U of T Law and UTSU

Alex Redinger (2L)

Even if you try to avoid student politics, you have probably heard of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). Here’s a brief overview of UTSU and how it relates to law students.

What is UTSU?

Established in 1901, UTSU is the largest student union organization at the university, representing approximately 50,000 undergraduate and professional faculty students at the St. George and Mississauga campuses. With approximately 650 JD and graduate students at the law school, we comprise just over one percent of UTSU’s overall membership.

UTSU has a three-point mandate:

  1. To advocate to improve quality of and access to education, and to protect student rights.
  2. To enhance the student experience by building community, organizing events, and supporting campus groups.
  3. To provide cost-saving services, such as health and dental plans (which you can opt out of), income tax clinics, discounted metro passes, and so on.

Recently, UTSU’s advocacy has prompted several changes: limiting flat fees for courses which required that students pay for a full slate of courses regardless of how many they actually took; rejecting Access Copyright, a redundant and expensive copyright blanket licence for access to certain academic materials; and pushing the TTC to introduce the post-secondary metro pass program.

Controversies

UTSU has attracted controversy for two main reasons: (1) its advocacy activities, and (2) its electoral and internal processes.

UTSU has been criticised for involvement in campaigns like “Israeli Apartheid Week” and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Many of the advocacy activities are related to UTSU’s membership in the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), which it joined in 2003 and has itself attracted controversy.

There have long been concerns about the integrity of UTSU’s electoral process. For instance, UTSU resisted the switch to online ballots which occurred in 2013, and past elections have included suspiciously high numbers of spoiled ballots. During the 2014 election for the UTSU executive, Grayce Slobodian (of the CFS slate) received 2,574 votes; her competitor, Nicky Bhatty, received 2,559 votes; and there were 1,264 spoiled ballots.

As for internal management, in September, UTSU launched a civil suit against three former members of its executive committee: Sandy Hudson, Yolen Bollo-Kamara, and Cameron Wathey. UTSU claims that Hudson, not wanting to work with the incoming (non-CFS) slate, conspired with the other two to arrange her own dismissal. This allowed her to collect $247,000 in payments on her way out—approximately 10% of UTSU’s annual operating budget.

Governance changes

UTSU is currently struggling to comply with recent changes to the Canada Not-For-Profit Corporations Act (CNCA), which require a new structure for its board of directors.

The first proposal, touted in 2014 by then-President Munib Sajjad, would have removed directors for colleges and faculties in favour of “constituency directors” (for instance, a commuter students director, an Indigenous students director, a sustainability director, and a female students director). Of 24 directors, three would have represented Arts and Science students, and three would have represented professional faculty students. Directors for colleges and faculties would be replaced by committees, which would present motions for the new board of directors to vote on.

Representatives from Victoria University, Trinity College, and the Engineering Society perceived Sajjad’s proposal as a means to remove dissident factions from the Board. Ultimately, the plan failed to receive the necessary two-thirds majority and was thus rejected.

This year, two new proposals were voted on.

The “Zhuk/Singh” proposal would have maintained the current proportional representation of students according to college and faculty, and allowed internal elections for each constituent group. It also would have created six “general equity directors” appointed by the board. This proposal was endorsed by the Faculty of Law’s Students’ Law Society (SLS), as “it [created] a new position of Vice-President for Professional Faculties within the UTSU Executive Committee.”

The other proposal, from Grayce Slobodian (current Orientation Coordinator, former Vice President External), would have appointed one director per college and faculty, eight directors for the Mississauga campus (up from seven), and twelve constituency directors. This was substantively similar to the first, rejected proposal.

The Zhuk/Singh proposal beat out Slobodian’s proposal, but failed to receive the two-thirds majority necessary for ratification. Thus, UTSU still needs to find a board structure that all groups can agree on. Theoretically, if UTSU does not comply with the CNCA, the organization must be dissolved, but this is unlikely to happen in practice.

Why should you care?

UTSU is the main avenue to advocate for law student interests to the University of Toronto. A number of college and faculty organizations have supported defederation from UTSU because they do not believe the organization takes into account their discrete interests.

There has been some support among the law student community, including from within SLS, to hold a referendum on defederation. Last year, the SLS committed to “a Referendum regarding law students’ membership in the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU)” for the March, 2015 elections. The SLS did not include an UTSU referendum question on the ballot. Several successful SLS candidates in that election expressed an interest in holding a referendum this year instead.

Finally, you might be paying nearly $400 annually for UTSU services (less if you opted out of insurance), so you have an interest in ensuring that the organization spends the money in a manner amenable to you. You may also simply with to hold this representative organisation accountable through fair and democratic elections.

Even if you don’t want to sit through the long Annual General Meetings, you can at least vote online for the executive committee members each year.