Op-ed: Recent UTSU layoffs are undemocratic and bad for students

Health and dental services and clubs may suffer as a result of austerity measures

Op-ed: Recent UTSU layoffs are undemocratic and bad for students

Fifty thousand students under the scope of Health and Dental Plan Coordinator Maria Galvez. Hundreds of clubs interfacing with Clubs and Service Groups Coordinator Vita Carlino. 14 years of service between them. Yet it took six individuals only nine minutes to officially recommend laying off these two crucial UTSU staff members at a March 27 meeting of the Services Committee — a committee whose mandate is to represent the best interests of students.

Just how they determined students’ ‘best interests’ is a mystery, as none of the affected bodies were consulted. In fact, many concerned stakeholders only learned of the decision by poring over the agenda sent out before the March 31 Board of Directors meeting.

Despite this lack of transparency, students showed up at the March 31 meeting to voice their concerns, only to be met with an overwhelming stifling of discussion. Livestreaming of the meeting was initially prohibited by the board, denying average students the right to witness it. Mathias Memmel, then Vice-President Internal and Services, attempted to prohibit debate on the Service Committee minutes, only relenting under the objections of many present. Then, a mere 10 minutes was allotted to discuss the future of the two integral staff members. The board opposed a motion to further extend debate, leaving many concerned students with words unspoken and unheard, including then-UTMSU President Nour Alideeb.

It should be no surprise that the meeting, and subsequent ones, ended in chants of protest; this was the only means for neglected and concerned members to take a stance.

This level of concern is not surprising, given Galvez and Carlino’s crucial roles. Galvez has been a consistent support, filling the gaps that the relatively new UTSU health provider Studentcare has created for students. The help students receive in accessing and understanding their health and dental plans is crucial, especially given reports of Studentcare’s poor waiting times and lacklustre customer service at UTM.

Vita has helped support clubs and several levy groups such as the Sexual Education and Peer Support Centre and Downtown Legal Services. It is through clubs that students can be supported in small communities and engaged with the students’ union and the overall student movement, and these clubs require dedicated support. To put things in perspective, consider that the Mississauga campus hired a Clubs Coordinator to meet their needs — and the St. George campus has approximately three times as many clubs. To assume the St. George campus could manage without such a position is indicative of how out of touch with student needs the new UTSU executive is.

The UTSU claims that neither the Health and Dental Plan coverage nor the clubs and service groups funding will change. But what good is it for services to exist if there aren’t adequate resources to facilitate students understanding and accessing them in a timely, efficient manner? 

Moreover, under section 5.02 of the collective agreement with CUPE 1281, the work provided by these two staff members cannot be sub-contracted out. This is a basic principle of job security and an important part of the UTSU’s responsibility to be a fair employer that supports stable, good-quality jobs for everyone, including its own staff. With the work of these two staff members essentially going unreplaced, the quality of services provided will surely suffer.

The saddest part is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We could have a students’ union with the vision to do more for students, not less. Imagine a UTSU running strong campaigns on the issues that matter most to students, such as tuition fees, affordable housing, and unemployment; a UTSU that engages with its members through regular outreach so that they are aware of what the union offers, and supports grassroots student activism in tangible ways. All of this is possible, but it requires a fundamental shift in the vision and strategy of the union, as well as the support of full-time staff to provide quality services.

The UTSU needs to grow from a small club for the privileged into a union that supports the most marginalized on campus. Without bold strides in this direction, incoming students at U of T might come to see the current executive’s austerity measures as the only option, and forget that something better is possible.  

Many students on campus are concerned that Memmel is perpetuating the same elitist, self-serving “clique of student politicians” standard he vowed to dismantle. When members are left in the dark and then bullied out of discussions that directly affect them, everyone — regardless of how they may feel about the layoffs — should question just whose interests the UTSU has at heart. Students shouldn’t demand better, they should demand nothing but the best.

 

Amanda Harvey-Sánchez is an incoming fourth-year student at Trinity College studying Environmental Studies, Social Cultural Anthropology, and Equity Studies. She is the UTSU Social Sciences Director and a member of the Save our Services, Support our Staff campaign.

José Wilson is an incoming fifth-year student at UTM studying Accounting. He is the Vice-President External at the UTMSU and also serves as the UTM Designate on the UTSU Executive Committee.

