Almost 15 per cent of sitting UTSU board members resigned or deemed resigned in the past year

Seven out of 48 board members effectively resigned, decrease from previous years

Almost 15 per cent of sitting UTSU board members resigned or deemed resigned in the past year

According to attendance records supplied by the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), out of the 48 sitting members on the UTSU Board of Directors, four have resigned, while three have been deemed to have abandoned office in accordance with UTSU bylaws in the past year. This amounts to almost 15 per cent of sitting members, a decrease from The Varsity’s 2018 analysis, when a third of members missed enough meetings to effectively abandon office. Six members have been replaced, and one position remains vacant.

Board members who handed in their resignations include Trinity College Director Arunoshi Singh, Victoria College Director Thomas Siddall, Applied Science & Engineering Director Eran Vijayakumar, and Architecture and Visual Studies Director Jennille Neal.

Life Sciences Director Honesty Senese, Transitional Year Programme Director Valerie Dawe, and Professional Faculties at-Large Director Hasma Habibiy were all deemed to have abandoned their office.

The union’s bylaw 10, section 2 outlines the criteria for abandonment of office for a Division I or II director as “deemed to have delivered their resignation, confirmed by a simple majority vote of the Board” when directors have failed to send their regrets for two missed meetings, or failed to attend three consecutive meetings, or any four meetings, regardless of sent regrets. If a director is unable to attend a meeting, they must send regrets to the speaker within 48 hours of receiving the agenda. Directors receive an excused absence if they cannot attend due to academic obligations, work, or religious observations, among others. Otherwise, they are deemed absent.

Board members were marked present about 58 per cent of the time. About 33.3 per cent of absences were unexcused. Directors sent regrets for 18.7 per cent of absences, and 41.8 per cent of absences were excused.

In total, there have been 11 meetings of the UTSU Board of Directors since June of 2019. This includes eight regular scheduled meetings, three of which took place over the summer, as well as an emergency meeting, the Annual General Meeting, and the Special General Meeting.

A resignation by a director can be blocked if a simple majority of the Board of Directors votes against the motion. Instead, the director is put on probation for the next two meetings. Directors can speak for five minutes in their own defence or submit a one-page statement to the board.

UTSU President Joshua Bowman called the increase in attendance from previous years a “step in the right direction,” attributing the increased attendance to the elimination of slates. Writing to The Varsity, Bowman expressed his belief that directors sought their positions outside of the support of a collective slate, and thus “have their own reasons for participating in the UTSU at this level. They are here because they want to be, not because a slate or a Presidential candidate told them to.”

On the enforcement of bylaw 10 and attendance at meetings, Bowman wrote that the policy’s implementation has “been equal parts accountable and empathetic. We encourage elected members to attend all meetings, but understand when life gets in the way.” He also emphasized that meetings are scheduled around the majority of availability among directors, who are “made aware immediately and informed of the procedure” when in danger of contravening the union’s bylaws.

“As a Director last year, I remember a lack of information being made available for Board members. We didn’t know what Bylaw X was until it was essentially too late,” wrote Bowman.

Crediting last year’s Vice-President Operations Tyler Biswurm’s attendance formula for clarity in the processes and guidelines of the bylaw, Bowman wrote that directors were informed of the criteria for abandonment of office from the beginning. “I am happy that our attendance is increasing, but I will truly be satisfied when our elections are contested and seats aren’t left vacant.”

UTSU Special General Meeting: external and university affairs executive positions merged

New full-time vice-president public and university affairs position to focus on advocacy

UTSU Special General Meeting: external and university affairs executive positions merged

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) held its Special General Meeting on February 12, addressing the merger of the vice-president external affairs and vice-president university affairs positions to form a new vice-president public and university affairs executive position.

The main item on the agenda was bylaw amendments, featuring the executive positions merger and the removal of committees from the bylaws.

The meeting was called to order at 6:16 pm, after waiting over an hour for the meeting to meet the required quorum of 50 members.

