To understand why Rajean Hoilett entered campus politics, you need to understand where he came from.
Hoilett is a first generation Canadian; born to a Jamaican father and Guyanese mother.
He is defined by the social injustice he witnessed while growing up in a low-income neighbourhood in Scarborough.
“I think that being a racialized person and being black has been the biggest experience for me in my life,” said Hoilett. “I grew up in a school with low-income students being taught by white teachers. I didn’t see myself reflected in the people talking about the issues.”
Hoilett, who hasn’t opened up personally about his motive for diving into students politics, spoke to The Ryersonian on how he sees his job, and the reason he does what he does. He candidly spoke to us the day after the Ryerson Students’ Union disrupted a campus event in order to make a political statement on the lack of funding for post-secondary students in Ontario.
The RSU crashed a speech by Reza Moridi, the Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, at a Sept. 24 campus event announcing a $1.2 million government contribution to online job portal Magnet Today. Two students took the stage with a banner that read: “Ontario: Connecting Students to Debt,” while RSU’s vice-president for education Jesse Root made a speech protesting access to education, and the fact that post-secondary students in Ontario pay the highest tuition rates in the country. On Aug. 17, the Canadian Federation of Students passed a motion brought forward by the RSU to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions province-wide campaign after airstrikes in Gaza.
Hoilett was in the audience; engaging in events like this is an example of his mark on student politics.
Hoilett’s social activism first intertwined with campus life in during his second year, when he joined the United Black Students at Ryerson. He became vice-president equity for the RSU last year, and in March, was voted to take on the role as president, beating runner-up Roble Mohamed by 1,182 votes
Hoilett’s presidential platform emphasized maintaining and improving current initiatives like the Canadian Federation of Students’ Drop Fees campaign, getting the word out on opportunities for students to take part in RSU initiatives and finding new ways to get these messages across.
Last week’s actions by the RSU show that social justice is now going to be the priority.
“I think that students, for a really long time, have been on the forefront of social justice and change. If you want to think about things that people have labeled controversial in the past, as time goes on, it becomes something that’s a bit more normal, and we don’t really second guess that,” said Hoilett.
“Things like organizing around Palestinian solidarity work, we saw very similar conversations being had when folks were organizing anti-apartheid movements for South Africa here on this campus. The tricky thing with power and privilege is that is the status quo and moving away from that always seems a bit shocking.”
Hoilett is not concerned about negative reactions to the RSU’s new agenda.
“I think everything we do is political- the spaces we take up or don’t take up.”
The RSU president believes there is a lot of campus unity and consensus with the recent campaign on social justice issues.
“We’re on the ground doing education work so that students are getting acclimated to these things.”
“This year, there’s been a real focus to communicate to our membership, and be able to have those lines of communication. I think the best way to interact with our membership is to get out and have face-to-face conversations,” said Hoilett.
This past RSU election saw a record-low number of voters, with turnout down 13.1 per cent. This is the third year of declining campus participation.
The RSU’s renewed activism under Hoilett is supported by the Canadian Federation of Students, a federal umbrella organization formed in 1981 to increase communication and efficiency between its provincial counterparts and all post-secondary students’ unions.
Ryerson students pay to be members of the CFS. In 2013, Ryerson students paid the federal and provincial branches of the CFS $385,000. In 2014, this will break down to a total of $15.76 per student, according to its provincial office.
Ryerson University, with its almost 40,000-student campus, is a prime location for CFS activities. It has been an active behind-the-scenes-director for over a decade at Ryerson. In 2013, a committee of two full-time staff members was hired to choose the Chief Returning Officer, who oversees the student union elections. This decision came after many controversies due to the RSU president sitting on the hiring committee and not being impartial.
Brandon Clim is a political science student at the University of Ottawa and co-creator of studentunion.ca, a Canadian student politics blog. He said the RSU executives will frequently take a volunteer or somebody who works at one of the student services under their wing. “They effectively groom that person to run for an executive position, and then the cycle continues.”
Hoilett is also a member of the CFS’ national executive, serving as the Racialized Representative.
Hoilett faced criticism in March when The Varsity, the campus newspaper at the University of Toronto, alleged he misidentified himself as a U of T student while campaigning for a national CFS executive member running for president of that campus’ student union. Hoilett denied these claims.
The CFS’ federal, provincial and local branches tend to share the same ideology and activism tactics.
Alastair Woods, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, spoke at a Sept. 21 seminar on campus explaining how free education would work and why it would be beneficial. With Hoilett at the helm, this year’s RSU can be expected to focus on the same issues.
Hoilett plans to stay loyal to his roots.
“I think that if you’re doing things that matter they are gonna push a couple of buttons, but I think that it’s important as a students’ union that we’re using our resources to do things that matter,” said Hoilett. “Our goal is not to shy away from conversations because they just seem like they’re hard conversations, but to think about (social) justice situations.”