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UTGSU executive member-at-large resigns, faces notice of impeachment

Allegations of misbehaviour, racism accumulate at January council meetings
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UTGSU executive member-at-large Ben Hjorth announced his resignation on January 19. KEARNJ/CC FLICKR
UTGSU executive member-at-large Ben Hjorth announced his resignation on January 19. KEARNJ/CC FLICKR

At the January 18 University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) council meeting, a notice to begin the impeachment process for Executive Member-at-Large Ben Hjorth was put forward. At a subsequent council meeting on January 19, Hjorth publicly announced his formal resignation from the UTGSU — while writing that he had already privately announced his resignation to the UTGSU executive on January 7 prior to the calls for his impeachment. 

A focal point of these developments is the relationship between Hjorth and External Commissioner Jacqui Spencer, who have accused each other of misbehaviour and racism. However, general member Chaim Grafstein, who called for Hjorth’s impeachment trial, noted that the action was not due to the personal dispute between Spencer and Hjorth — instead focusing on allegations of anti-Semitism toward Hjorth. 

“For this to be framed [as] a personal dispute really takes away from the issues of anti-Semitism that I’ve been facing,” he said, adding that, “many have felt uncomfortable in these board meetings because of those experiences.”

Hjorth disputes the allegations of mistreatment and anti-Semitism levelled against him, instead criticizing Spencer’s behaviour at the UTGSU as the rationale for his resignation.

Lwanga Musisi, University Governance Commissioner, was among those who did not support the notice of impeachment trial, saying he felt it was a “personal disagreement” between Spencer and Hjorth. “I don’t think that these types of personal disputes should take place at council meetings,” he added.

Further allegations against executive member-at-large

Aside from Grafstein’s allegation of anti-Semitism, two UTGSU executives also levelled accusations against Hjorth at the meeting. Spencer claimed that “the executive-at-large has been operating in a manner that would target me and put me in a position of a lack of safety.” In addition, she alleged that Hjorth “has called [her] a racist and other such derogatory terms.” She added that he’s also called her “self-serving,” “violent,” and “politically treacherous.” 

“[Hjorth has] attempted to resign by email, but only if I resigned first, and [he] told me that I should not show my face in any union space ever again,” Spencer said, adding, “His behaviour is vile, disrespectful, racist, anti-Black and the executives that support him should also be ashamed of themselves.”

In the meeting, Spencer disputed the general claims she said he has made about her, saying “I’ve been continuously slandered.” 

When asked to further clarify the specifics of these allegations, Spencer wrote to The Varsity, “Due to an ongoing investigation into executive conduct, I cannot comment further at this time.”

Spencer added that “It is imperative that UTGSU meetings be safe spaces for [Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC)] and all marginalized and racialized students and that violence against UTGSU members not be tolerated.” 

Dhanela Sivaparan, Academics and Funding Commissioner: Divisions 1 and 2, also spoke about Hjorth’s behaviour in the January 18 meeting. She claimed to have “been receiving indirect threats or micro-aggressive behaviour from the executive member-at-large.”

Allegations against external commissioner

Hjorth disputed Spencer’s claims against him in an email to The Varsity, writing, “I have not targeted, slandered or compromised the safety of the External Commissioner.” 

Hjorth also wrote that when stating his resignation on January 7, he did say that he felt Spencer should resign, but that his resignation was not dependent upon her own. 

He also disputed Sivaparan’s claims. “I never threatened the Academics & Funding Commissioner for Divisions 1 & 2,” he wrote in an email to The Varsity. “On the contrary, we maintained a warm personal correspondence until very recently, at which point I reached out to her with concerns about the External Commissioner’s treatment of other Executives on the Committee.”

He added that no evidence has been provided to support “the nebulous claims that have been made against me by the External Commissioner and those supporting her.”

Hjorth’s letter stated that he was resigning “in protest” of an unsafe work environment allegedly perpetuated by Spencer. Hjorth alleged that Spencer often responded to criticism by accusing executive members — including BIPOC members — of racism. He also claimed that Spencer engaged in “violent targeting” of other executives, “which put [the executive’s] safety, and that of the Union membership, at serious risk.”

“This is what my resignation was in protest against,” he explained. Hjorth added that his resignation was partly due to Spencer’s claims that a member had brought forward complaints that Hjorth had made anti-Semitic comments. Hjorth wrote that the member’s allegations remain unsubstantiated, though he suspects they are in regard to comments he made in 2019, before he was elected as executive member-at-large. Hjorth clarified that his comments were meant to be “anti-Israel” and “anti-apartheid” rather than anti-Semitic. 

According to Hjorth, Spencer continued to threaten him with the anti-Semitism claim, despite the Executive Committee passing a motion preventing Spencer from conducting any investigations through the Equity & Advocacy Committee without a mandate from council. At the January 19 UTGSU council meeting, the General Council ruled that the motion was out of order. 

In an email to The Varsity, Hjorth wrote, “I informed the Executive Committee of my resignation in protest… long before the Monday 18 January Council meeting where notice of a future motion to impeach me was given.” He added, “Only a sitting member of the Executive Committee can be impeached; the notice of motion is therefore out of order and irrelevant.”

Editor’s note (January 27): This article has been updated to correct that Hjorth did not formally resign on January 7, rather he announced his intent to do so.