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Ryerson University – part of its campus seen here on Jan. 17, 2019 – announced Friday that it would be terminating its 34-year operating agreement with the Ryerson Students’ Union.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The Ryerson Students’ Union has turned to the courts to restore its funding and status after the university axed its operating agreement, saying the union had failed to comply with conditions following a financial scandal.

Ryerson University announced Friday that it would be terminating its 34-year operating agreement with the RSU over alleged fund mismanagement and internal conflict. In a precedent for student union autonomy in Canada, the RSU filed a legal claim against the Toronto school in an attempt to reverse the decision.

“We’re asking the court to require the university to comply with its contractual obligations,” RSU president Vanessa Henry said in a meeting Tuesday. The RSU claims this includes recognizing it as the elected student representative and releasing student fees collected by the school on the union’s behalf.

“The university is focused on encouraging and supporting our students in giving the development of a new student government some consideration,” Karen Benner, associate director of university communications, said in an e-mail.

Conflict between the two parties began during the 2018-19 school year, when the school’s newspaper, the Eyeopener, revealed credit card bills allegedly showing almost $275,000 worth of questionable expenses made using the union’s credit cards.

Following the allegations, Ryerson set three requirements for the RSU to meet: a forensic audit of the RSU’s finances, sharing the results with the university, and negotiating a new operating agreement. Until these conditions were met, the university said it would withhold fees collected from students that were designated for the RSU.

The school claims that because the RSU failed to meet the three conditions in a timely manner, it was forced to terminate the operating agreement.

Ms. Henry said the university had no authority to impose these requirements because the RSU is a separate entity from the university, and the school does not control or oversee its actions.

Though rare, this isn’t the first time a Canadian university has pulled support from its student union. In 2018, the University of Ottawa terminated its agreement with the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa over allegations of financial mismanagement, improper governance, internal conflict and workplace misconduct. A new group, the University of Ottawa Students’ Union, was formed in early 2019 following a university referendum.

Some Ryerson students who spoke to The Globe and Mail on Tuesday supported Ryerson’s decision to terminate its operating agreement with the RSU, but were concerned that student services provided by the RSU may suffer as a result.

“I think student advocacy is still important, but the RSU is not the body I want advocating for me right now,” said Yasmine Gray, a third-year student. She hoped the school would continue to fund services like the RSU’s food bank and sexual violence support centre.

The university said health and dental benefits would be covered until the end of the academic year, but the implications of the termination on other RSU services are unknown.

Others students felt blindsided by having no idea the RSU was in jeopardy to begin with.

“Be transparent with us because we want to know what’s going on,” said Christina Brady, a fourth-year student. She believes that if the RSU had been clear about the challenges it was facing, fewer students would be rallying for its closure. “We’re not going to blindly support something that we don’t understand,” she said.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford used the RSU financial scandal as a talking point in 2019 to support his Student Choice Initiative.

“I’ve heard from so many students who are tired of paying excessive fees, only to see them wasted and abused. That’s why we’re giving students the power to choose to pay for the campus services they actually use," Mr. Ford said in a tweet, linking to the CBC’s coverage of the scandal.

On Feb. 3, the RSU plans to share with students and the school a report on PricewaterhouseCoopers’ completed forensic audit results.

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