The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) is, on paper, a powerful force. As one of Canada’s largest student unions by membership, it governs over 50,000 full-time undergraduate and professional faculty students.

While providing services — like club funding or the health and dental plan — is its most tangible mandate, the UTSU’s most interesting role is to lobby for student interests on behalf of its massive electorate. Be it directing action against rising tuition costs or taking symbolic stances in opposition to university or government policies, it is advocacy that ideally lights a fire in the hearts of university students.

Yet at its recent October 30 Annual General Meeting (AGM), the UTSU was unable to retain the presence of even 50 members to maintain quorum for the duration of the event. This is despite interesting, progressive, and engaging motions on the docket — a golden opportunity for the UTSU’s large membership to openly debate and shape the UTSU’s advocacy role.

Of the 40 or so members who remained at the end of the meeting, the overwhelming majority were what union executive Tyler Biswurm called “insiders.” The failure to maintain quorum is disappointing and highlights that the UTSU has an engagement problem with its membership.

A questionable decision on quorum

Quorum for the AGM is 75 voting members, of which 50 must be physically present. The rest can be proxied votes. This is stated in the UTSU’s bylaws, in accordance with the Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act (CNCA), which governs the operations of not-for-profits like the UTSU — and The Varsity — in Canada.

Before a vote on a member-submitted motion that would increase the direct democracy of the union, there was a roll call to establish whether the meeting still had quorum. There were less than 50 members present, and for a brief moment there was hushed chaos as many assumed that the meeting would be forced to adjourn.

However, a member spoke up, citing language from the CNCA that describes how a meeting may continue conducting business even if it loses quorum, as long as quorum was established at the beginning. The AGM’s speaker ruled that the meeting would continue.

This scenario is not described in the UTSU’s bylaws. But there is precedent for halting an AGM when quorum is lost, as was done by the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) in 2015.

Whether or not continuing the meeting without quorum was in order is subject to interpretation. However, that doing so was counter to the spirit of union democracy is not. The lack of engagement from the UTSU’s membership, underscored by the regrettable loss of quorum, hurts both the spirit and the substance of the resolutions passed at the AGM.

Exhibit A: The motion on the campus free speech mandate

Take, for example, the member-submitted resolution, which passed, that the UTSU formally oppose the campus free speech mandate from Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative provincial government.

This is a step in the right direction. Ontario campuses, U of T included, enjoy the benefits of free speech already. Ford’s ‘campus free speech’ mandate serves as a dog-whistle of encouragement to far-right groups that support him.

However, the lack of engagement from students at large and other interested parties was shocking. The Campus Conservatives — an official affiliate of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario and the Conservative Party of Canada — are a voice we could expect to advocate on behalf of Ford’s mandate at the AGM.

When asked by a Varsity reporter about why the Campus Conservatives was absent from the AGM, the group’s president, Matthew Campbell, answered resoundingly: “Because I was at a bar with friends.”

“They’re a fucking joke,” Campbell said of the union. “Do I give a fuck about what the U of T Student Union represents? No.” Campbell’s language is crude and inappropriate, but is nonetheless indicative of the general disengagement between the union and student body.

Ironically, the resolution on free speech was passed without much constructive debate. Yes, there was discussion of the motion’s use of the term “Orwellian,” and a vote to strike part of the motion, but the debate lacked a sense of action and left questions about how advocacy should take shape unanswered. The lack of engagement hurt the spirit of the progress that the union made on that front on October 30.

It also hurts the substance of this progress: without diverse and engaged voices, the union’s membership is left wondering what exactly the UTSU’s new stance means. If U of T’s current free speech policy is compliant with Ford’s mandate, the question emerges as to whether the UTSU will now oppose it, or if its rejection is strictly limited to provincially-mandated changes.

Whether the union will engage with the university on this issue — as the original resolution mandated — or if this is a purely symbolic act, as the amended motion suggests, remains a concern for students. These are the types of questions that could have been debated by a more engaged membership, but weren’t.

Exhibit B: The motion on policy and bylaw changes at AGMs

Similarly, the motion to allow members to propose policy and bylaw changes at AGMs — as opposed to having the union’s own Governance Committee handle these matters — was stained in both spirit and substance by a lack of engagement.

Again, like the free speech policy, this motion is a step in the right direction. It’s important for members to be able to enact change in their union, and a move toward direct democracy is principled and progressive.

However, concerns raised in the discussion of this motion highlighted the ease with which members could force through hostile or ill-intentioned policy changes, by simply bringing in a crowd of friends or even a small group wielding stacks of proxies.

We share these concerns. If this new policy were applied to the October 30 AGM, 10 attending members, each carrying 10 proxied votes, could have formed a majority and opposed any motion that went before the membership.

A middle ground must be struck between a union whose policies and bylaws are confined to small governance discussions between engaged insiders, and a union whose policies and bylaws can be derailed by a small but ferocious force at an AGM.

Yet that middle ground couldn’t be struck on October 30. Perhaps this is because the overwhelming majority of those present at the AGM were themselves “insiders.”

This motion was also passed without quorum. As well as calling into question the validity of the motion, this underscores the lack of engagement with the UTSU. In years past, AGMs have been fraught with fierce and divisive debate. A motion like this would have been unthinkable then.

Rather than letting the membership ignore the potential danger of swinging too far in the direction of direct and underrepresented democracy, a better-attended and more engaging AGM would have put these matters into better context.

The need to cultivate an engaged student democracy

This AGM made it clear that the UTSU has much work to do when it comes to engagement with its electorate. With the power to represent, govern, and advocate as one of the country’s largest student unions comes a responsibility to cultivate an engaged, robust student democracy. We hope that the UTSU takes action to fulfill this responsibility.

We also hope that next year’s AGM builds on the progressive spirit of this year’s motions with the added quality that the room’s tension pertains to healthy and plentiful debate, rather than a struggle to maintain quorum.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected].