Student heads from Trinity College, St. Michael’s College (SMC), and the Engineering Society announced Sunday that they plan to seek “defederation” from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), a potentially drastic measure if approved. The surprise announcement came as the union prepares to host executive elections this year that will not feature some of the key reforms demanded by the college leaders.

All three college leaders seeking defederation cited the minutes of the Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC), which met on Thursday and Saturday last week, as clear indications that their reform recommendations were not going to be implemented in time.

The minutes of the erc meeting strongly suggest that this year’s election will not utilize online voting, a key plank in the college-backed Non-Partisan Declaration on UTSU Electoral Reform. The student body is slated to vote on the Non-Partisan Declaration at a special meeting on Tuesday night.

The union reacted to calls for electoral reform by hiring a law firm to conduct a review of its current electoral policies. The review considered submissions from a number of sources, including the Non-Partisan Declaration. The results of the firm’s review were released late last week, and did not include the proposals listed in the Declaration, focusing instead on clarifying rules, appeals processes, and election timelines.

Rishi Maharaj from the Engineering faculty, Mike Cowan from St. Michael’s, and Sam Greene from Trinity have been quietly preparing over several months for the possibility of defederation referenda. Updated: The Engineering Society hired the law firm Heenan Blaikie on retainer for $10,000 following November’s AGM. The money came from a $67,000 legal fund established by the Engineering Society’s Board of Directors in July; the Society currently has no plans to allocate any of the remaining funds to possible UTSU-related expenses.

Heenan Blaikie has previously represented students’ unions attempting to defederate from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) — a national organization of which UTSU is a member — most recently at Guelph. Attempts to part ways with the CFS have resulted in lengthy and expensive legal battles.

“From the beginning of this discussion everyone must have been thinking about legal representation,” said Maharaj. The Engineering Society executive will meet Monday to discuss next steps, and will likely ask their Board of Directors to discuss approving in principle the concept of a referendum on defederation, with specific text to be finalized at a later date.

Trinity will follow a similar process, with the meeting to approve the holding of a referendum set for this Thursday. “It’s clear that the Union is ignoring the will of its members in order to maintain the system that keeps incumbents in power,” said Greene, head of college at Trinity, adding that “the failure to implement reform is inexcusable and deeply unethical.”

As UTSU vice-president, internal & services Corey Scott pointed out in the union’s initial statement on the matter, the union is not, strictly speaking, a federation from which members can secede. Although most parties involved are using the terms “defederation” or “secession” to describe the process, a more accurate description of the arrangement sought by the three colleges’ leaders is a re-routing of student fees currently paid to the UTSU to college student governments instead.

Sunday marked the beginning of what could become a protracted fight over whether the colleges should seek to sever financial ties with the central student union.

“It is unfortunate that this has happened, despite the best intentions of the students’ union to accommodate voices,” said Scott. “The UTSU funds numerous clubs based and run by Engineering, smc and Trinity students. The UTSU will continue to represent our members, despite the numerous intentional and malicious blockades that we have seen this year.”

As of The Varsity’s press time, significant questions remain unanswered as to the feasibility of colleges independently providing services currently delivered by the UTSU.

All three college heads were exploring ways of providing health and dental plans to their students. It was not clear whether students whose divisions or colleges defederated would be able to participate in UTSU clubs and events or have access to UTSU scholarships.

Maharaj has called for an “impartial and fair referendum” on the question of defederation, administered by the university. University administrators were unavailable for comment.



  • Brandon

    As a former VUSAC president, let me be the first to state: Victoria College should jump on board. Stat.

    • Anonymous

      If all the college councils jumped board on this, it would be easier to get a collective deal on health/dental as well.

    • A Vic Student

      why should they jump on board?

      • Z.M.

        We shouldn’t fracture our union just because we don’t like election regulations. We need to be united to fight austerity and declining education quality!

  • Pierre Harfouche

    This is silly.
    Students will still be able to participate in UTSU affiliated clubs – because the UTSU does not fund 100% of the club. In Engineering, we have our own club affiliation process and Artscies can join our clubs. There is no difference. Our clubs would just not be able to be affiliated with the UTSU – lose some opportunity for funding. It is my personal (and I have not ran any numbers yet) that with the amount of fees transferred to us – Engineering club funding will increase dramatically. Remember, Engineers only have 1 full time office staff while the UTSU pays their Exec, their Director and their unionized staff.

