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On May 1, the majority of the current Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) executive committee will relinquish their roles and a new group of executives will take their place. With their terms coming to an end, The Ryersonian is taking a look at what issues the students’ union executives addressed this year and what their legacy will look like.
This year’s executive committee ran as the slate “Transform RU.” It was the first organized opposition party to run against “Unite Ryerson,” the group that controlled the most seats on the RSU for more than five years straight. After Transform candidates won all five executive committee seats and swept the majority of the faculty director positions in the elections last year, president-elect Andrea Bartlett sat down with The Ryersonian to talk about Transform’s goals for the coming year. Bartlett explained that she was hoping to take election voting online and ensure that the voting process was as clear and understandable as it could be.
At the end of September, Bartlett said that she and the vice-president operations, Obaid Ullah, had spent the summer and the beginning of the school year meeting with school administration to set up the process in time for the spring election season. Their concerted efforts were a success.
This year saw the first online elections for the RSU, which Bartlett had previously said would be a good way to encourage voter turnout, as Ryerson is a commuter school and students aren’t always on campus. Unfortunately, even bringing elections online won’t cure students’ apathy — there were only 34 more total votes cast for the presidential candidate this year than in 2015.
While bringing the election online may have been a good attempt to entice students to vote, the RSU also shortened the election campaign period from two weeks to three days this year. This led to confusion among students about candidate platforms, voting procedures and who was even running in the first place.
One step forward, two steps back.
- Voter turnout largely unaffected by switch to online voting
- Opinion: The shortened RSU election leads to apathetic, uneducated voters
Balancing the books
The RSU is notoriously bad at balancing its budget, but this year’s executive committee might be an anomaly. In both 2013 and 2014, the RSU posted deficits over $150,000. In fact, the 2014 RSU executive committee had planned to run a deficit of only $3,216, but ended up going over that number by $225,359. According to Ullah, in order to remedy the shortfalls, the previous RSU executives had been dipping into the union’s capital reserve fund. Ullah told The Ryersonian at the end of November that the fund had roughly $300,000 left, which was less than the combined total of the deficits from ’13 and ’14.
Ullah also said that the RSU projected to spend about $250,000 less this year and that it hoped to post a surplus of $13,215 at the end of the year. This year’s RSU executive committee also released the budget documents for this year and the past two years, which allowed students to get a better understanding of how exactly their money was being spent.
This year’s executive committee has been forthright with students about the bleak state of the RSU’s coffers. This was a refreshing — albeit depressing — reality check after the radio silence that students have experienced for the past few years.
A good example of this pragmatism came in a Medium blog post in March, in which Bartlett alleged that more than $90,000 had been stolen from the union in the 2014-15 school year from both the union’s safe and its credit cards.
After the allegations came out, Ullah told The Ryersonian that the executive team had been picking up the pieces from previous “mismanagement” ever since they took office last year. He said it was frustrating to take office and realize that there had been minimal public documents made available, records deleted and that they were saddled with debt from lawsuits that had never had a budget or oversight in the first place.
In the year-end report published by the RSU on April 4, the executive committee wrote that the RSU expects to end the year with $10,000 more than they started with. The report also acknowledged that the RSU’s consultants had advised the executives that if the RSU “continued on the trajectory set by past governments (it) would be in a crippling deficit in 5 years time.”
While this year’s executive team may have been stuck fixing the mistakes that previous administrations caused, the open dialogue regarding its financial status that we’ve seen so far suggests that they’re doing the best they can with what they were given.
- RSU budget documents reveal massive deficits in past two years
- Toronto police urge RSU to report alleged stolen funds
RSU’s policies and practices versus the right to freedom of expression
The debate over freedom of expression at Ryerson — and who’s allowed to have it — has been heated this year. In October, the RSU denied an application by the Men’s Issues Awareness Society (MIAS) to be granted official club status. The decision echoed a similar one made by the previous RSU executive team last year to reject an application for status by Students for Life Ryerson (SFLR), an anti-abortion student group. Both MIAS and SFLR have challenged the RSU’s decisions to deny them club status in court this year.
The RSU has found itself caught in the crosshairs of public outcry regarding many of its decisions this year. It has continually prioritized its commitment to its policy on women’s issues over the concerns that doing so impedes on freedom of expression for students on campus. The policy in question states that the RSU opposes “groups, meetings or events that promote misogynist views towards women and ideologies that promote gender inequality, challenges women’s right to bodily autonomy or justifies sexual assault.” While that’s not problematic at face value, as Ryerson students have seen this year, the RSU has yet to determine how to reconcile that stance with its own commitment to free expression on campus.
Bartlett said that this is “the nature of the beast of being membership-driven. All of these policies are brought forward by students, not the executive team.” While RSU executive members can recommend amendments to policies, student-driven requests are prioritized.
At the end of the day (and more importantly, year), in order for these issues to be addressed, students need to come forward with requests for review. Students can draft policies and submit them to the RSU, where they can then be voted on by the rest of the student body.
But in order for that to happen, Bartlett says that students need to participate in student politics. Rather than critique the RSU from afar, students need to voice their opinions and tell the RSU what they should be doing. The RSU executive team is voted in to speak for students — but if there is only a certain portion of Ryerson students engaging and telling them what they should be doing, then they have to cater to that group.
The Ryersonian has put together a timeline of the events that sparked the most controversy around the RSU’s problems with free expression this year.
The RSU’s relationship with the Canadian Federation of Students
Another one of the points that Bartlett stressed after being elected last year was that the incoming executive team wanted to re-evaluate the relationship among Ryerson students, the RSU and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). The CFS is a national organization composed of 60 Canadian universities and college student governments. It often lobbies the federal and provincial governments on behalf of its members for issues like lowering tuition, greater access to funding and to raise support for causes such as divestment and equity concerns.
However, the CFS has been plagued by controversy over the past few years as other students’ unions across Canada have attempted to exit the organization (“defederate”) only to be denied due to the CFS’ strict policies.
Last week, Bartlett explained to The Ryersonian that while the RSU did not make any formal, public proclamations regarding its evaluation this year, the executive team’s personal experiences have proven that the RSU can run “completely autonomous without the support of the CFS.”
This year, the RSU collected $16.06 from every full-time undergraduate student on behalf of the organization. While that might only be the price of a lunch at Chipotle, cumulatively, Ryerson students paid more than $465,000 in fees to the CFS in 2015-16.
RSU vice-president education, Cormac McGee, agreed with Bartlett’s assessment, but stressed that in order for the RSU to defederate the process needs to start with students. This is because the CFS’ policies stipulate that it does not accept referendums for defederation from students’ union representatives.
However, considering Ryerson students’ political engagement track record, that doesn’t seem like it’ll be happening anytime soon. The topic of the union’s relationship with the CFS was on the agenda for the RSU’s annual general meeting on April 13, but it was never brought up because the meeting was adjourned before it could be addressed. In order to proceed with motions at the meeting, the RSU executive team must keep quorum, which is the minimum of 100 people that need to be in the room to maintain an accurate representation of the student body for decision making. The meeting lost quorum after a recess was called for a break and all motions were tabled until the RSU’s next Board of Directors meeting on April 26.
Good on you, kids.
With files from Eman Ali, Latifa Abdin, Alexandra Heck, Vjosa Isai, Ramisha Farooq, Jacqueline Tucci and Arthur White.