By Madi Wong, Emma Sandri and Alexandra Holyk
Since Ryerson announced its decision to terminate its 34-year-old agreement with the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU), students have been left wondering: What happens now?
In an online statement Friday, Ryerson’s vice-provost, students Jen McMillen announced that the university “no longer recognizes the RSU as the official student government representing Ryerson students” and that the university had “lost confidence” in the RSU’s ability to represent and serve students.
“The administration has tried to silence students. We will not be silenced,” RSU president Vanessa Henry said in a press conference on Tuesday morning. “We are no longer just defending the RSU, we are setting precedent for student voices throughout Ontario and across Canada.”
In response to the university’s announcement on Friday, the RSU released a statement Monday saying they do not accept the agreement’s termination as valid. “The university’s attempted termination of the operational agreement, and added threat to support an entirely new student government, actively undermines the autonomy and democratic rights of students,” the statement read.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Henry announced that the RSU had filed a legal claim against Ryerson with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
According to her, the RSU is “asking the court to require the university to comply with their contractual obligation which includes: recognizing the RSU as elected student representation and remit all student fees to the RSU.”
When asked how students’ wishes were consulted in this decision, McMillen said the termination was their way to respond to students’ concerns around the student union. She said it was based on recent stories such as the resignation of the former vice-president equity, vice-president marketing and vice-president education and a petition to remove Henry.
In spite of this, the university has no “planned process” to reinstate the union, McMillen told The Eyeopener.
“We’ve made our position clear around the fact that we have terminated our agreement with the current Ryerson Students’ Union,” said McMillen.
Students took to social media to discuss the termination, with the main concerns being whether or not they would receive money back for their opt-ins to the RSU and what would happen to student groups, employees and centres under the organization.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
In January 2019, The Eye obtained images of financial statements showing food, clothing, alcohol and club purchases—some upwards of $2,000—with a credit card under the name of former RSU president Ram Ganesh.
The Eye also confirmed credit card statements listed under the names of both the vice-president operations and the union’s financial controller.
Recently, the RSU filed a report with the Toronto Police Service following the allegations of financial mismanagement.
Following the scandal, the university notified the RSU they would be withholding the student fees they collect from students used to fund the RSU, said McMillen. These fees would be withheld until the union had met the following conditions: conduct a forensic audit following last year’s alleged financial mismanagement, share the audit results with the university and negotiate a new operating agreement.
Prior to Ryerson’s announcement that the operating agreement had been terminated, the RSU announced that the forensic audit was completed and would be shared publicly at their upcoming Semi-Annual General Meeting, which is taking place Feb. 3.
In October, The Eye reported that the RSU and the university were looking to renegotiate the “transfer payment agreement.”
“We are setting precedent for student voices across Canada”
According to McMillen’s statement, the financial mismanagement allegations breached the 1986 Operating Agreement with the university. She said that Ryerson gave the RSU “ample time to rectify the situation, but the RSU [had] failed to do so.”
Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi told The Eye the university felt obligated to terminate their agreement because they heard students “were not happy with the current situation.”
“I don’t want to paint the existing executive in any negative way but we have not necessarily seen [any] progress,” said Lachemi.
WHAT IS THE 1986 OPERATING AGREEMENT?
According to McMillen, the agreement between the university and student union covers basic things that would exist between the two organizations such as fee collection.
“The operating agreement is designed to identify certain areas of agreement that need to exist between the university and the student representative,” said McMillen.
DOES IT RELATE TO STUDENT CHOICE INITIATIVE (SCI)?
The Ontario government’s SCI was implemented in January 2019 and gave students the ability to opt out of certain fees that were previously mandatory. The non-essential fees included an annual cost of $24.44 to opt into the RSU. Fees collected from students funded events organized by the union, as well as its various student groups and course unions.
In November 2019, the Ontario Divisional Court ruled unanimously that the Doug Ford government’s SCI was “unlawful.” Ryerson has since shut down the opt-out portal on RAMSS. Starting this term, Ryerson will be collecting fees for student groups and services deemed non-essential by the SCI. Several students have asked whether the money will still be used, or will be refunded.
“We will be engaging with various options about what the ministry expectations are about student fees, what student expectations are of student fees and what we need to have in place in order to support a new student government,” McMillen said.
WILL THERE BE A NEW STUDENT GOVERNMENT?
In McMillen’s statement, she said that a new student government “may be formed” and the university is encouraging students to “begin giving this some consideration.”
“The university will facilitate this process to ensure that students have the opportunity to determine the structure of their representative government,” the statement reads.
“I have no concern that we will go for very long without a student government,” McMillen told The Eye. “I believe that Ryerson has a very engaged student body who is very interested in issues of appropriate representation and governance.”
Lachemi also said Ryerson will work with any student organization.
“We will make sure that we are here to protect the rights of students without necessarily running organizations that represent students,” he said. “We respect the democracy of doing it.”
HEALTH & DENTAL?
On Friday, McMillen stated that the university will ensure services such as the “health and dental benefits,” will continue to be accessible for the rest of the academic year. McMillen did not provide specifics as to how the university will move forward with maintaining these services.
EQUITY CENTRES? RAM IN THE RYE? OAKHAM CAFE?
The RSU’s seven Equity Service Centres: Good Food Centre, RyePRIDE, RyeACCESS, the Centre for Women and Trans People, the Trans Collective, Racialised Students’ Collective and the Centre for Safer Sex and Sexual Violence Support were not mentioned in McMillen’s original statement.
The centres provide vital services for students, including the Sexual Assault Survivor Support Line (SASSL) and emergency food relief.
McMillen told The Eye the university is “committed” to ensuring essential programs and services continue to support students without “significant disruption… for the remainder of the academic year.” However, she did not say how Ryerson would support these services.
As for the Ram in the Rye and Oakham Cafe, McMillen’s statement said they are managed by The Palin Foundation and it is the university’s “hope that these businesses will continue to serve students.”
WHAT ABOUT RSU MONEY?
In a statement posted to Facebook Monday addressing Lachemi, the RSU stated the university has not complied with agreement obligations.
“Since October 2018, the University has withheld these fees and unilaterally imposed various conditions on the RSU in order for these fees to be released,” the statement reads.
“Ample time to rectify the situation, but the RSU failed to do so”
“The University has no power to do this under the 1986 agreement. At the same time, the University said that it would provide the RSU with ‘the funds necessary to meet the RSU’s operational obligation.’ This was never done.”
Neither Ryerson nor the RSU has provided an explanation as to what will happen with the funds.
WHAT HAPPENS TO RSU JOBS?
McMillen’s statement did not detail what will happen to the students and staff working under the students’ union.
“We are willing and interested in having conversations about what options might be available as we move forward,” McMillen told The Eye.
With files from Libaan Osman