Student councils are coming forward, sharing their experiences and concerns over a lack of transparency in their relations with UMSU.
These concerns began over an alleged lack of transparency from the union. Funds have been withheld for months, and councils have said that the reason is unclear.
Executives of the Arts Student Body Council (ASBC) and the University 1 Student Council (U1SC) have responded to comments made by UMSU president Jaron Rykiss in an article published Oct. 4 in the Manitoban. The article detailed UMSU’s scheduling of a referendum regarding its membership in the Canadian Federation of Students.
In the interview, Rykiss claimed that a “wedge” had been driven between UMSU and student associations and clubs that would rather work with the federation. He specifically named ASBC as an example of this, saying that the two organizations have had a “separated relationship,” but that they have recently been able to sit down and discuss ASBC’s concerns.
“UMSU has the resources, as every other student union across the country does, to support its clubs and associations, and we would love to continue being that support for our student clubs,” Rykiss said.
“We’re the one they register through, we would love to be the one that’s helping them put on their events and initiatives.”
In an email statement to the Manitoban, the Canadian Federation of Students director of strategy Taylan McRae-Yu explained the federation’s relationship with UMSU clubs.
“While we can’t comment on UMSU’s relationship with specific clubs, we can clarify that the Federation does not provide campus clubs with operational funding, and we do not interfere with campus groups’ participation with their local students’ union,” the statement reads.
“Support provided for member-driven events and initiatives on campus comes from directives determined by members of [the federation’s Manitoba branch], and is meant to enhance resources available to student leaders on campus that engage with federation campaigns.”
ASBC president Chloe Dreilich-Girard responded to Rykiss’s comments in a statement she read on behalf of her student association on Oct. 5.
According to Dreilich-Girard, Rykiss’s comments painted ASBC as a Canadian Federation of Students partner. She said that the student association has stated to both UMSU and the federation that it is remaining neutral and working to keep arts students as its top priority amid the ongoing dispute.
She said the federation had helped with an orange T-shirt campaign for Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. She also claimed that ASBC and the federation had been a part of multiple collaborative events that were planned prior to any communication from UMSU encouraging groups to come to it for funding instead of working with the federation.
“We believe that it should not be solely on us or any other council to reach out and to predict when UMSU wants to partner with us,” she said.
Dreilich-Girard claimed that other groups have had difficulties with the union in the past before the dispute with the federation, which she said brings into question who may be at fault.
“However, this year we have tried to turn a new leaf and rebuild our relationship with UMSU for the benefit of all students.”
Dreilich-Girard said that ASBC has approached UMSU with concerns over lack of support, as well as missing arts student funds which are being withheld by the union.
She said that ASBC was told that an amount of money would be given on top of normal funds, but she claims that she was not told exactly how much that would be.
Dreilich-Girard said that not knowing how much money ASBC is owed prevents the association from reassuring students that a solution would be found. She said that UMSU had discussed missing documents, but had not provided proof that any required documents from previous executive teams were missing, another example of a lack of transparency according to Dreilich-Girard.
To make the process more transparent, Dreilich-Girard said that it would be helpful if UMSU listed past missing documents and communicated the amount of funding being withheld. She said that student association leaders do not always have access to these records.
“Painting the issues between ASBC and UMSU as stemming from this very recent referendum surrounding [the federation] is inappropriate, inaccurate and sweeps all of the previous issues under the rug by failing to address or acknowledge the actual problems at hand,” she said.
U1SC also comes forward
U1SC claims to have also experienced similar issues. In an interview with the Manitoban, U1SC president Keji Preston and vice-president Selena Toledo said that U1SC has not received a budget since last year. They also said that the Canadian Federation of Students reached out to U1SC this year, inviting members to multiple workshops and events this summer.
The U1SC executives said that they approached UMSU president Rykiss to communicate that they were interested in working with the federation, a prospect they claimed was discouraged by Rykiss.
Preston and Toledo emphasized that U1SC is a neutral party in the dispute between UMSU and the Canadian Federation of Students. However, they said that they had to go to the federation for money to put on events after feeling unsupported by UMSU.
“If you go to somebody and they are constantly pushing you to the side or not doing what they’re asking, [or] what they’re promising or anything, and then somebody externally comes and they offer the help and they’re actually doing something for you, then you can’t just ignore that help when you actually need it,” Toledo said. “You can’t just ask for us to stand with you and then not help us, push us aside or belittle us all the time.”
The leaders said that a lack of transparency from UMSU has created a number of problems for U1SC. They said that not knowing where the group’s money will come from has left them unsure of which events they are able put on for students. Preston and Toledo said they feel like they are not supported by UMSU and have to advocate for U1 students on their own.
“It’s supposed to be UMSU and University 1 against the problem,” Preston said. “We’re supposed to be together as a team, but now UMSU is trying to show us that it’s U1 against UMSU.”
The two U1SC leaders said that the students they represent are an especially unique group. Many students enrolled are in their first year of university, and some are international students in a new country for the first time. Preston said that it has been difficult for U1SC to create proper first-year experiences for students when it is not supported by UMSU.
“We had never gotten any relationships or any help from UMSU unless we reached out ourselves, and it was always the same thing over and over again, all talk no action.”
