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A Canuck at Oxford Stars Parkdale Student


by Tony Wong


OXFORD, 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 crime.

It would then cut to the fine ivy-covered buildings of England's prestigious Oxford University, where Maharaj wins a coveted scholarship.

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 other universities.

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 history.

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 parties."

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 position.

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 their power.

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,” laughs Khan.

So Maharaj sent clippings from the London newspapers.

“I think I finally believed him then,” Khan said.

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