File photo: Students vote at the 2015 UTSU AGM. Mallika Makkar/THE VARSITY

Preparations are underway for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Special General Meeting (SGM) later this month, where several member-submitted motions will be discussed and voted upon.

The agenda for the SGM includes a motion regarding the UTSU’s membership with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), a motion for “ethical divestment”, a motion to allow clubs and service groups to have a say in the UTSU’s budgeting process, a motion to create an accessible computer lab, and a motion to authorize computerized voting.

The SGM marks the UTSU’s third general meeting this academic year. Motions that were not discussed at the UTSU’s Annual General Meeting on October 7 will also be debated at the SGM.

Among those items are a motion to ensure paper ballots for UTSU elections, a non-binding motion on free tuition; a motion calling for accountability to UTSU members, a motion on accessibility for professional faculty students, a motion for an endorsement of the Black Lives Matter movement, a motion on prevention of sexual violence, and a motion to stand in solidarity with the Cape Breton University Students’ Union (CBUSU).

The CBUSU lost a case against the CFS and was ordered to pay $295,000 in membership fees plus legal charges, resulting in the union filing for bankruptcy.

The motion on the CFS

Stephanie Spagnuolo, a first-year student at Victoria College is moving to strike a committee to investigate the UTSU’s relationship with the CFS every year and to have the UTSU “contemplate leaving the CFS.”

“We find this motion necessary because, as a university with upwards of 50,000 students within its union, proper representation for our students is very important, and the CFS does not adequately provide that,” Spagnuolo said. “The CFS appears to favour staff over elected officials when the officials are obviously the people chosen by the students to represent their wants and needs.”

The preamble of the CFS motion describes the federation as “inefficient and borderline undemocratic, and restricts the democratic process” and claims that the CFS “does not adequately represent the students of the University of Toronto.”

“The Union’s relationship with the CFS should be thoroughly examined, particularly on the question of if this relationship should continue. This is achievable only through passing this motion,” Spagnuolo said.

Spagnuolo described Bylaw I.3a.iii of the CFS’ by-laws, which states that 20 per cent of a union’s membership must sign a petition in order for there to be a referendum to leave the federation, as “an archaic barrier to democratic vote on decertification.”

“Students disinterested and disenchanted with the CFS, like myself, would have to collect ten thousand signatures on top of their stressful academics – just to express what should be a basic democratic right,” she said. Spagnuolo said that she also sees a lack of transparency in the CFS’ budget — which has not been made available online — and expressed concerns over the CFS’ lawsuit with the CBUSU.

UTSU president Ben Coleman and UTM director Hashim Yussuf both raised concerns with the wording of the motion, questioning its seriousness and suggesting that the motion was a joke.

Spagnuolo defended her wording. “My motion was written and worded sincerely, seriously and intentionally,” she said, adding “the CFS membership is a prominent part of the union’s budget and therefore deserves to be looked into thoroughly. This motion is written with the intent to better the UTSU at its core, and passing this motion will see to those improvements.”

Bilan Arte, CFS national chairperson, said that student organizing takes many forms, and that U of T students may engage with that however they like. “In the new year, with a new government, students are re-invigorated to do what we do best, unite and fight against barriers to education. This is manifesting in so many ways on campuses from coast to coast. The work and relationship of members across this country is always evolving, and members at U of T can choose to engage in any way they see fit.”

Arte said that she is confident in the CFS’ democratic structure and the bold actions resulting from student unity, naming actions such as this winter’s summit on Racialised and Indigenous Student Experience, and the national Lobby Week, as examples. She added that information on the CFS’ democratic structures and information from the organization’s most recent national meeting is available on the CFS website.

BDS motion not on agenda

Back in June 2015, UTSU vice-president equity Sania Khan outlined in her executive report that there would be an opportunity at an SGM to vote on whether the UTSU should endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The movement calls for the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM) to divest in companies that, according to pro-BDS advocates, contribute to human rights abuses in Palestine.

Members of various Jewish student groups expressed concerns with the motion, arguing that the goal of the BDS movement is to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state and that a UTSU endorsement of BDS would create a divisive atmosphere on campus, contributing  to the marginalization of Jewish students.

The UTSU’s Board of Directors voted down a motion to strike an ad-hoc BDS committee in July. At the time, a BDS motion was still set to appear on the agenda for the SGM.

However, a motion on BDS is conspicuously absent. Khan did not respond to a request for comment.

Aidan Swirksy, a second-year University College student who was vocally opposed to Khan’s plans for a BDS motion, is moving a similar but broader motion for “ethical divestment.”

Swirsky’s motion calls for the UTSU to lobby UTAM to divest from “any company that is found to profit from human rights violations, labour violations, especially those involving children, sweatshops or undocumented workers, war and weapons manufacturing, and/or the creation of environmental disasters.” This call for divestment would not be limited to companies operating in any one country or location.

“I think this motion is necessary because as students who are paying thousands of dollars in tuition to the University, it is our right to exercise some input over the investments being made with our money,” said Swirsky. He cited companies that employ child slavery in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh as examples of unethical divestment and noted the success of the fossil fuel divestment campaign.

However, Swirsky drew distinctions from his motion and BDS. “This motion is very different from BDS because it handles the concepts of ethical divestment and promotion of human rights far more accurately and responsibly than BDS is wrongly perceived to.”

“BDS promotes the academic and cultural blanket boycott of a singular country, Israel, while simultaneously espousing a demand that would lead to the destruction of said country.”

The SGM is scheduled for January 28 in Room 2118 of Sidney Smith Hall. UTSU members will be able to proxy their vote online between January 18 and January 25.

This article has been updated from a previous version to include comments from CFS national chairperson, Bilan Arte.

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