Vice-president public and university affairs position

The main change in the bylaws was the merger of the vice-president external affairs and vice-president university affairs roles, which are currently part-time positions at 25 hours per week. The new role will be called vice-president public and university affairs, and will be a full-time position, at 40 hours per week. Joshua Bowman, President of the UTSU, noted that the current system can result in an “armchair advocacy apparatus,” whereby people who hold a position can advocate “whenever it’s convenient” for them. By having one role dedicated to advocacy, the UTSU hopes to bring more focus to its advocacy work.

Alexa Ballis, President of the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council, spoke against the change, expressing that she was “worried that combining these portfolios would overload the new position,” and that certain aspects of advocacy work could end up overlooked.

Vice-President External Affairs Lucas Granger and Vice-President, University Affairs Avani Singh both spoke in favour of the change.

“I’m so strongly in favor of this,” said Granger. He added that there is “a lot of redundancy within the work that can be done between what are considered the two major advocacy portfolios,” and that he often has to work with the university’s government relations department, crossing the lines between the two current positions.

Singh echoed Granger’s points about redundancy, and said that she felt that the change would actually make the position more accessible. In her experience, her role often requires more than 25 hours per week to complete adequately, and that therefore people might have incorrect expectations going into it. If the weekly hours of the new position are increased to 40, the role will have a more accurate expectation and be compensated more accurately, according to Singh. The bylaw change to merge the two roles passed, and will be in effect for the upcoming 2020 election.

Committee bylaws, advocacy initiatives addressed

The UTSU hoped that the removal of specific committee mentions in the bylaws could provide more flexibility for committee purposes and for the creation of permanent committees in the future. “If we want to create a new committee to match the needs of students, we can,” said Bowman.

The change would allow for ad hoc committees, such as the mental health ad hoc committee, to become permanent more easily. Currently, ad hoc committees cease to exist after the term in which created.

In response to a question about combining the work of the mental health committee with an existing committee, both Bowman and Vice-President Operations Arjun Kaul defended the idea of a separate mental health committee. The bylaw change to remove committee mentions from the bylaws passed.

Following the debate over the bylaw changes, the meeting took a recess, but lost quorum during it. Bowman motioned to suspend the rules so that the meeting could continue discussions minuted.

After the vote to suspend the rules passed, Bowman gave his address, highlighting recent and upcoming initiatives of the UTSU. 

To address the particularly low voter turnout in the 2019 executive elections, the UTSU plans to launch a get out the vote campaign for the first time in several years. This will include setting up tables around campus on the last day of the voting period, where students will be able to vote using a UTSU laptop.

The nomination period for the 2020 UTSU elections will open on March 2 and will run until March 13.

Bowman also announced a health and dental referendum that will be on the ballot for the spring UTSU elections “largely with the purpose of restoring mental health coverage to the previous rate it was at last year,” before changes to the OHIP prompted a decrease in coverage.

Lastly, Bowman touched on the recent reforms made to the UTSU’s student aid program which doubled the amount given by the UTSU in awards from $10,000 two years prior, to over $20,000 in the past four months. The increase in funding will go to new bursaries such as an accessibility bursary and a health and wellness bursary, among others.

Op-ed: The university admits low-income students without supporting them

Financial need should be prioritized over patronage, the UTSU is trying to fill the gap

Op-ed: The university admits  low-income students without supporting them

Being a low-income student at the University of Toronto does not come with a ‘how-to guide’ on the pitfalls of an undergraduate degree. For myself, I struggled to grasp the weight of tuition and the caveats of living in residence. My mother had encouraged me to take up residence so that I could make friends and find community, irrespective of the inevitable financial burden it would incur.

For many, student debt is an unavoidable consequence of our efforts to achieve a degree. For low-income students, it is a fear that weighs over us when we evaluate how many books we can afford in any given syllabus, which leads to a significantly inequitable learning environment in which some students have access to information that others don’t by virtue of their financial position.

It’s a reality that we cannot afford to take our time during our undergraduate degree, as every additional course or year can add thousands of dollars to the finish line. While we walk across the stage at Convocation Hall to grab our degree, we do so with the ball and chain of financial burden attached to us.