The future of the UTSU depends on the fulfilment of its campaign promises

Conflicts in response to recent layoffs should spur parties on all sides to come to a compromise

The future of the UTSU depends on the fulfilment of its campaign promises

On May 30, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board of Directors approved the elimination of two-full time staff positions. This action was taken following a campaign promise to cut spending at the union, and has caused increasing tension between the current executive and supporters of the student-led Save Our Services, Support Our Staff (SOS) movement that has developed in response.

Amidst this controversial situation, there is a growing need for the UTSU to restore a much-needed sense of credibility, trust, and assurance in order for it to truly live up to its motto of being “For Students, By Students.” Fortunately, what the UTSU has done with the layoffs tells us it is moving in the right direction.

Democratic practices are essentially comprised of three broad stages: A platform is expressed to voters, voters exercise their right to choose, and whoever comes out the winner is then tasked with executing the promises they pledged to accomplish.

UTSU President Mathias Memmel and his team are doing exactly that. Memmel campaigned with the Demand Better slate during the UTSU elections, a slate that argued that the UTSU is a “broken” organization that needs to be fixed. The elimination of the two-full time staff positions in question represented a key portion of the Demand Better electoral manifesto and Memmel’s proposed large-scale reform for the UTSU.

The changes proposed by the UTSU suggest that they know how broken the organization truly is. In order to resolve their significant budgetary debt and repair attitudes of mistrust towards the organization, there is no doubt that the UTSU needs whole-scale changes. And if ensuring the financial future of the organization and instilling credibility means that tough calls must be made, then both the UTSU and those opposing the changes have a shared responsibility to formulate a path to move forward.

Had Memmel hesitated to implement these measures, he and his team would be deemed hypocritical and accused of abandoning their electoral promises. Observing such an early and firm decision is therefore encouraging — it’s an indication that the UTSU is taking the idea of fixing itself seriously.

Another key component of democracy is listening to what opposing sides have to say. Memmel has expressed interest in sitting face-to-face with those of his constituents who have been protesting the elimination of the staff services, yet he has been met with jibes and protests. Though protest serves an important function in expressing opposition held by members of the public, the optimal solution for actually resolving conflict is direct interaction on the table. SOS must therefore reconsider its current strategy — of purely opposing the result of a democratic process — and should instead consider reaching out to the UTSU to find common ground in what is turning out to be an ugly and terribly disheartening episode for all actors involved.

The election is over, and respecting the mandate that Demand Better brought forwards is important. Being in a position of power, UTSU executives are certainly responsible for listening to all stakeholders, including members of the SOS movement and any other students who voice opposition to their decision-making. Nevertheless, the environment for deliberation seems not to exist at this time — and if activism for the sake of activism continues, then what appears to be a good-hearted initiative to ensure that two staff members keep their jobs might transition into a political stunt.

Ultimately, all stakeholders involved need to get past this divisive conundrum. Preferably, a resolution will come quickly so that other UTSU priorities — such as clubs funding, academic advocacy, transparency, and mental health — are not left on the back burner. If the UTSU is unable to perform its fundamental duties due to continuous opposition, then all hope in reinstating the sense of trust and credibility the organization so surely needs will be lost.

 

Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is an incoming fourth-year student at University College studying Economics and International Relations.

UTSU lays off two full-time staff amid controversy

Over two dozen students protest decision outside union building

UTSU lays off two full-time staff amid controversy

On the afternoon of May 30, protestors rallied around the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) office in response to the union’s decision to lay off two full-time staff members.

The decision to lay off Clubs and Service Groups Coordinator Vita Carlino and Health and Dental Plan Coordinator Maria Galvez was the culmination of what started as a contentious campaign issue for many members of the UTSU executive. Five of the seven executives, now a month into their tenure, ran on the Demand Better slate and vowed to cut staff in the coming year for a more secure financial future for the union.

The students gathered around the union to criticize its decision, arguing that eliminating the two staff members and their respective services was both unjust and a detriment to the total services offered to students.

