The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) hosted its 2016 Annual General Meeting (AGM) on Thursday, October 27. Here is what two of our contributors thought of the event.
Accountability on the agenda
In retrospect, it appears that the most exciting thing about the UTSU’s 2016 AGM was the presence of samosas. In light of the tension surrounding the on campus protests and rallies of the last few weeks, this year’s AGM was astonishingly civil.
Like many others, I expected protests or at least some antagonism during the presidential address and Q&A period. However — save for one odd question from a member about President Jasmine Wong Denike’s and Vice-President Internal and Services Mathias Memmel’s preferred pronouns — questions were kept mostly substantive. Much to my dismay, many of the squares on my The Varsity bingo card went unfilled.
One member raised the issue of alleged anti-Black racism in the UTSU and what the union will be doing to combat this aside from holding a town hall on November 10, which was clearly in response to protests held by the Black Liberation Collective (BLC) at the UTSU office on October 11. Why the union continues to self-flagellate when it comes to certain campus groups is beyond me; as a recent comment article by Haseeb Hassaan makes clear, the BLC’s demands are irrational and “devoid of context.”
With that said, accountability, both financial and otherwise, was a theme of the meeting. It was clear that the UTSU Executive Committee, perhaps inspired by the recent failed referendum for increased clubs funding, does not feel that students are yet assured of the union’s financial transparency. The UTSU’s open acknowledgement of this was refreshing.
Printouts of the UTSU’s audited financial statements were distributed, which raised some debate over the union’s expenses, especially its human resources costs. This is also the point where I must get up on my soapbox and inform you that, troublingly, the UTSU paid $802,976 to the Canadian Federation of Students last year. If this is of concern to you, I suggest you check out a little campaign called You Decide UofT.
In line with discussions on accountability, debate over the package of proposed bylaw amendments was spurious, albeit wonky at times. The fact that these amendments passed deserves some attention. Most notable among them is the establishment of the Appellate Board, which is essentially a body that can overrule existing review processes like the grievance officer, the Elections and Referenda Committee, and the Executive Review Committee.
I went through the formal grievance process last year and can testify to the fact that it was an embarrassment. I actually received a formal apology on behalf of the UTSU for its failure. The new Appellate Board is encouraging, especially because it explicitly precludes students who have previously sought held positions in the UTSU from participating. One of the stranger things about student politics is that some characters stick around for much longer than the length of a typical university career. Consequently, this provision drastically reduces the chances of the board being corrupted by so-called ‘career’ student politicians.
The Appellate Board also uses the knowledge of students enroled in the Faculty of Law and has well-defined deadlines. A student board issuing a decision in under 12 hours is almost unfathomable, but I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.
Reut Cohen is a second-year student at Trinity College studying International Relations.
A sense of dread and unease permeated the atmosphere for those waiting in line to enter the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education auditorium. This was perhaps aggravated by droves of engineers serenading the anxious crowd with trumpets, drums, and cries of “free speech.”
Yet, for all the gloom and speculation, the boogeyman did not show up. The meeting may have started 45 minutes late, but as a whole, it was conducted efficiently — which was unusual, considering both the anticipated drama of this year and historically onerous meeting procedures.
The sluggish shouting matches of the past did not occur. Voting processes for all the motions, which were painfully excruciating in previous sessions, were smooth. In fact, the whole affair lasted only two hours, prompting Vice-President Professional Faculties Ryan Gomes to declare that this AGM was more “civil” than those of the past. With all the drama the UTSU has had to deal with — from disqualifications in the April UTSU elections to recent disagreements regarding free speech on campus — this event provided precious breathing space for its depleted executives.
Alongside being efficient, this year’s AGM was one of the more productive ones as well. All three motions were passed with thoughtful discussions; much of the debate revolved around financial arrangements, with questions concerning accountants and regulatory policies. Bylaws were also featured prominently in discussions, and in general, debates conformed remarkably with decorum. Financial arrangements on the student commons and a town hall for anti-black racism, both of which had been recurring issues, were put into place without major opposition.
The technicalities of the AGM’s motions could be one of the main reasons behind this year’s relative efficiency. Some of the audience members I spoke to were looking forward to discussing controversies, as opposed to funding plans and financial statements. In fact, the UTSU’s auditor frequently intervened in the middle of debate in order to clear up some misinterpretations. The relative complexity of these articles and statements could have paved the way for audiences to simply follow other people.
The tranquility of this year’s AGM can also be attributed to a lack of opposition. Unexpectedly, there were no shouts and cries from the BLC, nor protests of any kind — in fact nearly half of the auditorium was empty.
Yet, for all this relative calm and peace, the fact that relatively few people participated in this year’s meeting is rather concerning. Democratic systems are dependent on vivid participation by the electorate, which in this case is the student body.
Adding to the fact that there was already a low turnout rate for the UTSU spring elections, the massive opposition against the clubs levy — which, when it went to referendum, garnered a “no” vote of approximately 74.5 per cent — can spell trouble for future UTSU actions. Even if the vote was compromised by those who fiercely oppose the UTSU, the fact that this happened speaks to the lack of concern that most of the student population have with the UTSU.
With a mountain of tasks ahead of them, the UTSU must seize the opportunity to reach out and engage with the wider student population. Having emphasized balance and accountability, let’s hope Denike and her cohorts can deliver on their objectives.
Arnold Yung is a fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying History.