The events at the University of Ottawa over the past two years offer a road map for Ryerson University — or a cautionary tale
Tiyana Maharaj has been watching what’s happening at Ryerson University over the past year with a close eye. In January 2019, when The Eyeopener published a story containing allegations of $250,000 spent on credit cards held by student union executives, Maharaj’s school, the University of Ottawa, was in the middle of a referendum to choose a new student union.
“We were watching Ryerson go through exactly what we went through,” she says. “We were only a few months past when the first story broke, about the financial allegations (against the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa).”
The similarities between student politics at the two universities reached a climax in January 2020, when Ryerson announced it was terminating its operating agreement with the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) “effective immediately.” The University of Ottawa had taken the same step in November 2019, though the first notice of the potential termination was given in September.
Since then, students at the University of Ottawa voted on a new students’ union to represent them — a union that Maharaj helped to found. She and her other co-founders are among a handful of Canadian students who know what it’s like to watch a student union come crashing down — and build a new one from the ground up.
Whether what happened at the University of Ottawa will serve as inspiration for Ryerson’s next steps is not clear.
When asked twice by the Ryersonian, Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi would not directly say whether anyone in the school’s administration spoke to anyone from the University of Ottawa.
“To tell you the truth, it’s important for us to see what are the good practices in the sector and learn from organizations in terms of good practices. Not just the University of Ottawa, but at the end of the day, in the sector it’s important for us to pay attention to serving students in the best possible way,” he said.
“We make sure that we do our best, but we also want to make sure that any organization representing students is working in good faith to serve students,” Lachemi said. “I think that’s the part that was not clear in our conversations, unfortunately, with the RSU in the past year.”
I t’s no wonder that Maharaj felt like she was watching an exact replica of what happened in Ottawa play out at Ryerson a few months later. The allegations against members of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) are eerily similar to the ones against members of the RSU. In the case of the SFUO, a police report was filed outlining allegations of scam and identity theft, according to The Fulcrum, the university’s independent English-language newspaper. The three people named in the report were the union’s president, executive director and vice-president operations. A report from an outgoing union president said former president Rizki Rachiq “received upwards of $20,000 in cheques allocated to a club called Testing Restaurants UOttawa, for which Rachiq allegedly opened a separate bank account with Desjardins.”
Various expenses were then charged to the “club’s” credit card, including $950 eyeglasses, over $600 at Louis Vuitton, almost $500 at a Montreal hair salon and multiple ATM withdrawals of up to $500, according to The Fulcrum.
At Ryerson, independent student newspaper The Eyeopener reported in January 2019 that credit card statements under the names of the RSU’s president and vice-president operations showed purchases of food, alcohol, clothing and entertainment, some upwards of $2,000. The union’s financial controller said at a February 2019 meeting that the RSU executives had not submitted receipts for any purchases since coming into office in May 2018 and that the total amount spent was $273,000.
In the wake of what came to be known as the credit card scandal, Ryerson University requested that the RSU have a forensic audit conducted, and that the results be shared with the university. Ryerson also requested that the RSU renegotiate its operating agreement with the university, which dates back to 1986. Ryerson said it would withhold the RSU’s fees, except for essential ones like health and dental, until the audit results were available.
In January 2020, Ryerson announced it was terminating the operating agreement after it said the RSU missed multiple meetings and deadlines for negotiating a new operating agreement. The RSU has since taken legal action against Ryerson, claiming $2.7 million in damages and saying in its statement of claim that the university had no legal grounds to terminate the agreement.
Although Ryerson specifically asked for a forensic audit, the RSU announced on Feb. 3 that it had actually completed a financial review. The review found $99,477 in credit card expenses that couldn’t be verified, and the union’s audit committee found the former president had paid for an RSU lawyer’s $36,000 first-class trip to India.
At the University of Ottawa, the administration also announced it would withhold the union’s fees until results from a forensic audit were available. The university later said the audit did not increase its confidence in the union, and that it would proceed with terminating the agreement as proposed in September. It was written in the agreement that either party could terminate it with three months’ notice. The university negotiated an interim service delivery agreement with the SFUO to provide services in the winter term until April 30, 2019.
Ryerson has been clear that it intends to facilitate a process for a new student government that is committed to financial transparency and transparent governance. In March, students will vote on a new student government structure. The process will be facilitated by an external chief process officer and an independent committee that will include several students and a recent graduate. After the structure is voted on, general elections will take place in April. Then Ryerson will negotiate a new agreement with the new student government.
When asked by the Ryersonian if the university will negotiate an interim operating agreement with the RSU to continue services until the creation of a new government and agreement, Lachemi said he “could not speculate on what may happen next.”
