Four student representatives, including the Student Union Society (SUS) president Gurvir “G” Gill, had the opportunity this December to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa to advocate for a defined sexual violence prevention policy standard at universities across Canada.
The students are members of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) and the Quebec Student Union (QSU), who perform advocacy work and provide resources for student union [groups] across Canada. Gill sits on the board at CASA as the director of membership.
“It was a pretty unique, interesting experience,” Gill said. “I’ve never met someone so high up in any government, so [I felt] really a little starstruck.”
“It was really cool to be part of that meeting and have a chance to not just interact with [Trudeau] one-on-one, but to be able to lobby him as well.”
The meeting was part of the group’s advocacy week, where representatives from the associations meet to sit down with representatives in Ottawa. This year, the group met with 145 ministers, members of Parliament, senators, post-secondary stakeholders, and the prime minister.
Several broad areas were brought up for discussion in Ottawa. The first was the creation of a standard for sexual violence prevention policies at universities. There is no current federally mandated standard or minimum for sexual violence policies, and most universities have their own varying policy.
There is already intention to create a national framework, with the 2018 federal budget stating $5.5 million will be allotted over five years for the creation of a “harmonized national framework” to address gender-based violence. The government has also stated that starting in 2019, federal funding may be removed from any university not “implementing best practices” concerning sexual violence.
Gill acknowledged that the process is already in motion for the creation of a framework by a third-party working group, but said CASA wanted to advocate for a more structured standard.
“This was already a little bit in motion, but there’s ways to make it better,” Gill said. “Creating a framework versus a standard is two different things. One’s a bit more loose end, and standards, they’re more rigid and that’s something that we want.”
In addition to the sexual violence policy, CASA advocated for a number of other topics relating to Canadian students. For international students, CASA advocated that students on a study permit be allowed to take on full-time internship and co-op positions; something they are currently not able to do. They also advocated for exceptions to be considered under Article 91 for international students trying to navigate the immigration system with the help of university staff. Currently, only authorized individuals can provide advice on immigration matters, which does not include post-secondary staff.
CASA also advocated for extending the Work Integrated Learning program to include all students, not just those in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and for the federal government to either invest $55.9 million in grants towards student programs, or reallocate research funds so student-based research would be funded at the level it was in 2011.
The SUS has been a member of CASA since 2008, and is one of four universities in the association from B.C.: Graduate Student Society UBC Vancouver, Capilano Students’ Union, and Camosun College Student Society being the other three. The association has 23 members and represents 280,000 students across Canada.
The advocacy work comes at a cost though: CASA’s fee is dependent on the number of full-time equivalents (FTEs) in a society’s membership, or the amount of full-time students UFV would have if the current students’ course loads were added up. With around 7,000 FTEs in 2017/2018 at UFV, the SUS pays a fee of $3.12 per FTE. This totaled over half of their advocacy budget for the 2017/2018 fiscal year, or $27,000.
CASA is the only advocacy organization the SUS is a member of. Several years ago, they left the British Columbia Federation of Students (BCFS) after having been one of the founding members. Gill said, however, that the SUS still participates in the group’s advocacy although they don’t pay a fee.
He added that while they are not currently part of the group, the SUS board is in favour of joining a provincial student union alliance, but joining an external group would need to be done through a referendum or at an Annual General Meeting (AGM).
“So that’s something we’re slowly working towards, to joining a provincial group,” Gill said.
“We’ll still be working with these groups. Proper next step would be to ask the membership to give us that permission to [join].”
Image: UFV SUS/Facebook