“The CSA should be non-partisan”… or should it?

We need to talk.

Before the pandemic started, one of the biggest news stories was the pipeline protesters on the Wet’suwet’en territory in B.C.

At the University of Guelph, a group of students who have been advocating for fossil fuel divestment for six years held a rally.

They timed the rally to correspond with a job recruitment fair happening in the main student building. At this job fair, the Central Student Association (CSA), served a letter to the RCMP and Canadian Armed Forces representatives who were there to talk about job opportunities for students.

The letter asked them to leave.

Unsurprisingly, this made some people upset.

A post made by an opposition group following the pro-Wet’suwet’en protest. Screenshot/Instagram

I spent seven years involved in student life on the University of Guelph campus. I saw the racist rhetoric that popped up when the CSA supported Black Lived Matter Toronto after the deaths of Andrew Loku and Jermaine Carby. I was around when a clown stood on campus waving the slogan “clown lives matter” on a cardboard sign, and I was around last semester when there was some public discourse about the Hong Kong protests via sanctioned vandalization.

People getting upset at the action of a student activist group is not a new thing. This time I’ve seen the rhetoric posted by a new group, an expected group, and an unexpected group.

Each time the CSA gets involved, no matter the circumstance, the same counter-argument is used, and this is what we need to talk about.

“Non-partisan student government,” said a U of G student Kendra Cornelissen in an Instagram comment.

The corresponding comment section. Screenshot/Instagram

We need to talk about what the word equity means to our post-secondary education system.

Student unions in Canada serve two specific roles. Depending on the size of the student body, they offer services to students that improve on the overall campus life. Some offer a foodbank, a bus pass, a legal help centre, or a safewalk program.

Their other function is to advocate on behalf of their membership, which for our CSA case study, is the undergraduate population.

Following the protest of the RCMP and CAF, a new group emerged calling themselves the “alternative_gryphon_union.”

Empowered by the Student Choice Initiative mandate from Winter 2019, students who do not agree with the “extreme-leftist ideologies” of the student union feel it is their place to squash the CSA’s mandate to advocate for all students.

Here’s what we’re talking about: the angry, empowered students don’t understand equity.
Not everyone is equal. The post-secondary education system in Canada is an exclusive club.
Being a student who does not come from a traditional upper-middle class background still makes them something other than ‘normal’.

In 2016, I received an email from a student who identified as marginalized. They were frustrated with an ad I sent out over the Arts-student listserv for an event called “coffee with a cop.” At the time I did not understand the abrasive tone of their email, but I decided to ask around and try to understand where that student was coming from.

A friend provided insight into the reality of institutionalized racism. We agreed that it was something I would probably never experience, but one that I could be aware of and do better to not perpetuate.

What people who are angry about the CSA’s stance on politics need to start understanding is that there are some students who do not need a stronger voice. Students who come from wealthy, upper-class backgrounds, whose parents went to university, and who aren’t paying tuition, are less likely to have a problem with police on campus or “out of their echo chamber campus into the real world,” as Reddit commenter seth349 put it.

A public art fixture on the U of G campus. One group painted “support our troops,” and someone edited it overnight. Screenshot/Reddit

When I see someone write that they believe a student union should be non-partisan, it tells me they do not understand the inherent inequity of the community they are a part of.

Students in the newfound alternative_gryphon_union need to understand their own privilege, the history of race relations in the country, and they need to view both of those things with a lens coloured by empathy and a willingness to listen.

We need to talk, they need to listen.

Written by
Jack Fisher

Jack Fisher is an independent journalist. He holds a BAH from the University of Guelph, and a post-graduate certificate from Sheridan College in journalism.
@Jack_Fisher_4 on Twitter and Instagram

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Written by Jack Fisher