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.