How to move forward from the SMCSU financial investigation

The student government’s activities are of great concern to students, and students should have a say in how its conflicts are resolved

How to move forward from the SMCSU financial investigation

The recent financial investigation conducted on the St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU) has uncovered fundamental structural issues with the organization. Most importantly, the portion of the report that was made public indicated that SMCSU was plagued by corruption and a “culture of entitlement,” and a broken fiscal accountability system.

The accountability concerns revealed by the report are serious, and demand immediate attention. As a student government, SMCSU is tasked with representing and being responsible for its students, and it has failed to do so on both fronts. However, the council should be held directly accountable to St. Michael’s College students by allowing them to play a direct role in the remediation process, alongside the administration. It is unclear whether or not this is going to be the case.

One concern that the report brings to light is the power dynamics between SMCSU and the student body at large. Being a student representative is as much a privilege as it is an office, and it appears that some members of SMCSU do not respect that.

Speaking to what SMC President David Mulroney labeled as a “culture of entitlement” that appears to be present within SMCSU, the report notes significant expenditures on alcohol, food, and outings. For example, just over $300 was spent on dinner for two individuals. Additionally, a total of $50,677.90 was spent over the span of six years for “professional development,” which included annual retreats to Tyrolean Village Resort in Blue Mountain for council members.

In this context, the report quotes one student who expresses that such behaviour is part of the culture within the council, particularly among executive members. This sense of entitlement has long been propagated by a kind of “passing down the torch” system, where the most important thing was not to break with tradition.

In his statement on the topic, Mulroney said that the SMCSU operated on “three levels.” Although the vast majority of students involved were genuinely committed to student interests, they were kept “at arm’s length from information and decision making.” It was a top tier of students who held “real control of money, information and decision-making.” This group, an “entitled elite,” had “turned their backs on the students and the institution that they should have served, and treated SMCSU as a private Club,” Mulroney wrote.

What this ultimately reveals is distance and isolationism, not only between SMCSU and the body of students it should represent, but within the organization itself — making it difficult to hold those members with the most power accountable.

A second concern is the lack of institutional mechanisms for resolution when such issues arise. As explained by the report, a broken fiscal management and accountability system within SMCSU has allowed entitlement and irresponsibility to persist unhindered. The report noted several cases in which poor cash management led to missing and unaccounted for funds. Worse, there was no proper bookkeeping process, allowing for frequent unidentified deposits and expenditures, as well as the movement of funds without receipts.

Perhaps if institutional mechanisms existed to contain this behaviour, egregious violations of student trust, like third-party kickback payments, would not have taken place. In one particular instance, budgeted figures suggest deliberate fictitious overbilling to accommodate what was illicitly received. In an op-ed for The Varsity, former SMCSU Vice-President Jessica Afonso explicitly admitted to and condemned the prevalence of these practices within the organization.

For students across campus, and particularly St. Michael’s College students, all of this should be viewed with concern. As the primary representative of student interests at the College, it is SMCSU’s role to operate on behalf of these interests in a principled and professional fashion. As the SMCSU Constitution states, the organization “shall effectively represent the interests of its members” and accordingly “initiate measures and support organizations whose objective is to improve the quality of education and student life.” Clearly, the practices that the organization has been involved in over the past few years do not meet this standard.

It is also important to consider how this affects our reputation as students. The organization, as much as it represents our interests, also represents the student body at large. SMCSU representatives are elected through a democratic process, and it is unfortunate that their actions now reflect on their constituents and on the ability of students in general to handle significant responsibilities.

With this in mind, it is important that students have a hand in the reforms that are to take place. Keeping in mind SMCSU’s purpose as a democratic agent on behalf of the students of St. Michael’s College, as well as the clear infringements on students’ interests through their activities in the past, students should be the ones to decide its ultimate direction.

Yet, at this point, the organization’s future remains uncertain. In response to the report and a subsequent Snapchat scandal, the SMCSU resolved to prorogue its activities. In February, St. Michael’s College announced that it had formed a committee to organize new elections. Although reform and restructuring is clearly necessary, the relationship between students and this committee in undertaking this reform is unknown. For instance, although SMC has expressed its support for democratically-elected student government, it will now be keeping a close eye on the organization, having appointed an administrative adviser to oversee SMCSU.