When the University of Ottawa announced in September 2019 that it was giving the SFUO 90 days notice of terminating their agreement, Maharaj and nine others got on a long Skype call. The group had met through being involved with protests calling for the two SFUO members still in office to resign or be impeached, and for the audit to be available to students. While Maharaj saw the SFUO as corrupt, she knew the importance of a student union because of the services it provides to students.
Before the University of Ottawa even announced an election for a new student union, Maharaj’s group had created a constitution and held town halls and other consultations. Under the name University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU), they ran against the SFUO in a February referendum for a new student government.
The question on the ballot asked which group students wanted to represent them, not which group they wanted to replace the SFUO. The UOSU received 4,205 votes, beating the SFUO, which had 1,423. After the referendum in February, Minharaj and the other three executives incorporated the new UOSU and oversaw the logistics of the transition. The new executive team and board of directors, elected in March, took office in June.
If the RSU’s legal action doesn’t deter the university and the two sides don’t go back to the negotiating table for any other reason, Ryerson will follow the University of Ottawa’s path: students will vote on a new student union, and there will likely be some kind of transfer of services between the two unions. (While the university is moving forward with the process to create a new government, the RSU is still planning to go ahead with its elections for its 2020-21 executive team.)
After the SFUO went into receivership, the new UOSU had to negotiate transferring assets because financial records were “a mess,” Maharaj said. The SFUO didn’t have records for each separate business it owned, which made it hard for the new union to see which businesses were profitable before taking them on. They were told not to expect records from the past two years. The SFUO also had liabilities it hadn’t paid off.
Eventually, the UOSU was able to transfer most of the SFUO’s profitable assets. Out of the SFUO’s four businesses — a café, campus bar, convenience store and bookstore — the founders decided to close the bookstore because it wasn’t profitable. The rest are still going through transfer or set-up processes, so none are open yet.
The SFUO also operated 14 equity-focused services. The UOSU merged two, so there are now 13, including a multi-faith centre, racialized and Indigenous students experience centre, food bank and centre for students with disabilities. The centres are all slowly reopening, Maharaj says.
One concern at Ryerson has been for the staff in the union, and at the equity service centres. Tim Gulliver, a faculty of social science director on the UOSU’s board, said that at the University of Ottawa everyone was laid off when the SFUO became insolvent. The UOSU had a “callback list” to offer some people back their jobs, since the services remained the same.
In the SFUO, the executive director role was a student, often someone who ran the president’s campaign. Now, the position is held by a full-time employee who brings more institutional memory and holds executives accountable, Gulliver says.
The lack of financial records wasn’t the only problem faced by the UOSU as it tried to re-establish a student government. When they were leaving office the SFUO destroyed its website and every document in the office, Gulliver says. He noted that while he wasn’t sure if it was for legal or personal reasons, it became a “massive challenge” for directors and executives to draft new policy. Starting out, the union only had a constitution and no other documents. When a controversy over a pro-life group getting club status arose in September, not having policy documents made it that much harder for the union to co-ordinate a response.
“It’s not pretty,” he says. “Rebuilding a student union is not pretty.”
The UOSU also made structural changes to its executive team. For most of this year, they had a “five-commissioner model” with no president. The union just added a president in December, which Gulliver calls a “very collaborative position.” The new constitution also forces accountability and collaboration, he says. The new union also got rid of slates in elections.
The UOSU took over the SFUO’s office space because it was owned by the university. At Ryerson, the Student Campus Centre is owned by the Palin Foundation. The building’s manager said unless there’s a “material breach of or change in the agreements” the agreement will remain unchanged — so the RSU will likely be able to stay in the space.
The new UOSU also decided not to affiliate with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) because of how difficult it is to leave. The CFS is a national and provincial students’ union that many post-secondary unions, including the RSU and the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson, are members of. This has made them focus on internal rebuilding and student trust, Gulliver says.
Gulliver says no one wants to have the OUSU meet the same fate as the SFUO. “I think everyone recognizes the value of student governments and how completely messed up what happened over the past two years with the SFUO (was).”
Ultimately, Maharaj feels creating an entirely new student union was the only way for the problems with the SFUO to be resolved. “At the end of the day, there were just structural, root changes that needed to happen to the SFUO that could not be made with the way that the institution was set up.”
The same thing might need to happen at Ryerson. At the union’s semi-annual general meeting, RSU president Vanessa Henry said if students vote for a new student government in a referendum, then that’s out of the RSU’s control.
“We will do whatever is best to support students,” she says. “Right now, I hope that the university is considering what services are essential, like the equity centres (and) CopyRITE. Those things for me are a huge priority and that is what I hope a new union would take on, if it comes to that — and I’m hoping it does not.”