Former Clubs and Service Groups Coordinator Vita Carlino (left) and Health and Dental Plan Coordinator Maria Galvez (centre) were laid off by the UTSU today. TOM YUN/THEVARSITY

Former Clubs and Service Groups Coordinator Vita Carlino (second from left) and Health and Dental Plan Coordinator Maria Galvez (third from left) were laid off by the UTSU today. TOM YUN/THE VARSITY

“I came here because I’ve been part of this protest since it began on March 31,” said Emmanuela Alimlim, a former Vice-President External candidate with the We the Students slate. “I’ve been with them because I believe that most students, especially those who do not have money to pay for $700 or $1000 [for Health and Dental services] — they depend on Maria and I came here to support that.”

Mathias Memmel, President of the UTSU, told The Varsity that “there will be no coverage changes or funding changes to the health and dental plan or reduction in clubs funding or resources made available to clubs and service groups.”

The UTSU subsequently released a statement on the elimination of the two positions and their respective services.

“On March 31, 2017, the Board of Directors of the University of Toronto Students’ Union approved the elimination of two services,” the statement reads. “While the UTSU will still be able to support clubs and service groups and assist students with the Health and Dental Plan, the service of a specific ‘point person’ for each will be eliminated.”

Many of the students engaged with the issue, of which there were a number present on May 30, knew this would be the outcome of the debate over staff and services. “This was [Memmel’s] decision, he didn’t try and talk with students or the CUPE 1281,” said Alimlim, referencing the union representing the UTSU’s full-time staff. “We saw it coming.”

Memmel disputed Alimlim’s comments, saying “we’ve done our part in terms of fulfilling our obligations in the collective agreement, with meeting with CUPE a number of times to provide the rationale that there’s a shortage of work for these positions.” According to Memmel, one of the meetings was specifically to discuss the shortage of work, while the others were for discussing the union’s financial situation more broadly. The shortage of work, according to the UTSU President, is “a result of service reductions, which are as a result of a dire financial position for the organization.”

Andre Fast, a UTSU presidential candidate in the 2017 UTSU elections and an active campus organizer, was also present at the rally.

“I think it’s a shame. I think it’s a big loss for students,” Fast told The Varsity. “A lot of the students here today that I had the opportunity to meet were sharing how much they rely on the Clubs Coordinator and the Health and Dental Plan Coordinator.”

Fast also raised concerns about the transparency of the union and the way it communicated with students on the reduction of services.

Moving forward, Fast says that a new campus group called ‘Save Our Services, Support Our Staff,’ which is entirely student-run will be advocating for the continuation of services that they say are important to students. The UTSU “is proposing to cut services that are important to students. We are calling on the UTSU to rethink their plan,” states the group’s Facebook page.

Fast said they have been working to collect petition signatures on campus. The group currently boasts almost 500 signatures.

“I know many of the members who were outside today. I’ve made at least five overtures to meet with them individually, and I will continue to do so,” Memmel said. “As well, I am happy to meet with any member who has a grievance on these issues and talk through it with them. Unfortunately, no one has taken me up on my offer to meet with them.”

Although the decision to cut the jobs previously held by Carlino and Galvez has already come to fruition, it remains unclear whether the debate surrounding their jobs and the services connected to them is over.

This is not the first time the UTSU has been met with protests for its decision to eliminate the two staff positions. Protestors disrupted board of directors meetings in March and April as well as during the Annual Ratification Meeting in April.

Carlino and Galvez declined The Varsity’s request for comment at the rally. The Varsity has reached out to CUPE 1281 President, Orion Keresztesi, for comment.

The UTSU should listen, know when to stand its ground

Resolving recent board meeting disputes requires communication and principled decision making

The UTSU should listen, know when to stand its ground

On April 29, 2017, members of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) 2017-2018 Board of Directors were welcomed into their new roles with protest. At the board’s transition meeting, members of the Black Liberation Collective (BLC), alongside supporters of CUPE 1281 and the ‘Save our Services, Support our Staff’ campaign, protested the UTSU’s ongoing lawsuit against Sandra Hudson, former UTSU Executive Director and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO). 

The BLC claims that the UTSU’s continuation of the lawsuit against Hudson perpetuates anti-Black racism and that the ongoing legal proceedings have inflicted serious harm on Hudson’s public image.

In the midst of this conflict, the UTSU must take a balanced approach to dealing with the unrest it currently faces. Such a balance requires cooperating with and listening to disgruntled students while simultaneously taking a principled stance that protects students’ interests.