When I first came to the University of Toronto, I was encouraged by friends and family to look for scholarships and bursaries. “There’s a bursary for that,” they would say. “There’s a scholarship for that,” they would tell me. The pressure of having to maintain grades just to achieve financial aid is one that many of my peers did not have to suffer through; every test mark did more than affect GPA, it was my permission slip to stay at this university.

I have been here for five years now, and for a good majority of my tenure I have navigated through a cumbersome and, in my experience, frequently ‘under construction’ scholarship and bursary page with little to no guidance for first-time viewers. Of course, many of these scholarships consider such a restrictive pool of applicants that they are not beneficial to the majority of low-income students who need them.

The donors of these scholarships seem to prioritize their own legacies rather than students who actually depend on this support. Additionally, while the majority of scholarships offered by postsecondary institutions are claimed, many others are untouched, seeing students lose millions of dollars a year. Whether this is because they are not well-advertised, or the system is too cumbersome, I can’t say, but clearly there is something wrong.

I would suggest that donors and the university stop searching for carbon copies of past students and instead focus on how they can support students who are currently struggling to achieve success at our university.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) reformed its student aid apparatus this year, after consultations with low-income students just like me. We are working to expand our bursaries and grants to include the Book and Academic Supplies Bursary, Exam Deferral Bursary, Accessibility Bursary, Academic Pursuits Grant, Health and Wellness Bursary, Transit Bursary, and Emergency Bursary. These reforms now reflect the reality of what students need help with — transit, textbooks, unexpected expenses, and more.

Over the 2017–2018 and 2018–2019 years combined, the UTSU allocated just over $10,000 in student aid. Now, after the program was reformed in October, we have allocated over $20,000 in just four months. This is an incredible achievement, and I am proud to be part of a UTSU that made this a reality.

But the truth is that a student union cannot support every low-income student. Many students don’t even know about the program and what it can offer, and we cannot provide scholarships to pay for tuition. The financial landscape for low-income students has been ever-changing, especially taking into account the Ford government’s changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and the inaccessibility of financial aid at U of T. The solution is quite simple: listen to us and our experiences and let it inform your student aid apparatus.  To the donors who contribute to the education of future leaders, continue to do that, but understand that a lot of us are carving our own ways that may deviate from the path you charted, and that’s okay. U of T is a community of communities, and we succeed when we remember that.

Joshua Bowman is a fifth-year Indigenous Studies and Political Science student at St. Michael’s College and current President of the UTSU.

Op-ed: The city balances its budget on the backs of students

UTSU VP External on the postsecondary metropass fare increase and the growing disconnect between students and the city

Op-ed: The city balances its budget on the backs of students

It is hard to hide from the fact that the City of Toronto is facing an ever-increasing crisis of affordability right now. This crisis is affecting everything you could possibly need — rent, food, transit, and more.

Toronto City Council knows this. But some members of City Council seem to barely care.

In fact, highlighting student concerns around members of City Council feels futile. They either have no idea about it, no idea how their actions have impacted it, or no desire to fix their mistakes.

I’m going to focus on something that could be perceived as incredibly ‘minor’ in the grand scheme of things — postsecondary student transit costs. Students at U of T have a sordid history when it comes to negotiating lower transit costs, twice failing to pass referendums that would have introduced the UPass and greatly benefitted student transit across the city.

Unfortunately, the City of Toronto saw the UPass as their solution to a larger problem of affordable transit for students, and really hasn’t considered anything else since then. This is despite the fact that the Post-Secondary Student Metropass is only available to full-time students, and that many students don’t commute enough to warrant the already high cost of the pass.

After University of Toronto Students’ Union members first rejected UPass in 2008, the City of Toronto introduced the Post-Secondary Student Metropass the following year in order to ensure that full-time students from various institutions received some form of discount to use the TTC.

In recent years, City Council has approached public policy through the means of austerity, service cuts, and cancellations of necessary projects. Due to budget constraints, the City  of Toronto cannot be in a deficit, and as such some services increase in price every budget cycle.

