Op-ed: Students should counter concerns with the CFS and other student unions with dedicated action

We must unite to resist corruption in student governance

Op-ed: Students should counter concerns with the CFS and other student unions with dedicated action

The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) has become more powerful through its close affiliation with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and its Ontario component. Allegations regarding the close connections between UTMSU elected students, employees, and the CFS have been detrimental to the union’s operations and are characteristic of the anti-CFS student movement.

Former Simon Fraser University student Titus Gregory’s essay “Solidarity for Their Own Good: Self-Determination and the Canadian Federation of Students,” published in 2010, is a work that still informs the anti-CFS movement today. Gregory argues, albeit amid critiques by a CFS legal counsel that are included in the document, that the CFS and its member locals are controlled by unelected, non-student staff members who ultimately undermine student democracy.

While Gregory’s argument cannot be proven with certainty, it portrays democracy in Canadian student government as a mere illusion where students’ ability to use their democratic voice is set up to fail — a situation which students should seek to ameliorate and prevent.

While such an argument can be useful in designing policy measures to avoid domination by unelected, non-student actors, in excess it can lead to nihilism and despair. This hopelessness is mirrored in the perception that the only recourse is through costly legal action, as opposed to student government democracy.

A way forward is to gather and report on evidence to test whether perceived cliques within the UTMSU are contributing to severe issues with union democracy. This would not only need to be done through student journalism, but also by a movement of students actively pushing for democratic reforms on a multi-year basis.

If there is indeed a regime in UTMSU that has been in power for years, the institutional knowledge they would have accumulated over their tenures would allow them to run circles around lone students or short-term slates.

For instance, take the case of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) Resistance, a coalition of student groups that was dedicated to opposing corruption in the SFUO until the SFUO’s dismantlement and replacement by the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) through a student referendum in 2019.

It took University of Ottawa students four years to stop SFUO corruption, and in the end the university administration stepped in and organized the deciding referendum instead of having it run by the SFUO’s democratic processes.

Post-SFUO, the UOSU now finds itself with a considerable amount of independence, with its constitution sporting a clause that makes it very difficult to enter into an agreement that cannot be terminated by a vote of its board of directors. This would include a referendum to join the CFS.

If UTMSU students take action and confirm that the UTMSU’s membership in the CFS is contributing to the union’s democratic issues, they can start to seek separation, as daunting as such a campaign may seem.

If issues like those with the SFUO are found in the UTMSU, improving the situation could also take years. However, the case of the SFUO shows that change is possible.

As a witness of and participant in what I would now term as the “UOSU Revolution,” I would say that spending years advocating for improvements to student union democracy is worth it.

Even if the reforms are not enacted before you graduate, if you have a group of students striving for change year after year, you can pass on the knowledge you have gained so your successors have a solid foundation for organizing. The same goes for students in any of the University of Toronto’s student governments.

Organize collectively, resist, and do not be afraid.

Justin Patrick recently graduated with a Master of Political Science from UTSG. He served as the Internal Commissioner of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union from January to April 2019. He was a Governance and Policy Analyst at the University of Toronto Students’ Union from June to September 2019.

UTGSU Council member censured following discussion on mental health

Censure resulted from alleged violation of equity statement

UTGSU Council member censured following discussion on mental health

Tensions flared regarding mental health services and infringements of decorum during a University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) General Council meeting on March 26. What began as a discussion on the UTGSU’s Health and Dental Plan resulted in the official censure of a student union representative.

Debate on mental health occurs during discussion on approval of Health and Dental Plan

As the UTGSU began proceedings to approve their new Health and Dental Plan, Ben Hjorth, a proxy representative for the Comparative Literature Student Union, moved to delay the confirmation. He hoped that delaying the plan’s approval would give the union more time to lobby for the expansion of mental health services coverage.

The current UTGSU insurance plan provides $500 per year of coverage for mental health services administered by psychologists, licensed psychotherapists, or counselors with a master’s degree in social work.

Hjorth said that the provided coverage for mental health services was inadequate, so he recommended that the union delay the approval of the insurance plan. He believed this would be an effective way to leverage U of T administration and thus allow the union to expand mental health coverage in the plan.

Finance Commissioner Branden Rizzuto spoke strongly against delaying the plan’s approval, saying that he did not believe that tabling the motion would be “the most efficient way to put pressure on the university.”

Rizzuto also said that a delay may put the insurance plan at risk, since it could result in prolonged negotiations with the U of T administration. This could ultimately lead to the insurance plan failing to be passed by the end of U of T’s governing cycle.

“What you’re asking for is basically to restart what we’ve done this year,” said Rizzuto.

In an email to The Varsity, the Executive Committee, which includes Rizzuto, wrote that it has seen increased claims through the Health and Dental Plan over the last three years, resulting in increased premiums. The Committee went on to write that the “burden of [expanding] mental health resources for students lies with University of Toronto administration and should not be met by increasing out of pocket costs for our members.”

“We agree that current access to mental health resources for U of T graduate students is inadequate, but [we] do not believe that the solution to this problem is to increase the Health and Dental Plan premiums and subsequently force larger fees on already financially impoverished graduate students.”

The Committee declined to comment in response to a request by The Varsity for justification for the claim that delaying approval of the plan would endanger the following year’s coverage.

The General Council ultimately voted to approve the Health and Dental plan, voting down Hjorth’s motion to table the plan’s approval.

UTGSU General Council member later censured for alleged equity statement violation

During the discussion on delaying the approval of the insurance plan, Hjorth spoke out of turn multiple times. These incidents violated Bourinot’s Rules of Order, which govern UTGSU General Council meetings.

Hjorth specifically interrupted Rizzuto with an out-of-order objection while Rizzuto was explaining his belief that delaying the approval of the insurance plan would risk the plan entirely.

Later, Hjorth requested to make a “point of order.” The Chair did not immediately address Hjorth’s point. In response, Hjorth sharply asked whether the Chair was purposefully ignoring him. The Chair then requested Hjorth to respect decorum.

Hjorth’s responses prompted an executive to request Hjorth to be conscious of his tone of voice when addressing the UTGSU’s staff. Hjorth said loudly that this was “not a point of order.” The executive agreed that this was a point of privilege, then repeated her request for Hjorth to settle down.

At the end of the meeting, after Hjorth had left, Internal Commissioner-elect Adam Hill moved to officially censure Hjorth, noting Hjorth’s alleged misconduct in the minutes.

External Commissioner Cristina Jaimungal added that she believed Hjorth’s actions were in violation of the meeting’s equity statement, since they were out of decorum and infringed on members’ abilities to speak in an inclusive environment.

The UTGSU Executive Committee, which includes Jaimungal, declined to comment on a question by The Varsity on what specific parts of the equity statement Hjorth violated.

Jaimungal recommended to the Chair that should future violations occur, Hjorth should be “asked to leave immediately.”

Addressing his censure, Hjorth wrote to The Varsity, “I will admit that these discussions got heated at times, but tone-policing should always raise at least an eyebrow, particularly when it is lead by those who have been called out.”

He further wrote that he believed discussion on his censure acted as a distraction from addressing the union’s limited mental health coverage in its insurance plan.

Hjorth added that the intention behind his actions was to hold UTGSU representatives accountable “for what they do as much as for what they fail to do.” He continued, “I’ll try to do it a little more politely, so that we can stop having these kinds of petty discussions and move on to debating what’s really important.”