarity with Oh, MASU VP Financial Affairs Alex Lepianka also resigned, as did MASU’s coordinator for the Sackville Bike Co-op, Matt Fyfe.

“I resigned as an act of solidarity to emphasize the racialized grief and disproportionate targeting of Tina and her work as an advocate for environmental justice,” Lepianka said.

Oh’s resignation followed a complaint drafted by nine signatories, all MASU council members, expressing non-confidence in Oh’s capacity to fulfil her role on the MASU executive.

The Argosy obtained a copy of this complaint, dated Jan. 15. The complaint was sent to Oh by James Gorman, the MASU ombudsperson, who indicated to Oh in an email, obtained by the Argosy, that a motion “to consider impeachment” would be made at the Jan. 16 council meeting.

The complaint was later retracted when signatories indicated to Gorman that it had not been intended as an attempt at impeachment. Gorman, in a private email which the Argosy also obtained, apologized to Oh for misrepresenting the complaint.

In a Facebook message to the Argosy, Gorman wrote that a motion of non-confidence, which the signatories said they had originally intended to put forward, is not referenced in the MASU bylaws.

“The only formal motion that the ombudsperson can be required to make via petition is one of impeachment,” Gorman wrote. “This was the basis of my misunderstanding. Ultimately, it was my fault that I did not clarify this with the complainants before I acted on the inference I made.”

MASU president Ryan Lebreton, in an email to the Argosy, wrote that the ombudsperson handles all written complaints within the MASU. “Any member of council may choose to make a motion for a vote of non-confidence, which is not an actionable item, and it is in the purview of the complainant to request this. As a form of action, however, it is under the discretion of the ombudsperson to proceed how they see most appropriate.”

“There have been many informal complaints [made] about Tina’s professional performance in reference to satisfying her job requirements as outlined in the bylaws as early as September,” Lebreton wrote. “Formal complaints were filed at the end of last term, and the discussions about the motion [were] started as soon as students returned on campus for the Winter semester.”

Lepianka said Oh’s work on the MASU consistently included a strong justice component, referencing her contribution to the resistance against correspondence course tuition increases in November of 2015.

“She really stepped up to that role as a consequence of being such a vocal and shameless organizer,” Lepianka said. “Because of her vocalness in opposing some things that were going on in the university, I think that was a beginning point for her being targeted. From there, I think it progressed that more and more small things that Tina would do would be held to standards to which no other executive would be held.”

As VP external, one of Oh’s responsibilities was to represent the MASU with federal and provincial student advocacy groups, including the New Brunswick Student Alliance (NBSA) and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA). Oh was at the United Nations conference during the Advocacy Weeks for both these organizations, and as such, other MASU councillors attended in her place.

The complaint claimed Oh was not adequately fulfilling the responsibilities of her position. The complaint states: “the Mount Allison Students’ Union works incredibly hard to maintain an image that students believe is worth their investment. Having this information and not acting on it is a disfavour to the membership we serve. This is an opportunity to set a precedent for a higher quality executive and therefore union.

“We need to define the standards that this type of performance in a MASU Executive role is not acceptable. We must look at this from a rational perspective and for all the reasons listed below, we believe that there is more than enough ground to warrant a vote of non-confidence.”

The complaint, referencing five bylaws, claimed that Oh failed to adequately represent the MASU within CASA, failed to adequately oversee the MASU Airport Shuttle Service, hurt the reputation of the MASU in her removal as vice-chair of the NBSA and failed to complete required office hours. The complaint concluded that Oh was no longer deserving of the honorarium she was to receive due to these failures.

While Oh was at the United Nations conference, she was removed from her position as vice-chair of the NBSA.

“It wasn’t until her forced resignation from the NBSA as vice-chair that many councillors, who were dissatisfied with her vocalness and the work that she was doing as an activist, framed her absence as another nail in the coffin,” Lepianka said.

Oh said that given the MASU and NBSA are two autonomous organizations with different responsibilities and her position on the Board of Directors of the NBSA was not compromised by her removal as vice-chair, this circumstance cannot be associated with her fulfillment of the MASU’s bylaws.