The magnitude of students’ dissatisfaction can be attributed to the UTSU’s past ineffectiveness at listening to and collaborating with dissenting voices. Board meetings have been held during times that were inviable for many students, while other meetings have prohibited livestreams, preventing students who could not attend from seeing the events that transpired. In November of 2016, the UTSU hosted a poorly-publicized Anti-Black Racism Town Hall, which Black students did not attend, drawing criticism from the BLC.

The BLC is not the only group to critique the union lately, either. Supporters of CUPE 1282 and the ‘Save our services, Support our staff’ campaign have also been highly critical of the UTSU over proposed cuts to services. These groups have substantial strength in numbers and the potential to influence newer members of the UTSU board.

As these groups gain strength, it is in the best interest of the UTSU to listen to them.

The UTSU must foster an ongoing dialogue between the union and its members, and any issues that arise should be addressed properly and in a timely manner.

Regarding what transpired at the transition meeting, it is encouraging that UTSU President Mathias Memmel — after voting to give speaking rights to everyone in the room — encouraged the board to listen to the protesters that were speaking. Although the protesters mocked him for this, it was a necessary step in trying to bridge the divide between the opposing groups. Suppressing dissenting speech only gives more ammunition to those trying to oppose you.

However, while the UTSU must listen to these groups, it must also stick to its principles and prioritize the best interests of students. Being open to dissenting views and taking strong stances are certainly not mutually exclusive, but it is still important to recognize that sometimes there is nothing you can do about disagreement.

It is difficult for the union to compromise with the #ImWithSandy campaign given that the campaigns primary goal is for the union to drop the lawsuit. What the UTSU should do instead is work to better define and communicate the reasoning behind the lawsuit, ensuring that it is transparent in its motive in order to gain further support and traction. Communication is key, and the actions taken by Memmel at the board meeting are only a first step. The UTSU must present the facts of the case to the student body and do so without engaging in the character assassination of Hudson — a method achievable by separating the good that Hudson has done within student life circles and BLMTO from the allegations of financial fraud that have been made against her.

Moreover, the UTSU can effectively foster dialogue with Black students by reaching out to other organizations and student groups on campus like the Black Students Association and the Black Ties Association.

Communication is just as important internally as externally; individual UTSU board members should not feel pressured into adopting certain political positions or stances, and should act and engage in conversation in a manner that is congruent with their roles as student representatives.

The problems that the UTSU will face in the coming year are not going to be easy to solve — but by keeping a line of communication open while sticking to its principles, the union can save itself from further unrest.


Haseeb Hassaan is an incoming fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science. He is a former Associate Executive Vice-President of the UTSU, and a current Arts and Science Students’ Union executive. The views expressed here are his own.

UTSU board transition meeting met with protests

Protestors call for end to lawsuit against Sandy Hudson, oppose union's plans to cut staff

UTSU board transition meeting met with protests

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board of Directors concluded its transition meeting amidst several disruptions from activists protesting the union’s lawsuit against former Executive Director Sandy Hudson and the union’s plans to reduce services and eliminate two staff positions.

As the outgoing Board members of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) met in Woodsworth College, they were met with protests from the “Save our Services, Support our Staff” campaign, as well as supporters of CUPE 1281, the union that represents full time staff at the UTSU, and the Black Liberation Collective (BLC).

When protesters entered the room, Speaker Billy Graydon mentioned that during the meeting only Board members had speaking rights and asked the protesters to “keep the disruptions to a minimum.” A motion introduced later in the meeting was passed to grant speaking rights to all those present at the meeting, including non-Board members.

Upon the passing of this motion, protesters made statements in support of Hudson. Protesters praised Hudson’s work on campus and her commitment to helping students.

The union sued Hudson in September 2015, alleging that she was improperly issued overtime pay. Hudson countersued in December 2015, alleging hostilities from incoming executives at that time.

After the first speaker, former UTMSU executive Melissa Theodore, finished her statement, another protester began speaking, drawing an interjection from Graydon. Protesters continued speaking and chanting amid protests from Graydon, who threatened to adjourn the meeting. He carried this out as the protesters chanted “drop the lawsuit now.”

