Nearly one year after receiving a letter detailing Simcoe Hall’s concerns with its handling of elections, the University of Toronto Students’ Union has formally responded, conceding little and largely rebuffing the administration’s recommendations.
In a late-November letter from union president Shaun Shepherd addressed to vice-provost, students, Jill Matus, the union’s official response to the electoral and operational concerns raised by the university in January 2012 stated that “the complaints in question are insufficient to suggest that the electoral process is unfair.” Shepherd added that the union has already resolved to conduct “an independent, non-partisan legal review” of their electoral process.
Matus’ original letter outlined a number of areas of concern that the administration found in its review of UTSU, including an absence of specific internal grievance procedures, failure to provide financial information to board members upon request, biased decision-making in regards to electoral oversight, and other procedural issues, such as the inclusion of executive members on the electoral oversight body, the Elections and Referenda Committee.
In her original letter, Matus was cautious to avoid accusing the union of electoral misconduct, instead stressing the importance of optics in running elections that are perceived to be fair, accessible, and democratic. Like many students now calling for reforms to the electoral system, Matus suggested that the union move to online voting.
Shepherd wrote in reply to Matus’ concerns that Board of Director, commission, and annual general meetings provide plenty of opportunities for students to voice grievances. Shepherd also denied that board members were unable to access requisite financial information of the union, suggesting that the information desired by the board member in question was confidential human resources data bound by “labour and privacy law” that, according to Corey Scott, vice-president, internal, for the UTSU, can be “found with ample research.”
“It’s a real shame that UTSU has, at every turn, attempted to delay or prevent substantive discussion about their electoral procedures. Along with not replying to our letters, they’ve attempted to discredit anyone who has raised legitimate concerns about the process as being ‘randoms’ only interested in ‘political jockeying’ and expressing ‘non-substantial opinions,’” said Matthew Gray, a former UTSU presidential candidate and one of the original complainants in the 2011 electoral dispute.
“We want UTSU to, at the absolute least, have the decency to engage with reformers directly, something which three successive executives have refused to do.”
Shepherd also deflected Matus’ concerns about election oversight, suggesting that executive oversight of the election process is “fairly common” at U of T, referencing similar systems of oversight on the University College Literary and Athletic Society (UC Lit) and Woodsworth College Student Association.
The union expressed its concerns with transitioning to online voting, replying to Matus that when the UTSU had previously done so, it was forced to revert to paper balloting following “complaints, technical difficulties and a decrease in voter turnout,” adding that while the Elections & Referenda Committee would explore all options, “at a cursory investigation, it seems as though online voting is a costly, unreliable system.”
Shepherd’s letter did not address concerns about the undue involvement of the Canadian Federation of Students’ and affiliated organizations in University of Toronto Students’ Union elections.
Detractors were quick to respond to the union’s letter. Sam Greene, co-head at Trinity, said the college saw a marked increase in voter turnout when it began employing the online voting system last year. Matus had previously pointed out that the current version of the U-elecT voting system has been successfully used by many student societies and that it helps increase accessibility for students. Greene also found fault with the grievance measures, saying that “a policy regarding internal grievances would outline a step-by-step procedure for dealing with complaints” and that the response is providing a “non-answer.”
Benjamin Dionne, president of UCLit, also cautioned that Shepherd’s analogy comparing UTSU elections with the UC Lit was “misleading” because “the individuals we have on our oversight committee are not associated in any way to the people who are running for election — we don’t have slates, just individuals.”
The exchange over electoral policies began two years ago, when eight students filed a complaint to former UTSU president Adam Awad on March 14, 2011 in regards to the 2011 election. After not receiving a reply for several weeks, the complainants went to the university.
With the administration acting as a middle man, the complainants and UTSU responded to allegations, until Matus’ office sent a letter to then-president Danielle Sandhu in January 2012. (The original letter is dated incorrectly.) The letter from Shepherd is a response to Matus, even though Shepherd and his team were not in office at the time of the original complaints. Shepherd’s reply is one of four letters exchanged between complainants, Simcoe Hall, and the union.
Gray said he suspects that since the letter arrived a few days after the AGM, the response was “intended to control the political fallout” and “discredit reformers generally.” He also claimed that the UTSU has not formally responded to their inquiries since they raised them in March 2011.
Matus is currently drafting a response to the union. The university’s Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees, Section B.2, maintains that the university will collect fees for student societies as long as they operate in an open, accessible and democratic manner. Section B.3. states that installments of fees may be withheld if significant irregularities continue to exist.
In spite of calls from opposition members, administrative actions such as withholding fees may not be in the cards, as Scott says that “the University and the union are two separate entities” and in meetings, the administration has indicated that “they are not interested in becoming involved with UTSU’s internal structures.”