Vote for me

Why 559 UBC students say Fire Hydrant should sit on student council


“Annoyed with student politicians earnestly trying to convince you that the world will descend into anarchy if they aren’t elected? Does anarchy sound worth a try?” If you agree, you might have wanted to vote last month for the student politician who authored of those words: Fire Hydrant. The Hydrant, an actual cast iron fire hydrant weighing 87 kg and mounted on a rolling platform, ran for vice-president academic on the University of British Columbia’s student council. The candidate proposed investing several hundred million dollars in the purchase of a brewery; building an on-campus facility to be known as the Kraft Dinner Emporium; and putting a student residence on wheels so that it could “be made into a pirate dorm, attacking and ransacking the luxury condos as it sails past.” Hydrant also promised to exploit a loophole in provincial law, changing the university’s legal status to that of a mountain resort municipality. “If you’ve ever wanted to go to university at a ski resort, this is your chance.”

Watch Eric Szeto’s video blog coverage of Fire Hydrant’s run for office here.

Student elections have notoriously low voter turn-out, often in the single digit percentages. Most of the time, the campaign revolves around one issue—tuition—that student politicians don’t even have any control over. And most of elections are boring. You can only say “free tuition” so many ways.

But sometimes there are joke candidates to make things interesting.

Like all politicians, the more name recognition they have, the more successful they can be. It is not surprising that many of these candidates come from the pages of the student press.

Ryerson University’s most famous comic relief candidate came from a cage within the confines of the student newspaper, The Eyeopener: Scoop W. Gerbil. Running for president in 2001, he said he would “continue digging and being cute for the Ryerson community, refuse to patronize, dictate to, or otherwise annoy students [and] make you realize student government can’t create affordable education.” Scoop, said the paper’s endorsement editorial, “is the candidate who urges students to think outside the box. Or cage.”

Scoop did not win, and this may have been for the best: like so many professional politicians, he had not been entirely honest with the electorate. Scoop W. Gerbil was in fact a guinea pig.

Scoop was not the first rodent to run for office. McMaster University’s student newspaper The Silhouette ran the office’s pet guinea pig, Lou Grunt, for student union president in 1985. Grunt was “the Perfect Pig for Power and a Rodent for Reform.”

Space Moose, probably the most famous comic strip character in Canadian university history, ran for student council president at the University of Alberta in 1997. His popularity resulted in one unexpected challenge: his campaign posters kept disappearing, as people carried them off as collector’s items. The comic strip, created by medical sciences student Adam Thrasher, now a professor at the University of Houston, was deliberately provocative. The most controversial episode satirized the Take Back the Night march, with cartoon Space Moose arming himself to attack the marchers but winding up imprisoned in a Womyn’s Studies re-education camp, forced to watch endless re-runs of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. The panels sparked a multi-campus uproar and a university disciplinary hearing for the author.
Space Moose placed third in the election with 1,400 votes—more votes than most winners at other schools. The University of Alberta Students’ Union changed its bylaws soon after to prevent joke candidates from taking office.

“They add an entertainment factor, without a doubt,” says Steven Dollansky, vice-president external of the University of Alberta Student’s Union. “For better or worse, they draw attention to the election.”

Dollansky should know: last year, his opponent was a Transformer. Sarah Yusuf, then a fourth year microbiology major, dressed up as the Decepticon Soundwave and ran for the vice-president position.

“If elected VP external,” Soundwave told an audience of over 400 who attended its debate with Dollansky, “I will manipulate and intimidate lobbying groups to make the student agenda a priority item.” It also laid out an environmental program. “We do not inherit this Earth from our ancestors,” Soundwave reminded Alberta’s callow youth, “we borrow it from Megatron!”

The Transformer also challenged Dollansky’s ability to serve students. “Look at him, he’s a doughy, fleshy, fragile human being … Can he transform into anything?” asked Soundwave, “No. But time will eventually transform Dollansky into a slobbering old man.” Dollansky won the election, but Soundwave captured over 1,600 votes. A video of the debate on YouTube has been viewed nearly 50,000 times.
“Joke candidates draw a certain number of people to the polls,” says Dollansky, who took the Soundwave challenge with good humour. “Twenty-seven percent of the student body voted in our election.”