In her three years with the MASU, Oh said she was held to a different standard than other members. “I had to work twice as hard, taking on additional roles, because I had to demonstrate how much harder people like me have to work in order to be recognized as an equal.”

Oh said that when she told the executive and council of the opportunity to participate in the United Nations conference, no one voiced opposition. Referring to Oh’s report to council, Lepianka said, “at the time, the executive recognized that the chance to go to a United Nations conference as a government observer-status delegate was something that would be foolish to pass up.

“Tina also brought it forward to council, where a discussion took place concerning whether or not there would be any need to pass a formal motion to suspend the parts of her bylaws that related to her completing her office hours,” Lepianka said. He said the council acknowledged the importance of the opportunity and “passed an informal agreement to not change any bylaws.”

Lebreton, in an email to the Argosy, wrote that “there was no process taken – formal or informal – to make the appropriate [bylaw] suspensions, as has been done in the past when an executive was unable to fulfil their bylaws. Council was told about the trip but  was never asked for their approval.”

According to Oh and Lepianka, a blatant double standard in the complaint was in regard to office hours.

Lepianka said he spent significantly less time than Oh in the office. “If there were councillors who actually wanted to see Tina in the office and noticed her absence, then inevitably they would have also noticed that I was not there,” Lepianka said. “Never once have I been challenged about my absence from the office, but this is something that Tina has been accused of and reprimanded for since the beginning of her term.”

In a private email obtained by the Argosy from Lebreton to Oh, sent to Oh just over four hours before the Jan. 16 council meeting, Lebreton suggested that Oh resign from the MASU, stating that “the MASU is just not the right platform for [her environmental activism].” In an interview with the Argosy, Oh said she had already been planning to resign, but was frustrated with Lebreton’s email.

“When the president of this organization says that MASU is not the right platform for [my environmental activism], he is saying that MASU is not the right platform to combat racism,” Oh said. “Who decided that MASU was not the right platform?”

“This environmental work is survival,” Oh said. “People are dying, it’s my people that are dying, and to combat environmental racism is not optional work for a person of colour like me. Because they’re not people of colour, they need to try to understand that. The environmental work that I do is nothing different than the work the MASU should be doing.”

“I have worked for the MASU for three years, and I have personally never experienced any form of racism as a part of this organization,” Osama Al Nammary, councillor-at-large and signatory of the complaint, said. “While I respect that Tina may have had a different experience, I will say that the reasons behind the actions taken may not in fact have been because of racism. Instead, it is possible that she resigned as a response to the filed complaint, which outlined five different bylaws that Tina broke. It is also possible that she resigned as a response to the proposed symbolic vote of non-confidence.”

The Argosy reached out to other councillors and signatories of the complaint, but those contacted declined to comment on Oh’s resignation.

In an email to the Argosy, Lebreton wrote that “the majority of council, including myself, found Tina’s activism outside the MASU both valuable and important. That said, she was voted into her position to complete a mandate. Some of her activities have taken away from her ability to competently and effectively do her job, which can be reflected by her removal from vice-chair of the NBSA and the action taken by councillors to initiate a vote of non-confidence. Tina has been able to achieve great things outside the students’ union. However, that does not take away from the fact that she, on many occasions, did not fulfil her mandate as VP external affairs.”

When asked how environmental justice was manifested as a priority of the MASU, Lebreton wrote, “the MASU has a Sustainability Coordinator who is in charge of our environmental initiatives, as well as our Green Investment Fund.”

At the council meeting on Jan. 23, Lebreton announced that the responsibilities of the three resigned members would be divided among the remaining executive. Lebreton also reported that, regarding the “allegations of racial discrimination and harassment,” and “whereas the MASU does not tolerate any form of harassment or discrimination,” the ombudsperson would conduct an investigation and present a report “as soon as a conclusion has been found.”

