Content warning: mentions of suicide.
With its nomination period having begun on March 2, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) election period is now in full swing. The voting period began on March 21 at 12:00 am, and will run until March 25 at 5:00 pm. Votes can be cast on the UTSU’s online voting portal.
For the UTSU’s most senior position of president, students will have a choice between Muntaka Ahmed, the union’s current executive assistant clubs; Arjun Kaul, the current vice-president operations; and Bryan Liceralde, a candidate who ran for the position last year.
The vice-president professional faculties race has no candidates, and two positions — vice-president operations and vice-president public and university affairs — are uncontested.
This election also features two referenda: one to establish a levy for UTSU’s student aid program and the other to increase the fee for the UTSU’s health and dental plan. The UTSU announced that this year it has “disbursed more than double the amount of student aid that was disbursed in the last 2 years combined.” In order to expand and guarantee the continuation of this program, the UTSU is asking for a $1 levy per semester devoted to student aid.
The UTSU has been U of T’s official student union since 1901, and represents nearly 40,000 full-time undergraduate students at the St. George campus. The UTSU previously represented undergraduate students from UTM as well, until late 2018 when the UTSU and the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union agreed to separate.
The executive team is currently led by the president and six vice-presidents whose portfolios include operations, external affairs, equity, student life, professional faculties, and university affairs. The UTSU merged the portfolios of vice-president external and vice-president university affairs at the UTSU’s Special General Meeting on February 12, reducing the number of vice-presidential positions to five for the current election.
The UTSU is governed by its Board of Directors, which is made up of 16 college directors, 13 professional faculty directors, six directors from academic communities, one director elected by the Transitional Year Programme, and the executives.
According to its website, the UTSU’s two key functions are advocacy — such as lobbying the government and university in the interests of students — and providing students with services such as grants, clubs funding, and the health and dental plan.
UTSG undergraduate students are required to pay $49.80 in fees to the UTSU each semester, which are broken down into a variety of categories. These levies include support for the Downtown Legal Services and a fee for student buildings.
Due to the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative, $23.73 of these fees per semester were previously deemed “non-essential” and students were able to opt out of them in the fall. Following the Divisional Court of Ontario’s ruling in November, which struck down the initiative, the UTSU’s operating budget was restored. Students must additionally pay $187.43 per semester to the UTSU in order to access its health and dental insurance plans, unless they have an equivalent health plan.
The UTSU has continually struggled with engaging with students, an issue that is not always shared by student unions at other universities.
Last year’s election saw three executive positions and 18 directorships go unfilled. The voter turnout was recorded at 4.2 per cent, and the subsequent by-election to fill the remaining positions had a voter turnout of 2.9 per cent.
Recently, the UTSU has reported a large increase in health insurance claims. As such, the UTSU is asking to raise the fee for its health and dental insurance plan by an additional 10 per cent, on top of the 10 per cent increase already mandated by the UTSU’s bylaws.
The referenda is motivated by the claim that the “current fee will not be able to sustain the increasing costs of the Plan, let alone increase coverage levels to cope with student mental health difficulties,” according to a post made by the UTSU.
The student mental health crisis has been a major focus for the UTSU this year, as students have called on the university for greater support and more streamlined services. Since June 2018, there have been four publicized student deaths by suicide on campus.
This has prompted major protests and student advocacy, resulting in the creation of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health. While the task force’s work has led to a redesign of the university’s mental health services, other incidents, such as the controversy surrounding the university ombudsperson’s comments on the university-mandated leave of absence policy, show that many students are still dissatisfied with the status quo.
Editor’s Note (March 24, 2:20 pm): This article has been updated to reflect that the voting deadline had been extended from 5:00 pm on March 23 to 5:00 pm on March 25.
If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:
Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.
Warning signs of suicide include:
Talking about wanting to die
Looking for a way to kill oneself
Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
Talking about being a burden to others
Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
Sleeping too little or too much
Withdrawing or feeling isolated
Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention