Referendum for OPIRG-Toronto levy fails to meet quorum

Less than four per cent of eligible voters turn out to vote

Referendum for OPIRG-Toronto levy fails to meet quorum

The Toronto chapter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG), based at U of T, will continue to receive its optional $0.50 levy from full-time undergraduates after the referendum to remove its funding failed to meet quorum.

On November 23, the results of the OPIRG referendum were released, showing that of the total electors, 1.6 per cent abstained. Of those who did not abstain, 40.1 per cent voted ‘yes’ to remove the levy, and 59.9 per cent voted ‘no.’ Only 3.1 per cent of students, or 1,165, who were eligible to vote participated. A quorum of 7.5 per cent was needed to make the results binding.

Daman Singh, Vice-President Internal of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), stated that “an inquorate referendum is effectively a survey.”

In an email, Chris Dryden, the head of the committee that campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote, mentioned that he “could foresee that there was [going to be] a very low chance of reaching quorum.” He added, “Considering this was a referendum with no adjunct election it was an average turnout.”

Dryden had previously expressed concern that a UTSU error resulted in a delayed voting period for the referendum, describing the situation as a “double-edged sword.”

Before the voting period, Dyrden said he knew “that [the UTSU] wanted to be able to bring forward the petition.” He conceded that students at UTSG are generally apathetic toward elections, which may explain the inquorate results.

“The majority of people vote only when it’s election season,” said Dryden. “So, if a petition is set during an election season, I think that there would be a much greater turnout.” The turnout at the most recent UTSU election this past spring was 11.8 per cent of the membership, which is relatively high. Dryden said that previous records indicate “the only way to reach quorum is to have a referendum in the spring.”

“Three percent of people voting isn’t very indicative of the overall student view of campus,” said Dryden. According to him, this poses a conundrum because students who “are the most apathetic to voting are less likely to know that they are paying these fees.”

Nevertheless, Dryden believes that, regardless of the referendum results, “considering that levy [groups] do not often have their funding questioned, it will put more pressure on funding groups to have more accountability with their spending.”

OPIRG did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment on the results of the referendum.

Op-ed: What’s at stake for your $0.50 each term?

Why you should vote ‘No’ in the referendum to defund the Ontario Public Interest Research Group

Op-ed: What’s at stake for your $0.50 each term?

OPIRG Toronto is a volunteer-based group at the University of Toronto dedicated to research, education, and action on environmental and social justice issues. It is part of a network of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) that seeks to empower and educate students while giving us tools and opportunities to work cooperatively for social change.

The group achieves this through programs like the Toronto Research and Action Community Exchange (TRACX). Students are paired with community organizations to conduct research for academic credit and are given an opportunity to network and participate in panels, keynotes, and group discussions.

OPIRG democratically decides on what programming to run among students. Institutional support for these initiatives creates a space for students who would otherwise be faced with bureaucratic and institutional barriers, unable to access the necessary resources.

From November 20 to 22, OPIRG is facing a referendum vote to remove its 50 cent per term levy from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), which is paid by its members. Opponents have criticized the group’s financial management and programming in an attempt to challenge the very existence of one of few organizations supporting activism on campus.

It’s concerning that a largely unidentified and unaffiliated group’s push to defund an entire organization is seen as a valid solution to criticisms purportedly surrounding its work’s efficacy, especially when a meaningful dialogue was not attempted first. Places on campus where students can gain an institutional foothold while doing grassroots social and environmental justice work are few and far between, and many of the opportunities that OPIRG provides do not exist elsewhere at U of T.

Anxieties about the amount of money students are paying the university are not unfounded. Tuition fees continue to rise and the quality of our student experience doesn’t get any better. Many of us take on jobs and work long hours on top of participating in extracurricular activities, all while trying to maintain good grades.

