AS my first year of university draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on the experiences that have shaped it; certainly, there was the novelty of meeting new people, developing interests, and exploring the city.
Another influence, however, was more subtle: the experience of belonging to a union for the first time, and the behind-the-scenes workings of student politics. Although there have been considerable strides made by the union this year, accountability remains a considerable problem.
Although I was not present for last year’s elections, I have seen how their results have affected the lives of U of T students. For the first time in over a decade, a slate of candidates unaffiliated with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) — Team Brighter -— won all executive positions of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). Since taking office, the executive committee has been working to clean up the messes of previous administrations, including revealing the $1.6 million that has been lost on the union’s health and dental plan (alternatives to which had gone uninvestigated for a decade).
For years, CFS-backed slates of candidates had cycled through the various positions available in the UTSU. There were instances of members of the York Federation of Students and Ryerson Students’ Union campaigning at U of T for other CFS affiliates. In turn, UTSU officials would campaign at other universities, including last year’s president, Yolen Bollo-Kamara, who took vacation days to campaign at Ryerson.
Beyond Toronto, the CFS has consistently taken punitive measures to prevent its member unions from leaving the Federation. In 2008, Sandra Hudson, twice UTSU president and, later, executive director, flew across the country to campaign against Simon Fraser University students voting to withdraw from the CFS.
I am far from the first person to raise concerns about the UTSU’s connection to the CFS. In July 2015, Ryan Gomes, current vice president, internal and services of the UTSU, wrote an op-ed for The Varsity criticizing the CFS’s decision to sue the Cape Breton University Student’s Union (CBUSU) after it voted to leave in 2008. The CBUSU will now be forced to pay $295,000 to the CFS, even though 92 per cent of its student body voted to leave. There can be no justification for this organization so completely disregarding the wishes of the students it claims to represent.
This is not to say that the current executive, or Board of Directors, are not without their problems. As has been previously reported by The Strand, grievances filed by students against vice president, equity, Sania Khan have gone unresolved in direct violation of the union’s bylaws. This is in addition to a grievance I myself filed in December.
The Varsity also recently reviewed the yearly attendance of the union’s Board of Directors, with the attendance rate sitting at 64 per cent. Meeting procedure and length were cited as deterrents for attending by several directors. Worrisomely, one director was quoted as saying that she “does not attend meetings because she no longer wants to,” and that she does not speak up during meetings since she feels “drowned out” by other voices.
I find it difficult to feel sympathy for an elected official who simply does not want to go to meetings, or who doesn’t speak up for their constituents because they feel their voice will go unheard. While it is understandable that directors have many commitments, holding office should not be viewed as a burden.
Unfortunately, the election of Team Brighter represented a short-term solution, and not a permanent one. The UTSU is still paying $750,000 to the CFS each year. The longer the UTSU remains affiliated with the CFS, the longer U of T students will continue to be taken advantage of. Political culture at U of T is stagnant, and students must engage with the process to a greater extent if they wish to have any say in the way their student fees are being spent.
As we head into UTSU election season, it’s more important than ever to be wary of the promises made by those vying for our votes. Our student democracy cannot be a passive one — stay aware, stay informed, and demand transparency and accountability.
Reut Cohen is a first-year student studying at Trinity College. She is The Varsity’s associate arts and culture editor.