Student leaders from leading research-intensive universities across the country gathered at the University of Manitoba last month for the GU15 conference to examine graduate students’ needs.
Hosted by the University of Manitoba Graduate Students’ Association (UMGSA), the event was held from Aug. 17-19 in the Engineering and Information Technology Complex on U of M’s Fort Garry campus.
Canada-wide delegates comprising the GU15 organization joined the UMGSA from the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University (SFU), University of Alberta, University of Calgary, University of Saskatchewan, McMaster University, University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, Université de Montréal, and Dalhousie University.
Created as a national graduate student organization, the GU15 operates in a similar capacity as the U15 does for the top Canadian comprehensive research universities.
UMGSA president Kristjan Mann commented on what he hopes the conference can achieve for the U of M.
“UMGSA’s participation is a unique and exciting opportunity at the U of M [for us to examine] time to completion, minimum student funding, and academic freedom,” said Mann.
“As a group, we hope to raise the concerns of our graduate communities to the national level.”
The group examined major graduate student issues including guidelines on time to completion, the impact on international students of changes to immigration laws, power imbalances in student-supervisor relations, and creating awareness about students’ responsibilities, rights, and advocacy services available to them.
In conjunction with student organizations across Canada, Université de Montréal proposed their politically motivated national election get-out-the-vote strategy. Other graduate students’ associations were less inclined to develop national voting strategies or take sides on election issues. Some schools ran similar campaigns to improve voter turnout, while others strictly maintained an official position of non-partisan neutrality on their respective campuses.
The University of Calgary Graduate Students’ Association represented one faction of executives refraining from moving in an acutely politicized direction, with their president offering “cautious optimism” about the long-term potential of the GU15 organization on that front.
Mike Webster, the Calgary union’s president, told the Gradzette that it is not a student organization’s place to take sides on issues not seen as directly student-related, as they are not elected to act as political advocacy groups.
“Unless you have a mandate from your membership for dealing with these issues, you shouldn’t be involved in them,” Webster said, referring to a separate movement aimed at pipeline expansion backed by executives at SFU. “It would be different if our students were clambering on us.”
In British Columbia, the SFU’s Graduate Students’ Society is opposed to the Kinder Morgan pipeline, condemning what they call a corruption of the environmental review process based on financial contributions to neighbouring universities in the province contingent on approval of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project.
Mann spoke to the room of delegates about supporting social justice issues on a case-by-base basis – if a portion of the student body were to raise a given social justice issue to the UMGSA, then support could be made possible.
Divided on the issue, attendees mostly agreed that student organizations should not take arbitrary sides on issues, but were far from a consensus about politically charged executive branches. Debate ensued about the role of student organizations in pursuing and advertising social justice campaigns, as opposed to responding to issues and supporting initiatives that might be within their purview.
The next GU15 conference will be hosted at the University of British Columbia, where delegates have committed to continue working on graduate student issues such as time to completion and minimum student funding.
This article was originally published in the Gradzette.