ENGLAND - If Akaash Maharaj’s short life were a movie
-- and there's no reason it shouldn't be -- it would probably be
titled something like A Canuck at Oxford.
It would depict Maharaj growing up on the streets
of Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood, where the doting grandparents
who raised him worried constantly about the influence of drugs and
It would then cut to the fine ivy-covered buildings
of England's prestigious Oxford University, where Maharaj wins a
Rubbing shoulders with the sons and daughters
of the British elite, Maharaj, a quiet young man with a point to
prove, would have the audacious vision to run for the presidency
of the university's 14,000 students.
Of course, this is with the full knowledge that
in the 1,000-year history of Oxford, the school from which virtually
every post-war prime minister of the British Empire has graduated,
no foreigner has ever won the presidency.
Launching a three-week campaign with a staple
gun, some posters and a $400 kitty earned from a summer job, Maharaj
would take on hand-selected and well-oiled candidates from the Conservative
and Labour parties in a gruelling campaign.
No less than 17, at times bitter, debates later,
the upstart from Parkdale would have a landslide victory over eight
other candidates, and be doused with champagne by jubilant friends
when he returns to his dormitory on election night as leader of
the Oxford Student Union.
For a student who had trouble scraping up enough
money for living expenses, Maharaj is now responsible for a $700,000
budget and is director of Europe's largest student publishing house.
He also represents students on the university's governing council,
helps determine university legislation and represents Oxford to
In the process, the 23 year-old would also break
several other Oxford traditions, including receiving the largest
landslide, and becoming the first independent president in Oxford
But the movie wouldn’t end here. Maharaj's
feat would be duly recorded in the London Daily Telegraph and the
Times, and he would become something of a celebrity at Oxford.
"It's really quite a feat, a major accomplishment,"
said David Jordan, returning officer for the election that took
place In June. "He wasn’t particularly well backed, he
was a foreigner, and he was up against the power of the political
It's often said that the person who controls
Oxford today, controls Britain tomorrow, and the Conservative and
Labour parties have traditionally waged fierce campaigns to see
who could get a member into the top student spot, Jordan said.
The current minister of education In Britain
is a former Oxford president and several British MPs also held the
In fact, student unions have had such a powerful
effect on government decision-making through their lobbying efforts
that the British government is looking at legislation to curtail
Some of that power now rests to a large extent
in the hands of a Canadian. “When I first started I was at
a complete loss. I had never run a professional campaign before,"
said the soft-spoken Maharaj over the phone from England. I really
didn’t think I’d win.”
Maharaj said he ran because he became fed up
of "running into walls" when, as the junior common room
president of his college, he dealt with a student government that
was unresponsive and slow to react to requests.
“I just thought there was a better way
of doing things than having leaders that were preoccupied with their
own personal political pursuits than with the students themselves,"
he said. In fact the newspapers were running stories saying I was
on a crusade, and that I didn't have much hope given Oxford history.”
A student at Toronto's Humberside Collegiate,
where he was the gold medallist in his graduating year, Maharaj
said he was never very political at school and wanted to be a physicist.
Guidance counsellor Ed Fostka describes him
as "a brilliant student. Talented, bright, gets 90s in everything,
and one of those people who gets along well with everyone."
Maharaj, who studied philosophy, politics and
economics at Oxford, said he hopes to work in the field of international
development and possibly continue charity work.
His grandmother, Rita Khan, who is originally
from Trinidad, said she thought her grandson was kidding when he
phoned and told her the news.
"I told him I wanted to see it in writing,”
So Maharaj sent clippings from the London newspapers.
“I think I finally believed him
then,” Khan said.