    • Pierre Harfouche

      As for events, I guess not. Or there would be a “non member fee” likely similar to how UTSG participates in events.

      • Pierre Harfouche


  • cake

    I don’t see how the fees would be rerouted, unless we’re talking health + dental. They would just be cancelled out — unless the colleges take up the roles that the union played which I highly doubt. Health and dental plans are also difficult to negotiate for and it took SAC a while to get to where it was. So, defederation isn’t exactly easy. I don’t like the Canadian Federation of Students and believe in electoral reform (not for everything the “opposition” is demanding for); but shown what the college councils have done, I don’t think they are capable of taking up the role of a union. EngSoc out of the 3, is the only one that represents their members to a faculty body.

    • Pierre

      EngSoc has explored this in the past and determined that there would significant challenges, but they would take up the role the union played – which is providing movie tickets, club funding and health and dental.

      • Pierre

        And yes, we already represent our students to our Faculty.

      • houleskis

        This was looked at years ago and deemed possible. To be honest, I can’t remember ever issue/service that was examined but off the top of my head I remember: medical/dental, TTC pases, club funding (although EngSoc already does this; ‘succession’ would only provide more net funding), daycare for students with children.

    • Lor

      I feel like this is a relevant article:

      ‘ Two students say there are irregularities with the U of T Students’ Union’s budget. Jack Phelan and Mike Maher have filed a report with UTSU, arguing that students’ health and dental fees are funding other projects. UTSU denies the claim, insisting that their finances are in good health and that there is nothing wrong with the budget. […]

      Najmi said this practice is the industry standard, and that it is neither irregular nor inappropriate.

      “You’re asking me, if I put three boxes of Smarties in a bowl and distributed the Smarties, which came from which box,” said Najmi. “[It] wouldn’t make sense to present in our budget a specific breakdown of what goes where.” ‘

      • Ryan Bradley

        The infamous Smarties argument. I won’t forget that one any time soon. If only I could have gotten away with that argument when presenting my operating budget to constituents as a VP Finance, life would have been so much easier.

  • Hardy Weinberg

    When I saw this article I kind of rolled my eyes and asked: Is this another defederation threat? Something that almost occurs almost annually. Like I have always said if UTSU and the college/profac councils go to DEFCON 1 the biggest losers will be students. Has anyone brought up the concern that defederation, the campaigning for and against and the legal fees will be in the hundreds of thousands? The brunt of which will be paid by engineers, SMC, and Trin students. Also in the age of college transparency and poorly funded student clubs/services, anyone going to sound the alarm bells that our college/profac and union leaders are secretly hoarding money to go nuclear on each other? If this does go to a referendum, UTSU will bring its A game, and from what I hear it is better than what they do during election time.

    Like stated elsewhere there is concerns for services provided. Some of the services that require external groups will be harder because now the colleges/profac have a smaller student population to bargain with, so external companies will be less likely to give discounts. Beyond external, the college/profac councils will need to reform some aspects of their execs. None (except engineering) have a contingent plan on dealing with admin or faculty outside their college, particularly when it comes to students rights and none have a viable equity officer or policy, which would need to be added if they defederate.

    Students need to ask themselves seriously, is their money (we are talking 100,000s if not millions) is worth immediate implementation of the discussion paper Sam Greene wrote up. I support reform, not everything the paper suggests, but there are changes to be made. I also recognize that these changes require time.

    • Pierre Harfouche

      As VP Finance I would like to clarify: It was not $100 000, it was $10 000. The varsity got this information second hand. Also, if the UTSU would simply listen to it’s members, we would not have to go to court. If Engineers want out – let us leave. We are not helping the UTSU by being unhappy. Don’t bring anyone to court, accept a referendum and this whole ordeal will cost both of us $0. If one day we decide that we cannot go it alone, we will glady rejoin the UTSU – again for $0. No need for court cases!

      Now on a personal Pierre Harfouche note:

      Also, Engineering students pay $60 to the UTSU – we are more than capable of getting a good student health plan for students and bargaining for lower rates, other universities have done it [I can get you some cases if you want]. If the only usefull thing UTSU does is talk on our behalf about issues that don’t even matter to us (Engineers benefit from Flat fees for example) or issues that we can take care of ourselves (i.e. On the illegal fees charged, we were able to talk directly to our faculty and individually remove them from specific courses).

      We are not looking to seperate because of Online Voting. In fact, we’ve been talking about succeeding for years.