For the sake of efficiency, the committee can certainly oversee the implementation of major reforms. However, the most democratic and transparent option would be to allow students to have a final say on what is implemented via referendum, and specific policies can be proposed and discussed in the upcoming election, whenever it might be. In this way, the changes that are necessary to avoid further corruption can be implemented, and the integrity of the student government can hopefully be salvaged.

Sam Routley is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science and Philosophy.

USMC admin, SMCSU had advance knowledge of leaked Snapchat videos

Complaint of "Islamophobia" in videos lodged with Multi-Faith Centre, USMC weeks before leak

USMC admin, SMCSU had advance knowledge of leaked Snapchat videos

The University of St. Michael’s College (USMC) administration had knowledge of the widely-circulated Snapchat videos taken by then Vice-President of the union Kevin Vando and labelled as Islamophobic at least two weeks before they were circulated on social media, The Varsity has learned.

The videos were recorded by Vando at a house party hosted by former Vice-President Joseph Crimi. They show former SMCSU Councillor Sara Gonsalves singing “Would you be my Muslim boy?” to the tune of “American boy” by Estelle, and later reading from a book titled “Islam for Dummies.” These videos prompted widespread public backlash and resulted in the leave of absence and later resignation of Vando.

According to a December 6 comment left by Ammara Wasim — the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) Vice President of Communications — on the group’s Facebook post about the events, SMCSU enacted mandatory equity training for its executives “because the MSA reached out to [the USMC] administration two weeks ago. They did not casually make that decision over the weekend while the videos were being circulated.” Wasim went on, saying that, “The St.Mike’s administration has already sat down and discussed this incident a week prior to the video leaks. The MSA has been trying to get in personal contact or receive a statement from St.Michaels college and general administration at UofT.”

Vando’s letter of resignation from SMCSU was presented to the SMCSU council on December 5. The Varsity has obtained a copy of the letter, in which he places much of the blame for the mishandling of the situation on SMCSU President Zachary Nixon, who has also since resigned.

The letter claims that Nixon first approached Vando on November 25 about a complaint brought to U of T and referred to the SMC admin about the videos. It states that Nixon had a meeting with the USMC administration on Friday, November 25. Vando was unable to attend, and the meeting was not pushed to the following Monday despite his request to be present, Vando wrote.

According to Vando’s letter, Nixon “advised me that I would have to issue an apology, disassociate with [former SMCSU Vice President Joseph] Crimi and Sara [Gonsalves] on social media, and council would have to attend sensitivity training. I was assured that the situation was ‘handled.’” Vando claims that he tried to meet with Nixon throughout the next week to draft a statement, but was put off and told by Nixon on December 2 to “relax” — the videos were leaked on the internet the same day.

In the wake of the leak, Vando announced a leave of absence on December 3. “Four hours after my statement was posted, I was called by Zach and notified that a leave of absence would not suffice, and that I would have to resign,” or face an impending impeachment being arranged by members of SMCSU. Vando claims that Nixon only gave him 10 minutes to resign or face public denouncement. “I made the decision, although haste, to resign,” Vando writes in the letter.

SMCSU released a public statement condemning the videos on December 4. Vando claims that, had he been present at the meeting with Nixon and the USMC administration, the situation could have been better managed. “Had I been present at the meetings a week ago, this situation could have been remedied. Had I had a chance to present what truly happened at that party, this situation could’ve been less severe … It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life, being handled and told that everything was fine, and was going to be fine, when I was well aware that it would not.”

Althea Blackburn-Evans, Director of Media Relations at U of T, confirmed to The Varsity that the complaint to the central administration came to the Multi-Faith Centre, which then “referred the matter to the Vice-Provost, Students office, and they then reached out immediately to the leadership at St. Michael’s” on the issue. “This group is within the jurisdiction of St. Michael’s, and how they address it will be up to them to confirm,” she said.