This year they chose students to be their victim. Specifically, the 2020 TTC Operating Budget singled out the Post-Secondary Student Metropass, raising the price from $122.45 to $128.15. This may seem like a measly sum of an extra $5.70 per month, but think clearly about the implications of this. This increase is proportionally larger than any other TTC increase that has been proposed this cycle. Additionally, the rising cost of living in Toronto continues to push students and other residents into substandard, illegal, or dangerous housing situations.

City Council has the power to levy various increases in other areas too, from a revival of the $60 vehicle registration tax — which would generate over $55 million — to minor increases in the property tax that amount to the cost of a few coffees per year. Funnily enough, City Council generally rejects these proposals, but is fine asking students to pay an extra $68.40 per year to use our public transit system.

These actions are despite a motion that was passed by City Council in consultation with Councillor Mike Layton and Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam to begin a study on the reduction of postsecondary student fares on the TTC in October. This change also prompted me to reach out to Councillor Josh Matlow, who has started a petition against unjustifiable increases in student transit prices in response to this increase.

Students have been viewed as temporary fixtures of neighbourhoods across Toronto, often changing where they reside year by year. Increases in transit costs force students to make tough decisions about where they live. On one hand, a student may choose to live with their family, or in a location further from school to save money on rent. On the other hand, they may decide to live close to campus despite the skyrocketing costs of living downtown, including the rising cost of their commute.

For some students, the financial benefits of living further from campus can be suddenly outweighed by the new cost of their commute. The question becomes whether it is worth commuting. While rent remains high, increasing transit costs may no longer justify time spent commuting. These decisions can lead students into the hands of predatory landlords who promise cheaper rent downtown, but often leave very little protection for their residents.

So let’s be real. The City of Toronto’s actions tell students that they don’t matter, that our voices aren’t heard, and that they see us as ‘temporary’ residents of the city, so who can blame us for taking actions that they City of Toronto deems unacceptable? It is no wonder that in 2017, 40 per cent of students surveyed responded that they dodge fares on public transit, or that students live in substandard or outright dangerous situations which could lead to preventable tragedies.

It is time for City Council to get their act together — listen to students and actually consider our situations when creating widespread policies.

We need to make our voices heard as well — attend community meetings, email city planners, go to City Council, do deputations. Speak on the issues that you care about, otherwise City Council will remain ignorant to our concerns. We aren’t just temporary residents. We are the future of this city, and if Toronto wants to retain the talent and experience of its students, they need to make it worthwhile for us to stay.

Lucas Granger is a fourth-year student at Innis College studying History and Urban Studies. He is the Vice-President, External Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU).

Disclaimer: Lucas is a candidate running for Governing Council Constituency 1 – Full-time Arts and Science students.

UTSU severs ties with Ryerson Students’ Union, strengthens ties with Black students

New vice-president position created, to be approved at Special General Meeting

UTSU severs ties with Ryerson Students’ Union, strengthens ties with Black students

At the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) January Board of Directors meeting, committee members and directors passed a motion to effectively end relations with the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU), collaborate more closely with the Black Students’ Association (BSA) in the run up to Black History Month, and minted a new executive vice-president position that will combine the external affairs and university affairs portfolios. The new position will be brought to next month’s Special General Meeting (SGM) for final approval.

Much ado about RSU

Recent events at the RSU have prompted the UTSU to adopt a new resolution outlining which external organizations it will work with moving forward. Passed unanimously, this resolution commits the UTSU to cease collaboration with organizations that fail to meet the standards and values set out in the UTSU’s Board of Directors Code of Conduct and Anti-Harassment Policy. The Executive Committee and Board of Directors will continually evaluate their relationships with external partners on a rolling basis, so that members can address issues as they arise.

Ryerson University recently announced that the RSU will no longer be recognized as an official form of student government following its failure to address accusations of financial mismanagement. The Eyeopener reported last January that over $250,000 in expenditures were charged to RSU credit cards, with payments being made to nightclubs and bars.

The resolution holds that “recent events at the Ryerson Students’ Union have raised serious concerns around the harmful work environment perpetuated by its Executive officers,” in reference to accusations of discriminatory behaviour among the executives.

