On a recent trip to Montreal I had the privilege to hear Beryl Wasjman speak. He commented on the theme of the conference, “Information is the new currency of International Relations” and argued that, “Disinformation was and always will be the currency of politics.” There are few places where this claim holds as much truth as U of T student politics.
All around campus, students are bombarded by posters and slogans, being invited to countless Facebook groups and candidate events. Such is the nature of our democracy. Students, however, remain disillusioned with the democratic process which has produced an increasingly irrelevant UTSU. Voters feel disengaged, misinformed and powerless in face of long term electoral trends. The ever decreasing voter turnouts are the best evidence of an increasingly apathetic electorate.
Why are students feeling cynical towards UTSU elections? Consider, for example, the various actions, or lack thereof, taken by the Students Union. At the writing of this article, there have been grumblings on campus about the absence of ample notice for the All Candidates Debate on Wednesday February 29th. Many feel blindsided by the sudden notification of the event. I expect that the response will be that UTSU did give notice to the event. But I ask in reply: why was it that so many students were left in the dark about it? At the Annual General Meeting in November, the body voted to amend a by-law that now reads that future AGMs will be advertised in any “campus publications” rather than limiting ads to specific campus newspapers. The argument was that it would expand their reach to encourage students to participate. Why then has this same logic not been applied to the All Candidates Debate?
Surely, this year’s AGM alone sets much precedent to UTSU’s actions. Like much of the same complaints about the All Candidates Debate, many people were arguing that they were not informed in time to register for proxy voting. As well, a motion was passed at the AGM to limit debate to six speakers- three for and three against. Clearly, this shows how much UTSU values the importance of informing students, and how they value each student’s opinion.
The topic of proxy voting is another issue that is a concern to students. The idea behind this political mechanism is that students who cannot attend a meeting can voluntarily register to offer their voting rights to another student who is attending. The reasoning is logical; many students cannot attend a meeting because of transportation problems (the main reasoning behind UTM students’ heavy use of proxies), class or other prior engagements. Thus, someone else who shares the same political views can utilize what could have been a wasted vote.
However, many UTSU events have proven that the concept of proxy votes is inherently undemocratic. At an AGM, members can have up to another 10 votes. When motions and bylaws were being voted upon, about 30% of those actually attending had approximately over 300 votes opposed to the other 70% who held about 70 votes. Furthermore, the current administration attempts to explain that proxy voting is a democratically established right and that the student body is free to change this policy if it wishes. But it can’t. The policy of proxy voting itself restricts any action from being taken to abolish or reform this draconian concept.
The charges do not end there. Complaints have been raised about the usage of proxy voting at Board of Directors meetings. Under the Canada Corporations Act, proxy voting is prohibited and directors must be present to fully participate and vote. A publication by Industry Canada entitled, Primer for Directors of Not-for-profit Corporations: Rights, Duties and Practices, clearly states:
[…] under the Canada Corporations Act, directors cannot vote or participate in meetings by proxy. This is legislative recognition of the importance of full participation by directors at board meetings.
No, I am not a lawyer, but it is clear that directors cannot vote by proxy. It is their responsibility as directors to attend, discuss important issues to students and to utilize their right to vote. These directors were democratically elected and have a duty to uphold their constituents’ best interests. By not attending and allowing another director to act on behalf of the absentee, they not only show contempt for the democratic process but for Canadian law as well.
We must also remember the events that occurred in last year’s UTSU Election. Three candidates from the StudentsFirst opposition slate were disqualified for allegedly not having proper student numbers on their nomination forms. The whole slate decided to boycott the election, shortly thereafter, in protest. Matthew Gray, former Presidential Candidate for StudentsFirst was quoted as saying, “UTSU’s election processes are institutionally biased towards incumbents.” Is this what happens in a democracy that champions accountability and transparency? Is this really the way we want our student union to be elected and operate?
The case I am trying to make here is not about the inefficiency of our student union in comparison to others, or about their highly activist role in supporting causes that don’t fit with their own constituents, or even about the role of the Canadian Federation of Students with our organization. Many students have already voiced their concerns about these in previous articles.
The problem that I see as the most pressing is the legitimacy of the democratic process as we all enter into the next two weeks of the election. Whoever might be the new UTSU Executive must ensure that democracy is just as important a value as social justice and equality and that one cannot exist without the other. They must guarantee that all students are informed and have access to information about important events. They must also allow each student to have a fair chance at voicing their opinion and not stifling dissent by limiting debate or mysteriously disqualifying candidates.
We all complain about how students are apathetic towards campus politics but first, UTSU must ensure they can uphold the democratic process. By restoring students’ faith in the political system, perhaps more students might be inspired to be involved.
I once thought that there was at least some hope in bringing about change for this year’s UTSU Elections. After a heated and controversial debate, CRO arbitrary rulings for 103 demerit points for the opposition and none for Unity and the endorsement of “our” campus newspaper for the incumbents, I can no longer feel as if this election is legitimate and that this is no longer a democracy.
Aside from disagreeing with Unity’s platform, and even after the personal attacks on “token minorities”, accusations of “terrorist” name calling and having my opinion disregarded because I’m not a “lawyer”, there is an unbiased argument that this election is a sham and I cannot trust it.
It just doesn’t help that free speech is being undermined this election by the precedent the CRO set by issuing demerit points for Robert Boissonneault’s status. Every word we say here can and might be used against the opposition.
This election is now illegitimate in my eyes, and that of many others in the student body. I refuse to recognize that UTSU represents me. UTSU is not a democracy.