As students, we know the problem doesn’t stem from service groups that work hard to support the U of T community. Conducting a critical cost analysis should begin by looking at all of the fees we pay, and at the number of university administrators, many of whom spend little to no time meaningfully engaging with the student body, making it onto the sunshine list every year.

The idea that staff salaries and benefits are misplaced fees is a misconception which underestimates the importance of fairly compensated employees. If we demand that staff be paid less than a living wage for their work, it contributes to the undervaluing of our own labour as students.

Other anti-OPIRG arguments and efforts have included publishing false statistics on OPIRG’s operations and costs. Simultaneously, student union representatives have both failed to follow and adjusted the UTSU’s own by-laws in the creation of the referendum, and their negligence in providing due notice has disadvantaged OPIRG by shortening the amount of time it could dedicate to preparing for the campaign.

This process has made it clear that the referendum supporters’ objections to the organization have little to do with any genuine desire to improve campus activism or lower student fees. This is not surprising — previous attempts to defund PIRGs and other equity-seeking university organizations reveal that this referendum is not an isolated incident, but rather a symptom of the shifting political climate on university campuses. Fuelled by right-wing movements and interest groups, referenda like this one continue to try to push the organizing of marginalized students out of the university.

If you have criticisms of OPIRG Toronto and how your fees are being used, getting involved directly by joining an action group or the board can allow you to make your voice heard. Levy groups are meant to be a resource within our community that have been determined by a majority to meet a unique need on campus, but if students would like to opt out on principle or because of financial constraints, they are welcome to do so.

All we ask is for you to consider why many students have decided OPIRG is worth fighting for. On November 20, 21, and 22, vote ‘No’ to save OPIRG.

 

Nooria Alam and Ben Swadron are members of the Vote ‘No’ to Save OPIRG campaign advocating committee. Swadron is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Health & Disease, Physiology, and Equity Studies. Alam is a fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science, History, and Geography, and a current Arts and Science Students’ Union executive; the views expressed here are her own.

Campaign period for OPIRG funding referendum begins November 13

Referendum will decide whether to eliminate group’s levy

Campaign period for OPIRG funding referendum begins November 13

The campaign period for the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) referendum begins November 13. The referendum will decide whether the $0.50 levy for the group will be eliminated.

OPIRG is a province-wide network of campus groups that share a mandate “for action, education, and research on issues of social and environmental justice.” OPIRG-Toronto is one of 11 chapters on university campuses across Ontario.

The referendum will take place from November 20–22 on utsu.simplyvoting.com. Should the referendum pass, the collection of the levy would cease as of the Summer 2018 session.

An unidentified group of students began collecting signatures for their petition to defund OPIRG during orientation week. In an interview with The Varsity on September 13, Souzan Mirza, a board member of OPIRG-Toronto, stated that she was unaware of any anti-OPIRG movements.

On October 6, a formal petition that called for the referendum was submitted to the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). However, due to an administrative error on the part of the UTSU, the voting period for the referendum had to be pushed to a later date. Under normal circumstances, any referendum that involves a recognized campus group is put to a vote concurrently with the fall and spring elections, as stated in the Charter for Referenda.

“The notice requirements for referenda are outdated and overly burdensome, and [the UTSU was] unable meet them by the deadline,” wrote UTSU Vice-President Internal Daman Singh in an email to The Varsity. “It would have been unfair to penalize the petitioners for the UTSU’s failure, so we decided to hold the referendum at a later date under Schedule A [of the Charter for Referenda]. The petitioners did everything that was required of them, so the referendum should proceed. The timing of the referendum doesn’t confer an advantage or disadvantage on anyone.”

The quorum for the referendum vote is 7.5 per cent of students who currently pay the OPIRG-Toronto fee. If quorum is not met, the referendum will not affect OPIRG’s current funding.

Based on its 2016 financial statements, OPIRG-Toronto had a total revenue of $147,338, of which 93.3 per cent, or $137,467, came from the student levy. In that year, the group’s total expenses were $149,419 which meant the group had a net loss of $2,081.

