Reforms sought by opposition greeted with dampened public enthusiasm

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) convenes tomorrow for its replacement general meeting, where hundreds of students are expected to vote on more than 20 items on a newly expanded agenda. The high-profile meeting will end a months-long process of consultation and organization that began last November, when the original Annual General Meeting (AGM) scheduled by the union ended prematurely, as those present rejected an agenda some believed to be unfairly closed to student input.

Since then, UTSU executives have solicited many new motions, and met with prominent opposition leaders, in an attempt to avoid another costly shut-down of a meeting. The membership’s decision to reject November’s agenda is estimated to have cost the union up to $3,000. Union leaders have also worked to improve the logistics of the Special General Meeting (sgm), hoping to avoid registration delays similar to those at the November meeting — where wait times of up to two hours were a source of frustration for many — by opening early and increasing staff presence.

“We are happy that there are so many different kinds of motions on the agenda and such extensive student engagement,” said Corey Scott, UTSU vice-president, internal. “Our hope is to have a respectful, engaging dialogue. Many students are commuting for more than an hour to make the meeting, while others have scheduled work and studying off.

“It is important to recognize that there is a lot of interest in this meeting and that it is everyone’s responsibility to create safe and respectful spaces.”

“We deliberately designed the [submission procedure] to give us lots of time to process the amendments,” said  UTSU president Shaun Shepherd, who has previously spoken with The Varsity about his desire to ensure the sgm goes smoothly.

Scott, who chairs the union’s Policy & Procedures Committee and who, with the union’s Board of Directors, was responsible for vetting many of the items ultimately included on the agenda, said he was personally looking forward to debate over a motion to endorse the Idle No More movement. The meeting will also debate and vote upon a bevy of other motions including opposing unpaid internships, investigating additional multi-faith space, allowing international students to seek election to the university’s Governing Council, among others.

Some motions, if approved, will immediately alter the union’s governing by-laws. Others are “directive-based motions” that carry symbolic weight, and if approved, will guide the union’s stance on a number of hot-button campus issues.

The list of items up for debate is so extensive that the union has said it will be necessary to allocate a time limit for each discussion. Those items that cannot be addressed in the three-hour session will either be punted to the next general meeting, or delegated to the appropriate commission. Tomorrow’s meeting also includes consideration of old business: those matters that should have been addressed at November’s meeting, had it not been for its abrupt ending.

Also appearing on tomorrow’s agenda are several priorities of the campus opposition movement, proposed by some of the same students who led the charge in shutting down November’s meeting. These include discussion of the Non-Partisan Declaration on Electoral Reform, a document backed by college councils and the St. George Round Table, and a reduction of the number of signatures required to run for UTSU executive office.

In spite of these inclusions, Tuesday’s general meeting and its comprehensive agenda has not inspired the same “unprecedented” degree of interest from the student body at large as November’s meeting appeared to.

UTSU executives said approximately 200 proxy forms had been returned for processing. By that estimate, just over half the number of proxy forms that were in circulation in advance of the last general meeting will be in play for tomorrow. Proxy forms can help gauge the degree of student interest in the meeting’s proceedings: in November, 300 students carried nearly 2,000 proxy votes into the meeting.

“My sense is that there is a lot less buzz about this meeting than about the fall AGM,” said Maharaj. In the fall, Maharaj led an effort that delivered hundreds of opposition votes through proxies and in-person attendees, a decisive factor in the ultimate rejection of that meeting’s agenda. This time, said Maharaj, the engineers had made no effort to collect proxies or to organize participation.

“In the fall, we were concerned as a student society that our members did not have a reasonable opportunity to engage in the AGM process by submitting agenda items,” explains Maharaj. “We wanted to get people out to force UTSU to either amend the agenda or call another meeting that would have an open agenda.”

This goal, says Maharaj, has been achieved. “I’m happy to see that students are going to have the opportunity to debate a huge range of issues that would otherwise have been ignored by the UTSU.”

Not everything sought by the union’s opponents will come up for a vote tomorrow. Several items, including proposed reforms to the UTSU Board of Directors, did not survive the approval process required of all motions put before the AGM. Engineering Society president Rishi Maharaj called the handful of excluded motions “disappointing.”

“The discussions lasted for several hours with the Board of Directors, where we were able to deconstruct the amendments and determine that the motions were not in the best interest of the students’ union and its members,” said Scott earlier this month.

“I think that the general membership of the UTSU should be able to consider the merit of those proposals for themselves,” countered Maharaj.

Behind the scenes, UTSU president Shepherd has worked to engage with college leaders whose constituencies have been most vocal in opposing the union’s activities, including Trinity, St. Michael’s, and University College. These meetings, which were open to any student who wished to attend in addition to leaders who were expressly invited, were held in late December and early January.

Join the debate on Twitter by using #UTSUSGM and follow @TheVarsity for live updates. 

For complete coverage, check out our next issue and visit our website at thevarsity.ca after the meeting ends. 

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