      • Hardy Weinberg

        How much does Engsoc and or UTSU have earmarked for campaigns? UTSU will bring its A game, and the fact that Engineering has more dues paying members than a lot of CFS members, every CFS hack from Victoria, BC to Charlottetown, PEI will descend into the engineering area.

        • Kevin P. Siu

          And engineers generally hate being harassed by ArtScis and non-UofTers in their own buildings. They’ll see how depraved CFS is. Their campaign will be counterproductive.

          • Hardy Weinberg

            In most cases yes, engineers, particularly first years who don’t appreciate multidisciplinary approach, hate artsys and CFS hacks. However, if those artscies (pronounced artsys) and CFS hacks are saying that they and Engsoc are spending student fees so that they can go toe to toe, engineers will have a different tone with both.

          • Pierre Harfouche

            So basically you’re advocating for the CFS and the UTSU to waste more student money on trying to keep us in an organisation instead of just respecting our democratic choice of leaving and costing both organisations (and all the students) $0.

            Also, just as Kevin said: Engineers do not like to get harassed in their own buildings – and many will be more sympathetic to a student group who hosts an exams database than to the CFS who is trying to sue them for leaving democratically.

    • Kevin P. Siu

      EngSoc has been extremely transparent in the matter, and has published many minutes and committee reports and issued many statements about this over the last decade. If reform takes more than a decade and still has not happened, it’s time to get out.

      The last time we danced this dance, EngSoc had a list of very reasonable reforms, including more election transparency, increased ProFac representation, more accountability for finances, and increasing services to clubs. Zero of these recommendations were taken after they promised to look into it.

      You know why UTSU has no bargaining power? It’s because they don’t keep their word to the people they actually bargain with. What’s the point of claiming to represent all the students and to bargain for them if you have no credibility?

      • Pierre Harfouche

        Let me tell you what the UTSU thinks about “looking into it”.

        Looking into it: A phrase used by the UTSU to buy time until a new (Insert Student Society Here) takes office and new UTSU Exec take office – at which point they hope we forget about the issues.

        Just look at Online voting, we’ve been asking them to “look into it” for months and last week a lot of people have told us “There is no time to implement it”. But this isn’t about online voting, that was just the easiest example to give.

  • UofT Snow Day

    Thought experiment:

    I don’t like Harper because he’s been re-elected to power for x years. Hence, the only way to beat him is for Ontario to defederate from Canada.

    Sounds silly, right? Now replace “Harper” with “Shaun Shepherd” and “x years” with “one year”… you get the point I’m trying to make.

    If you don’t like it then run a (clean) campaign and win!

    That’s how it’s done. Not by crying afoul each time you get less than 100% of what you want. Elections are run on ideas. Candidates need to drive people to want real change. As a voter, I’m tired of one slate always focusing way to much on the other slate – it’s creates the conditions necessary for an unhealthy election. It’s time for UofT politics to grow-up – we’re better than than the annual Varsity articles of ‘defederation/illigitimate elections/motions to remove UTSU execs that do NOTHING’ spurred by a slate whose campaign just never picked-up with the masses.

    You want change. Then be that change. But don’t pretend like yesterday’s tactics will solve anything.

    Keep it clean. Play smart. And give them hell in the election if you want to win. It’s simple. Enough of the bark without bite. I expect EngSoc, the TCM, and SMCSU may want to re-think going toe-to-toe with the campuses best campaigners. It may do us all well to let democracy reign and just run a damn good election. (Ps. There have been ZERO credible claims of electoral manipulation, so I don’t want to hear that *ish anymore. It’s old!).

    • Hardy Weinberg

      Whoever you are, I will not let you take my position of most hated person on campus! But I agree, check out the videos I posted from the 2010 election. There was an 18% voter turn out, higher than any other in the past 5 years at UofT and higher than any other university with online voting. Also it was the closest election. Unfortunately, those who ran that campaign either graduated and those who stuck around were dismissed by their peers, cap in hand.

    • Pierre Harfouche

      U of T Snow day. People are not denying that the UTSU has great campaigners, we are simply stating that it is hard for anyone else to campaign when the UTSU is backed by the full force of the CFS. One year they brought bus loads of people from OTHER SCHOOLS to campaign for them.

      We cannot compete with that many resources. It is impossible.

      • campaign

        Change made an attempt. Lately, nobody has been making ANY attempt at all. The CFS helps the incumbents yes, but that’s no excuse for running lack luster campaigns. StudentsFirst was pretty disorganized, didn’t have a website, campaigned pretty late, and didn’t advertise their platform effectively. CRO meddling or not, the vote deferential tells a story.