“Defunding OPIRG will impact the countless students who enjoy our programming, volunteer opportunities, and rely on our services throughout the year. OPIRG supports equity and anti-oppression initiatives on campus, and defunding our organization will impact already marginalized students and organizations on campus,” said Mirza in an earlier interview with The Varsity.

OPIRG-Toronto declined a request for an interview, stating that its current position on this issue has not changed since the last article regarding this referendum.

Referendum proposal submitted to defund OPIRG

UTSU will consider a petition to end research group’s 50-cent levy

Referendum proposal submitted to defund OPIRG

On October 6, a petition that seeks to eliminate the student levy for the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) was submitted to the UTSU. The petition has received the necessary 250 signatures to begin the formal process to hold a referendum to defund the group. OPIRG is a province-wide network of campus groups that, according to the OPIRG-Toronto’s website, share a mandate “for action, education, and research on environmental and social justice issues.” There are currently 10 other university campuses in Ontario that have an OPIRG chapter.

In compliance with the Charter for Referenda, under Schedule B, any referenda that concerns a recognized campus group is put to a vote concurrently with the Fall and Spring elections. However, due to an administrative error on the part of the UTSU, the vote will occur from November 20–22 under the terms of Schedule A of the charter.

Mathias Memmel, President of the UTSU, wrote that “while Schedule A referenda are technically initiated by the Executive Committee, the UTSU won’t be taking a position in the case.”

Moreover, since the changes to the Charter for Referenda in the Spring, petitions regarding student groups need only 250 signatures, as opposed to 5,000.

Students currently at UTSG pay a 50-cent levy per session to OPIRG-Toronto as part of their tuition. Students are able to opt out of this fee before October 2 through an online form on the UTSU website or by visiting OPIRG’s office.

Rumours had been circulating since frosh week about a group of students who were looking for signatures to defund OPIRG. The rumours, however, could not be confirmed as none of the lead petitioners publicly stepped forward. Even now, their identities are not public.

Souzan Mirza, a board member of OPIRG-Toronto, expressed her disapproval with the petition.

“OPIRG’s programming is widely enjoyed by students across campus, and the 50-cent levy we receive from UTSU members is optional. So we were surprised to hear that a small group of students wants to organize a referendum outside of an election period, rather than simply opting out of the levy or raising concerns with us.”

Mirza also conveyed her concern regarding the change to the Charter for Referenda. The reduction in the number of signatures needed means that referendum questions can be posed to the entire UTSU membership with support from less than two per cent of members.

“Since OPIRG began in 1981, we have enjoyed broad support from students, organizations, and staff across campus,” Mirza wrote, “because OPIRG provides essential programming and support for student research, education, and social justice organizing.”

In regards to the UTSU’s error, Mirza wrote that OPIRG was concerned with the union’s failure to follow their own bylaws. “They were planning on holding a referendum on the petition during the October elections without giving 14 days notice to their membership, a fact we had to make them aware of,” she said.

Mirza also explained that OPIRG has yet to have come in contact with the main actors of the petitions, and that the group’s knowledge of the petitions has only come from their correspondence with UTSU President Memmel, Vice-President Internal Daman Singh, and the Chief Returning Officer.

According to Mirza, the impact of defunding OPIRG “will impact the countless students who enjoy our programming, volunteer opportunities, and rely on our services throughout the year. OPIRG supports equity and anti-oppression initiatives on campus, and defunding [OPIRG] will impact already-marginalized students and organizations on campus.”

In 2012, the Graduate Students’ Union voted unsuccessfully on whether or not to remove OPIRG’s levy from graduate students. However, this is the first time that the UTSU has had to call a vote to decide the removal of the levy from undergraduate students. Calls to defund OPIRG are not new on Ontario campuses; the group has faced criticism for ‘radical left-wing views’ in the past, and for supporting the Communist Student Research Group and Students Against Israeli Apartheid.