Upon the adjournment of the outgoing Board of Directors meeting and in the interim between that and the meeting for incoming Board members, unmediated discussions took place between many individuals in the room. Protesters said that they would be present to protest at future meetings of the UTSU Board of Directors while Faizan Akbani, an outgoing Pro-Fac Director at Large, told them that a motion was on the agenda to drop the lawsuit against Sandy Hudson.

“If you end this meeting, the lawsuit will still be there,” said Akbani to the protesters.

Chimwemwe Alao, incoming Vice-President Equity, encouraged discussion and iterated that he respected what the protesters were doing. In response to this, Michelle Mabira, President of the African Students Association, said “if you respect us, then why did you run with Mathias?” referencing incoming UTSU President Mathias Memmel.

At 12:30 p.m., the meeting for the incoming Board of Directors was called to order. It should be clarified that these were two different meetings with two separate agendas.

Protesters from the previous meeting were again present at the new meeting, where a motion was once again passed to grant speaking rights to all individuals present in the room. Protesters continued to read statements in support of Hudson while criticizing the UTSU’s plans to eliminate Vita Carlino and Maria Galvez’s positions.

Eventually, a motion was passed to discuss whether to drop the lawsuit against Sandy Hudson, during which Memmel went into detail about the lawsuit after consulting with legal counsel.

Memmel offered to move the meeting in camera, which drew protest as non-Board members who were present wanted to hear about the lawsuit from Memmel.

Jose Wilson, who is the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) Representative, subsequently moved that the UTSU should hire a lawyer for a second opinion on the lawsuit. The requirements of this motion state that this lawyer should be Black, have a background in equity and employment law, and be appointed by the Board of Directors. The motion also states that the UTSU should consult the Black Liberation Collective in its decision. The motion passed with a simple majority.

Once discussion on the lawsuit ended, the meeting was called to a 15 minute recess, after which the Board of Directors went through items on the agenda. These included the transfer of signing authority, election of a finance committee, and discussion of a motion submitted by the Selkirk College Students’ Union to the Canadian Federation of Students’ National General Meeting.

After Emmanuela Alimlim asked for clarification on the status of whether or not the UTSU will lay off Carlino and Galvez, the meeting was moved in camera so that the Board could speak about matters privately. Memmel told The Varsity that the meeting lost quorum while in camera, and subsequently adjourned.

This story is developing, more to follow.

Editor’s Note: Two Facebook Live videos have been removed from this article due to legal issues concerning statements made by subjects of these videos. 

Motions to drop lawsuit, postpone services cuts, on agenda for final UTSU board meeting

Meeting to take place April 29

Motions to drop lawsuit, postpone services cuts, on agenda for final UTSU board meeting

The University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) final board of directors meeting of this school year, scheduled for April 29, will feature two highly contentious motions concerning the union’s lawsuit against former Executive Director Sandy Hudson and the proposed cuts to services provided by two UTSU staff members.

The motion to end the lawsuit against Hudson was submitted by Jackie Zhao, Vice-President Internal for the UTMSU and the UTMSU designate for the UTSU. Zhao’s motion, if approved, would have the UTSU offer to drop its claim in exchange for Hudson dropping her counterclaim. Zhao also ran for Vice-President Internal with the We the Students slate during the most recent UTSU election cycle.

The UTSU commenced legal proceedings against Hudson in September 2015, alleging that Hudson was improperly issued severance pay amounting to $247,726.40. In addition to that amount, the union is also seeking $200,000 in damages, claiming that Hudson deliberately destroyed confidential information. Hudson filed a countersuit against the union in December 2015, alleging hostilities from the incoming UTSU executives at that time.

In the motion, Zhao characterizes the lawsuit as one that “perpetuates and contributes to anti-Black racism within the UTSU, UofT, and the broader community.” Zhao also calls for an independent review and “critical analysis” to “involve communicating with Black students and student groups for the purpose of understanding the way the lawsuit has negatively impacted them.” Similar requests have previously been made by the Black Liberation Collective, a group that held a protest regarding the lawsuit at the UTSU office in October 2016.

UTMSU Director Felipe Nagata has also filed a motion to “postpone the cessation of services” provided by Clubs and Service Groups Coordinator Vita Carlino and Health and Dental Plan Coordinator Maria Galvez, who are two of the UTSU’s full-time staff. The UTSU’s Services Committee voted to end these services on March 27 and the union intends to eliminate these positions.

