University of Toronto Students’ Union president Shaun Shepherd warned a growing number of student groups seeking “defederation” from the central union that there is “clear legal precedent to stop them,” even as logistical planning for referendums and eventual exits appeared well underway.

Shepherd’s statement came in the form of a letter sent February 22 to Trinity’s co-head of college Sam Greene. It is “structurally identical” to one sent to the Engineering Society in 2010, says president Rishi Maharaj.

The letter objects to Trinity “conducting on behalf of the UTSU a referendum related to its own membership and fees,” asks that the referendum effort be discontinued, and states that the UTSU will not conduct such a referendum, leaving no clear path forward for those attempting defederation.

Shepherd’s statement on the defederation movement came as Victoria University’s student leadership body VUSAC announced they too were considering an exit from the union. VUSAC’s move brings the total number of colleges and faculties considering the move to four, with the Engineering Society, Trinity, and St. Michael’s College announcing their plans before Reading Week.

VUSAC president Shoaib Alli said he was concerned by Shepherd’s language. “I don’t want to feel like I’ve been held hostage by the students’ union,” said Alli. Greene says it is “disingenuous” for Shepherd to send “what can only be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate us about taking action.”

“Why is it that they’re so interested in a legal battle about this?” asked Greene. “Why not just have the referendum? If they think their services are so good, and they think that what they provide to Trinity students is so strong and useful, why are they not prepared to defend that in an open democratic forum?”

College leaders involved in the so-called “defederation” movement are seeking what amounts to a financial exit from the UTSU, by having member fees re-routed to college- and faculty-level bodies rather than centralized union coffers.

The decision to explore an exit came after the union’s reticence to implement electoral reform proposals put forward by some college leaders in time for this year’s elections, in spite of the proposals being by the general membership approved at the UTSU’s Special General Meeting this month, and promises of reform made by UTSU president Shepherd.

Defederation leaders stress that their concerns are not limited to the single issue of electoral reform. “There is no longer any confidence that any internal reform is possible,” says Maharaj.

Maharaj was involved with the Engineering Society when the 2010 letter was sent. He says that the letter caused the Society to retreat from holding a referendum, because they were “scared” by the legal implications, and because they were hopeful the opposition slate Change could win the upcoming election.

Neither of those inhibiting factors exist today, says Maharaj. “We believe we’re proceeding on a strong legal footing,” he adds.

EngSoc have already retained the law firm Heenan Blaikie, from which it is receiving confidential legal advice. Trinity and Victoria have not yet retained counsel, but are in the process of speaking to various firms. Trinity will vote Monday on earmarking $10,000 for legal services.

“Because the UTSU has threatened legal action in the past and has cited specific issues, I think it is only responsible to have our own counsel to research those issues,” said Maharaj.


Practicalities of  Defederation

The UTSU provides a number of services for students at the St. George and Mississauga campuses, including health and dental insurance.There have been some concerns about access to union services if defederation proceeds.

Three student societies — EngSoc, VUSAC and the Trinity College Meeting — are in the process of putting together detailed reports addressing questions from concerned students and laying out a detailed blueprint of how such services would function outside the union’s central structure.

Trinity’s report was available online late Sunday afternoon. Representatives of the Engineering Society said their report would be ready as early as Monday. Victoria’s will be released in about a week.

Student leaders from Trinity, Victoria and Engineering argue that provisions will be in place to allow students to retain access to all of the services they currently receive from the UTSU. “They are going to receive the same or better services for the same or less money,” says Maharaj.

In conversations with The Varsity, representatives from the three divisions provided a detailed breakdown of all of the services offered by the UTSU. All three claimed that each service was either already replicated by an existing service of their own, or could be replicated at a comparable cost.

Both Maharaj and Greene have spoken with several insurance providers and expressed confidence that they could provide students comparable coverage at comparable cost.

“I have found in discussions with more than one service provider that costs don’t really decline further after 1,000 members,” said Maharaj.

In the case of the UTSU handbook given out during Frosh Week, the Engineering Society already provides an equivalent publication for their students. Trinity has previously gone without, and says it would be simple to print a replacement.

“They’ve already cut us off from this service,” said Jake Brockman, chair of the Trinity College Meeting, referring to an episode in 2011 where a spat led to Trinity not using UTSU-prepared frosh kits. Brockman explained that, like several other colleges, Trinity has not traditionally used the UTSU orientation package, which includes the handbook.

There remain significant logistical issues with regards to adopting services, particularly insurance. The societies are exploring the possibility of having a paid staff member to help with the opt-out process, answer questions, and handle other details involved in administering a health and dental plan.

“There’s nothing we’re concerned about,” said Brockman.

Beyond provision of services, the UTSU also defines its role as a unified advocate for the student body, representing some 44,000 students. Union executives have argued that there is strength in numbers, but all three student societies have suggested that there is little connection between the union and college life.

“There is no real relationship between Vic and the students’ union — there is nothing that exists at Vic that would be changed,” said Alli.

The societies are seeking a less political approach to student government, and all three claim that they are already better able to advocate on their members’ behalf with Simcoe Hall or Queen’s Park than UTSU.

“I don’t think engineering students would be losing anything, because they aren’t currently receiving anything from lobbying at the municipal, provincial or federal level,” said Maharaj.


Victoria Enters the Fray

VUSAC president Alli surprised many when he announced on February 15 that VUSAC is “formally” exploring all options, “including Vic leaving the UTSU.”

Alli will present his report on defederation at the VUSAC meeting on March 1, and has scheduled an annual general meeting for March 6 where he “expects the conversation to be dominated by discussion of UTSU.”

“I’m not sure there’s something he [Shepherd] could say to stop this,” says Alli. “Vic students’ confidence in UTSU is at an all-time low.”

Like Trinity and the Engineers, VUSAC is considering setting aside funds for legal fees, which Ali stresses he hopes will not have to be put to use. VUSAC currently has a surplus of $12,000–15,000 which could potentially be allocated for legal fees, Alli explains.


Full Steam Ahead

As of The Varsity’s press time, Trinity, Engineering, and Victoria are all on the path to hold referenda on an exit in late March of this year.

After initially backing an exit, St. Michael’s College has dialed back its involvement. The college is still considering defederation, but is now seeminlgy doing so on a slower timeline.

Significant legal questions remain, perhaps the largest one being whether the fight for independence will end in a courtroom battle. “It is obviously a very touchy subject, and there are a lot of legalities we have to look at,” said Corey Scott, UTSU vice-president, internal.

“Things are moving very quickly now,” said Maharaj.

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