Preston and Toledo said they would like to see UMSU increase transparency, accessibility and do a better job of building a sense of community at the U of M.
UMSU president shares his side
Rykiss disagreed with the Canadian Federation of Students’ claim that they do not operationally fund student groups, as he views paying for events and campaigns to be funding.
He acknowledged his previous comments about the federation driving a wedge between UMSU and student groups, but claimed that when he was on ASBC last year, neither UMSU nor the student association made many attempts to speak with each other.
Rykiss said he may have misspoken in the earlier interview, stating that the union’s goal is to support student associations. He invites all student clubs to contact UMSU if they have any concerns about funding or support.
He said he believes that ASBC has sent the union a financial proposal that UMSU is currently evaluating, but could not say for certain. Rykiss said that on Oct. 6 he made attempts to contact ASBC, inviting them to sit down and meet with UMSU.
As of Oct. 12, he said that he thought the UMSU finance team had communicated to ASBC that missing funds were being looked into, and added that he would instruct them to do so if they had not.
Rykiss said funds will be distributed on a “clean slate basis,” meaning that all owed funds will be attached to new funds as well. He claimed that “there’s definitely the gears moving to make sure that they get their money back.”
However, he said that the union must first meet with clubs and associations to go over the process, including what forms need to be submitted and when.
Rykiss said he cannot speak for past UMSU and student association leaders, but that information from the past sometimes gets missed along the way. He claimed that he did not know about ASBC’s issues with funding until the council reached out to UMSU, and said he did not know if UMSU vice-president finance and operations Brook Rivard was aware of it last year.
However, Rykiss claimed that as soon as UMSU heard about the issue they immediately began looking into it. He said that any fees owed to U1SC would also be remitted.
He also said he could not speak for past fees as he was not involved in the process, and can’t speak to this year’s fees as he is not a part of the finance team.
When asked if he told U1SC not to work with the Canadian Federation of Students, Rykiss said he has told student associations it is their choice to work with whomever they want, but that the union does not work with the federation, and “we encourage people not to, because of the nature of the organization.”
However, Rykiss stressed that UMSU has no say in who student associations work with, or what their members vote for in the upcoming referendum.
“If someone disagrees with us, they are welcome to disagree with us,” he said. “It’s not a dictatorship, it’s a democracy.”
Rykiss said that transparency was one of the promises he ran on during his campaign, and he believes that he has lived up to it so far.
He said that any student is allowed to come to board meetings or attend UMSU executive office hours and speak about their concerns.
He added that executive office hours are public, and that he has given out his personal contact information to students. He also listed the UMSU Instagram as a way to connect.
“If people aren’t telling me that transparency still needs to be worked on, I am going to assume that people are happy,” Rykiss said.
Breaking down the numbers
In an email to the Manitoban, UMSU vice-president finance and operations Brook Rivard broke down the financials and provided a timeline for ASBC and U1SC funding.
UMSU is currently withholding $110,601.40 from ASBC, and $5,070.04 from U1SC. According to the email, the money is being withheld due to issues with reporting requirements.
Rivard said that in the absence of a completed register, “funds are held as a matter of policy.” He said this is also necessary for auditing and insurance purposes.
He said that UMSU is requesting financial documents from U1SC “to support the claim that [the amount stated as outstanding] is smaller than it should be, as it is possible in the changeover of our accountants something was missed.”
Preston said that following her and Toledo’s interview with the Manitoban, UMSU also told them that the amount they were owed was $5,070.04. Preston disagrees with this number.
Rivard said that initial current year funds are $65,831.46 for ASBC and $30,510.09 for U1SC. The owed amounts will be added to these totals and will be disbursed beginning in October. 50 per cent of the amount will be dispersed to each faculty association initially, followed by 25 per cent in mid-February and the final 25 per cent in April.
According to Rivard, as part of the general process for receiving funds, UMSU receives lump sum funding from the U of M registrar’s office for faculty associations, which comes from student fees. He said the union has not yet received the money, but is expecting to receive it this week.
He said that UMSU needs to adhere to this policy as a form of review and oversight. He acknowledged that the pandemic, constant turn over, extended time frames and a lack of updates has made it difficult to find older reports. For this reason, he said UMSU will be “making a one-time policy exception and paying out all outstanding balances.”
“This will allow us to start a clean slate with a revised process,” Rivard said. He added that the older outstanding balances will be rolled over to the current year, and will be disbursed based on the same 50/25/25 format.
Rivard added that to further address the noted problems, the union is revising and reviewing these processes, and will be meeting with the treasurers to hear any concerns they may have.
Dreilich-Girard stated in an email to the Manitoban reacting to Rivard’s comments that she was happy to hear that funds would be distributed to student clubs, and that all funds should be disbursed. She said that UMSU should implement more rigorous training for those in financial positions, so that similar issues do not arise in the future.
She believes issues with reporting in the past should have been mentioned to councils at the time so that they could have been provided instructions on how to fix them earlier. She pointed out that councils change every year, and argued that it makes no sense to punish current students by withholding funds from before their time.
Dreilich-Girard emphasized that UMSU’s priority should be to get funds into the hands of those who should have them.