Questions regarding in camera meeting sessions have been raised after a tense Board of Directors meeting at the University of Toronto Students’ Union.
When the Board of Directors votes to move in camera, anyone who is not a director, executive, or staff member must exit the room and any discussions that happen during the in camera session are not recorded in the minutes.
During the February 9 meeting, the board voted to move in camera to discuss the union’s ongoing lawsuit against its former executive director, Sandra Hudson, and to continue the discussion from an in camera session that took place at the January 27 board meeting.
The union’s legal dispute with Hudson began in September 2015, and it alleges that Hudson was improperly issued almost a quarter of a million dollars in severance pay. Hudson subsequently countersued the union for $300,000, alleging racism and harassment from leaders within the UTSU.
“Going in camera when we did was a breach of our duties to our students, and quoting policy at me and others is just a distraction from UTSU’s refusal to engage in good faith with Black students about issues of anti-Black racism,” said UTSU Vice-President University Affairs Cassandra Williams.
Mathias Memmel, VP Internal declined to comment on anything that was said in camera, writing in an email to The Varsity, “That’s how going in camera works.” He explained that the union’s Board of Directors has “consistently discussed the lawsuit, and everything related to the lawsuit, in camera.”
Williams revealed that during the in camera session, she attempted to add a motion on the agenda regarding the lawsuit.
“The motion in question would commit UTSU to engaging with Black students and student groups on the issue of anti-Black racism and the lawsuit for which we have repeatedly heard concerns about anti-Black racism. Past commitments to meaningfully engage with racism and anti-Blackness have been empty, and this is something that UTSU ought to find tremendously concerning,” Williams said in an email statement.
“Further, the motion would ensure that the Board of Directors — who have ultimate authority over the lawsuit — actually have the opportunity to have their voices heard on a lawsuit that has been kept out of their hands despite their authority on the matter,” she continued.
In October 2016, the Black Liberation Collective (BLC) staged a protest at the UTSU office, demanding an end to the union’s lawsuit against Hudson.
Members of the BLC also came to observe the proceedings of the February 9 board meeting, but they had to leave once the meeting entered into an in camera session, along with all other non-board members in the room.
“We’ve done this not because the whole thing is confidential—although much of it is—but because giving the opposing party insight into our internal debates could be very damaging to our legal position,” Memmel explained. “You can’t go in camera to avoid awkward situations, but you can go in camera when there are things that you don’t want opposing parties to know. Student governments often abuse the ability to go in camera, so we’ve been very careful not to do that.”
After the meeting was no longer in camera, Williams announced that none of the information that was discussed in camera was confidential. A heated exchange between Williams, New College Director Sila Elgin, Woodsworth College Director Christina Badiola, and Vice-President Equity Farah Noori followed.
During the meeting, Elgin defended the use of in camera session, saying, “This board is not a space where a lot of people feel comfortable talking, and for people to say that we are avoiding transparency by having in camera discussions is outright disgusting and disrespectful.”
In response, Noori, who was also serving as the meeting’s anti-harassment officer, pushed back at Elgin’s statement, and suggested that people defending the in camera session should “stop victimizing themselves.” To this Badiola responded, “You’re the anti-harassment officer, and you just told someone to ‘stop victimizing themselves.’”
Memmel weighed in on the exchange during the meeting: “After somebody has just announced that they’re not necessarily speaking in this space, and that they want their thoughts to be brought outside of the meeting, and therefore, they feel the need to have it in camera, to then have that completely ignored is disgusting and it’s cruel.”
On February 23, Williams released a 1100-word public statement about the ordeal on the UTSU’s official letterhead.
“When it came time to discuss adding this motion to the agenda, the Board voted to go in camera, kick those Black students out of the room, and ensure that there would be no record of the Board’s private conversation,” a part of Williams’s statement reads.
In her statement, Williams asserts that Elgin “claimed that it was justifiable to kick those Black students out of the room and have an off-the-record discussion because not everyone feels ‘comfortable’ speaking openly” and criticizes Memmel’s use of the word “disgusting” in his statement at the board meeting.
Williams also writes that Badiola “attempted to silence these concerns by citing procedural technicalities — effectively silencing discussion about UTSU acting non-transparently, and acting in a way that could be reasonably considered racist.”
Williams further alleges in the statement that Elgin “has in the past also commented that it is wrong to criticize UTSU for its lack of commitment to trans students and trans issues because not everyone feels ‘comfortable’ enough to be an ally and support trans people.”
“These events constitute just one chapter in what seems to be a never-ending story about the Union’s neglect for Black students and issues of anti-Black racism,” the statement concludes.
Memmel responded by clarifying that his comments at the meeting were in reference to Noori and not Williams.
“I’m an adult with a job to do, and going through every lie in that extended tweet would be a waste of my time,” he told The Varsity.
Echoing Memmel’s comments about the use of in camera sessions, Badiola told The Varsity, “It does not matter if what is said in camera is ‘legally confidential’ or not. If something is said in camera, it cannot be repeated outside of an in camera session without breaking Canadian law.”
Badiola also called it “absurd” that she was singled out for making such statements. “Many other directors brought up my same exact points, in that what was said in camera cannot be repeated outside of an in camera session, whether anyone likes it or not. The fact that [Williams] has chosen to single me out and not the other directors who made the exact same points as me right after me goes to show that this statement was not solely written out of a desire to be ‘transparent’ but also to target myself and other specific board members, out of a personal vendetta,” she said.
In addition, Badiola attached a document with the UTSU’s official letterhead and a statement addressed to “RE: All of you,” saying “Eat my ass.” This was an attempt to demonstrate, she stated, that “anyone can use UTSU letterhead, and it doesn’t make it an official statement.”
Elgin denied that she was justifying excluding Black students.
“My interests were to remind my fellow directors and the executive that we have had conversations about how difficult it can be to speak to a room of sixty people without feeling intimidated or overwhelmed,” she told The Varsity.
“I use these words because disabilities and mental illnesses are complex and can be quite personalized, and I did not want to speak on behalf of my fellow directors,” she said.
Regarding Williams’ allegation that Elgin made comments regarding the UTSU’s commitment to trans issues, Elgin responded: “I cannot comment on a conversation that did not take place. I have always firmly held my ground that a university of this size will have students from multiple backgrounds that create a number of different factors in their lives, all of which contribute to their mental health. I am well aware of the mental health issues our trans students are facing, and by no means was erasing that fact, but it is important to remember that they are not alone in this fight against mental illness.”
On February 26, Elgin informed The Varsity of her intention to resign from the UTSU Board of Directors.
Noori and the BLC did not return The Varsity’s requests for comment.
Disclosure: Sila Elgin contributes to The Varsity’s Photo, Features, Comment, and Arts & Culture sections.