JDC West debate overshadowed by controversy

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“No, you’re problematic!” Pixabay

Debating a humane society

From Jan. 17-19, the University of Regina hosted the annual JDC West (Jeux du Commerce West) competition for business students across Western Canada.

The competition is divided into four spheres: academic, debate, athletics, and social. The debate portion of this year, however, received extra attention due to several controversial resolutions or topics.

An-Te Chu, an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia who is studying biochemistry, has worked as a volunteer debate coach for both the Simon Fraser University (SFU) and University of Victoria teams. This year he helped the SFU team as an assistant coach. Chu did not attend this year’s event, but it was brought to his attention that several of the chosen motions for this year’s debate competition made students uncomfortable and were not appropriate arguments to make at a business-oriented debate competition.

“JDC West is unique from parliamentary debate because [it] is inherently supposed to be business-focused, so typically, JDC motions are not super political. Bad motions get set all the time, but these were uniquely bad because [they] inherently made so many students uncomfortable and that’s the main issue I take with this. It’s not that the topics were set, it’s just that there was no apology and there has been no apology. The board has [not] been very transparent at all,” says Chu.

In a letter to the Carillon, Chu wrote:

“Students were asked to defend the removal of housing assistance from vulnerable peoples, support legal erasure of Indigenous identity, and in the quarterfinals, my students were asked to advocate for removing all financial assistance to cope with fentanyl overdoses.”

The official rhetoric of the resolutions in question read as follows:

“-This house regrets both historical and modern development of public policies that acknowledge or otherwise rely on the distinction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

-This house would cease all financial and program support specifically intended to cope with overdoses on fentanyl.”

The list of resolutions obtained by the Carillon from the JDC West Organizing Committee lacks any mention of the removal of housing assistance but does include a resolution around mandated injection sites in Canadian cities as well as regretting government action to combat climate change.

Quite a mixed bag.

As explained by a member of the organizing committee who has asked to remain anonymous, “Both teams get a resolution, kind of like the topic. The side ‘government’ has half an hour to [determine] what that topic would mean to them to push through and then side ‘opposition’ is looking for that motion to fall. The resolutions are meant to allow the ‘government’ to define what that resolution means. It allows them to choose what that narrative looks like.”

“The debate competition is designed to provide competitors with a safe and structured environment to debate current political, economic, and societal topics that are affecting our world today in order for students to develop those independent decision-making skills, and the ability to critically analyze both sides of an argument regarding hotly contested items.”

“The point is that we want people to leave having that ability to analyze current issues and not just take what they hear in the media or if they hear somebody talking about a current issue, they have the ability to see both sides of the argument and feel confident in themselves to contribute.”

Chu takes issue with this process, arguing that the environment is not in fact safe or structured enough to allow students to debate in an informed way. “You’re thrown this topic and you have thirty minutes to prepare. This isn’t something you can really research and put yourself into a place of understanding.”

“The way I teach my students is unique from the other coaches because everyone coaches it like a business debate competition, which it is, but the way I coach, because I come from a different debate background, includes much more social issues.”

Based on other debate experience outside of JDC West, Chu touched on the role of an equity policy. “Generally, at debate tournaments there’s an equity policy which is essentially HR for debate, which allows you to address complaints, especially if offensive things are said. The fact that [JDC West] didn’t have [this policy] and they chose to have these vulnerable motions opens them up for a lot of criticism.”

“These topics could just be avoided. If you choose to set them, you should probably set out some guidelines and take precautions and recognize that it’s going to be controversial and people will feel uncomfortable. If people feel uncomfortable, you should address that, especially if these students are paying to be in this competition.”

Turning once again to the resolution around what Chu defined as “legal erasure of Indigenous identity,” the anonymous member of the organizing committee refuted such claims and offered their interpretation of the resolution.

“That has nothing to do with erasing Indigenous Canadians whatsoever. It’s all around policy and how policy is created in government.” The organizing committee elaborated, formulating a hypothetical stance for government side. “Basically, it’s saying, ‘the government acknowledges Indigenous people, but policy should be made with all Canadians in mind. We shouldn’t be segmenting them into different groups and cultures. We’re all Canadians, we’ve had lots of time to work together to become one community, one nation’.”

While this opinion is not representative of the committee itself, it’s still clearly what can only be described as ‘a garbage hot-take’ for anyone to propose. Too bad that equity policy was absent.

Chu said in response, “That is actually a topic that is somewhat discussed in academia: how you can reform the Indian Act. But no one proposes removing legal identity. There’s no point in having these debates when students know nothing about these issues. That just causes people to say harmful things. There’s a high likelihood that someone said something offensive or [felt] pressured to say that because that’s the stance they have to take to win.”

Chu also pointed out that, while defunding fentanyl is a current parliamentary issue, when applied to debate it loses its relevancy without a budgetary context. “Sometimes it’s a political reality in terms of government funding [which] sometimes has to be cut from things, but it’s not a question of if it’s morally right or wrong.

“Often there’s debates [that are] slightly uncomfortable because that’s not your true belief, but in this case, if your friend has died from fentanyl, you should be able to protest.” Chu notes, however, that the worry is that JDC West would somehow punish these schools who speak out.

The same member of the organizing committee mentioned previously viewed Chu’s anger as a product of competitiveness. “I believe [Chu] had an issue with [the fentanyl resolution] because this is the one that his SFU team was eliminated on. The tough part is that SFU, the team that [Chu] coached, has had a very good track record at JDC West in the debate category. They won the competition last year, they’re typically in the top three, so the fact that they were eliminated on this debate in the quarter finals where they would place in the top eight rather than the top three…. I think this is his way of trying to condemn the competition and skew it as unfair or unjust.”

Chu rejects this notion completely. “I honestly do not care about my team winning or losing. It’s one of the first things I teach: winning and losing is not the whole point. You get a whole year of preparing and learning to debate. It’s the skills that you take away.”

“I’m most mad because, if I’m a student, I feel the pressure of having to win this for my school and you can’t talk to your coach. You’re left in isolation. You’re given this topic and are sitting there for thirty minutes like ‘what do we do?’

“I tried contacting some of the sponsors. I only got a response from one of them. For me, it’s the lack of response that’s very frustrating and the optics of it for sponsors … this is terrible. That’s the reason why the business competition usually plays it safer with motions, because they have sponsors they have to care about.”

On Jan. 19, Chu posted this to Facebook:

“Woke up this morning to hear that my students were asked to defend, in the quarterfinals, the topic: ‘The House will cease all financial support to cope with overdoses on fentanyl’. Beyond inhumane.

The JDC Board of Directors:
ADAM DANYLEYKO, KELLY BONNEAU, BRANDON CHAPMAN, KATIE TURNER, JORDAN BINOTTO, TANNER ASSIE, GORDON CHANDLER

Fucking resign you goddamn morons”

When asked if he stood by these comments, Chu stated, “I would totally stand by what I said. It could’ve been more diplomatic, but I personally don’t feel like I should back down in my response to it.”

The member of the organizing committee that spoke to the Carillon concluded that, “A member from our board of directors reached out to [Chu] and said if he feels like these were one-sided resolutions or anything like that, then we’d definitely like to hear that input for next year’s competition.”

“This is one person’s opinion and I think lots other of people would refute that. The organizing committee is made up of good people who helped a lot of students build confidence in themselves and inspire them to do good things in their community and this complaint is coming from one person who didn’t even attend the competition.”

JDC West has yet to issue an apology.

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