Vice-President Internal and incoming President Mathias Memmel has claimed that the union would reach a deficit of $1.5 million by 2022, and $2.5 million by 2027 if these positions are not eliminated. The preamble of Nagata’s motion states, “the incoming board members have not been brought up to date on finances of union and the role of these services,” and that the union “has not shared or consulted ANY divisional groups and stakeholders of these services.”

Opponents to these proposed cuts held protests against the union at the Annual Ratification Meeting and the March 31 board meeting.

The April 29 board meeting is scheduled to take place at 10:00 a.m. at Woodsworth College.

UTSU Annual Ratification Meeting disrupted by protests

Protesters oppose union's plan to end services provided by two staff members

UTSU Annual Ratification Meeting disrupted by protests

On April 19, protesters disrupted the UTSU’s Annual Ratification Meeting (ARM) in support of Clubs and Service Groups Coordinator Vita Carlino and Health and Dental Plan Coordinator Maria Galvez — two full time UTSU staff members who administer services that the UTSU intends to eliminate in the upcoming year.

Under the Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act (CNCA) and the UTSU bylaws, the union is required to hold a general meeting to ratify the results of the results of the elections.

An information picket outside of the meeting was organized by members and supporters of CUPE 1281, which represents staff workers at the UTSU; the demonstrators held posters and chanted: “The students, united, will never be defeated!” and “solidarity!” during their demonstration.

Representatives from CUPE 1281 allege that the UTSU may be violating the collective bargaining agreement between the two entities should it choose to move forward with the reduction of staff. Article 15, subsection 00 of the agreement states that, “There shalt be no reduction in the workforce without a corresponding reduction in work required.” In an interview on CIUT 89.5 FM’s We Are U of T, CUPE 1281 President Orion Keresztesi said that “the collective agreement clearly lays out that any kind of layoff needs to be a last resort.”

Mathias Memmel, the UTSU’s Vice-President Internal and Services and incoming President, said in an email statement to The Varsity that “the UTSU won’t be able to provide the same level of service–we can’t afford to,” in reference to services provided by the Health and Dental Coordinator, Clubs and Services Coordinator, and now-vacant Financial Coordinator roles.

He confirmed that coverage provided to students under the Health and Dental plan would not change and that clubs would still receive the same amount of funding.

“[While] having multiple people provide the same service is convenient and better for students, but we can’t afford to do it anymore,” he said.

The decision to cease to provide these services was approved at the union’s Service’s Committee on March 27 and the minutes of the committee were approved at the March 31 board meeting, which was also met with protests.

Memmel claimed that the UTSU would reach a deficit of $1.5 million by 2022, and $2.5 million by 2027 if the Clubs and Service Groups, Health and Dental, and Financial Coordinator positions are not eliminated.

Full-time staff salaries account for 20 percent of the UTSU’s total operating budget: $483,000 out of $2,391,063. The Financial Coordinator position has been vacant since August 2016, and CUPE 1281 has asked the UTSU to fill it.

After the meeting was called to order, Aidan Fishman, a member of the Elections and Referenda Committee, applauded the UTSU for its transparency and fairness during the recent elections.

Andrew Thomas, a student who is a member of the UTSU, subsequently criticized the union for its cuts to full time staff that he says he and other students rely on.

Speaking to The Varsity, Thomas said, “The staff positions that they are cutting affects me directly, affects plenty of my friends directly who access health services, and they don’t seem to care about our voice in the matter.”

He continued, saying that he “found that exceptionally disturbing given the fact that they’re supposed to represent all the students, and they’re not even allowing any dissent. It seems to me that they have already come here with minds already made up.”

Yasmine El Sanyoura, incoming UTSU Director for Architecture and Visual Studies, was introducing herself when the protesters walked into the meeting chanting and drumming at around 6:20 pm. The protesters made their way to the front, blocking the panel, while continuing their chants of “Support our staff,” and “Save our services.”

In light of the protests, Ryan Gomes, outgoing Vice-President Professional Faculties and chair of the meeting, declared a recess just before 6:30 p.m., in accordance with U of T’s Policy on the Disruption of Meetings which states that if protesters “refuse to leave and it is not possible to remove them without risking violent resistance, the meeting should be recessed or adjourned.”

