Two UTGSU executive candidates challenge 2020 election results, alleging defamation

Email circulated to graduate students described Adam Hill, Jesse Velay-Vitow as “racist, sexist candidates”
From left to right: Adam Hill and Jesse Velay-Vitow LEFT: SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY
RIGHT: COURTESY OF THE MERCATUS CENTER
From left to right: Adam Hill and Jesse Velay-Vitow LEFT: SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY RIGHT: COURTESY OF THE MERCATUS CENTER

During the April 28 meeting of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) council, Adam Hill and Jesse Velay-Vitow, two unsuccessful candidates from the 2020 executive elections, brought forth an appeal challenging the validity of the results.

The appellants allege that they were defamed during the elections  pointing to the circulation of an email that characterized them as “racist, sexist candidates.” The Elections and Referenda Committee has not revealed who sent the email, or who informed them of it, due to privacy concerns.

Hill and Velay-Vitow claim that the email may have been sent to graduate students by the UTGSU’s Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Caucus. The caucus, however, denies involvement. Their redacted appeal was circulated only to the council, though a copy was leaked to The Varsity

An initial appeal from Hill and Velay-Vitow was rejected by Deputy Returning Officer (DRO) Daniel Li, on the grounds that they did not find sufficient evidence that other candidates or their supporters had circulated the email, nor that the results of the election were affected by the distribution of the email at the time.

In an email to The Varsity, Li wrote, “This isn’t to say that we dismissed the concerns raised in their appeal, but that we simply did not have enough evidence to accept the appeal.” The two candidates challenged Li’s decision, amounting to an additional appeal to the UTGSU Board of Appeals.

Results of the elections for the UTGSU’s Executive Committee were released on April 21. Velay-Vitow and Hill lost to June Li and Lynne Alexandrova for the positions of academics and fundings commissioner divisions 3 & 4 and internal commissioner, respectively. Previously, Hill served as internal commissioner for the 20192020 academic year, while Velay-Vitow has been a member of the union’s Policy and Operations Committee for two years. 

These developments follow an already tumultuous 2020 election season for the UTGSU, which had to restart its cycle due to violations of its bylaws within the elections code.

Email calls to vote against Hill, Velay-Vitow 

The original appeal alleges that the email sent to many members of the UTGSU constitutes defamation and may have influenced the results of the election. The email, which according to the appeal was entitled “GSU election: vote today to defeat racist, sexist candidates,” asked recipients to vote for Li and Alexandrova, and not Hill and Velay-Vitow.

Chief Returning Officer Amin Kamaleddin alerted Hill and Velay-Vitow to the email, and informed them that election officials were investigating the contents.

The email was signed “In solidarity, UofT Divest,” a reference to a campaign run by the UTGSU’s BDS Caucus. The caucus denies any involvement with the email, writing that “If someone appended the signature ‘UofT Divest’ to such an email, then they did so without our authorization.”

The email characterizes the two candidates as having “anti-union and anti-equity agendas.” Calling Velay-Vitow a “men’s rights activist,” it criticizes a letter to the editor that was published in Simon Fraser University’s student newspaper, The Peak, in which Velay-Vitow claimed that “There is only one place on campus that discriminates via gender. And that is the Women’s Centre.”

The email also alleges that Velay-Vitow faced complaints as a member of the UTGSU Policy and Operations Committee due to violations of the union’s equity statement, though Velay-Vitow claims that a previous executive has informed him that there were no complaints at the time of the email. 

In Hill’s case, the email included quotes from his personal blog that the email suggested showed questionable views on women. For example, the email quoted a blog post of Hill’s where he wrote, “Much of women’s self-worth is based on what they think other people think about how they look.” The email also referenced impeachment proceedings centred around possibly discriminatory comments that he made as internal commissioner. 

While Hill was able to confirm that there was a draft impeachment motion brought forth at the April 28 meeting, the motion was not moved or seconded. The drafted motion does not make specific allegations, citing “concerns related to the safety and equity of UTGSU spaces.” Hill was also unable to confirm who had made the complaints. At the time of the April 28 meeting, Hill had two more days in office. 

Hill, Velay-Vitow allege defamation 

Velay-Vitow disputes the idea that he is anti-union, referencing his work within the UTGSU. Otherwise, both Hill and Velay-Vitow do not dispute the citations and quotes in the email; instead, they note in interviews with The Varsity that these were taken out of context. 

“In my undergrad, I was involved in advocacy work surrounding things like… male depression, bodily autonomy with respect to circumcision, male survivors of sexual abuse, and missing and murdered Indigenous men,” said Velay-Vitow of the email’s characterization of him as a “men’s rights activist.” He notes that at the time, he would have identified as a men’s issues advocate, though he does not identify this way today.

Hill feels that whoever wrote the email aimed to create a false narrative about his work by painting him as sexist, racist, and transphobic. He also identifies that the blog posts were outdated, and noted that he has changed considerably since that time. With regard to the impeachment proceedings brought against him, he admitted to misgendering a member of the Policy and Operations Committee during a meeting and in an email, and said that he has apologized and worked to create a conversation around equity in that space. 

Hill and Velay-Vitow’s appeal states that the email defames their characters — therefore breaking the rules of fair play in elections — and claims that they “are identified as white cis-male and descriminated [sic] against for this alleged identification.” 

Hill and Velay-Vitow also allege that candidates used slate-like behaviour — meaning they worked as a group to get elected — and that this can be seen through screenshots of deleted Facebook posts and comments. Included within the appeal, the screenshots show posts from a graduate organization named We Are UofT that use similar wording to the email. These posts were confirmed to violate the elections code, and the Elections and Referenda Committee assigned 25 demerit points to the candidates mentioned within the posts.

All candidates whose names were included in the email said that they were unaware of its drafting and circulation. 

Motion to strike an ad hoc executive elections investigation committee

Discussion of Hill and Velay-Vitow’s appeal at the April 28 meeting lasted for seven minutes, at which point it was tabled to the next meeting.

While ratification of the election results was discussed at the meeting, the elected candidates took office on May 1, as lawyers who examined the UTGSU’s bylaws found that the board had no power to ratify or deratify elections. Following the April 28 meeting, 11 directors, including Hill and Velay-Vitow, requested a meeting that was set for May 7 to decide on a motion to strike an ad hoc executive elections investigation committee. However, according to Velay-Vitow, executives have moved it to a later date.

An agenda has been posted for an upcoming meeting on May 16 which includes the drafted motion. If struck, the committee would investigate the claims made by Hill and Velay-Vitow to determine the fairness and legitimacy of the elections.

The UTGSU’s 2020–2021 executive committee did not respond to The Varsitys request for comment. 

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