Ahead of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) general election, which will be held from March 26–29, the union’s Elections & Referenda Committee reviewed and suggested amendments to UTGSU policies surrounding elections. The amendments came after the union received a complaint about individuals potentially running as part of a slate during the December 2023 by-elections even though the bylaws disallow slates — claims that the chief returning officer (CRO) rejected.

At the UTGSU Board of Directors (BOD) meeting held on February 20, the BOD approved proposed changes to the policies. The union also passed a motion to allocate money towards the purchase of office furniture and announced that it would remove one BOD member for not attending meetings. 

New election policies

The BOD meeting began with an in-camera session closed to members of the public. Once this session ended, the Director for Division 3 Kevin Xie presented a proposal for changes to the union’s rules around elections, which the BOD approved unanimously. Most of the changes aimed to clarify language around acceptable campaigning and voting procedures. 

The committee also proposed including the BOD seats for UTM and UTSC graduate students in the spring general election cycle. Under the previous policies, the BOD had appointed members to those seats in September, alongside the seats for first-year masters and first-year PhD student representatives. 

The proposed policy changes also included increasing the amount sides can spend on referenduma campaigns for yes/no referenda from $200 in 2022 to be increased based on inflation to $1,000 per side. The union also increased the amount it can spend on information campaigns — referenda with “no clear or likely divisions within the membership,” according to the bylaws — from $400 to $1,500. 

Alleged slates during the 2023 by-election

These clarifications in the elections policies arrived after complaints of slate-like behaviours during the union’s most recent by-election. Under UTGSU policy G2.2.3, “no candidate shall be allowed to run for office with a group or party or slate affiliation, nor can they have the appearance of parties or slates in the elections process.” 

In a letter circulated in fall 2023, two members of the UTGSU — Department of Physics PhD candidate Julian Nickel and Pharmacology Graduate Students Association President and Department of Physics PhD candidate Robyn Learn — argued that the formation of “a slate of candidates and a campaign to re-invigorate participation in student government” was the “one clear solution” to the union’s lack of BOD members. Nickel ran in the December 2023 by-elections and won a seat on the BOD.

The letter criticized motions at the October 31 BOD meeting that proposed large-scale restructuring of the UTGSU’s finances and included links to spreadsheets for students to register their interest in a UTGSU campaign as a candidate or supporter.

Justin Patrick — a graduate student at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and president of the OISE Graduate Student Association — filed a complaint with the UTGSU’s CRO on December 8 after the by-election, highlighting the potential slate formation. Patrick told The Varsity he became aware of the letter at a meeting in November. He expressed concern that the spreadsheet used to track names of those interested in supporting the students running for office constituted a collective campaign effort or a slate. 

Patrick also explained that he took part in drafting the current UTGSU election policies and remembers that, at the time, the union decided not to allow slates because they could make campaigning as an independent more difficult. “If students want slates in their student union, they need to make sure that their rules reflect that and do it in a way that promotes a healthy democracy,” he said. 

After receiving the complaint, the CRO conducted an internal investigation, and concluded that, while the students’ letter used the term slate, they could not find “significant evidence to suggest that there was a group affiliation of candidates during the election cycle, or the appearance of a slate or party during the election.”

In an email to The Varsity, Learn wrote that she and Nickel “never ran a slate” but “sent out a call for increased participation in UTGSU governance,” at a time when only seven of the 38 director seats had been filled.

The CRO report also affirmed the need for additional education and clarification throughout the entire election processs on what classifies a slate. Although the union did not update the language or rules regarding slates during the BOD meeting, UTGSU Executive Director Corey Scott wrote in an email to The Varsity that the union would provide more educational information about the parameters of campaigning during the mandatory all-candidates meeting before the general election. 

Furniture purchases, negotiating efforts

The union also proposed and passed a motion to allocate $35,000 from the union’s building, planning, and accessibility fund to purchase office furniture for the UTGSU offices and boardroom spaces. The executive committee informed the board that it planned to purchase desks, chairs, and shelving units for the permanent staff offices. Amir Ghasemian Moghaddam — VP academics and funding for Ddivisions 3 & 4 — mentioned that the union had never purchased furniture before, and had previously furnished the UTGSU building with free furniture.

The meeting concluded with discussions of CUPE 3902 Unit 1’s negotiation efforts. UTGSU released a statement in support of the union local’s strike mandate in early February after its members voted in favour of potentially striking if the unit couldn’t reach an agreement with the university. The union local reached a tentative agreement with the university on March 3.

The union also noted to members that it would remove one board member from their seat on the board because they failed to attend board meetings, orientations, and training sessions, despite repeated attempts by the BOD to contact them. This brings the number of BOD members from 14 to 13. There are 34 possible seats on the board: 28 are evenly divided between the four divisions and six reserved for the UTGSU executives.

Editor’s note (March 16, 2024): a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there are 20 seats on the UTGSU Board of Directors. In fact, there are 34 seats, 28 of which are evenly divided between the four divisions and six of which are reserved for the UTGSU executives. The article has been amended to reflect this.