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When Nikole Dan was elected president of the Toronto Metropolitan Students’ Union (TMSU) last November, one student posed a blunt question on the r/torontomet subreddit: “Who tf is Nikole Dan?”
The post was flooded with dozens of comments expressing similar confusion. On the candidate statements webpage, information about Dan was sparse. She was the only presidential candidate without a photograph. Her two-sentence bio did not include any details about her platform, instead inviting readers to reach out to her slate, the Empire team, on social media. But no social media account was linked on the webpage.
Vice-president-elects were also in the dark. Neither Aleksander Strazisar, vice-president, operations, or Hetu Patel, vice-president, education — who both successfully ran with team Vibe & Thrive — knew about the Empire platform prior to the election. “There was kind of a blank (about) who they are,” Patel said.
Dan won by a margin of a single vote.
For the TMSU, which is yet to have a scandal-free semester in recent memory, the haziness surrounding the new president’s win was conspiracy theory gasoline.
But Dan, who is in fact a real human being and third-year undergraduate creative industries student at Toronto Metropolitan University, said the Empire team prioritized in-person campaigning rather than building a digital footprint. In the early days of her presidency, however, Dan has shifted from in-person connection during the campaign to primarily working remotely. Some of her new colleagues have yet to meet her in person, and she is still determining what her office hours will look like.
Dan was on campus during the campaigning period, which ran between Nov. 14-22, as reported in The Eyeopener. She said the Empire team focused on creating conversations, “actually talking to people, not just asking, hey, can you vote for me?”
Three complaints were later filed against the Empire slate for violating fair play, including not leaving a student alone until they confirmed they had voted and campaigning in the library, which is forbidden by the TMSU’s Elections Procedures Code.
All three complaints were found to be unsubstantiated by the union’s Elections and Referenda Committee due to lack of evidence and contradictory statements submitted by team Empire, as reported in The Eye.
“I find it very easy to read a statement or a bio,” Dan said. “You do get to know about a person that way, but… talking to them in person is where the connection is really created. I think that’s what maybe differentiated our team.” Her fellow Empire teammate, Nadir Janjua, was elected unopposed for vice-president, student life.
Dan said the Empire team created a public Instagram page but did not make any posts due to the short campaigning period. The team deleted the page within forty-eight hours of the voting period closing on Nov. 22, in accordance with election campaigning rules.
However, a screenshot of the TMSU website from Nov. 20 shows that no Instagram page was linked under the Empire candidates’ statements. The omission is particularly puzzling since all 4 slate members used the exact same phrasing in their sparse bios: “…if you have any questions you can reach out to us on our team social media.”
Dan said she understands concerns about transparency. Earlier this month, when students informed her of speculation about whether she was a real person, she held a meeting with TMSU’s digital communication staff to update the executive team webpage with her photograph, a lengthy bio and her email address.
“I learned from this experience moving forward to create that transparency online as well,” she said.
However, since the election, Dan has limited her hours on campus. On Friday, she came into the TMSU office in the Student Campus Centre for the first time since the beginning of the winter semester, attending the Winter Homecoming basketball game later that evening.
TMSU executives are full-time employees who earn a salary of $49,920 per year, the union’s executive director, Reanna Maharaj, said in an email. For the 2023-2024 year, full-time undergraduate students were charged $117.52 in mandatory ancillary fees to support the union.
Executives are expected to work a minimum of twenty-five hours per week and a maximum of forty hours, according to the union’s bylaws. Although the current team has a shortened term of 1 semester, as they were elected in the fall byelection, they officially took office on Dec. 11.
Dan declined to comment on whether she is balancing her new role with another full-time position, which is not forbidden by union bylaws but would be extremely difficult due to the twenty-five-hour minimum weekly time commitment, Maharaj said.
While Dan is still determining her in-person hours for the semester, Strazisar plans to be in the TMSU office daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The vice-president, operations, said Maharaj advised executives to aim for these hours.
“If you’re here all the time, the general vibe of the staff is going to be a lot better,” he said.
Strazisar, who hopes to implement electronic reimbursements for student cheques during his tenure, met Dan for the first time at the TMSU office during the winter break. At the time of writing, this was the only time he had seen the president in person.
Although all five executives, including Patricia Doan, vice-president, equity — who also ran with slate Vibe & Thrive — have attended several Zoom meetings, the entire team is yet to physically be together in the same room. They came close to doing so during a December training session, but Dan was the only executive to attend online.
Strazisar said he is not bothered by the president’s largely remote approach to her work. He describes Dan as being very responsive to emails and stresses that the semester has just begun. “I don’t feel the need to be dramatic about it,” he said. “It’s like, hey, (it’s the) first week of school, you respond to all my emails, you came in over the holidays. That doesn’t upset me.”
“Obviously, yes, it is more effective to see someone in person, but I know she’s got a lot going on,” he added.
It is unclear exactly what Dan has going on. When On the Record visited the TMSU office last Wednesday — Dan was not there — a staff member said they thought the president was on an extended vacation.
While the president said she has been working remotely when not on campus, another executive, Patel, did in fact just return from vacation. The vice-president, education, flew back to campus from India, from where she was also working remotely, on Saturday and said she aims to be in the TMSU office every day, planning her hours around her coursework.
“We need to talk, brainstorm about different things regularly with everyone around,” Patel said. “There is a reason this position requires us to be here in-person. That makes it much better.”
At the time of writing, she had not met Dan, but said the president has been very accessible via email and text. Patel also has not felt Dan’s absence in the office, as she is yet to work with her in-person in the first place. “She was never here for me to miss her out,” Patel said
During her term, Patel plans to implement a fall reading week for engineering students and build a focused social media outreach strategy for the TMSU Instagram page. She hopes to create several posts about the executive team, their goals and how exactly students can contact them.
“If they don’t know us, how are they going to come to us with their problems?” she said.
Dan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.