Blackburn-Evans says that the university administration is “united with the president and principal at St. Michael’s in our concerns about this issue, and the Vice-Provost, Students office worked closely with them as they addressed it.”

On December 8, SMCSU council members voted to prorogue the union’s activities until early 2017.

Stefan Slovak, Director of Communications, Events and Outreach at USMC, formally declined The Varsity’s request for comment on this issue.

Wasim, Vando, Nixon, and the MSA could not be reached for comment.

U of T’s biggest stories of 2016

The Varsity looks back at events that made headlines this past year

U of T’s biggest stories of 2016
Divestment march at U of T. CC Flickr by Milan Ilnyckyj.

Divestment march at U of T. CC Flickr by Milan Ilnyckyj.

Fossil fuel divestment report recommendations rejected

In February, U of T President Meric Gertler rejected recommendations from the Presidential Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels for the university to divest from companies that “engage in egregious behaviour and contribute inordinately to social injury.” The decision came after three years of student protests calling for U of T to take a stronger leadership role in mitigating the effect of climate change, with student-led environmental advocacy group UofT350 at the forefront of the cause.

In the report detailing his decision, Gertler moved for the university to take a “firm-by-firm” approach to divestment as opposed to a blanket divestment approach. His method proposed making decisions based on environmental, social, and governance-based factors (ESG), the advantage being that UofT could reconcile its fiduciary responsibilities with climate action.

UofT350 expressed disappointment over Gertler’s decision, saying that his rejection of divestment “totally ignores the urgent need to act on climate change, suggesting that tactics like ESG, shareholder activism and carbon disclosure are sufficient to encourage rapid societal shifts to carbon free economies.” The group engaged in several protests against Gertler’s decision, including one at the 2016 Cressy Awards Ceremony, in which UofT350 members dropped banners criticizing the university’s inaction.

— Josie Kao


NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

Food Services at UTSG taken over by university 

U of T announced in late January that the university would not be renewing its contract with Aramark, UTSG’s food services provider, and announced that it would take control of these services starting in August.

Employment under new management was offered to all UTSG Aramark employees, although UNITE HERE Local 75, the union representing Aramark employees on campus, cited concerns regarding job security, seniority, wages, and a 90-day probationary period after their re-hiring.

These concerns sparked protests on campus; food service employees, their friends and family, other unionized workers, and students participated. UNITE HERE Local 75 also organized a seven-day hunger strike, which took place during the June convocation. Seven people participated in this hunger strike, including two UTSG food services employees; food service workers employed elsewhere; and UNITE HERE international organizing director, David Saunders.

Nearly all of the 250 food service employees were re-hired by U of T  and are now represented by CUPE 3261. An increase in hourly wages was also offered to the former Aramark employees. Under the contract with the university, workers receive $20.29 per hour  up from the $12.00 to $12.80 most workers were paid while employed by Aramark. Additionally, their employment with the university includes health plans, vacation time, and a tuition waiver for the employees and their dependents.

— Shanna Hunter


NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

Canadian Federation of Students faced criticism from U of T

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), an organization that includes over 80 student unions from across the country, was the subject of a report released by the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) ad-hoc CFS committee.

The report detailed the relationship between the union and the federation and noted several concerns, including the unavailability of documents to the public, the powers granted to un-elected staff, and an “unnecessarily burdensome” process to leave the CFS.

The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) unsuccessfully attempted to deferederate and remains a member of the CFS, after a legal decision was reached in July, despite the fact that 66 per cent of students who voted in the referendum of 2014 voted to leave the federation. The referendum was seven votes short of quorum.

A UTSG campaign, called You Decide UofT, was also launched to petition for a referendum on UTSU Local 98’s membership in the CFS. You Decide UofT has claimed impartiality on the question of defederation, but believes “students should have the opportunity to decide if they want to continue to be in the CFS.”