UTSU President Joshua Bowman commented that while this derecognition of the RSU is a good step from an oversight perspective, it is still a loss for student unions across the country. However, he rejected the assertion that Ryerson’s decision is counter to the principles of student democracy, highlighting over 1,000 student voices that called for change within the RSU in an online petition.

UTSU and Black community collaboration, funds allocation

The UTSU unanimously passed a memorandum of agreement with the BSA in a move that the BSA’s President Anyika Mark called “history in the making.” Per the agreement, the UTSU will allocate $15,000 to the BSA, waiving the $9,000 maximum for clubs funding.

In addition to the funding increase, the memorandum of agreement will strengthen ties between the UTSU and BSA by ramping up their project partnership throughout the year. In order to “foster collaboration and community building,” the UTSU and BSA will cooperatively organize at least one event per year.

The UTSU will also seek the opinion of the BSA on equity-related matters. The Executive Committee of the UTSU will meet with the BSA at least once per semester, and it will reflect at the end of each term on the UTSU’s progress concerning “allyship, collaboration, resources, and equitable services.”

The BSA has been granted a seat on the UTSU’s Clubs Committee and Equity & Accessibility Committee in the capacity of “Community Member.” The Equity & Accessibility Committee includes the Indigenous Students’ Collective and Queer Students’ Collective, among others. The BSA will be one of three community members to also take part in the committee. The Clubs Committee is made up of executive committee members, directors, and community members — of which the BSA will be one of four.

Vice-President position decision

The UTSU has moved to combine the Vice-President, University Affairs and Vice-President, External Affairs portfolios in order to create a new position: Vice-President, Public and University Affairs.

The impetus behind this motion is that “the roles of Vice-President, University Affairs and Vice-President, External Affairs share a significant overlap in duties and responsibilities” and “[deal] with issues that can complement [each others’] work.”

In view of the fact that the Vice-President, University Affairs and Vice-President, External Affairs are both part-time positions, the UTSU has put this proposal forward claiming its “need for a dedicated full-time Vice-President in order to better represent students in lobbying efforts and other forms of advocacy.”

The motion passed unanimously, but will be subject to approval at the SGM, set to be held on February 12 at 5:00 pm at the George Ignatieff Theatre. If passed, these amendments will take effect after May 1. This will avoid removing Lucas Granger and Avani Singh from office, the current Vice-President, External Affairs and Vice-President, University Affairs, respectively.

If this new position is approved, next year’s Executive Committee will be limited to six executives, rather than the current seven positions.

The UTSU attempted to combine executive positions in September 2017, when the resignation of then Vice-President, University Affairs Carina Zhang prompted discussion on merging the university affairs and external affairs portfolios into a new Vice-President, Advocacy role. However, fierce opposition from directors, executives, and general members caused the motion to fail at the 2017 Annual General Meeting.

What’s next for the Student Choice Initiative? Downtown Legal Services’ perspective on court decision

U of T closes online portal, uncertain future for SCI

What’s next for the Student Choice Initiative? Downtown Legal Services’ perspective on court decision

On November 21, the Divisional Court of Ontario struck down the Student Choice Initiative (SCI), leaving postsecondary institutions and student associations uncertain about how to proceed. Downtown Legal Services (DLS) Executive Director Lisa Cirillo told The Varsity that any plans by the province to repeal the decision or introduce legislation will be difficult.

While stakeholder groups struggle to make sense of the future, U of T has removed its incidental fee opt-out portal online as it “evaluate[s] the technical impact of the Divisional Court’s decision,” wrote a university spokesperson. The Ministry of Colleges and Universities (MCU) wrote to The Varsity that it “is currently reviewing the decision.”

Background of the SCI

In January, the SCI was announced as a provincial mandate to Ontario universities and colleges that opt-out options be provided for certain incidental fees that were deemed “non-essential,” with the government outlining the criteria for mandatory fees. In May, the York Federation of Students (YFS) and the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–O) launched a legal challenge against the SCI, requesting that the court quash the initiative.

