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A Peak Back in Time: The 1989 Christygate Scandal

A look back at when Premier Christy Clark won and was removed from the SFSS Presidency

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With newly-elected SFSS president Enoch Weng preparing for his first term, he undoubtedly is feeling a combination of excitement and nerves. Whatever happens though, it will take a lot to have a more turbulent start than Christy Clark had.

It was 26 years ago this week that our current premier won the title of SFSS President. Her contentious stint as president would last less than two months before she was removed from office.

The shock of her win and her subsequent fall was recorded by The Peak’s team, including Andrew Tomec, writer of the April 6, 1989 front page headline “Grassroots gains, Unity upset” — the latter slate was Clark’s. It was an ironic headline in a polarized but largely apathetic environment for SFU student politics.

Christy Clark squeaked her way into the presidency by a margin of just six votes in what Tomec still believes to be “the most perplexing Student Society election results in recent history.” She was the only Unity candidate to win an executive spot, and was quoted following the elections as saying her slate “had great candidates, but a lousy campaign.”

Breaking down the election results, Peak contributor Bryan Bedford said “Clark did not win the election, Mendes lost it.” Paul Mendes, the Grassroots candidate and incumbent president, “had a whole slate of candidates that ran the place [SFSS] as a kind of a cabal,” according to Tomec. But that was just the nature of SFSS politics at the time. Still recovering from its fanatical roots in the 1970s, by 1989 SFU hosted a healthy population of unapologetically left-wing student politicians.

“SFU was the hotbed of revolutionary thought” explained Tomec. “[Even] The Peak was being run as a kind of socialist collective.”

Right-winger Christy Clark was all too aware of what she was up against. “The left-wingers on campus have a solid constituency of nine or 10 percent of the student population,” Clark was quoted as saying before the election. “When we [moderates and right-wingers] do well, that’s when you see an added six or seven per cent tacked on to the popular vote.”

According to Tomec, the SFSS was led by the civically-engaged, leftist Grassroots slate with a largely apathetic majority of students “barely aware that there was a student government at all.” Grassroots, with their years of steady hold on student government, had been using student money to “support left-wing causes — unions, labour groups, political causes in Central America,” remembered Tomec.

“Students like Christy Clark were really, deeply offended by the way that money was being spent by forum, [Clark] was saying ‘spend it on student issues or don’t spend it at all.’”

And so Clark fought her way into the Grassroots-dominated agenda. Before she ran for SFSS president, she had already served a term as Internal Relations Officer. “She was a bit of a pitbull, she was very articulate, very forthright and did not mince words about her displeasure with the way student politics was being run,” remembers Tomec. “People were mobilized by her personality; she was a very effective student politician.” 

Nevertheless, the politics of apathy won out and Grassroots still dominated the SFSS executive board after the 1989 election. Despite her disappointment, Clark tried to be positive about the outcome, stating following the election that “there are a lot of new people [on forum], and I don’t see a lot of confrontation ahead . . . our goals are the same.”

That optimism turned out to be very naive. “It didn’t take long for a group of recently elected forum members to begin scheming to discredit Christy Clark’s election victory,” wrote fellow Unity member Gerald Christendom in a Letter to the Editor in May of that year.

During their campaign, the Unity Slate had broken some election rules and Clark was slapped with a $60 fine. On April 10, Clark received notice of the fines by mail. SFSS election rules stipulated that all fines must be paid within 30 days of the notification date. However, there was a discrepancy in the Electoral Standing Committee’s requirements. Clark was notified that her fines were due on April 30, in 20 days rather than 30.

Clark paid on May 8 — 29 days after she had received notification of her pending fees. Following her late payment, the Grassroots-dominated forum moved to give the Electoral Standing Committee the power to enforce the rules that govern SFSS elections. Clark’s stature as SFSS President was declared void.

“I’m a student, I’m not made of money,” complained Clark in The Peak in the first week of May. “I paid late last year.”

The decision to cancel Clark’s candidacy was coined the “Christygate” scandal by The Peak — Clark called it “a partisan move” and “a power grab on the part of Grassroots.”

Clark wasn’t going to go away quietly. “I will pursue legal action immediately if forum defeats me,” she declared. “I have a responsibility to those who voted for me. I owe it to them to fight and to win.”

The decision held, and in subsequent Peak interviews, Clark maintained that she had full intention of going to court, paying the legal fees out of pocket. “I’m going into debt. I thought of selling my car, but it’s worth about $50. If it’s got a full tank of gas and a couple of textbooks in the back seat then it is worth about $100. So I’m borrowing money from private sources like friends and family who believe in what I’m doing.”

But her court case was not heard in time for her to regain her presidency. “I couldn’t have the case heard this summer because of court scheduling, and now we’re facing a by-election,” she explained in her by-election campaign run.

In the November by-election that year, Clark lost her bid for Presidency by 112 votes to Grassroots. Her loss signaled the end of her career in student politics at SFU. She left SFU soon after, before completing her degree, and went on to be elected as a BC MLA six years later.

Though Clark’s run for SFSS president was a disaster from start to abrupt finish, it did not dissuade her from a long and rocky career in BC politics — most recently as our honourable, and often scorned, premier.

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