The Antagonist In Student Politics is Invisible
The Canada Not for Profit Corporations Act, an external force, has led to internal tension
If you’ve vaguely followed student politics this past year, you’d know that in April the UTSU board of directors passed a motion calling for board restructuring. Much anger ensued, as the new proposal did not include currently established board representatives for college and professional faculties, and did include representatives for various constituencies including racialized students, LGBTQ students and women. In October the motion failed to win a two thirds majority at the UTSU’s annual general meeting, and was thus defeated.
Those who voted against the bill largely did so to save college and professional faculty representation. Meanwhile, many of those who supported the bill, including Ben DW of LGBTOUT and Dylan Chauvin-Smith of ASSU, were also inspired by the question of representation, passionately making cases at the AGM for the importance of having an equitable board structure. Ryan Gomes, a moderate opponent of the bill, made the case in a Varsity op-ed that with the AGM over, both sides can be brought together to produce a bill that considers equity and college/professional-faculty representation.
While the question of how students are represented is no doubt an important one, the most illuminating comment I heard at the AGM was from a student who asked me, “so it’s Stephen [Harper]’s fault that we’re here?” The question was a wry reference to the fact that the UTSU has to change its board structure not because of concerns about equity or colleges, but because the new Canada Not for Profit Corporations Act (CNCA) largely requires that all members of a corporation be able to vote for all of its board positions (which is not really compatible with our current systems, where college and pro-faculty members have the exclusive right to vote for their college or faculty’s directors).
It is for this reason that, while I respect the positivity and even the substance of arguments like Gomes’, I nonetheless find them disengaging. Student union members, as Gomes posits, should not be divided over this issue, but not because the forms of representation they desire are reconcilable, but because the reason for the debate in the first place is an external piece of legislation that imposes arbitrarily specific requirements on organizations like the UTSU.
The UTSU’s plight with the CNCA is partly due to bad luck. A contact within the student movement who wishes to remain anonymous emphasized that the CNCA is designed for small non-profits, with memberships that might indeed be empowered by the new CNCA regulations. One of the CNCA’s new requirements is that elections be held at AGMs, something that may make sense for small organizations with politically like-minded memberships, but not for an organization like the UTSU which has elections that often involve polarizing debates. While the UTSU has found a way to overcome that particular CNCA hurdle, the example still shows how arbitrary bureaucratic decrees are an invisible oppressive force in student politics.
Others argue that new not-for-profit legislation is an unfair threat even to small corporations. Stephen Hazell, a former Sierra Club director, argues that many volunteer-based corporations might not have the time or resources to comply with new laws. He also argues that as the new legislation is based around the notion of shareholder empowerment, it could make politically-opposed corporations, such as environmental groups, vulnerable to ideological takeovers.
The Conservative government has also been accused of using the Canadian Revenue Agency to disband not-for-profit corporations and charities, such as Physicians for Global Survival that challenge its political program. While these charges alone do not suggest that the CNCA was created specifically to undermine student unions, they do show how bureaucratic reform can unintentionally (or intentionally) undermine activist organizations like the UTSU.
Indeed, the debate about the UTSU board reform has rarely paused to ask the question of why the CNCA is so strict in its requirement, but it has also never stopped to ask an even more meta question—why is our student union legally recognized as a corporation? In 2011, the CFS tried to resolve that discrepancy by working with MPPs Yasir Naqvi and Rosario Marchese to draft a piece of “right to organize” legislation for Ontario student unions, known as the CUSA act. Similar legislation already exists in Quebec and British Columbia. The legislation, which fell from discussion following the 2011 election, would have protected the right of student unions to exist and collect fees, opening the door for student unions to have a legal status more like labor unions, and potentially not subject to not-for-profit corporate regulation.
In the long term, a fight to revitalize the CUSA act is a better priority for student unions than bickering internally about how to best comply with the CNCA and what to call directorship positions (though of course the latter is a short term necessity). While it is true that there could some student political opposition to such a move (some UTSU opponents insist on referring to the organization by its legal name “Students’ Adminstrative Council (SAC),” a subtle suggestion that they are uncomfortable with being involved in a union), I believe most students could be won over to such an approach if they are simply encouraged to think outside of the student political box.
I could support a UTSU board structure based around college/pro-faculty representation, one based around equity, or some sort of hybrid. What matters to me, however, is not what the UTSU nominally looks like, but what it is empowered to do. I didn’t run for office to spar with students, I ran to spar with our school’s administrators and our governments.n
Zach Morgenstern was elected as an independent to be one of the UTSU directors for Victoria College in 2014-15. He is also an op-ed writer and comment editor for the newspaper. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the rest of the editorial team. The newspaper is open to publishing ideas from a vast array of perspectives.comments powered by Disqus