An open letter to undergraduate students of the University of Manitoba

LettersToTheEditorGraphic by Evan Tremblay.

Throughout my six years at the University of Manitoba, these are the most important words I have written.

What is the purpose of our student union?

This has been an evolving concept for me. The conclusion I have come to, both as a student and your union president, is that the student experience is subjective. It is different for everyone. Our student union is a part of that experience, and therefore our conception of the purpose of the student union is coloured by that subjectivity.

Your passion might be social justice and perhaps you participate in campaigns on consent culture, mental health and wellness, or oil and gas divestment. You could enjoy going to socials and attending concerts. Maybe you cheer on our Bisons, play pool in IQ’s, like to have a drink at the Hub or grab a bite with friends at Degree’s. Many students are preoccupied with research projects, fieldwork, and practicums. Perhaps your ideal day is coming to class and then leaving as soon as possible.

Every student has different interests, different passions, and different lifestyles. These differences have a tremendous impact on our individual experience of being a student. We’re all here to get an education but that doesn’t mean our time here can’t or shouldn’t be enjoyed and supported in meaningful ways as we journey along our post-secondary education. It is UMSU’s job to provide meaningful support to its members, and its members have wide ranging interests and needs.

We are able to provide this support because our union is 101 years old and we have spent that time organizing and fighting for students’ rights on campus and carving out student-centric space both figuratively and literally.  UMSU has grown to be a multi-million-dollar organization with hundreds of employees and 26,000 members.

We occupy substantial physical space within the university, we run several businesses that serve our members and the university community at large, we provide advocacy and outreach services, lobby for student interests both at the university and governmental levels, provide a multitude of support services and funding for member and community initiatives, and a host of enrichment and leisure activities.

It is a lot to run, but it is our responsibility to maintain the infrastructure, programs, and services we have spent over a century developing for our members, and to do all of this while addressing the evolving needs of our union and its members.

However, every year there is a new team to lead the union and that can make it hard to build momentum for larger projects. Long-lasting and effective initiatives can often take years of building support, resources, and mobilizing. We are capable of so much, but often it is tough to create a lasting impact when a handful of university students only have one year to make a difference.

So this year we asked you, are we doing enough? Can UMSU be doing more to not only represent student needs, but also to maintain and grow what we have already built? After a long consultation process with student leaders, committees, town halls, and surveys, the answer was yes.

We have over three thousand student parents who do not have child care on campus. This does not include all those who could potentially enrol in post-secondary education if there were more options. We have a large and growing indigenous community that requires support to ensure access and success. We have undergraduate students who want to pursue academic projects and research in order to enhance their chances at an actual career in their field of study, but cannot due to limited funds. The physical space and infrastructure under UMSU control is deteriorating, which alienates us from the space we fought so hard paid so much to secure for our members.

To answer these challenges and tackle the priorities identified through consultation with our membership, UMSU council passed levies that will be allocated to these specific issues over the next ten years.

The new, per-semester levy will mean the following:

$9.42 towards an endowment that will fund our undergraduate student research across all faculties, so that we can participate in furthering human thought and create academic opportunities for our peers.

$4.53 towards a brand new child care facility that will have 72 student spots for the three thousand student-parents on the Fort Garry campus.

$9.42 towards an endowment that will provide financial support to indigenous students who have faced systemic barriers to accessing post-secondary education.

$6.60 towards renovating University Centre so you have more places to study, cheaper and healthier food options, and a comfortable place to meet up with your friends and create community.

Enshrining $2.00 of existing funding into formal fees for our UMSU service groups: the Rainbow Pride Mosaic, Womyn’s Centre, Aboriginal Students’ Association, and the Accessibility Centre; centres that provide essential services and safe spaces for self-identifying members of marginalized communities.

These initiatives represent a way for our organization to address the needs of our members and the financial gaps that prevent us from addressing them collectively.

The governing documents of our union and the laws of the province of Manitoba were created to allow our council, as your representatives, to adjust student fees. You have elected us with the duty to act as your representatives. It was not a decision that was made lightly and the motion was passed with support of 93 per cent of councillors in favour. Support for these initiatives was also demonstrated loud and clear by the over 3000 students who participated in our public consultation process.  With this show of support, your representatives acted in their capacity and in the best interest of students, as they were elected to do. They made a decision that was, in no truer sense of the words, by students, for students.

I want to be clear about something – we did not take this motion to a referendum for a number of reasons. First, given the size and nature of the commitments, and their importance in addressing the needs of our members, putting this matter to a vote during the general election would have subjected these critical collective initiatives to the competing personal interests of electoral politics. These matters should not be held hostage to the polarizing rhetoric generated in a general election.

Second, there is funding from the provincial government for these initiatives that will cease to be available when the provincial election (April 19) begins. Finally, the amount of time and work that is required to implement these commitments is so great, that if we held off until the March election, they would have died on the table.

Enacting these initiatives does not mean that the issues they address will be completely resolved. Indeed, there are parallel efforts that must be engaged as well such as lobbying to address generalized funding shortfalls in post-secondary education. Those efforts have been the constant preoccupation of the union for quite some time. This year, however, we have chosen to acknowledge that those efforts, as important as they are, have not succeeded in addressing acute and persistent needs that are long overdue for serious attention.

That is why it is part of UMSU’s governing documents that we maintain a good working relationship with the university. Sometimes we have to work with university to implement programs that benefit our members. Through co-operation, we are able to achieve benefits for our membership in ways and on timelines that we could not possibly accomplish alone.

But lobbying the university will only get us so far. As a result of operating in a resource-constrained environment in which all stakeholders do not agree on financing priorities, we as a student union rely heavily upon the strength of our collective membership to drive change and dialogue. Sometimes we have to stand on our own two feet to make things happen – and with 26,000 of us in our membership, those numbers make a big difference. If we harness the passion, creativity, and activism of our membership, we are able to achieve societal benefit that we could not possibly accomplish alone.

As students, we are most effective when we organize and come together as a collective to fight for what is necessary in our community.

I will not be running again in this year’s election. This means, that every last second of my time as UMSU president will be spent ensuring that the work of this year’s council creates the meaningful change it was intended to: helping single-parents who rely on child-care and indigenous students who have overcome systemic barriers to attend university; enabling students from all faculties to undertake their own research; and giving every student who passes through the heart of our campus a hub for socializing, learning, and community-building.

These are parts of our education and university community that make our time here matter, but they are only possible if we work together. There is an incredible breadth of experience and diversity on our campus. It is what makes the University of Manitoba so special.

Though we come from different backgrounds and walk different paths of life, we cannot afford to divide ourselves by faculty, demographic, or individual interest. By rallying around issues of collective, societal importance, and refusing to be segregated by the short-term political ambitions of those seeking office during an election season, we will ensure that the rights and interests of students – especially those from marginalized communities – are protected in the long term.

There is a part for each and every one of us to play in a more inclusive and accessible university. That is why UMSU has been successful for over one hundred years in fighting for students and it is what will determine our success in the future. I thank you, fellow students, for joining me as we move forward together.


Jeremiah Kopp

UMSU President