        • Shannon

          Even still, Change ran their campaign with actual U of T students, in the middle of midterms, taking breaks from campaigns to go write essays. We were organized, but we were still students going up against a machine.

          I stood campaigning beside a girl who kept saying “it’s the right choice for OUR University!” I think we had a polite conversation about how she was from York? Her friend down the sidewalk, he was definitely from Ryerson. We have mutual friends. They were executives from those student unions. Who were being paid by their schools’ unions. Professional politicians vs. regular students.

          Even if you have a great campaign, that’s a lot to go up against.

        • Brett

          While the UTSU and their CFS buddies are organizing for the next election, I’m attending class, writing essays and working a part-time job. Students cannot compete with full-time campaign staff.

      • UofT Snow Day

        Pierre, what does the UTSU-CFS relationship have to do with proposals to move to online voting? Or even electoral reform? Or even ‘defederation’?

        These are all distinct issues, which carry their own set of concerns. As a voter who has payed close attention to all sides, I find it weird that the CFS card is being pulled when I have (1) neither seen nor heard of any definitive CFS officials injected their thoughts into either online voting, election reform or defederation and (2) the CFS, I’m sure, are busy somewhere doing God knows what.

        Furthermore, to your claim for the Union being anti-democratic: this is utterly false. Students voted to shut down the November AGM, democratically. Students debated on items for the January SGM, democratically (albeit it was a rather long meeting – over 4 hrs…come on folks!) and members will have the opportunity to continue to vote, debate, and engage for the meeting slated for this Tuesday.

        As someone who has started the twitter account @UofTSnowDay (Follow it!), I have also been involved in two UTSU commission. I have seen first hand that the work tasked to the commission chairs comes directly from the decision of the commission, via a simple democratic vote! With all of this talk about anti-democratic structure, I implore you to identify what, specifically, is anti-democratic? Is it that you didn’t get online voting? Because I hear that was voted on by member of the UTSU Board, who were democratically elected? Is it that you want to host a referenda?

        All I’m saying is that too often folks claim illegitimacy for feigned interest in the priorities held by elected representatives. I have a feigned interest for my student society’s priorities, but would I ever claim that those representatives, or their decisions, are illegitimate – no.

        It all comes down to election time. If you want a team that represents your interests build it or support it.

        UofT has had enough of the politics of allegations. We need to stop the hallowed claims that the UTSU is anti-democratic, corrupt, senile, purple, whale…whatever.

        You want change. It starts with the election process. Run a clean campaign that catches the attention of the people, by golly, you just might put up a fight.

        Put up a stink by crapping on the electoral process (which, rumour has it, is being updated!), or raising the alarm of defederation and you’ll get more of the same team.

        Because in the words of a wise YouTube star, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”.

        • Anonymous

          I ran with Change years ago and I enjoyed running a clean campaign. To respond to your points, I know of at least 3 clean opposition campaigns. They never completely beat incumbents or incumbent-favored candidates. I know a few people who managed to make it onto the UTSU committees through the election, but this never settled doubts about the fairness of the election process and audit. As a result there is student apathy regarding the union (but not college councils!) which leads even fewer people to get involved.

          The Union does not need to surrender its authority as a student representative body, it just needs to find a way to make the elections legitimate in the eyes of the students. They could learn from college student councils which don’t have these problems, and which tend to have a higher turnout.

          The UCLIT is the oldest democratically elected student body in Canada, and I am proud to say I am an alumni from that college. It would be great if UTSU would approach them or the student councils combined to talk about a learning process, or perhaps a joint election cycle. As for implementing online voting, that is the only commuter-friendly way of handling this, and I think that is an absolute minimum worth adopting if only to increase student participation and the power of student advocacy.

          As for EngSoc, they have talked about this for years. Not surprised to see it, but yeah, it’s sad. Other student unions don’t have this problem because they elect a “parliament union”, so that students with different political views always have representation. That might be a way to accommodate groups on campus with different interests.


        • Kevin P. Siu

          Which body votes for the composition of the committees and commissions? Who is in charge of executing on the commission items? Who selects the CRO? Who establishes the rules of the election? Who hires the poll clerks? (And I have seen poll clerks campaigning for the UTSU/CFS incumbent slate – not illegitimate? You tell me!)

