The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) has become more powerful through its close affiliation with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and its Ontario component. Allegations regarding the close connections between UTMSU elected students, employees, and the CFS have been detrimental to the union’s operations and are characteristic of the anti-CFS student movement.
Former Simon Fraser University student Titus Gregory’s essay “Solidarity for Their Own Good: Self-Determination and the Canadian Federation of Students,” published in 2010, is a work that still informs the anti-CFS movement today. Gregory argues, albeit amid critiques by a CFS legal counsel that are included in the document, that the CFS and its member locals are controlled by unelected, non-student staff members who ultimately undermine student democracy.
While Gregory’s argument cannot be proven with certainty, it portrays democracy in Canadian student government as a mere illusion where students’ ability to use their democratic voice is set up to fail — a situation which students should seek to ameliorate and prevent.
While such an argument can be useful in designing policy measures to avoid domination by unelected, non-student actors, in excess it can lead to nihilism and despair. This hopelessness is mirrored in the perception that the only recourse is through costly legal action, as opposed to student government democracy.
A way forward is to gather and report on evidence to test whether perceived cliques within the UTMSU are contributing to severe issues with union democracy. This would not only need to be done through student journalism, but also by a movement of students actively pushing for democratic reforms on a multi-year basis.
If there is indeed a regime in UTMSU that has been in power for years, the institutional knowledge they would have accumulated over their tenures would allow them to run circles around lone students or short-term slates.
For instance, take the case of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) Resistance, a coalition of student groups that was dedicated to opposing corruption in the SFUO until the SFUO’s dismantlement and replacement by the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) through a student referendum in 2019.
It took University of Ottawa students four years to stop SFUO corruption, and in the end the university administration stepped in and organized the deciding referendum instead of having it run by the SFUO’s democratic processes.
Post-SFUO, the UOSU now finds itself with a considerable amount of independence, with its constitution sporting a clause that makes it very difficult to enter into an agreement that cannot be terminated by a vote of its board of directors. This would include a referendum to join the CFS.
If UTMSU students take action and confirm that the UTMSU’s membership in the CFS is contributing to the union’s democratic issues, they can start to seek separation, as daunting as such a campaign may seem.
If issues like those with the SFUO are found in the UTMSU, improving the situation could also take years. However, the case of the SFUO shows that change is possible.
As a witness of and participant in what I would now term as the “UOSU Revolution,” I would say that spending years advocating for improvements to student union democracy is worth it.
Even if the reforms are not enacted before you graduate, if you have a group of students striving for change year after year, you can pass on the knowledge you have gained so your successors have a solid foundation for organizing. The same goes for students in any of the University of Toronto’s student governments.
Organize collectively, resist, and do not be afraid.
Justin Patrick recently graduated with a Master of Political Science from UTSG. He served as the Internal Commissioner of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union from January to April 2019. He was a Governance and Policy Analyst at the University of Toronto Students’ Union from June to September 2019.