UTSU SGM 2016. Mallika Makkar/THE VARSITY

The University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) Special General Meeting (SGM) became an informal town hall-style gathering on Januray 28 after the meeting failed to reach its required quorum attendance. In order to be quorate, the January 28 meeting needed at least 150 members in the room carrying a minimum of 350 votes via proxy. 

With a total of 178 votes at the meeting, the SGM did not proceed. The motions that were on the agenda will be forwarded to the UTSU’s Board of Directors and will be voted on by the board at a later date.

UTSU president Ben Coleman blamed the low attendance on poor weather and the fact that “there is no existential crisis,” referring to the efforts to pass a legally compliant board structure at the two previous general meetings. 

Motions set for the agenda included items on computerized voting, paper ballots, an accessible computer lab, an endorsement and donation to the Black Lives Matter movement, and an expression of solidarity  with the Cape Breton University Students’ Union. Some notable discussions surrounded examination of the UTSU’s relationship with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and ethical divestment.

BDS and ethical divestment 

The ethical divestment motion moved by second-year University College student Aidan Swirsky calls for opposition to investment of U of T funds in any company profiting from unethical practices regardless of where the company is, or where violations take place. 

Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement attended the meeting in support of the motion. Unlike BDS, however, Swirsky’s motion does not specify a specific regional conflict or particular population, electing to target the university’s investments in corporations complicit in human rights violations more broadly.

BDS is a movement to end human rights violations in Palestine, targeting companies and governments that contribute to such abuse. 

Swirsky, who is a vocal opponent of BDS, drew distinctions between his motion and the BDS movement. He told The Varsity in January that “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.” 

In a joint statement to The Varsity, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) and the Graduate Students’ Union BDS Committee (U of T Divest) said they have long called on U of T to divest from such companies. They claim the motion supports their campaign calling on the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation to divest its holdings in Hewlett Packard, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman for the businesses contributions to Israel’s national defense infrastructure.. According to these two groups, these companies profit from violations of Palestinian rights through Israel’s occupation and apartheid.

However, SAIA and U of T Divest still expressed concerns with the motion, saying that the scope of the motion may be too narrow to be effective. 

“We are concerned that the motion’s vague and ambiguous language undermines its utility since it is not possible to effectively conduct human rights advocacy without naming those who are committing the rights violations and explicitly affirming solidarity with those whose rights are being violated,” the statement said. “Also of concern is the erroneous reference to the ‘University Investment Funds Policy’, which only considers investment risk.” 

The Canadian Federation of Students 

First-year Victoria College students Stephanie Spagnuolo and Carleigh Campbell moved a motion to continue the committee struck earlier this year to investigate the relationship between the UTSU and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). Their motion would strike the committee each year with the mandate of considering ending the UTSU’s membership with the organization.    

The CFS is a national student advocacy group comprised of member student unions. It also has various provincial branches. The UTSU has been a member of the CFS since 2002. In 2013, several divisions at U of T held referenda to divert fees from the UTSU to their respective student councils, citing the union’s membership of the CFS among the main reasons for their desire to leave the UTSU.   

Spagnuolo and Campbell argued in the text of their motion that the CFS “is inefficient and borderline undemocratic,” and “does not adequately represent the students of the University of Toronto.” 

“[We] believe there are merits to a broad national student union, principles of good and responsible government dictates that we should continue to critically examine our relationships with this broader movement,” Spagnuolo and Campbell said. “The first responsibility of this union must be to its membership.”   

“The University of Toronto [Students’ Union] pays over $700,000 into this bureaucratic, staff-focused union structured from the top-down rather than from the bottom. We created this motion because we believe that there should be a committee to examine the relationship between the UTSU and the CFS. We have found many documented instances of the undemocratic behaviour of the CFS and student politicians over the CFS slate.”   

Members were divided on the topic and heated debate followed. Abdulla Omari, a UTSU director representing UTM, commented on the UTSU’s relationship with the CFS. 

“We look at it as a body that’s being overbearing, controlling, but again how does one make a national union with, I believe, over 100 members, and so many thousands of [individual] members — how does one keep all that working?” said Omari. “You can’t keep that working with a low pressure of control. I think it comes down to the fact that, when you’re looking at this, it’s your decision to leave if you want.” 

Elaborating on their earlier statements, Spagnuolo and Campbell remarked that the CFS’ governance structure and policies restrict access to democracy.   

“Students wishing to leave the CFS would need to collect 10,000 signatures on top of our stressful academics and student life, just to express what should be a basic democratic right,” they said.

They concluded by suggesting U of T students to try to get involved in their elected student body to hold them accountable where they see fit, and investigate where their fees go.

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