UPDATE: A video of the event

Varsity News: UTSU Annual General Meeting Nov. 22. 2012 from The Varsity on Vimeo.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union’s annual general meeting ended abruptly Thursday night after members present at the meeting refused to approve the agenda.

Less than half an hour after the meeting was called to order, the agenda was brought to a routine vote. Following failed attempts first to amend it, and then to force the chair of the meeting to recuse himself, membership declined to approve the agenda with an unofficial tally of 999 votes against to 905 in favour. The failure to approve the agenda brought the meeting to a screeching halt.

More than 300 students, carrying nearly 2,000 proxy votes, were packed into the meeting room at the Medical Sciences building on the St. George campus. Many waited in line for hours to be admitted, after delays caused by the union’s restricted access to its membership list. The meeting, scheduled to begin at 6 pm, did not get underway until 8.19 pm. In the meantime, the capacity crowd was addressed by Trinity-Spadina City Councillor Adam Vaughan and Aboriginal elder Cat Criger.

At the meeting Thursday night, Engineering Society president Rishi Maharaj initially argued for hosting a separate general meeting in January to entertain reforms, but was overruled by the meeting’s chair. Maharaj saw the ultimate rejection of the agenda as a step forward. “It’s nice to know that democracy has a chance, even if it’s taken this long. It’s only the start, but against the odds we’ve faced, even the smallest victories have meaning,” said Maharaj following the meeting’s abrupt conclusion.

In an impassioned speech before the agenda vote, student head of Trinity College Samuel Greene urged members not to “rubber stamp” the union’s items and called for student-driven electoral reforms, which failed to make the agenda.

“If you believe that the union can only be effective if it is accountable, that it can only be strong if it is fair, then join with us in demanding reform,” said Greene.

“Our current system and our current union executive are stuck in the past. We need online voting, preferential voting, and greater accountability and transparency so that we can move past the old and divisive politics that this union has fostered year after year and focus instead on how to improve the student experience,” Greene added in a post-AGM interview with The Varsity.

The reform-minded opposition, who had previously failed to bring their proposals to a vote at the AGM, claimed a victory. Union executives and staff, for their part, expressed their disappointment.

According to AGM chair Ashkon Hashemi, this year marked “the highest attendance at any AGM in recent memory.” Both Greene and Maharaj attributed to the opposition’s success to the “swathes of students that voted against an agenda that didn’t adequately address student concerns.”

Student leaders from Trinity, Victoria, St. Michael’s, Innis, and University Colleges all congratulated those at the meeting — both in person and via proxies — on their actions in voting down the agenda.

University College Literary and Athletic Society president Benjamin Dionne believes that those present at the meeting rejected the agenda because it “failed to adequately represent student interests.” He felt that “if the agenda only reflected the issues that students held dear, there would have been more support for Shaun Shepherd and his union.”

Corey Scott, vice-president, internal for UTSU, said he was disappointed. “It’s privilege,” said Scott. “I think that’s what a lot of students showed.” Scott said organizing an AGM is a “massive undertaking” budgeted at $3,000, with students coming from as far away as Mississauga.

Criticism of Scott’s post-AGM comments came swiftly. “Only the UTSU exec could see people (from both sides) waiting in line for over two hours to have their voices heard and call it privilege. It’s not a privilege. Unions are supposed to protect their members, not dismiss, belittle, and disenfranchise them,” said Taylor Scollon, vice-president of communications for the University of Toronto Young Liberals.

Chris Thompson, president of the UTMSU, echoed Scott’s concerns. “It’s difficult for a lot of my members to get down here,” said Thompson. He added that the issues on the agenda were “really important” and he had wanted the chance to discuss them.

Had the agenda been approved, the assembly would have discussed approval of the union’s audit and reappointed the auditor, tinkered with union bylaws (including the redefinition of the term “campus publication”) and altered the job description of the vice-president, campus life. Also scheduled for the meeting were president Shaun Shepherd’s address and a question period. Because the agenda was not approved, all of these motions will most likely be deferred until the next AGM, when they will be introduced as “old business.”

“I’m just concerned the next AGM will be held in Mississauga in order to limit the opposition’s ability to attend. Hopefully transportation will be provided then too,” said Pierre Harfouche, vice-president, finance for the Engineering Society. Earlier in the meeting, Harfouche had moved to compel the chair of the meeting Ashkon Hashemi to recuse himself, a motion that Hashemi refused to allow.

UTSU executive director and former president Sandy Hudson suggested that the vote against the agenda might have resulted from “some misunderstandings.” Hudson said she was concerned about “some people who made comments smearing the union.”

Tensions at the meeting ran high as the personal blended with the political, creating a combustible situation rife with extreme rhetoric. In an emotional presidential address prefacing the meeting, Shaun Shepherd described his personal struggles with depression. “I personally had a break-down, because of attacks on my team, and people that work sixteen hours a day,” said Shepherd, his voice breaking. “I want to make this year a year that everyone can work together. Not a year of mud-slinging, or smearing. That can’t happen anymore.”

Greek Student’s Association president Dmitri Kyriakakis said at first he had come to the meeting to “support the UTSU and burn Trinity to the ground.” Asked in a follow-up interview about his comments, Kyriakakis clarified he was referring to “specific Trinity students” and not the entirety of the college. “The ones I was talking about are those who are trying to dissolve our student’s union,” said Kyriakakis.

“The rationale saying that students should vote against this, was a personal attack on the executive saying that all of our work was not in good faith,” said vice-president, equity Noor Baig. Baig had previously come under attack online in an episode the union describes as “cyber-bullying,” after a leaked Facebook message she sent in advance of the AGM described some students planning to attend the meeting as “randoms” who were “just going to make a mess.”

Greene rejects the notion that opposition groups personally attacked UTSU executives. “I simply do not understand how advocating for electoral reform and transparency at the UTSU constitutes a ‘personal attack.’ To label common sense proposals for reform as ‘personal attacks’ simply because you don’t want to accept them is ludicrous,” he said.

The agenda’s failure, and the meeting’s premature ending, meant that the union’s audit and a host of by-law changes were not voted on. As of press time, neither the chair of the meeting or the union’s lawyer, executive director, or president were able to clarify how the failure to approve the agenda would affect the union’s operations in the coming days and weeks, or what plans, if any, existed to call another meeting of members.