          UTSU is being hypocritical by simultaneously attacking Harper and the Conservatives for being power-hungry, manipulative, and undemocratic while implementing all of those same tactics.

          Yes, change is happening, and there is more than one way than to play by rules rigged against you.

        • Pierre Harfouche

          Hi U of T Snow day.

          Thanks for your comments. Here is what I mean by “anti-democratic”.

          “UTM students were barred from leaving until they could vote on a motion that would have allowed for greater discussion of electoral reform. Once UTM students were permitted to leave, the number of attendees dropped below quorum and the meeting was ruled out of order.”

          Is that democracy right there? This was reported in the UTM’s Medium.

          Now we can’t trust student press, but many seasoned U of T Engineers, Arts and science students and UTSU “reformists” can cite numerous examples of shady elections.

          Also, the fact that the UTSU Exec stood up in a room at the end of the SGM to try and adjourn the meeting idefinately instead of post poning the time, or that they made no effort to get people to come fullfll the quorum requirement so that the SGM could finish, shows how dedicated they are to actually listening to students. There are 4 motions left on the agenda, one about mental health, but the UTSU exec all voted to adjourn the meeting indefinitely. How’s that for a Student Government which cares about our interests?

          • UofT Snow Day

            UofT Snow Day here again!

            Pierre, you don’t care about the mental health campaign; or at the very least, its not at the top of your priority list. This whole year you’ve been ranting on about online voting. Let’s keep the trolling to me.

            And the UTM students are from UTM and the broader region. The meeting went on for 4 hours…I mean, not to sound sympathetic but If I was in a room for 4 hours I’d want to leave too go home too.

            I also want to point out that all 5 people messaging on this thing have, throughout the whole year, been a fairly toxic bunch. I’ve heard discussions about changing the union, but have anyone attended commission meetings? Or has anyone actually been apart of any of the other work?

            There seems to be an unhealthy fixation on the negative amongst this group. Maybe folks should reflect on whether or not your strategies are working? There not convincing me, my friends, my classmates, and are in fact, turning off the campus from all things student leader focused.

            “We aint got time for that”.

          • Anonymous

            Again, you ask good questions such as

            “I also want to point out that all 5 people messaging on this thing have, throughout the whole year, been a fairly toxic bunch. I’ve heard discussions about changing the union, but have anyone attended commission meetings? Or has anyone actually been apart of any of the other work?”

            The funny thing in all of this is that there is actually a UTSU rep for that at your college, and that person should be the one who you can get that info from. You will have to go through your college council to find him or her, and then you can get the answers you seek. In my experience that never worked, hence my opinion of the union – but I hope it has changed, and perhaps you will be luckier than I was.

            I think it is interesting that this sort of info is unavailable on the UTSU website, and I think you have a right to the minutes of those committees. That stuff should not be restricted to attendants. All your questions are good, so why don’t you use your rights as a student and get that info? Tell you what, see if you can get that info from your college council as well, so you can compare the two in terms of access and service.

          • Anon

            the minutes are available online under about UTSU -> documents…

  • Mike Cowan

    I’d like it noted that I at no point in time informed anybody at The Varsity that St. Mike’s plans to do anything more than determine whether or not it’s desirable for SMC to defederate from UTSU. .

  • Brandon Clim

    Has the law firm’s review of the UTSU electoral policies been made public? If so, does anybody have a link to it?

  • Ani

    Haha, as an alum, I’d love to find a way to donate to the defederation law firm fund/contribute to this cause.

    I was on the board last year and there was zero representation of any of the actual constituents or everyday student. Definitely not an organization that can cater to the multiple needs of different colleges, definitely an organization that’s out of touch.

  • Mike

    I’m an engineering student and I do not support what the engsoc leadership clique wants to do at all. They aren’t speaking for me or any of my classmates who I’ve spoken to. I really think this is a boneheaded ego trip of some children not getting their own way.

    • Pierre Harfouche

      We can chat if you’d like, I’d love to hear your side of the story – perhaps I’m missing something.
      We are in no way airing our grievances and taking it out on the UTSU (or at least I hope that’s not what it looks like).

  • David C. Fox

    I assume that the Conservatives and the law firm leading this charge are going to be handsomely rewarded by the provincial or federal parties? I do wish the Varsity would do more work to see the links between these “defederation” moves and the party in power in Ottawa. Anything to weaken any progressive voice is being pushed behind the scenes by the Tories. It’s breathtaking.