On November 19, almost 100 students took part in the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Annual General Meeting (AGM) after its first attempt to hold the AGM on October 29 failed to meet quorum. 

Members of the student body struck down UTSU executives’ plans to abolish the Senate and spoke about financial statements, executive committee reports, COVID-19 safety measures, and the union’s response to violence in Gaza and Israel

UTSU executives’ plans to strike the Senate

The largest topic at the meeting was UTSU executives’ attempt to strike the union’s Student Senate, with the promise that it would replace it with another type of student advisory group. A group of mostly engineering students spoke out against abolishing the Senate, and members ultimately voted the motion down.

At the 2022 AGM, members decreased the size of the Board of Directors and made plans to create the Student Senate to provide additional student voice, with the first senate elections to be held in September 2023. But, when September came, UTSU executives announced their plans to abolish the Senate, predicting it would be ineffective.

Since September, UTSU executives have advocated for replacing the Senate with a council — whose name it never finalized, but which it has most recently referred to as “Advocacy Group Advisory Committee” — made up of representatives from different student groups.

The Senate: To be or not to be?

UTSU executives argued in favour of abolishing the Senate, saying the Senate would open the union to financial and legal risks. Executives also said that campus groups already had sufficient avenues for representation, citing biweekly meetings that the union has begun to hold with student government heads of each college. They added that the proposed Advocacy Group Advisory Committee would extend representation to smaller groups that need it and include student groups that the university does not recognize.

Right at the beginning of the meeting, fifth-year engineering student Ege Feyzioğlu objected to the validity of the motion, arguing that the UTSU had provided insufficient notice for a bylaw amendment. UTSU bylaws require 30 days of notice, and she said the UTSU only published the agenda two days prior. UTSU Vice-President, Operations Samir Mechel said a UTSU newsletter gave notice of the amendment two months earlier on September 29, and voters struck down Feyzioğlu’s objection.

Feyzioğlu, along with seven other students raised issues with the UTSU’s argument. These students argued that the Senate would have no binding decision-making power and, therefore, would pose no financial or legal risks for the union. They also argued that the Senate was important for student group representation. 

The students also said that if the Senate was abolished, they did not have confidence in the UTSU’s plans to replace it with the Advocacy Group Advisory Committee, when the details about the committee were all subject to change. 

Six of the eight people who spoke out against abolishing the Senate were engineering students, possibly reflecting a long history of conflict between engineering students and the UTSU. In an email to The Varsity, Feyzioğlu wrote that several of her friends had also joined her in attendance after she mentioned the AGM on a Discord server. 

The Engineering Society (EngSoc) has recently criticized the UTSU for a lack of representation in its governance. In his executive report, UTSU Vice-President, Public & University Affairs Aidan Thompson reported that the union is well on their way to repairing relations with the EngSoc. In an email to The Varsity, EngSoc President Parker Johnston said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the future of the EngSoc-UTSU relationship.

Financial statements and executive reports

Mechel presented the union’s 2022–2023 audited financial statements. The UTSU’s assets and liabilities increased from roughly $6.5 million to $7.9 million, which Mechel said was largely because the union wrote its financial report when it had an influx of insurance money from students that it had not yet sent to its insurer.

The bulk of the UTSU’s revenue in the 2022–2023 academic year came from its health and dental plan, student fees, interest income, levies, and sponsorships. Expenses included the health and dental plan money it sent to its insurer, salaries, programs and services, and meetings. 

UTSU President Elizabeth Shechtman said she has been working on bringing back the UTSU’s First Year Council, establishing semi-permanent club office spaces, changing the Student Commons building hours, increasing prayer rooms on campus, increasing kosher food options in dining halls, and establishing an online platform for reporting sexual violence.

Mechel said that the UTSU hoped to double the amount of student aid it will be able to give students in the winter semester through the student aid program. He also said the UTSU has restarted its Food Rescue Program, which aims to address food insecurity on campus by providing free meals to students.

Both Mechel and Thompson highlighted the UTSU’s Community Housing and Employment Support Services initiative, which provides students with free legal advice on housing and employment after students voted to ratify it in the spring 2023 election. 

Additional student criticism

During the members’ forum and question period, fourth-year anthropology student Inayah Sakhawat asked about the UTSU’s efforts to address COVID safety on campus. Shechtman said that the UTSU provided optional masks and COVID tests in its office.

In an email to The Varsity, Sakhawat said the union should implement more safety measures on campus, including mandatory masking, distribution stations for masks and nasal sprays, and work toward more sustainable academic protocols for students with chronic illnesses. 

Sakhawat and Avreet Jagdev — a third-year political science and critical studies in equity and solidarity student — both raised concerns during the AGM. After the meeting, they also raised concerns about the structure of the AGM itself in messages to The Varsity

“The student union represents over 40,000 students and allocating 15 minutes to asking and answering questions is nowhere near enough for students to have their voices heard or for the executive to provide adequate answers,” Jagdev wrote in a message to The Varsity.

“Anything said needed to be said within a minute or two which adds pressure and further creates an inaccessible environment for participants,” wrote Sakhawat.

In an email to The Varsity, Mechel said that the union applies a 15-minute time to all items on the agenda to “keep the meeting time reasonable.” He added, “For other ways to voice concerns, our emails are always open and indicated on the [UTSU] website.”

In her message, Jagdev also criticized the UTSU’s response to the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine. “Standing with those who call for a ceasefire is not enough, we need action and mobilization from the UTSU,” she wrote. “That is how you show true solidarity, not with a two-sided statement.”

During the meeting, Mechel said that the UTSU had not yet come to a consensus about what actions it should take around calling for a ceasefire and divestment from certain corporations affiliated with Israel.

“While we recognize that there is a history behind the current apex of violence, we do not feel we are able to sufficiently explain this history in an Instagram post,” Mechel wrote. Disclosure: Elizabeth Shechtman was an associate news editor at The Varsity in the 2021–2022 academic year.