Midterm review: VP External Kalith Nanayakkara faced the unexpected, from election to conflict of interest probe

Seven months in, AMS VP External Kalith Nanayakkara’s term has been altered by a pandemic and a surprise provincial election. While he’s on his way to accomplishing many of the goals that he had initially set out in his campaign, he’s now at the centre of a conflict of interest investigation for his involvement with ThePlug.

Nanayakkara ran on a platform of student affordability, from housing to provincial aid. He also made promises regarding transit, climate action and Indigenous support. He’s made progress on aspects of student affordability like equity-based grants, and a transit subsidy in the summer, but has yet to complete other goals like the creation of COVID-19 response campaign.

In his executive goals, Nanayakkara pledged to advocate equity-based grants for those who come from marginalized communities. Policy research on these equity-based grants is now in full swing in his portfolio, conducted by graduate students.

Nanayakkara also advocated for international students within the 2021 provincial budget consultation report by asking for increased funding for UBC’s operations. Nanayakkara said that this could benefit those students who are often left out of funding mechanisms by the federal government. The NDP has since promised to conduct an operational funding review.

On housing affordability, the BC Temporary Rental Supplement program offered by the provincial government during the pandemic left out students living in university residence.

Nanayakkara said he’s gotten a commitment from Vancouver-Point Grey MLA David Eby to advocate student inclusion in future programs. Eby confirmed this commitment to The Ubyssey.

Transit has been a focus due to the pandemic. Over the summer, AMS offered a transit subsidy to aid students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nanayakkara participated in discussions across schools to reinstate the U-Pass for the fall term, with the option for students out of the Lower Mainland to opt out. Students could also be exempted if they were immunocompromised.

However, Nanayakkara hasn’t accomplished his goal of securing funding for SkyTrain to UBC. The province announced in September that it granted a Broadway subway construction contract with construction likely to begin in early 2021, but there is no confirmed extension to UBC.

For the surprise provincial election, the AMS partnered with other student unions for the Take It Over campaign encouraging students to vote. The AMS and the Graduate Student Society also hosted a Ubyssey-moderated Vancouver-Point Grey Candidates Debate, which Nanayakkara said had hundreds of viewers.

Regarding climate action advocacy, the AMS executive said that they have completed their research and are now in the consultation phase forming recommendations for the CleanBC program.

Nanayakkara also said that after consulting with the Indigenous Committee, his team had advocated to the government for the expansion of tuition waivers to all former youth-in-care. The BC NDP promised this in its recent campaign.

One goal that Nanayakkara has yet to implement is the creation of a social media-oriented COVID-19 response campaign, which would provide mental health and financial aid resources. His executive goals stated that this would be done by June 15, 2020, but Nanayakkara said it can now be expected before the end of the year.

Nanayakkara pointed out that the biggest challenge he had faced this year was the “constantly changing landscape” due to the pandemic.

“It has definitely been challenging to make sure that we are on track and completing all of our goals, but also keeping on top of all the other new goals that have been added on.”

But amid his advocacy work, Nanayakkara has made some missteps.

In October, Nanayakkara and several AMS staff members were seen not wearing masks or physical distancing in the Nest. This was despite the AMS rule of mandatory mask usage in the Nest, and provincial guidelines of keeping a six-person bubble. Nanayakarra said this was an “ignorant move” on his part.

“Especially as a student leader, I should have known better,” said Nanayakarra, “We’ve learnt from it and it won’t happen again.”

Earlier in November, concerns arose over a potential conflict of interest for Nanayakkara, who is also the founder and president of ThePlug Vancouver.

He has since apologized for this and stated that it was unintentional. “It must also be made clear that neither myself, nor ThePlug has benefited as a result of my role within our Society,” he wrote in a letter.

AMS Council has referred the matter to its discipline committee for investigation.