Representation of the loudest

By Samantha Thompson, Columnist

The CSU has an operating budget of almost $550,000 per year. Most of that money comes from fees paid by you, the student. This money is spent on a variety of things, covering everything from services and CFS membership fees to advocacy campaigns. Unfortunately, there is an inherent issue with a students’ union funding advocacy campaigns: somehow, they have to decide which issues deserve advocacy. As the money being spent on these issues is a combination of fees paid by all the members, the issues advocated for on behalf of these members should reflect that. But try finding an issue that 7,000 students support on the same side, and you’re searching for the near impossible.

Students are assumed by many to be progressive. Many are also “leftists” and activists. After all, at any protest many of the faces around you will resemble something that looks like a student. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), while serving as a connecting organization between many students’ unions in Canada, is very much a progressive group that focuses on activism and advocacy. They have campaigns on everything from reducing tuition fees and banning bottled water, to awareness about date rape and copyright laws.

Statistics Canada reported in 2003 that 58 per cent of those aged between 22 to 29 engaged in at least one non-voting political activity (signing petitions, boycotting products, etc). That leaves 42 per cent who have not, and it seems that those who are not necessarily “activists” are typically underrepresented by their students’ unions, yet are still required to pay fees.

Despite advocacy to celebrate diversity and move forward together for a better, brighter future, taken on by groups like the CFS, there is an overwhelming sense of oppression of the minority within the student movement. The truth is, some students are pro-life, and some are pro-choice. Some students support the G20 meetings, others do not. Some support banning bottled water, others believe that we simply need to focus on our studies.

So who is right? Which group of students is actually progressive? Which students deserve to be represented?

Look at the spending of students’ unions across the country, and the answer becomes clear. While some students may feel that advocacy is not the job of a students’ union, advocacy is in fact an important part of what students’ unions do. Much advocacy work is done to work to eliminate things like racism and homophobia, and promote gender equality – things that are necessary and unarguably progressive within our society. However, there are more controversial campaigns, like that of the G20 and bottled water, which do not necessarily have the support of all students. What they do have, however, is the support of the students with the loudest voices. Students who have a harder time speaking up are shut down and deemed to be “apathetic.” Yet apathy always has a source.

If I didn’t support what my students’ union was advocating for, I’d be out of luck. If they are advocating to ban bottled water on campus and I personally believe that bottled water is an important part of our economy, I become less represented by my students’ union than some of my fellow students. In spite of this, I’m still paying fees to the students’ union, and have little to no choice in the matter, as many students’ unions lack an “opt-out” option.

Take the UBC Okanagan Students’ Union (UBCSUO) recent expenditure on advocacy, for example. Its president, Grayson Lepp, and services coordinator Kirk Chavarie were arrested for conspiracy to commit mischief during the G20 protests in Toronto last summer – allegedly because of CFS materials found in their bags. They were sent to Toronto on behalf of the UBCSUO executive to protest alongside the CFS, steelworkers and nursing unions of Ontario to rally for accessible post-secondary education, women’s maternity rights and aboriginal rights. They were arrested while sleeping in a gym at the University of Toronto, alongside 100 other people. Despite the fact that their charges were dropped in October, they decided to pursue a public inquiry into what happened, with the support of Don Davies, NDP Public Safety Critic.

Although flying to Toronto to participate in an access to education rally wouldn’t normally ruffle the feathers of too many people, The Peak, the student newspaper at SFU, reported that the trip was approximately 75 per cent funded by UBCSUO. According to Lepp, the UBCSUO has funds allocated in its budget to send representatives to events, which provide an opportunity to voice the rights and concerns of students. You now have two student executives flying across the country to participate in a CFS rally on the dime of its members – and this rally arguably had little benefit to the students in BC. It is much more logical for students in Ontario to participate in a rally in Toronto, as the travel fees are significantly lower and the overall outcome would be the same. In fact, if the charges against Lepp and Chavarie had not been dropped, it is likely the student’s union would also be paying the legal fees. The money used to send Lepp and Chavarie to Toronto could have been used to organize a similar rally in BC, with similar allies as those in Ontario. Holding a rally in BC would have given the opportunity to their members to get involved and have a more direct role in the activities of their students’ union.

Regardless of the subjective definition of “progressive,” we are still left with an unsettling question: what should students’ union’s fees be used for? Services, obviously. And advocacy? Sure. Unfortunately, the statistics suggest that many students are not politically motivated – yet they are still providing financial support so that others can advocate for various issues. This becomes an even greater issue when these students are funding advocacy on issues that they do not personally support. As much of the politics within students’ unions are related to what they should or should not support, there is a strong chance that a students’ union could be more effective if they left advocacy to non-profits and non-governmental organizations that are not being funded by students who are required to pay fees.

However, while this may be a viable option, it is not actually the direction students’ unions should take.

We can’t ignore that there are students who are not activists, and who do not want to see their dollars be spent on what others have deemed “the greater good.” Simultaneously, we can’t ignore the fact that there are also students who want to advocate for things like environmental sustainability and social justice. Student fees will be best spent when opportunity is equally given to both sides of the spectrum to have their voices heard, and have their opinions matter. Although this is a difficult task to take on, it must be done if students’ unions want to have the support of all their members, not just the members who happen to be screaming at the frontlines.

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