Following a court hearing in October, the Honourable Justices Harriet Sachs, David Corbett, and Lise Favreau ruled in favour of the YFS and the CFS–O, finding that the province was acting illegally by interfering in the relationship between postsecondary institutions and student associations.

Downtown Legal Services on the effects of decision

DLS is a legal aid clinic that is partially funded by student levies; it felt the effects of the SCI first hand. At its Annual General Meeting earlier this year, the University of Toronto Students’ Union announced that DLS had 19 per cent of students opt out of its fees.

Cirillo believes that while the government has the ability to appeal the decision or use the legislature to expand the powers of the province, the path ahead will be difficult for the province. “The court has laid out really firmly: this is the territory of universities and student unions within the universities, and we don’t believe that you can encroach on that.”

Recapping the court’s decision and the arguments presented by both sides, Cirillo said: “The court granted the application on the basis of the first [argument], they said that these directives were illegal and inconsistent with the legislative schemes… And they found they didn’t have to go to the other two arguments because they could decide the case on the basis of the first one.”

“The government had no legal basis to issue this directive, but I think it leaves us in such an interesting place because the universities and colleges had to comply,” Cirillo said. “[But] they’ve all created this enormous new electronic registration infrastructure that provides opportunities to opt out.”

On what quashing the directive will entail, Cirillo says that universities, independent from the government, could continue to open their opt-out portals, but whether that would be the case is up to the institutions themselves.

Cirillo points out a particular passage that summarizes the court’s answer to the province’s argument that the SCI couldn’t be struck down by the courts: “Neither argument justifies exempting the impugned directives from judicial review for legality. To hold otherwise would undercut the supremacy of the legislature and open the door for government by executive decree, a proposition repugnant to the core principles of parliamentary democracy.”

Opinion: UTSU outreach has much room for improvement

Lack of representation, diversity of voices factor into low student interest

Opinion: UTSU outreach has much room for improvement

Throughout the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) fall Annual General Meeting (AGM), a variety of questions from constituents took issue with the UTSU’s level of engagement with the student body that it represents. The AGM itself lost quorum, leaving some agenda items unaddressed.

Lack of democratic participation is not just limited to the AGM. Voter turnout for the UTSU elections is low; this year’s elections were recorded at a 4.2 per cent turnout.

Questions honing in on this point produced one takeaway: concerns are consistently being raised that the UTSU is failing to tackle issues of declining participation, especially on the topic of voting.

At a glance, student governance seems to be becoming less and less prominent in student life at U of T. Not only that, but the selection of those that do take up the mantle of student governance is small and comes from a narrow spread of the U of T community, as more and more students appear to be less interested in the UTSU’s affairs and operations.

Is this something the UTSU needs to deal with? Or is this just the chartered course for student unions at large? And, most importantly, how can we fix it?

The scale of the problem

The UTSU plays a vital role in representing the student body and acting as a voice and liaison between them, the university administration, and outside bodies.

Nevertheless, especially for commuters, it’s not always obvious how its efforts have impacted or made changes to student life in and out of campus. For me personally, discussion and attention paid to the UTSU flared as the 2018 U-Pass referendum swung into full force, but with its conclusion, I don’t recall public discussion about the issues that the UTSU faced during the spring elections this year — especially when several board positions were uncontested. My experience shows that the UTSU has failed to attract student attention beyond interest in U-Pass.

Other student unions across Canada see greater participation rates. While the UTSU has had a low average of 12.8 per cent turnout in its general elections from 2016–2019, unions of similar executive sizes and lower student populations are seeing different results.

The Students’ Society of McGill University serves the interests of around 27,000 undergraduate students for the fall 2018 term. It has a 25.2 per cent turnout rate from 2013–2019. Meanwhile, the University of Alberta Students’ Union similarly represents a student body of just over 39,000 students for the 2018–2019 year. Since 2016, it has had an average voter turnout of 21.8 per cent, well-above U of T’s rates.

How do we increase participation?