At UBC, the school has not only had joke candidates; it once had a joke party. Formed in 1991, the Radical Beer Faction was UBC’s longest running political party. Over the years, the RBF ran many non-humans including Toby the Amazing Fighting Fish, a zombie and a traffic pylon. Positions taken over the years by the RBF included renaming UBC “University Beer Capital,” installing beer vending machines on campus and promising to “make up reasons to look for WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) at UVic.” The RBF was popular, especially during an era that saw UBC student politics divided between a radical left party and a more centre-left party. It disbanded in 2005, after party slates were banned.

The Fire Hydrant first rolled onto the scene in 2004 when it ran as an RBF candidate for a seat on the UBC board of governors, accompanied by “translator” (i.e. creator) Darren Peets.

“I felt something needed to be done to draw attention to the campaign,” says Peets. “Many people did not realize how important the position is.”

Peets, a physics Ph.D. candidate, has also been active on the “respectable” side of student politics. “I did not run the Hydrant to protest or discredit the process,” he says. “I basically thought ‘how can I draw attention to this race?’” The initial Hydrant platform included a call for a university closure policy in the event of an invasion: UBC has a snow closure policy; the Hydrant believed an alien invasion was slightly more likely than a Vancouver snow storm.

The Hydrant performed poorly in that election. But in 2005, the Hydrant returned with an improved platform. The wooden platform the Hydrant is bolted to was upgraded with a racing stripe, and the wheels were oiled to increase speed. That year, Fire Hydrant pulled in 900 votes, and missed winning a seat on the Board of Governors by only six votes. The next year it increased its vote count, but still missed a seat.
In 2007, Peets took a serious run for a seat on the Board of Governors—running as himself. He won. However, many people called begging Peets to roll the Hydrant one last time. “I am in my final year, my thesis is underway, I really don’t know if I have time,” Peets told Maclean’s last December.

Earlier this year, he gave in to the pressure. Hydrant entered the race for vice-president academic on UBC student council. Among other things, it proposed that the university expropriate some of the land that UBC has recently sold off to developers. “How many times do you think we can sell condos and expropriate them back before people realize what we’re up to?” asked Hydrant. “I figure about three or four.”
Despite its personal popularity, Fire Hydrant went down to defeat again last month. The new VP academic, Alex Lougheed, received 723 votes; Fire Hydrant finished fourth, backed by 559 voters.

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  1. Thanks for writing this article Joey – you should have written it earlier though! You may have even pulled in some VFM money.

    Just a couple clarifications. First, there is no “UBC student council” . There is, however, an AMS student council. Second, this was not a one issue election focused on tuition. In fact, tuition was one of the least prominent themes in the election. It certainly went unmentioned in the VP Academic race that the Fire Hydrant ran in. Those students who go out to vote aren’t convinced by promises of lower tuition. That kind of promise only serves to undermine the credibility of a candidate’s campaign.

    The Fire Hydrant will be sorely missed. It was one of the only joke candidate’s that was actually funny.

  2. Hey Blake,

    You are correct on both notes from UBC perspective.

    “UBC student council” – I intentionally choose to state UBC student council. The reason is that in a national context it allows the readers to immediately grasp the concept. If I used AMS, it would have required an explanation. This article was originally going to print and this allowed me to use my limited space to develop the story. The choice to use UBC instead of AMS does not take away from or change the story. Plus, I would have to use the term “UBC AMS” to avoid confusion with the Queen’s AMS.

    “Tuition” – AMS elections are much more competitive and mature than those at many schools. Due to the competitive nature of the races, candidates are forced to speak to goals they can achieve. In the national context, many student politicians base their campaigns around tuition and other issues they have no control over.

    The article was written from the national perspective. I choose to focus on the Hydrant because of how popular the object is right across the country. There is always the fact that this may be its last campaign – I have heard rumours of an underground movement to free it from its translator.

    The Hydrant has many fans in Ontario as well. Maybe we should run it for Prime Minister – it has more personality than any of the current federal leaders.

  3. Okay, I understand your reasoning for stating UBC student council. It wouldn’t hurt, however, to include some free publicity for the AMS.

    I wasn’t aware that the Fire Hydrant had achieved national fame. I would recommend that someone take over as the interpreter for it, but I’m afraid that anyone other than Darren Peets just wouldn’t be nearly witty or intelligent enough to do it properly. I think the reign of the Hydrant is over. I recommend that Darren permanently fix it somewhere on campus so that its legacy can live on forever.

  4. Thanks Matt! (Inside joke – sorry readers)

    The Hydrant is an icon, however I agree that it has more to do with the wit of its “translator” than the object itself.