At 8:17 pm the UTSU posted on the ARM Facebook event, saying that the meeting would resume at 8:20 pm.

Gomes confirmed that the recess was in accordance with the CNCA as there were 43 members present while 35 constitutes quorum, and that the meeting had well over the 50 in-person votes required due to members proxying their votes to attendees of the meeting.

“I’d also note that even if there was the concern regarding it, section 164.3 of the CNCA states that if you start a meeting with quorum, you have quorum for the rest of the meeting, but just covering all our bases, we did have the required quorum at the time of the vote,” continued Gomes.

Amanda Harvey-Sánchez, incoming UTSU Social Sciences Director, was one of the student organizers of the protest. She said that “thousands of students” use the services provided by the Carlino and Galvez “in order to have their clubs function smoothly and get the support they need and also to get the health and dental coverage that they need.”

“So if these two positions are eliminated, students are going to notice the difference in their services, the quality will go down and that’s not fair to all the students who depend on it. So, first and foremost, we’re here to show that students depend on these services, and we’re not ok with them just removing them without any input from students,” Harvey-Sánchez explained.

Harvey-Sánchez denies that the protesters were trying to force the meeting to go to recess, saying that stopping the meeting “wasn’t that important.”

“We were here really just to make a statement and to show that students are aware of what’s happening, that we care about what’s happening, that we’re not okay with it,” she said.

The Varsity attempted to speak to Carlino, who declined to comment and directed the paper to Executive Director Tka Pinnock. The Varsity has also reached out to Keresztesi and Galvez who were not immediately available for comment.

This story is developing, more to follow. 

With files from Tom Yun

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that CUPE 1281 would only accuse the UTSU of violating the collective agreement if the UTSU moves forward with the proposed staff reductions, which it has yet to implement. In addition, a previous version of the article stated that the protests were organized by CUPE 1281 and supporters. In fact, CUPE 1281 only took part in organizing a picket outside of the meeting as was not involved in the protests inside of the meeting.

The pitfalls of counter-representation

From Indigenous reconciliation to free speech advocacy, we must cautiously examine how challenges to the status quo are portrayed in the post-truth universe

The pitfalls of counter-representation

Representation is necessarily misrepresentation. When an elite claims to reflect the complex interests of whoever they deem to be ‘the people’ — a people imagined to be singular —  institutions of power frame, define, and pursue the populace’s interests. Representation, in this sense, means simplification, homogenization, and reduction.

By creating a singular imagination and truth, representation marginalizes narratives that dominant groups find uncomfortable, and centres that which is palatable and affirming to the people.

The popular imagination of Canada — which is portrayed as a nation of diversity, openness, and tolerance — is one such representation that now faces challenges to its rhetoric in the form of counter-representations. In an era where governments are now speaking openly and frequently about reconciliation, the most relevant source of counter-representation is that of Indigenous peoples.

At the University of Toronto’s Art Museum, Cree artist Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience exhibit told some of the stories that were necessarily lost in the forging of a Euro-Christian imagination. Whereas the nationalist celebration of Canada points to 150 years since Confederation this year, Monkman starts our story from 300 years ago and examines the colonial history of Canada from an Indigenous lens.

Paintings like “The Subjugation of Truth” and “The Scream” were among the exhibit’s dark, absurdist, and poignant animations of residential schools, urban violence, and land dispossession, demonstrating the intergenerational persistence of colonialism that continues to this day. These counter-representations remind us that the birth of Canada has two legacies: one that celebrates the creation of a Canadian identity, and the other that mourns the erasure of Indigeneity from the landscape.

To look past the singularity of representation and truth is to challenge the status quo and demand change. Fortunately, at U of T, Indigenous cultural counter-representation is more visible than ever. Re-Indigenized street signs, the REDress Project on campus, which draws attention to the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the Powwow and Indigenous Festival are among the most conspicuous examples. President Meric Gertler’s public embrace of the 32 Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations for the university in January projects bright possibilities for reconciliation.

One should, however, be hesitant to conclude that we are now moving past representation and embracing truth in its plurality — in its counter-representations. Quite to the contrary, the new culture of counter-representation can be used to obfuscate the persistence of representation and its colonial functions. For instance, Indigenous visibility at the university is meaningless if Gertler continues to refuse to divest from fossil fuels, since that refusal sustains the drastic impact of climate change and undermines the environmental stewardship worldviews that underline Indigenous self-determination.