The Varsity is unable to identify the members leading the movement to defund OPIRG.

Understanding OPIRG

A levied public interest research group may be facing a move to defund

Understanding OPIRG

A recent movement has been started by an unidentified group to defund the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) at U of T. The annual levy the OPIRG receives from undergraduate students at UTSG stands at $0.50 per student per year.

OPIRG is a province-wide network of campus groups that, according to the OPIRG-Toronto’s website, share a mandate “for action, education, and research on environmental and social justice issues.” There are currently 10 other university campuses in Ontario that have an OPIRG chapter.

Like in most other campuses, OPIRG is a service group at the University of Toronto. Daman Singh, the Vice-President Internal at the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), describes a service group as “a campus group that receives a levy from all or most of the UTSU membership.”

Singh also detailed that “the service group levies are collected by the university and transferred to the UTSU. The UTSU then transfers the money to the service groups.”

Students can opt-out by filling an online form on the UTSU website or by directly visiting OPIRG’s office.

Singh has acknowledged that there is a group that is looking to defund the OPIRG, although he was unable to comment further.

This is not the first time that OPIRG-Toronto has been targeted by anti-OPIRG movements. In 2012, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) held a meeting where a failed motion to revisit the Memorandum of Agreement between the UTGSU and OPIRG, specifically to discuss matters of defunding, was debated. Calls to defund OPIRG are not new on Ontario campuses; the group has faced criticism for radical left-wing views in the past, and for supporting the Communist Student Research Group and Students Against Israeli Apartheid.

In 2013, OPIRG was listed as a supporter of the controversial Israeli Apartheid Week, causing students at Ryerson University to voice criticism of the group.

In the same year, the OPIRG chapter at Queen’s University lost their opt-out student proposal fee, which eliminated levies from students that are a part of the Alma Mater Society, which is the student government of Queen’s University. Students at Concordia University also voted for an online opt-out form, allowing students to easily choose to opt-out of OPIRG levies; the form caused a roughly $30,000 drop in OPIRG-Concordia’s annual budget. Moreover, many students at Trent University and the University of Guelph started anti-OPIRG movements.

When asked about the recent anti-OPIRG movement and their allegations, Souzan Mirza, a board member of OPIRG-Toronto, and Rachele Clemente, the Programming and Volunteer Coordinator, were unaware of both the movement and the allegations.

“These are actually kind of surprising allegations for us,” said Mirza. “We’ve been writing about op-outs for this week and we haven’t heard anyone really come out with those [allegations].”

Mirza continued by saying that “in terms of us being a self-serving organization, I don’t think that’s very true.” She discussed the OPIRG-Toronto’s upcoming event “dis-orientation week,” which will begin on September 18 and end on September 22, as an example of OPIRG giving back to the community. Mirza detailed that there will be “a full day of workshops and a social event at the end,” all of which will be “open to all people… in the community.”

Clemente added the OPIRG-Toronto’s TRACX Symposium, due to occur from September 30 to October 1, as another example of OPIRG-Toronto’s commitment to serving the community. The OPIRG-Toronto’s website describes the TRACX Symposium as a place “to build space for student and community research on social and environmental justice issues.”

“In 2016 alone, we facilitated a research project with seven students all of whom got credit for their work,” said Clemente, “We then had them present at our 2016 TRACX Symposium which had over 150 people come out, … most of whom [were] students.” For these reasons, Clemente mentioned how it was “very odd that these allegations [were] made” against OPIRG-Toronto.

In response to the unidentified group seeking to defund OPIRG-Toronto, Clemente said that “we welcome these folks to actually come in and speak with us. It feels a little bit of an extreme jump, … These are folks that we don’t know about [and] we are not sure why they are doing this. We’ve never met them.”

Editor’s Note (September 20): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that OPIRG has a chapter at Ryerson.