In September, UTSU was among ten signatories of an open letter to the CFS, which cited concerns such as a lack of transparency, excessive powers possessed by federation staff, a “closed” and “exclusive” tone set at general meetings, and an overly complicated process to leave the CFS. The federation’s chairperson, Bilan Arte, later responded, saying she would “ensure their concerns are addressed” and stated that she planned to follow up with each of the ten signatories.

 The CFS National Executive has since committed to making documents, such as financial statements, available online in hope of increasing transparency. Additionally, a motion to lower the signature threshold needed on petitions to trigger defederation referendums was approved at the CFS National General Meeting, which took place from November 18–21.

 — Shanna Hunter


PHOTO COURTESY OF SYED ISHTIAQUE AHMED

PHOTO COURTESY OF SYED ISHTIAQUE AHMED

U of T student, Tahmid Hasib Khan, held in Bangladesh then released 

U of T student Tahmid Hasib Khan was detained by police for suspected involvement in a hostage crisis in early July, when armed militants stormed into the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Khan was en route to a summer internship with UNICEF and stopped in Dhaka to visit his family. Five militants entered the restaurant while he was eating with friends, and held the patrons hostage.

Khan was among 13 hostages who escaped unharmed, but was taken into police custody after the attack. Khan’s friends and family demanded his release, but Khan’s status was unknown until August 4, when his arrest was announced by the Bangladeshi Police.

A Facebook page called “Free Tahmid” was created to support Khan’s release and has amassed over 67,000 likes. Weeks later, a video surfaced showing Tahmid holding a gun along an alleged attacker, but according to witnesses of the incident, Khan was forced by the militants to hold the weapon.  

U of T President Meric Gertler penned a letter to Global Affairs Canada and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, offering the university’s assistance. Global Affairs Canada noted that it was limited in how it could help Khan, due to the fact that he was not a Canadian citizen.

Khan was released in October, although he was charged with not cooperating with police for interviews on July 10th and 21st.

 — Vivian Li


UTSU AGM. NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

UTSU AGM. NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

A year at the UTSU: lawsuit, health coverage expansion, election disqualifications

The UTSU had initiated a lawsuit in September 2015 against its former President, Yolen Bollo-Kamara; its former Vice President Internal and Services, Cameron Wathey; and former Executive Director Sandra Hudson.The UTSU claimed that Bollo-Kamara and Wathey fraudulently authorized 2,589.5 hours of overtime pay for Hudson, leaving her with a severance package of $247,726.40, which accounted for approximately 10 per cent of the union’s operating budget. This was despite Hudson allegedly never having claimed any overtime hours during her employment.

In January, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU)’s legal dispute with Bollo-Kamara came to a close after the union’s announcement that both parties had reached a settlement and it would no longer be pursuing a lawsuit against her. The union and Wathey settled their dispute in February. The terms of both settlements remain confidential, although Wathey’s affadavit, made public, stated that he did not financially benefit from the arrangement.

The UTSU’s legal dispute with Hudson is ongoing. Hudson argues that she earned the money that she was paid by the UTSU. She also filed a counterclaim against the union, seeking $300,000 in damages, and alleging that the union breached the confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses of their agreement.

Later in the year, it was announced that the union was expanding the services offered through the UTSU health and dental plan, including psychological care. The changes, which took effect in September 2016, entitled members to receive up to $100 of coverage per session with a registered psychologist, for up to 20 sessions per year.

The union’s elections in March took a surprising turn when all members of the 1UofT slate were disqualified after rulings from the union’s Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC) and the election’s chief returning officer (CRO).

Complications also arose with the UTSU-led Student Commons project, with the union forecasting roughly $300,000 in operational deficits within the first year of the building’s opening.

In October, the UTSU’s proposal for a student levy averaging $3.75 per session for the next five years failed, with 74.5 per cent of voters voting against the fee. The proposed levy would have supported clubs, events, and student service funding.

After a history of annual general meetings (AGM) marked by delays, disruptions, and heated debates, this year’s UTSU’s AGM held on October 28 was praised for its civility and lack of controversy. The meeting saw three motions carried, including the establishment of an Appellate Board, for students to voice concerns or complaints about the election process. The other two motions concerned the union’s budgeting process.

