On November 17, the 20 elected members of the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) voted to remove Atlas Changulani from their role as commissioner of the Sustainability Commission. 

The VUSAC Sustainability Commission is one of seven councils that, under the direction of the council, organize programming around different student issues and areas of student life. Commissions are lead by commissioners and co-chairs, meet regularly, and are open to all students. The sustainability commissioner’s responsibilities include sustainability education for Victoria College and lobbying for sustainable practices on campus.

The decision to remove Atlas prompted outrage from other members of the commission, who believe that VUSAC decided to remove them due to their pro-Palestinian activism and because they have publically criticized the council on Instagram. VUSAC President Shane Joy denied that Atlas’ activism impacted VUSAC executives’ decision to remove them, and explained that the decision was based on a bylaw that allows VUSAC to remove office holders for absenteeism.

The removal decision

Atlas was unable to attend five meetings and missed four email votes during their time as sustainability commissioner, according to a timeline that VUSAC Vice-President (VP) Internal Lara Athena Reyes included in VUSAC’s November 17 meeting. After missing two email votes during the summer, they received an email warning from the VUSAC Chair, per the group’s constitution. After missing three meetings and two other email votes in September, Atlas received emails from Reyes about missing meetings and meeting participation. 

After missing a meeting on October 6, Reyes issued Atlas an official warning of removal from office on October 8, as required in the VUSAC constitution. They asked Atlas for an explanation of why they could not attend meetings and answer emails. In an interview with The Varsity, Atlas cited mental health challenges as one reason why they could not keep up with extracurricular responsibilities. They said that they communicated these concerns to VUSAC executives, including during a meeting with Reyes. 

The constitution states that if the VUSAC executive doesn’t consider a member’s explanation for missing meetings to be satisfactory, the VP internal will motion to dismiss the member at the next council meeting. 

Reyes presented the motion to dismiss Atlas during the November 17 VUSAC meeting, which took place over Zoom. Joy told The Varsity in an interview that VUSAC executives, in consultation with the VUSAC chair, chose to move the meeting online instead of holding it at the Goldring Centre as usual to accommodate a student who would not have been able to attend in-person and due to safety concerns, as VUSAC members had received threats leading up to the meeting.

Backlash to the removal

On the day of the November 17 meeting, Shiven Srivastava, who served as an executive member of the Sustainability Commission, sent an email to VUSAC executives, commissioners, co-chairs, and councillors. In this email, he included a statement from the Sustainability Commission criticizing the motion to remove Atlas from office. 

The statement said that “many people” believe VUSAC put forward a motion to remove Atlas due to their and the Sustainability Commission’s activism on Palestine. In an interview with The Varsity, Srivastava said that he believes that VUSAC executives are reluctant to take action on potentially controversial issues, such as the ongoing violence in Gaza. 

Srivastava’s email included a report on successful initiatives carried out by the Sustainability Commission during Atlas’ time as commissioner. He also attached petitions signed by Sustainability Commission members and Victoria College student leaders advocating on Atlas’ behalf. One of the petitions, signed by 18 out of 20 Sustainability Commission members, said that signatories would stop participating in the commission if VUSAC appointed a new sustainability commissioner who received less than 65 per cent approval based on a vote among active commission members.

Atlas told The Varsity that they believe VUSAC may have removed them for being vocally pro-Palestine and that, regardless of the reason VUSAC had for removing them, removing the most outwardly pro-Palestine member of the council has the impact of shutting down student voices. However, they also acknowledged that VUSAC executives may have simply been strictly upholding the constitution during the removal process. 

In an email to The Varsity, Joy stated that VUSAC’s decision to remove Atlas was unrelated to the statements which they and the Sustainability Commission made on Palestine, and that “the removal process was solely focused on the sustainability commissioner’s absenteeism and non-performance of duties.” He also said that many members of VUSAC’s council, including himself, have advocated and continue to advocate for Palestine, but VUSAC has not removed any of them for this reason.

The future of the Sustainability Commission 

After VUSAC voted to remove Atlas from office, both Srivastava and Sustainability Commission Co-Chair Leah McKinney resigned from their positions. Joy told The Varsity that VUSAC executives had planned to offer the role of sustainability commissioner to McKinney prior to her resignation. 

Sustainability Commission members have criticized VUSAC’s decision to remove Atlas. A post on the commission’s Instagram page states that the removal came after pro-Palestinian actions taken by the Sustainability Commission and a series of conflicts between the commission and VUSAC executives. 

The post also claims that the rule used to remove Atlas had not been used in several years. However, in an email to The Varsity, Joy claimed that although VUSAC has not conducted any other vote to remove a council member since last year, VUSAC executives had actually taken action regarding other council members’ absenteeism during the current school year.

The Instagram post also claimed that VUSAC executives apparently ignored an email about Palestine for over 12 days, ignored messages from clubs about Palestine, and only put out a statement on Palestine after sustained pressure from the Sustainability Commission. 

In an email to The Varsity, Joy wrote that the person who sent the email they had allegedly ignored was a student who had already graduated from Victoria College, and that he encouraged all alumni to contact the college’s Office of Alumni Advancement & Affairs with any concerns. He wrote that VUSAC members do their best to ensure quick responses to current students and student groups. He further added that VUSAC executives produced a statement of their own volition, and that they sought the approval of members of council, including the sustainability commissioner and co-chair, before releasing the statement.

In an interview with The Varsity on December 22, Joy said that VUSAC will hire a Sustainability Commission co-chair in the upcoming semester, and all Victoria College students will be eligible for the role. He added that there are currently no plans in place for a by-election for the sustainability commissioner position.