Students’ Union is facing a significant crisis of legitimacy

If there was a single moment that best captured the spirit of the 2014 University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Annual General Meeting (AGM), it came shortly after the defeat of the contentious proposed amendment to the union’s Board of Directors. 

The next item of business concerned the creation of an Arts & Science Committee and a Professional Faculty Committee. Yolen Bollo-Kamara, the president of the UTSU whose name was attached to the motion in the meeting’s Order of Business, stood up to argue against the motion she herself had moved. By the time she was informed by the chair that this would be out of order, the damage to the union’s credibility had already been done.

The UTSU is suffering from a credibility crisis, and while it’s relatively easy to pinpoint the actions and decisions that have led the union to this point, it’s a bit harder to understand the logic that has guided that path. A few examples: why was Bylaw XV of the UTSU not among those up for amendment, and why did the AGM take place without 21 days notice, as is required to be compliant with the UTSU’s own bylaws?

Bylaw XV states that, in order for an amendment to be made to the union’s bylaws, a two-thirds vote by the membership is required. This conflicts with the new Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act (CNCA), which states that amendments may be made on most issues by an ordinary resolution — a majority vote. Now, the purpose of the changes to the bylaws, as explained by the union, was to bring the UTSU into compliance with this new piece of legislation. So, how can the UTSU, working with legal advice, have failed to propose an amendment to a bylaw that clearly wasn’t in compliance with the CNCA?

Bylaw III of the UTSU states that notice of the AGM shall be given 21 days in advance by an email sent to the entirety of the membership. This didn’t happen. Emails were sent during the week of October 20, which was too late to sign a proxy form. 

These sorts of decisions, simply put, look bad on the UTSU. They give it the appearance of an organization that’s trying to stifle democratic participation and using the new legislative context as an excuse to enact the changes it wants, while overlooking the changes that are deemed unimportant. And, while it’s hard to imagine that a students’ union would truly do these sorts of things, decision-makers at the UTSU need to understand that appearances matter. Rules that are set out need to be followed, and saying “we tried” isn’t good enough.

There’s one year left to put together the necessary changes to the bylaws to bring the UTSU into compliance with the CNCA. It’s going to require the colleges and faculties to come to the table with the UTSU, along with other interest groups, and find a solution that works for everyone. To do that will require good faith from everyone involved, and as long as the UTSU is playing fast and loose with its own regulations, good faith will be in short supply.

Ian Thompson is a mature student studying life science. 

   Students have good reason to cheer after the culmination of 2014’s AGM

It would be an understatement to say that the UTSU’s AGM was disorderly. The meeting began almost an hour late and was plagued by unfortunate technical difficulties. 

This is not to mention the lack of decorum — ranging anywhere from irritating side-chatter to disrespectful heckling and blaring vuvuzelas — that slowed the entire process down. Case in point: it took nearly half an hour to vote on a motion for a four-minute recess. 

Perhaps more crucial, however, was the plain display of undemocratic behaviour. The chair of the meeting, for example, a Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) representative named Ashkon Hashemi, clearly revealed his partisanship. Given his repeated emphasis on courtesy and respect, it was hypocritical for Hashemi to consistently belittle, interrupt, or just flat-out ignore those who questioned the UTSU’s proposals. He nonchalantly allowed UTSU supporters to galvanize the AGM attendees — who should’ve been speaking directly to him — while rebuking the opposition for doing the same. Perhaps this conduct should not be too surprising, considering that Hashemi was implicated in a CFS-backed scheme to interfere with student union elections in the Greater Toronto Area in 2010.

There was also a potential conflict of interest in the counting of votes, as Kaleem Hawa, chair of  the Trinity College Meeting, brought up. Counting so many votes manually is already extremely vulnerable to human error, so it’s easy to imagine that the UTSU-affiliated vote counters could fudge the numbers. 

Students were already concerned with the integrity of the vote counting process, since Hashemi attempted passing the motion to approve previous AGM minutes without actually counting the votes. What’s more, the vote counters seemed to introduce a different process of raising and lowering vote cards during the vote on the Board of Directors structure. This process left students visibly confused, which is obviously undesirable, especially during such a controversial vote.

From these AGM proceedings alone, it’s obvious why many people bemoan a broken system. However, it would be overly pessimistic to believe student democracy has become as dysfunctional as people say. In fact, the presence of such intense debate at the AGM speaks volumes about how students remain invested in democratic principles of accountability and representation. 

Students haven’t just been complaining about the mess that is student politics. They showed up to the AGM, stayed for at least five gruelling hours, and asked pertinent questions that held our representatives responsible for their actions. Most importantly, students stood up and spoke out to dispel myths about the board structure proposal. 

Actually, there’s a whole year to figure out a new structure through deliberate, public consultation. Yes, there are more options than the single proposal that was on the table. No, the fight for college representation is not inherently anti-equity. 

In an age of anxiety over low voter turnout and increasing youth apathy, the passion and engagement at the AGM was incredibly heartening. The crowd erupted into cheers after the board structure failed to pass, simply because student democracy had prevailed. I’m sorry, Mr. Chair, but if this triumph didn’t deserve a rambunctious celebration, I don’t know what does.

Victoria Wicks is The Varsity’s associate comment editor. She is a second-year student at Trinity College studying political science and philosophy.