— Emaan Thaver


NATHAN CHAN/THEVARSITY

NATHAN CHAN/THEVARSITY

Black Liberation Collective called for UTSU boycott

In October, the Black Liberation College called for a boycott of the UTSU and arranged a protest at the UTSU office, with posters plastering the UTSU office outlining the demands of BLC and identifying former and current members of UTSU by name for their alleged anti-Blackness.

The demands outlined by BLC of the UTSU were for increased funding for Black student groups on campus, for UTSU to drop its ongoing lawsuit with former UTSU executive director Sandra Hudson, and for UTSU to organize a town hall meeting to address the alleged systemic anti-Black racism within UTSU.

A statement released by UTSU after the protest addressed funding demands, stating that UTSU would establish “guaranteed funding for Level 3 clubs at the point of renewed recognition.”

On the lawsuit with Hudson, the statement called for “all individuals affected by the current legal dispute, including all parties to the lawsuit, to be treated with respect.”

In response to BLC demands for a town hall, UTSU held a town hall on November 10 regarding anti-Black racism that garnered five attendees. UTSU was lambasted by BLC for its lack of consultation with Black student groups on campus and poor organization, calling it a “useless” ploy “for good PR.”

Poor attendance at this initial town hall led to the cancellation of a second town hall on anti-Black racism that was meant to be held during the eXpression Against Oppression (XAO) week of activities. Though the UTSU stated it would organize another town hall in collaboration with Black student groups, but could not provide a timeline for when this would occur.

 — Lesley Flores


NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

St. Michael’s College Students’ Union

The St. Michael’s College Students’ Union (SMCSU) has seen its fair share of controversy this academic year.

In late July, the college administration launched an investigation into SMCSU’s finances after finding evidence of financial mismanagement in the union’s practices.

According to a blog post published in September by David Mulroney, President of St. Michael’s College, the investigation found that SMCSU’s finances were “primarily cash-based due to the union’s frequent club nights that take cash at the door and are often poorly accounted for.”

Mulroney announced his decision to restructure the college’s relationships with its three main student-associated groups — SMCSU, the St. Michael’s College Residence Council, and The Mike newspaper — and assign an academic advisor for each group.

In December, the union again found itself in hot water when a set of Snapchat videos involving current and former SMCSU council members surfaced on social media, which were widely called Islamophobic.

Recorded by the union’s then-Vice President Kevin Vando at a birthday party held at the residence of former SMCSU Vice-President Joseph Crimi, the videos show a former SMCSU councillor reading from a book titled Islam for Dummies and singing, “Would you be my Muslim boy?” to the tune of Estelle’s “American Boy.”

The backlash following the leak of the videos saw Vando resign and condemnation from the UTSU. SMCSU released a statement distancing itself from the actions of the party attendees, stressing that the event had not been sponsored or endorsed by the union. It also announced that it was implementing mandatory equity training for all its council members.

Days later, SMCSU announced in a Facebook post that it would be proroguing its activities until early 2017. SMCSU President Zachary Nixon also resigned, and it is unclear who is currently at the helm of SMCSU.

— Emaan Thaver


STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

Jordan Peterson 

U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson became the subject of international media attention after The Varsity reported on his YouTube lecture series criticizing “political correctness.”

In the first video, which he released on September 27, Peterson decries Bill C-16, a piece of federal legislation that would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to criminalize harassment and discrimination based on gender identity, as well as the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s policies on discrimination based on gender identity. He also states in the video that he would decline a student’s request to be referred to by non-binary pronouns.

Several student groups on campus — including the UTSU, the Arts & Science Students’ Union, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, and the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union — issued statements criticizing Peterson’s remarks. In addition, activists from the trans community organized a rally and teach-in on trans issues in front of Sidney Smith Hall.

A week after that rally, students supporting Jordan Peterson held their own “U of T Rally for Free Speech” on campus, which was punctuated by conflict and outbursts of violence after it was met with counter-protests. The student group University of Toronto Students in Support of Free Speech was founded and recognized by Ulife after the rally. Subsequently, U of T announced that some members of the trans community on campus had received threats of violence on social media.

