On March 2, the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O) and the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR) held a joint press conference announcing plans to intervene in Ryerson University’s agreement termination with the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU).
The 34-year old operating agreement was officially terminated on January 24 after the university learned of RSU’s alleged management of internal affairs related to financial misconduct.
CESAR and CFS-O’s intervention follows an announcement made by the university no longer recognizing the RSU as an official student body representing Ryerson students. CESAR president Nicole Brayiannis and CFS-O chairperson Sofia Descalzi both reacted to the decision through their statements released at the press conference.
CESAR did not condone the RSU actions, which were alleged to have occurred during the 2018-2019 term. However, the association reiterated it did not believe Ryerson University was acting in the “best interest” of its students. According to Brayiannis, intervening means empowering students in pursuing their best interests.
“Autonomy is central to a student union’s ability to effectively represent their membership,” said Descalzi at the press conference, adding that the move by Ryerson University signified a “violation” of the “autonomy and independence of student unions.”
Ryerson’s agreement with the RSU has existed since September 1986, becoming terminated after a year of attempted negotiations between the university and students’ union. An official termination notice read that the university “lost confidence in the RSU’s ability to represent students with good governance and to supply the services that students pay for.”
Student incidental fees towards supporting the student union, approximately $130 per year, were also suspended by the university within days of the agreement termination.
In January, Ryerson’s independent student newspaper, The Eyeopener, reported on financial activities dating back to June 2018 that went against union policies. According to the newspaper, among several instances of unauthorized spending included credit card purchases such as Airbnb, Toronto nightclubs, LCBOs and more. Having belonged to certain RSU executives, the credit card statements totalled several thousand dollars.
In May 2018, salaries of executive members were raised by 30.5 per cent following private meetings.
The RSU executives failed to produce expense receipts to the university, which also requested a forensic audit of RSU finances in January. Meetings to obtain access to financial records were also denied.
“[Ryerson University] has tried […] to negotiate an agreement that ensures a model of good governance and accountability. Unfortunately, the RSU has ceased responding to the university’s efforts to reach common ground,” Ryerson University expressed in a January statement after no audit was produced by the RSU.
Despite the controversial timeline of events, CESAR and CFS stressed a collective responsibility to support student unions as “separate, third-party entities from the university or college where they operate.”
Both organizations also agreed that Ryerson’s decision to cancel its student union agreement was “setting a standard that harms core principles of students’ union autonomy, fair and free elections, and independent student voices on campuses across the country.”
On January 28, the RSU responded to the terminated agreement by filing legal action with the Ontario Superior Court. The student union cited damages of $2.7 million, including $100,000 in punitive damages, for breach of contract and the release of withheld student fees.
According to Louis Century, CESAR legal representative, their application to intervene means being able to represent their clients in court. CESAR represents 16,000 continuing education students at Ryerson, while the CFS-O represents 500,000 college and university students, including more than 60 student unions across Canada.
Joining the RSU legal intervention “shows students across the country that an attack against one is an attack on all,” said Descalzi at the press conference.
A court date was set for March 6, 2020.