VOTER TURNOUT RATES in the annual University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) elections have fallen well below what most would consider representative numbers. It was not until Brighter UofT, last year’s victorious executive slate, that election results reflected the participation of more than ten per cent of eligible voters. Granted, the university is the largest in the country and is attended by a significant number of commuters, a group whose voter participation is subject to several barriers.
The UTSU exists in order to provide some vital services to, and lobby on behalf of over 56,000 undergraduates. With their slim electoral support in mind, the extent to which the union should advocate in tendentious arenas is unclear.
For this reason, the union’s equity portfolio has drawn criticism from several students this past year. Example of this criticism are the grievances filed with the union’s Executive Review Committee over the vice president, equity and Social Justice & Equity Commission’s support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement on campus.
That the union’s equity arm has expressed support for BDS is beside the point. Much of the furor over the legitimacy of the movement’s claims, objects, and methods is overblown if not entirely unwarranted. The movement has gained impressive support on campus without the union’s help. Over 125 faculty members signed a petition endorsing the movement’s call for divestment; additionally, BDS has been endorsed at other Canadian universities.
It is not the nature of the Commission, or the vice president’s priorities that should spark criticism. It is that the union’s equity portfolio flouts established processes and fails to account for its slim mandate when it engages in controversial activism.
Certainly, there exist systemic issues in our global, national, and institutional communities that reinforce inequitable dynamics in many forms, whether the issue is anti-Black racism, Islamaphobia, trans- and homophobia, or ableism — the list goes on. That is to say, there is no coherent argument for why equity advocacy doesn’t belong on campus.
Rather, the issue at the core of this past year’s conflicts over BDS is that equity advocacy is fundamentally at odds with populist democracy. Equity necessarily challenges the status quo and those who support it. How, then, can the union reconcile its obligations to be broadly representative, and to end up on the right side of history? The necessary threshold of community support for the union to stake an official equity position is unclear, aggravating the disagreement.
This dissonance metastasizes throughout student politics on campus and is clearly embedded in the continuing issue of BDS advocacy. Many of the students who filed grievances, and others who have expressed trepidation over the decision to wade into a discussion of BDS, pay membership fees to the UTSU and are justified when they feel unrepresented.
The situation seems unavoidable. There will always be disagreements between the electorate and its representatives on what constitutes appropriate action, particularly as it pertains to equity. This is not reason enough to suggest that the union should rein in its equity work. It might be reason enough though to re-examine the internal accountability mechanisms at play — a suggestion proposed earlier this year recommended that events organized by the vice president, equity be subject to the approval of the Social Justice & Equity Commission. The suggestion failed at the board level.
The current vice president, equity has resolutely refused to address the BDS grievances, declining to respond to, or attend a meeting with the complainants and the grievance officer, which is required by the union’s by-laws. The equity mandate seems to exist in a category unto itself while resting on the same dubious foundational support as the rest of the union’s work — there is little to no oversight or accountability.
Affordances to the lack of real democratic directive can be made for lobbying the government for access to education, increasing mental health resources on campus, and other elemental facets of student union advocacy. Whether or not they can be made in this case, or others like it, when controversy is deeply rooted remains unsure.