By Mariam Nouser and Emma Sandri
Over 1,000 people have signed a petition demanding that Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) president Vanessa Henry resign from her position following allegations of misuse of funds and discriminatory behaviour.
Titled “New 2020 Ryerson Student[s’] Union President!” the petition asks that Henry be replaced because she “failed at fulfilling the duties of a President.”
According to its description, the petition was created by “R. Chan,” whose Change.org description claims they are an engineering student who is “passionate about equality, diversity and inclusion.”
“[The RSU] is currently led by a president…who is not qualified to lead the organization or manage a team,” according to the petition’s description. “Students of Ryerson University have not received full financial transparency as promised.”
Henry denied the allegations and said the arguments behind the petition are “very flawed” and that they did not affect her.
She added that she cannot be impeached solely from a petition.
“I encourage people, if they don’t like me or what I’m doing to voice those opinions. I have monthly member meetings where I talk to students,” she said.
She also said the petition’s complaint of “mismanaged funds” is in regards to spending on the RSU podcast “Verified,” hosted by Henry.
The podcast is an initiative that seeks to bring the Ryerson community together through conversations centred around equity, mental health and inclusiveness, said Henry.
At a Nov. 13 Board of Directors (BoD) meeting, Henry said that there had been a miscommunication between her and an individual in the finance department. She believed she didn’t need board or executive approval on an invoice of equipment.
Henry said that she was told to give the board 24 hours notice to vote on whether or not they should buy the equipment. The vote passed in her favour.
Henry said she spent almost $9,000 on the audio equipment.
“Without any bias, if the board said, ‘No, this isn’t a good initiative,’ I would have just stopped and [not] sent the money,” she said.
According to the RSU’s website, the podcast equipment can be rented out to students, alumni and community members.
“I want the internal audit to come out so you can say ‘Vanessa is very by the book,’” Henry told The Eyeopener. “Rumours can sometimes be more detrimental to their organizations than the actual person [they’re about].”
“I do my job, I follow the book. I’m not here to be liked, I’m here to do my job,” she said.
Petition: ‘Calling on Mr. Mohamed Lachemi’
The petition is asking that Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi “step-in and not allow the under-qualified leadership of [Henry] to mismanage funds” and to “help protect the university’s esteemed reputation.”
In an emailed statement, Lachemi said that his office has been made aware of the petition but that Ryerson could not “compel the RSU to take any action.”
“The RSU is a separate corporate entity from Ryerson University with its own governance structure and it is accountable to its members,” said Lachemi. “We understand the concerns brought forward by students, especially in light of events over the past year.”
Allegations of discrimination
The petition also alleged “discriminating actions” from Henry.
In December, The Eyeopener reported that RSU executives had raised concerns after a non-Indigenous performer sang “Colors of the Wind,” from the movie Pocahontas, at an event organized by members of the union. Henry was one of the organizers and speakers at the event.
Former vice-president marketing of the RSU, Victoria Anderson-Gardner, said that they were “personally triggered” by the performance of the song, which could be traumatic for other Indigenous students at the event.
“It just makes me think of all of the harmful things done toward the Indigenous community,” they said.
Anderson-Gardner said they took down a statement about the performance posted to the RSU Facebook shortly after it was published. They said it was anti-Indigenous and did not reflect the views of the executives aside from Henry.
In an email to The Eye, Henry said the union had “already begun taking steps to reconcile.”
In December, Anderson-Gardner resigned from their position, citing “high stresses,” a “toxic work environment,” the performance of “Colors of the Wind” and the subsequent statement released to Facebook.
“If you think people are just ‘throwing out’ anti-Indigenous racism, you’ve fundamentally misunderstood and missed the pervasive nature of this violence in this union and in our society as a whole,” they said.
The union’s vice-president equity, Naja Pereira, and vice-president education, Kwaku Agyemang, have also resigned.
Agyemang alleged a “series of employment violations and internal corruption,” along with “threats” from Henry as reasons for his resignation.
Henry responded to Agyemang’s resignation, stating that his accusation of “internal corruption” is false.
“During the course of my employment, I have been silenced by the president of the organization with verbal threats,” he stated in his resignation letter.
Henry denied ever threatening Agyemang and said that she is looking into the possibility of pursuing legal action on the comment. “To say I’ve silenced you is a big statement. And if you ask any of the execs, I’ve never held them back,” she said.
Impeaching an executive
Without Henry’s resignation, the only way to remove an RSU executive is to bring a motion before the union’s BoD. According to section 2.3. (f) of the RSU’s Bylaws, the motion must be given one board meeting prior to the potential impeachment.
The BoD must then vote on the motion for impeachment. If a two-thirds majority of the board votes in favour of the impeachment, the executive member is impeached.
The next BoD meeting is Jan. 27.
First-year professional communications student, Geeta Harjani, said she heard about the petition and assumed it was because of financial mismanagement similar to that of Henry’s predecessor Ram Ganesh—who was impeached over allegations of alleged misspending by the union.
Harjani said she might sign the petition against Henry.
“Rather than removing someone [from office], I want there to be some sort of rule established where the budget and spending is revealed to the public,” said Harjani.
Harjani also said that people in elected positions should be inclusive of everyone.
“As seen with [many] authoritative figures… we can see how one’s own prejudices can affect their decision making. That does not mean it cannot happen at a university level,” said Harjani.
With files from Alexandra Holyk, Madi Wong and Valerie Dittrich