In a recent CBC piece, Clayton Thomas-Müller defines “redwashing” as the process by which corporations and banks sponsor Indigenous visibility in the Canadian imagination to overshadow the destructive initiatives that they impose upon Indigenous lands. In other words, we now face the appropriation of Indigenous counter-representation to advance the original project of colonial representation.

This space of plural truths, and the perverse contribution of counter-representation to the advance of representation is not just exclusive to the Indigenous context. Around the world, the cascade of disillusionment with the status quo and elitist establishment has emboldened self-proclaimed alternative political movements that claim to speak for a majority of people.

However, rather than empowering marginalized narratives — like the colonized Indigenous do through counter-representation — the idea with these movements is that the majority identity narrative is itself marginalized and needs revival.

Enough analysis has been conducted about right-wing populism in the form of Trump, Brexit, and Marine Le Pen. However, its local replicas on campus are worth noting as part of the broader pitfall of counter-representation. This is especially true for figures like Professor Jordan Peterson and former Reboot candidate Micah Ryu: although they hold different levels of power, each has exploited counter-representation to advance the original intent of representation, which is to exclude and erase marginalized narratives.

Peterson occupies a high level of power on campus as a tenured professor. His conflation of gender self-determination with totalitarianism this year is well-noted — but it remains staggering how his counter-representation narrative frames the fact that the majority is allegedly marginalized and needs protection. The staunch opposition that he faces from the transgender community and their allies has been framed as an assault on free speech rather than a defense of human dignity.

Indeed, by many proponents of free speech he is lauded as a hero, earning him thousands of views online and numerous media appearances, more than doubling his income, and exporting him to other university campuses like McMaster and Western.

Peterson finds himself connected to a transnational, trans-campus free speech movement, where the refusal of campuses to host the exclusionary vitriol of Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos grants the movement legitimacy by an ironic claim of victimhood. It is an infectious phenomenon, by which views that uphold the colonial status quo representation — whether it be the gender binary or the Muslim ‘Other’ — are framed as counter-representation, resistance, and freedom. Indeed, the loss of the right to oppress has now become oppression in and of itself.

Likewise, in UTSU student politics, Reboot presidential candidate Micah Ryu led a campaign that used this growing anti-establishment “outsider” framework to advance exclusionary politics. His criticism of student politics as the domain of an elite group of insiders is ostensibly consistent with the exclusivity of representation. However, his solution via austerity measures that would have cut down and decentralized the UTSU as a means of accountability only sustains the status quo de-politicization of the organization.

In fact, We the Students presidential candidate Andre Fast condemned the suggestion that the UTSU should remain distant from equity issues, and pointed out that, disappointingly, the union has become depoliticized this year. He stated that the union “does have a really big role to play on issues of social and environmental justice, on affordability issues” — all issues that matter most to marginalized students.

Ryu’s personal Queerphobic comments in light of this year’s gender identity controversy, and his campaign’s hostility toward the Black Liberation Collective’s condemnation of anti-Black racism within the UTSU only further demonstrates the bankruptcy of this anti-establishment narrative.

What’s more, in response to the accumulation of demerit points that led to Reboot’s eventual elimination, some students reacted in a way that suggested that this allegedly anti-establishment party was a victim and martyr of the establishment — inadvertently excusing Ryu’s otherwise inexcusable behaviour. Yet, Ryu’s exclusionary behaviour and pledges to de-politicize the UTSU under an anti-establishment outsider narrative have hardly helped the most anti-establishment outsider students on campus — Black, Muslim, and Queer folks — all of whom need more support from the student body given the events that occurred this year.  

What we can take from this is that it is necessary to challenge dominant narratives that become culturally objective, to shed light on marginalized narratives, and to turn discomfort into productive change. Indigenous resurgence on campus reminds us that counter-representation is possible and powerful.

However, we should also be wary of certain counter-representations that insidiously uphold and even deepen oppressive structures of power that correspond to the original exclusionary logic of representation. In this era of alternative facts and multiple truths, we should fight for a future that captures the imagination of the heretofore unrepresented.

 

Ibnul Chowdhury is a second-year student at Trinity College studying Economics and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies. His column appears every three weeks.