6 Responses

  1. The bottom line is, if you were not capable of carrying out the required responsibilities required to be a person of the MASU, then you should not hold the position. Chances are, a good part of her roles were likely redistributed to others during her absence, who were likely overloaded with work. I understand her commitment and responsibility as an environmental activist, however, if you cannot complete the duties of your role then you should be impeached. In response to Osama’s comment, I fully agree. The “petition” that circulated was more than likely not an act of racism but rather the need for something to fulfill the expected role. This does not seem like a case of blatant racism whatsoever, and as an outsider, I think this was quite possibly a way to save herself from looking like she was incapable of living up to the expectations of her role. Her saying that she resigned due to racism was a way to get people to listen, which obviously worked. However, I think this article (and Tina’s story) is misleading and untrue.

    1. Hi Tina Turner,

      Thank you for sharing your perspective on this, and being engaged in student politics at Mount Allison as an outsider. I think the article pretty clearly highlights that the executive were okay with Tina going to COP 22 in Morocco, and that they informally approved her leave without officially changing by-laws. If they had issues then and were worried about her being unable to fulfill her duties, they should have brought them up at that point. But instead, it appears that people began to express concerns about her being able to fulfill her duties at the point when she started to become more outspoken about racism, and the environmental justice work she was doing. This was around the time of the Trump win. I have seen this happen time and time again – people of colour experiencing backlash, uncomfortable-ness and downright attacks from their white “friends” when they start to speak more openly about the racism they face. Not to mention all of the racist micro-aggressions Tina had likely faced for years as one of the few people of colour on the MASU. I am saying this as a white person – we need to believe people of colour whenever they bring up racism, and understand how rampant it is in our society, despite how infrequently it is discussed in Canada. And this situation is exactly why people of colour don’t like to bring it up – they face attacks, and accusations of “playing the race card” and using “racism as an excuse.” Rather than doubting someone’s personal experiences of pain, why don’t we try having a bit more humanity and just believe them?

  2. Theres There’s nothing about racism in this article. I’m also an outsider, but it seems like Tina wasn’t doing her job. Based on her IG feed it seems like she wasn’t even on campus or in the country for a significant portion of November. If you don’t do your job – and other people have to do it for you while you’re on another continent during regular ongoing school – that’s ridiculous. Don’t play the racist card. Not cool.

    1. Hi Penny,

      I understand that from your perspective, it might be difficult to see where racism plays into this situation, but I am happy to explain. One of the most clear forms of racism described here is the double standard between what was expected of Alex, a white male, versus Tina, a woman of colour, regarding their office hours. Alex clearly states here that “Never once have I been challenged about my absence from the office, but this is something that Tina has been accused of and reprimanded for since the beginning of her term.” This statement CLEARLY shows that Tina was held to higher standards, and rebuked more than other (white, male) MASU VPs. That’s what racism does – it makes people of colour have to work so much harder to prove themselves because the system sees them as inferior. It is a gross system, and one we should all work on together to fight. I stand with Tina on her decision to resign, and think it was really awful what happened to her – she is a dedicated and amazing activist and person all around.

  3. Environmental racism and systemic racism are absolutely something to be noted here, regardless of the role that may or may not have been fulfilled. The fact that we can wake up in Eastern Canada and not worry about the amount of clean drinking water, droughts, rampant forest fires, heat waves and other extreme climate issues that disproportionately affect people in developing worlds and be able to abide by policies and regulations that do not consider the negative effects of people in these places is systemically racist in itself. The privilege that many of us may benefit from enables most of us to not feel the effects that accompany showing support for pipelines that cross indigenous lands, oil companies that drill near drinking water and polluting air and water when we have filtration technologies in near every home. It is small minded to think that we shouldn’t be advocating for these issues to be resolved as members of an institution of higher learning. As a member of the MASU who supports environmental issues across the board, I am disappointed that more support wasn’t given to Oh, especially since as part of the mandate of the VP External (Bylaw 3f-h), is to supervise environmental initiatives through the GIF and to represent student interests and concerns, such as environmental issues. As far as I’m concerned as a union member, Oh was doing her job and we have a long way to go to account for the lack of support we have shown our peers in these issues.

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