During the February board meeting of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), University College Director Lina Maragha raised some serious criticisms about the union’s executives. She addressed that many executives had not informed UTSU President Joshua Bowman that they would be working fewer hours over February’s reading week, and claimed that Vice-President Equity Michael Junior Samakayi lacked commitment to events, citing this year’s eXpression Against Oppression (XAO) series as an example.
Following this, Bowman called for a culture shift in the UTSU to make sure that members feel more comfortable criticizing executives, like Maragha had. But the accountability issues that Maragha drew attention to are part of a larger trend that has plagued the UTSU for years. Low student engagement in union politics has enabled an environment that seems to not take accountability seriously, which in turn has fuelled student apathy.
UTSU members are aware of the disconnect between the union and the student body. Just this year, Bowman wrote an op-ed in The Varsity encouraging students to attend the 2019 Annual General Meeting (AGM), which he wrote in part due to a lack of participation in past AGMs. The previous year’s AGM had only been allowed to move ahead on a technicality after failing to reach its 50-member quorum. It’s not surprising that the AGM has been criticized for being filled with ‘insiders’ — people who have power in the UTSU or who are friends with the people in power.
If all this weren’t enough, the UTSU’s elections have some of the lowest voter turnout of all of Canada’s major student unions at just 4.2 per cent. Democracy is built on the assumption that the public pays attention to officials and executives — they have to do what they say they will, because if they don’t, they won’t get elected. However, if voters aren’t paying attention, politicians can take liberties.
A UTSU board meeting at the beginning of 2019 exposed that many executives, including former UTSU president Anne Boucher, had failed to submit their monthly executive reports. Boucher had defended herself, saying that she’d had an “intensive week in Ottawa.”
This year, attendance documents revealed that board members were marked present 58 per cent of the time. While this is an improvement from last year, this number is likely unsatisfactory to many people in the student body are likely to be. UTSU executives are paid workers, and students pay a part of those salaries. We expect them to treat their position like any other job, which means showing up and meeting deadlines.
When these things don’t happen, it alienates the electorate and exacerbates their apathy and unwillingness to participate. If things never change, why should they care who is elected to what position? The only way to fix this vicious cycle is to commit to keeping members accountable and emphasize to incoming members that every position is a job, not just a title that looks good on a resume.
Marta Anielska is a first-year Social Sciences student at University College.