On April 29, 2017, members of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) 2017-2018 Board of Directors were welcomed into their new roles with protest. At the board’s transition meeting, members of the Black Liberation Collective (BLC), alongside supporters of CUPE 1281 and the ‘Save our Services, Support our Staff’ campaign, protested the UTSU’s ongoing lawsuit against Sandra Hudson, former UTSU Executive Director and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO).
The BLC claims that the UTSU’s continuation of the lawsuit against Hudson perpetuates anti-Black racism and that the ongoing legal proceedings have inflicted serious harm on Hudson’s public image.
In the midst of this conflict, the UTSU must take a balanced approach to dealing with the unrest it currently faces. Such a balance requires cooperating with and listening to disgruntled students while simultaneously taking a principled stance that protects students’ interests.
The magnitude of students’ dissatisfaction can be attributed to the UTSU’s past ineffectiveness at listening to and collaborating with dissenting voices. Board meetings have been held during times that were inviable for many students, while other meetings have prohibited livestreams, preventing students who could not attend from seeing the events that transpired. In November of 2016, the UTSU hosted a poorly-publicized Anti-Black Racism Town Hall, which Black students did not attend, drawing criticism from the BLC.
The BLC is not the only group to critique the union lately, either. Supporters of CUPE 1282 and the ‘Save our services, Support our staff’ campaign have also been highly critical of the UTSU over proposed cuts to services. These groups have substantial strength in numbers and the potential to influence newer members of the UTSU board.
As these groups gain strength, it is in the best interest of the UTSU to listen to them.
The UTSU must foster an ongoing dialogue between the union and its members, and any issues that arise should be addressed properly and in a timely manner.
Regarding what transpired at the transition meeting, it is encouraging that UTSU President Mathias Memmel — after voting to give speaking rights to everyone in the room — encouraged the board to listen to the protesters that were speaking. Although the protesters mocked him for this, it was a necessary step in trying to bridge the divide between the opposing groups. Suppressing dissenting speech only gives more ammunition to those trying to oppose you.
However, while the UTSU must listen to these groups, it must also stick to its principles and prioritize the best interests of students. Being open to dissenting views and taking strong stances are certainly not mutually exclusive, but it is still important to recognize that sometimes there is nothing you can do about disagreement.
It is difficult for the union to compromise with the #ImWithSandy campaign given that the campaigns primary goal is for the union to drop the lawsuit. What the UTSU should do instead is work to better define and communicate the reasoning behind the lawsuit, ensuring that it is transparent in its motive in order to gain further support and traction. Communication is key, and the actions taken by Memmel at the board meeting are only a first step. The UTSU must present the facts of the case to the student body and do so without engaging in the character assassination of Hudson — a method achievable by separating the good that Hudson has done within student life circles and BLMTO from the allegations of financial fraud that have been made against her.
Moreover, the UTSU can effectively foster dialogue with Black students by reaching out to other organizations and student groups on campus like the Black Students Association and the Black Ties Association.
Communication is just as important internally as externally; individual UTSU board members should not feel pressured into adopting certain political positions or stances, and should act and engage in conversation in a manner that is congruent with their roles as student representatives.
The problems that the UTSU will face in the coming year are not going to be easy to solve — but by keeping a line of communication open while sticking to its principles, the union can save itself from further unrest.
Haseeb Hassaan is an incoming fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science. He is a former Associate Executive Vice-President of the UTSU, and a current Arts and Science Students’ Union executive. The views expressed here are his own.