Dissent can do without disorder

In the wake of UTSU’s unruly AGM, cooler heads are needed

The circus is over. Every year there seems to be more tension and toxicity at the U of T student union’s general meeting, but this was at fever pitch: it went on for four hours and only the first few motions were reached, amid applause and jeers, executives arguing against their own motions, public salad-eating, pamphlets being distributed, bingo, live Twitter feeds, barefaced proxy blocs, surprise hot pizza orders, and even a vuvuzela (because this is a brawl?). That’s not to say it isn’t a serious meeting of young adults trying to make real decisions; that fact—that this is the best we can manage as university students—is the contrast that makes it commentable.

But I’ve rehashed this point often enough. More useful question: What was the outcome?

Well, most interestingly, the bylaw changes that have been a news topic both here and in The Varsity for the past weeks were rejected. The president of UTSU, Yolen Bollo-Kamara, moved to split the two most controversial changes from the others (To enact her wording change? To protect the other amendments in anticipation of the defeat of these two? Because of the higher threshold required to pass these two?) and hence isolated them and made them vulnerable. Which is not to say they were torn to shreds; the majority still voted in favour. But not a strong enough majority to pass.

Without the defeated amendments the union has to find a new way to stay in line with the Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act. As far as I can tell—and I’m no lawyer, so bear with me—the easiest way is to delete this clause and a couple of others like it:

“Division I and II Directors must be elected by the constituency they are running in and/or belong to.”

As we pointed out in earlier issues, this is the part that had to be removed anyway, and the replacement of college and faculty directors with “constituency” directors is irrelevant to the actual problem. Whichever actual directors change, the act—maybe not sensibly—just says that now anyone can vote for any board member.

The part yet to be determined is the likely forthcoming attempt to remove some directors and add others. (Now that the question is on the table, I mean, necessary or no.) And when that comes up, a strong candidate is some form of minority representation.

And that’s one thing that definitely shouldn’t be overlooked in this debacle. In Facebook comments about it, it has been suggested that voting down the motion was an anti-equity move. As if! The one respectable part of the proposed board structure was the new inclusion of minority representatives. If UTSU takes the opportunity to resurrect them, it’ll have been worth the hassle.

But some adjustments would be required. The most obvious is that the imaginary need for a tradeoff, i.e. losing other representatives in the deal, can be dropped. Enough said.

Other points would need to be addressed as well. One of them is proportional representation. In the current model, the number of seats given to each group depends on how many people belong to it. Makes sense in any democratic system, and probably in this one, but absent from the model that was proposed and defeated.

There’s also the problem—which I noted a second ago—of open voting. There’s no way to avoid letting, for example, non-racialized students decide who to represent racialized students, and the same for the other positions. (That is, barring a many-class model that has a long way to go before it appears to justify itself to many who follow and vote on these things.)

Not to mention the shifting terms of which groups are minorities (or at least systemically disadvantaged—the women’s issues director, for example, would be the latter type). The particular selection of constituencies would have to be revisited as demographics and social norms shift, as they do. And this involves walking on broken glass, as we found two years ago when much of U of T loudly condemned and protested a movement to define men as a group needing a voice.

Those are a few considerations required for a change like this, and there are certainly others. That’s probably the reason UTSU’s board moved to solicit student opinion via a plebiscite­—an organization-wide question—even though, for whatever reason, nobody ended up doing so. It’s not as simple as changing the names of the positions.

And there are other questions still dangerously current that need to be taken into account if the board is to change. The outcry to remove UTM students from UTSU (since we have UTMSU and our fees largely wind up with them) is getting louder. Where, if anywhere, will we fit in? Or consider the colleges that are still trying to disavow any connection to UTSU and are blocked from doing so—one reason why retaining a vote was a live question for them. Should they be given power in the understanding that it could allow them to evacuate?

Long story short: this is the end of another year’s news window, at least for the time being, on UTSU’s doings. But don’t bet that the year ahead, during which they’ll have to make some changes that are not likely to be pretty in order to comply with the act, will be any quieter. Let’s hope it can at least be done with dignity.

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