“Thanks Richard. And if anything else comes up today, don’t hesitate to call me.”
I hang up the phone puzzled. I had phoned Matt Helfand, a Western political science graduate student and former Social Science Students’ Council president, to get some background on a possible story lead involving the SSSC. What was going to come up that day that I would need to contact him again for?
Three hours later, Helfand announced his candidacy for University Students’ Council president. The next day, he was on the front page. A couple of months and a campaign later, and he was the USC president-elect.
“When I was about seven years old, I remember telling my mom ‘I want to be the first Jewish Prime Minister of Canada,’” Helfand recalls.
“Being the first Jewish president of the USC is a pretty close realization of that goal to some smaller extent,” he says with a laugh.
Even in an informal interview, Helfand exudes intensity. He speaks directly and concisely, immediately addressing questions — even joke ones like what animal he’d be (Dolphin) — with seriousness and depth.
“Much of what you saw during the campaign is really how he is,” says Emily Addison, Helfand’s running mate and vice-president internal-elect. “He’s a bundle of energy and has a million ideas.”
“He gets very easily excited,” Dan Bain, his campaign manager, admits.
Growing up in Toronto, Helfand never imagined he would end up where he is now. His twin brother Jesse, also a Western student, was the athletic half. That seemed to count for more in the early years.
“Matt was very similar to how he is now. He loved to engage in arguments all the time, and he was always right” — Judy Rapkin, Matt’s mother
“I think that to some extent I would say a level of friendly competition between me and my brother kind of spurred on some of the things that I’m doing now,” Helfand says. “He was always the athletic one, and in middle school and elementary school that’s where the money is.”
Helfand’s own strengths might not have counted for much among his childhood peers, but they were already beginning to show. His mother Judy Rapkin remembers his political nature becoming apparent early.
“Matt was very similar to how he is now,” she remembers, while acknowledging differences from his twin brother. “He loved to engage in arguments all the time, and he was always right.”
“He was a challenging kid for teachers because he was always right,” she continues, sarcasm evident in her tone.
Rapkin remembers taking Matt, who was in second grade at the time, to a provincial riding debate. Matt asked a question to one of the candidates, which eventually turned into a war of words.
“This guy actually took him on, and [Matt] must have been seven or eight. It was bizarre,” she recalls. “In the end Matthew and I left the room — Matthew in tears, but he had the confidence to do something like that.”
“I definitely had these sorts of ambitions when I was younger, but I never had a way to realize them,” Helfand says.
That chance would come with his enrollment in Western — the only school he applied to. Despite his obvious talent, the road to success in student politics wasn’t easy. In Helfand’s second year, he made a plan to become SSSC president. Hoping to gain experience and knowledge as a councillor first, Helfand missed the all candidates meeting and was immediately disqualified from the election.
“I had to say to myself either put the plan on hold or skip to phase two […] I ran for [SSSC] president the next year,” he says.
With no name recognition and experience, Helfand wasn’t exactly a favourite. Campaign posters were ripped down, mistakes were made in debates. It all worked to motivate him ever more.
“It was an uphill battle, but it just sort of strengthened my resolve,” he says.
Energy and communication skills paid off, and Helfand was elected SSSC president in his third year, serving in that role in his fourth. Despite speculation that he might run for USC president, Helfand took a pass and enrolled in graduate school in political science at Western.
Soon, though, the political life came calling again.
“I just jumped on it — at that moment it just clicked. That was the most exciting moment […] it was even more exciting than winning was” — Matt Helfand, USC President-elect
“My life just felt stagnant,” Helfand says of life after the USC. “I didn’t feel that there was anything fun that I was doing. I was just playing video games and not really enjoying myself.”
Sitting in class one day, Helfand realized he might be able to run for president despite being a graduate student. Just like that, life wasn’t so stagnant anymore.
“I just jumped on it — at that moment it just clicked,” he remembers gleefully. “That was the most exciting moment […] it was even more exciting than winning was.”
Eligibility meant campaigning and reaching out, and there’s nothing Helfand does, or loves, better.
“When I got this opportunity to do the campaign it was just awesome to listen to other people and make connections with them and to try to come up with solutions to problems on campus,” he says.
“It’s so dynamic — you’re on your feet a lot and I have a hard time sitting still.”
This campaign, as expected, wasn’t an easy one. Helfand went up against a USC veteran and policy expert in Brian Belman. The challenge was exhilarating for Helfand, who credits his experience in the SSSC presidential race two years prior for preparing him.
For all of its other benefits, winning the USC presidency made his mother very proud.
“You see a kid who loves to argue and you sort of wonder why, and then you see that there’s a reason for it all and that he’s using it functionally,” she says. “We’re all really proud of him, he’s a great kid.”
Though he likes to talk, debate and discuss, his friends and colleagues agree it doesn’t take away from his ability to listen.
“The Matt you see on stage is not what you get in the room,” Bain says. “Matt listens first whenever we talk […] in a private conversation he wants to hear everyone’s input before he makes a decision.”
“I was just amazed working at the booth every day, and just seeing his ability to talk to anyone about anything,” Sarah Emms, another campaign manager, adds.
“The Matt you see on stage is not what you get in the room. Matt listens first whenever we talk […] in a private conversation he wants to hear everyone’s input before he makes a decision” — Dan Bain, Matt Helfand’s campaign manager
Though he’s an ambitious personality, Helfand likes to keep his head out of the clouds, constantly focused on the here-and-now. A camp counsellor once gave him some advice — advice that would stick with him for the rest of his life.
“Keep your head where your feet are,” Helfand quotes with a smile.
“That’s the mantra that I go by, because the best thing to do is to focus on the task at hand rather than looking to the very next thing,” he continues. “You can’t necessarily define yourself by your future ambitions.”
While some of his platform points during the campaign may have seemed far-fetched, Helfand already has a clear plan of how to implement them with the help of his vice-presidents. Homecoming on campus, building a better student-police relationship and advocacy are what’s on Helfand’s mind these days as he awaits taking up the leadership role of Canada’s largest student government. His occasional zeal coats an underlying eager pragmatism of working to get things done.
It all gives meaning to his election victory quote, “Today we celebrate, but tomorrow we get to work.”
“The campaigning is done now, and now we have to try and win the hearts and minds of Western students through our actions,” he says firmly.
“The work starts instantly, because people are looking to you.”