A recent Varsity article concludes with a quote from current UTSU President, Joshua Bowman: “I want to incentivize students to vote, period.” If the UTSU wants to seriously tackle decreasing engagement, it should consider efforts to exemplify the UTSU’s focal point of representation by matching its size to the vast and diverse student body.

Forming and introducing more positions and opportunities for involvement in the UTSU, especially with the intention to promote particular representation of specific groups and organizations is a good start. For example, each of the colleges are represented by at least one member on the board, but that minimum can rise in order to diversify the representative influence on the union, such as including multiple representatives from lower and upper years, an initiative which has begun through the UTSU’s First Year Council.

The administrative duties of the union cannot be overstated, but outreach and promotion of the UTSU is a key part of its operations. Although the practice of working behind the scenes is quintessentially accepted in government, student unions need to take advantage of their special affinity with the membership they represent, come from, and will return to after their posts. To fall short in this task contravenes the special relationship that makes student governance an empowering opportunity for both sides of the table.

Andre Fajardo is a fourth-year Political Science and Philosophy student at Innis College.

U of T responds to allegations of student handcuffed by campus police

Vice-Provost declines to comment on reports, says campus police are trained in “de-escalation”

U of T responds to allegations of student handcuffed by campus police

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

At the University Affairs Board (UAB) meeting on November 13, Vice-Provost, Students Sandy Welsh was met with questions about the recent allegations that a student was handcuffed by UTM Campus Police while seeking help during a mental health crisis. Welsh declined to comment on the specifics of the case but clarified that such instances would be separate from the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP), and also defended campus police training.

Allegations

According to an article in The Medium, later reported by CBC News, a U of T student sought help for suicidal ideation at the Health and Counselling Centre (HCC), and was handcuffed when the the HCC called campus police on the evening of October 2. 

The student arrived at the HCC with a friend and developed a safety plan with a nurse. Before she could leave, she was informed that it was protocol to speak with campus police. The student was then handcuffed and arrested when she disclosed that she was having suicidal thoughts.

The Varsity has yet to independently verify the reported allegations.

The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) condemned the decision by the HCC to call the police. “The UTMSU believes that this student should have been approached with care and compassion, not handcuffs,” reads the press release.

University responds at UAB

Responding to a question from full-time undergraduate member Daman Singh, the former Vice-President, Internal of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and an advocate for the UMLAP, Welsh declined to comment on the details reported in the two articles, but did say that the UMLAP was about concerning behaviour and that it would be irrelevant in a situation where a student is being taken to the hospital.

Welsh, along with UTM Dean of Student Affairs and Assistant Principal, Student Services, Mark Overton, reiterated that police are there to assist in extreme cases and work in accordance with the province’s Mental Health Act.

In response to a member questioning the “authority and knowledge” of campus police to “put people in handcuffs,” Welsh replied that campus police officers are trained in de-escalation and work closely with the health and wellness offices of the three campuses.

A university spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Varsity, “Campus police become involved when an individual makes specific statements that [indicate] they have an intention to do harm such as suicide and are unwilling to go to the hospital.”

“U of T is reviewing its police practices in this respect. Our existing practices are consistent with those of local municipal forces.”

Community responses

The UTSU endorsed the UTMSU’s statement, writing that they “stand in solidarity,” and described the incident as an “injustice.” Other campus organizations including the Association of Part Time Undergraduate Students and the U of T Students’ Law Society also supported the statement. 

Spadina–Fort York MPP, Chris Glover, condemned the incident, writing: “What is the state of our services on campus if students looking for mental health support are turned away and led in handcuffs.” Glover also criticized the Ford government for removing services and thereby creating barriers to success for postsecondary students. 

UTSU President Joshua Bowman weighed in with a tweet asking “What University can stand by a protocol that actually ‘arrests’ a student seeking help?” 

Diana Yoon, former federal candidate for Spadina–Fort York, described the traumatic experience of being sent to the emergency room “without any reasonable discussion” after seeking help for mental health issues from a guidance counsellor while in high school. Yoon declared that it is “outrageous to see this now from UTM.”

This story is developing, more to follow.


If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.