Tensions flared regarding mental health services and infringements of decorum during a University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) General Council meeting on March 26. What began as a discussion on the UTGSU’s Health and Dental Plan resulted in the official censure of a student union representative.
Debate on mental health occurs during discussion on approval of Health and Dental Plan
As the UTGSU began proceedings to approve their new Health and Dental Plan, Ben Hjorth, a proxy representative for the Comparative Literature Student Union, moved to delay the confirmation. He hoped that delaying the plan’s approval would give the union more time to lobby for the expansion of mental health services coverage.
The current UTGSU insurance plan provides $500 per year of coverage for mental health services administered by psychologists, licensed psychotherapists, or counselors with a master’s degree in social work.
Hjorth said that the provided coverage for mental health services was inadequate, so he recommended that the union delay the approval of the insurance plan. He believed this would be an effective way to leverage U of T administration and thus allow the union to expand mental health coverage in the plan.
Finance Commissioner Branden Rizzuto spoke strongly against delaying the plan’s approval, saying that he did not believe that tabling the motion would be “the most efficient way to put pressure on the university.”
Rizzuto also said that a delay may put the insurance plan at risk, since it could result in prolonged negotiations with the U of T administration. This could ultimately lead to the insurance plan failing to be passed by the end of U of T’s governing cycle.
“What you’re asking for is basically to restart what we’ve done this year,” said Rizzuto.
In an email to The Varsity, the Executive Committee, which includes Rizzuto, wrote that it has seen increased claims through the Health and Dental Plan over the last three years, resulting in increased premiums. The Committee went on to write that the “burden of [expanding] mental health resources for students lies with University of Toronto administration and should not be met by increasing out of pocket costs for our members.”
“We agree that current access to mental health resources for U of T graduate students is inadequate, but [we] do not believe that the solution to this problem is to increase the Health and Dental Plan premiums and subsequently force larger fees on already financially impoverished graduate students.”
The Committee declined to comment in response to a request by The Varsity for justification for the claim that delaying approval of the plan would endanger the following year’s coverage.
The General Council ultimately voted to approve the Health and Dental plan, voting down Hjorth’s motion to table the plan’s approval.
UTGSU General Council member later censured for alleged equity statement violation
During the discussion on delaying the approval of the insurance plan, Hjorth spoke out of turn multiple times. These incidents violated Bourinot’s Rules of Order, which govern UTGSU General Council meetings.
Hjorth specifically interrupted Rizzuto with an out-of-order objection while Rizzuto was explaining his belief that delaying the approval of the insurance plan would risk the plan entirely.
Later, Hjorth requested to make a “point of order.” The Chair did not immediately address Hjorth’s point. In response, Hjorth sharply asked whether the Chair was purposefully ignoring him. The Chair then requested Hjorth to respect decorum.
Hjorth’s responses prompted an executive to request Hjorth to be conscious of his tone of voice when addressing the UTGSU’s staff. Hjorth said loudly that this was “not a point of order.” The executive agreed that this was a point of privilege, then repeated her request for Hjorth to settle down.
At the end of the meeting, after Hjorth had left, Internal Commissioner-elect Adam Hill moved to officially censure Hjorth, noting Hjorth’s alleged misconduct in the minutes.
External Commissioner Cristina Jaimungal added that she believed Hjorth’s actions were in violation of the meeting’s equity statement, since they were out of decorum and infringed on members’ abilities to speak in an inclusive environment.
The UTGSU Executive Committee, which includes Jaimungal, declined to comment on a question by The Varsity on what specific parts of the equity statement Hjorth violated.
Jaimungal recommended to the Chair that should future violations occur, Hjorth should be “asked to leave immediately.”
Addressing his censure, Hjorth wrote to The Varsity, “I will admit that these discussions got heated at times, but tone-policing should always raise at least an eyebrow, particularly when it is lead by those who have been called out.”
He further wrote that he believed discussion on his censure acted as a distraction from addressing the union’s limited mental health coverage in its insurance plan.
Hjorth added that the intention behind his actions was to hold UTGSU representatives accountable “for what they do as much as for what they fail to do.” He continued, “I’ll try to do it a little more politely, so that we can stop having these kinds of petty discussions and move on to debating what’s really important.”