On October 23, Arts & Science Dean David Cameron and Vice-Provost Academic Programs Sioban Nelson sent a letter to Peterson, requesting that he refer to students by their requested pronouns and refrain from making such public statements. Peterson harshly criticized these letters, saying that they were attempts to silence him by the institution.

The university hosted a forum on Bill C-16 on November 19. Peterson debated Law Professor and Director of the Bonham Centre of Sexual Diversity at University College Brenda Cossman, and University of British Columbia (UBC) Professor of Education and Senior Associate Dean, Administration, Faculty Affairs & Innovation Mary Bryson. Mayo Moran, a U of T Law Professor who also serves as the Provost of Trinity College, moderated the forum.

Peterson has received ample publicity following his YouTube lectures, and has received a major influx of patrons on Patreon, a fundraising platform, since he began speaking publicly about political correctness.

— Tom Yun

SMCSU to prorogue activities until 2017

Union President Zachary Nixon resigns

SMCSU to prorogue activities until 2017

The St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU) has announced that it will be proroguing its activities “until early 2017.”

SMCSU announced on Facebook that council members met today to “discuss a path ahead, in wake of the public attention it has been receiving this past week.”

“This will allow members the opportunity to reflect on whether or not they feel they are able to continue in their current capacities on SMCSU,” the statement continues. “Please continue to monitor our social media channels for further updates in the New Year.”

The statement likely refers to two Snapchat videos involving SMCSU representatives that were widely circulated on social media and have been called Islamophobic.

The videos were recorded by then-SMCSU Vice-President Kevin Vando at a birthday party hosted at the home of former SMCSU Vice-President Joseph Crimi. They show former SMCSU councilor Sara Gonsalves reading a book called Islam for Dummies and singing, “Would you be my Muslim boy?” to the tune of Estelle’s “American Boy.”

Vando resigned from SMCSU on Monday. SMCSU President Zachary Nixon also appears to have resigned his post, a public update on Facebook shows. It is unclear who is currently at the helm of the union.

The Varsity has reached out to Nixon and the SMC administration for comment.

SMC President criticizes SMCSU, calls for renewal

Mulroney to present report on proposed reforms to relationship between university, student groups to SMC Collegium

SMC President criticizes SMCSU, calls for renewal

David Mulroney, the President of the University of St. Michael’s College (SMC) announced Monday his intentions to reform the university’s relationship with its main student groups: the St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU), The Mike newspaper, and the St. Michael’s Resident’s Council.

Mulroney plans to report to the Collegium — the highest governing body at SMC — Wednesday about the creation of a “new constitution” aimed at correcting a disconnect between the university and its student groups. The announcement was made in the form of an article on the university’s website and refers to this disconnect as the existence of “two solitudes.”

Mulroney’s article focuses on what he calls “disconnects between SMCSU’s program of activities and our mission as a Catholic University,” and says that SMC’s “dubious” reputation as U of T’s party school has come about as a result of events held by SMCSU.

“I was struck by the number of events I had attended where I saw many staff and alumni, but at which students were largely absent,” he wrote. “Similarly, SMCSU’s program of activities had almost nothing to do with the life of a Catholic intellectual community.”

Mulroney also called Brennan Hall — which houses a lounge space and the SMCSU offices — an “unfriendly territory for all but a small group of insiders.”

“I rarely completed a circuit of Brennan Hall without stopping to talk to students about inappropriate language and anti-social behaviour,” he continued.

He also expressed concern’s over the SMCSU’s financial management and transparency, which is the focus of an ongoing investigation that the college is conducting.

“[S]tudent government was, at its highest levels, embracing a closed, entitlement culture that actually parodied what good government is all about,” Mulroney writes. “As a former public servant who cares deeply about these things, it pained me to see SMCSU’s senior leadership adopt—and enforce—a lifestyle and practices that would be more suitable at a fraternity house,” a portion of the article reads.

Mulroney indicated that his report will be made public once it is reviewed by the Collegium.

This story is developing, more to follow.