  5. I’ll sure be sad to see the hydrant go. It’s run in two elections while I’ve been here, and more before that, and it has always been a bright point in an otherwise nasty campaign process.

    That said, we needn’t worry. The best slate from the days of slates (may they return to us) was the Radical Beer Faction, and they return! http://www.radicalbeer.ca

  6. Joey or Matt – I’m curious, do either of you have a sense of the number of student unions across Canada that allow slates in their elections?

  7. The elections at UBC were also made entertaining by the slates that had students posing nude… with the, ahem, essentials strategically covered.

    The name of the slate evades me, all I can picture is the one poster of a particularly athletic candidate…

  8. Blake,

    I honestly don’t know. Even in some cases where slates are not allowed, they end up existing anyway.

  9. Maki, that was the Radicial Beer Party’s work.

  10. Joey, while you may be referring to the nude Senate candidates of 2004, I believe the actual slate being referred to is Action Nude that campaigned in 2001 but was not actually on the ballot. It was intended as a spoof of the radical left slate Action Now but that slate changed its name to Students Voice that year.

  11. Joey, I’m curious what your take is on campus newspaper reporters running with the intention of writing a story about their journey, and accidentally winning. Has a joke candidate won before in other SUs?

  12. Josie,

    I know of no other cases of a joke candidate winning.

    In Pepler’s (who you are clearly referring to) case, he was somewhat serious and blurred the line between joke and serious candidate.

    The situation at the University of Saskatchewan last year was somewhat unique to Canadian student politics.

    First, you had a student newspaper which did an amazing job of covering the events surrounding the Canadian Federation of Students referendum and the aftermath of it. The paper gave students the relevant information that needed to be informed. (Frankly, the paper opened my eyes in the fall of 2005 with its coverage. Prior to this, I did not know much about the Federation.)

    Second, you have a culture where the students’ union council is more focused on representing students than trying to move onto the Executive. (On a lot of campuses, one must be in with the ruling executive to have any hope of moving up) The council challenged the executive when they decided to spend money on items they were not entitled to spend money on. The most famous example of this were the Blackberries. When the executive went out and purchased themselves Blackberries, Council took them to task. The Blackberries became the prime example of how arrogant the executive had become. It added to the feeling that they were more focused on themselves than the student body.

    Third, “party” politics is foreign to your campus. The decision of the incumbent executive to run as a slate was the final straw for many students. There is a large independence movement on the USask campus who saw the incumbents as being the “CFS-slate” and took them to task over the court case involving the referendum on CFS membership.

    In short there was a perfect storm – people wanted to throw up the executive and were looking for change.

    Pepler fit that bill. He became the protest candidate and won. The incumbent president had less people vote for him than abstained – you know students are upset when that happens.

    In my opinion, Pepler was not really a joke candidate because of the serious components to his campaign. He did not enter the race looking to win, but quickly changed his focus and worked to win. He has done a pretty good job leading the USSU this year. The union had removed itself more and more from the student body during the previous three years – he has reversed that trend. That is not a small feat.

    The only thing I will fault him for is not keeping up with his Sheaf column – I really enjoyed it and miss it.

    The USSU elections will be interesting this year, especially considering what’s at stake for outside interests.

  13. Josie,

    I realized that I did not actually answer the question about how I feel about reporters running.

    I’m not comfortable with it.

    As campus journalists, we have a lot of influence over student opinion of student unions.

    When a journalist decides to become a politician, it opens up the appearance that they may have used their position at the paper to further their agenda.

    I can understand why a journalist would want to run – there are times when I get so fed up with student politicians, that I want to run to get rid of them. There are a lot of things that I feel my students union should be doing that it’s not. There are things I want to see happen. What’s the easiest way to make those things happen? While, it’s simple – put yourself in the position to make them happen.

    In short, I would not run for student government has an active writer for my campus paper. If I decided to run, I would remove myself from the campus paper for at least four months prior to submitting my nomination papers.

    That said, I would not support any move to restrict the freedom of reporters to run for student union positions. It is an individual choice and ultimately up to the voters.

    (Voters I will admit have a weird way of turning these things into popularity and/or beauty contests – such is the system we live in. Heck, in high school I voted for the hot girl because while she was hotter than the other girl. A decision I still feel bad about.)

  14. I’d vote for it!

  15. It seems the fire hydrant is running in the wrong election.

    Were he to run as an Alberta PC, it’s chances would be much better.

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