By UMSU Executive Committee
During the first half of 2019/2020, UMSU’s centennial year, we focused on two things: building upon a number of different advocacy initiatives that began the year before, and making UMSU more engaged with and responsive to the needs of its members and stakeholders. In the second half of our term we continued to improve upon these areas while also building a stronger UMSU community, pushing for more action against sexual violence and enhancing student democracy. We were also faced with the unexpected and unprecedented challenges that come with a worldwide pandemic. It’s been quite the year to say the least – there was even a fire!
Through it all, here is what we achieved together.
UMSU welcomed students back to campus in January with a variety of programming and campaigns. This included free breakfasts and lunches at Fort Garry and Bannatyne campuses, the return of Clubs Fest, and was capped off with the year’s second Mental Health Week at the end of the month. This second campaign had an increased focus on workshops and events such as HAVEN, Movies for Mental Health and Self Care for Caregivers on the Bannatyne campus. However, that was just the beginning of the ways in which we came together as an UMSU community.
In recognition of the talent and ambition within our membership, UMSU brought on three paid student research assistants for the winter term, selecting student-proposed projects examining housing and tenant rights, support services for Indigenous learners and ways to implement ethical purchasing practices in all UMSU businesses beginning with UMCycle. UMSU will build off the knowledge and insight generated by these projects through adapting them into targeted advocacy campaigns and services in 2020/2021. Stay tuned for the next round of research assistant openings this Fall.
In addition, for the first time ever UMSU launched an executive job shadowing program to allow students the opportunity to get an inside look at a day in the life of an UMSU executive. Those who participated were able to attend meetings and events and learn the ins-and-outs of governing UMSU, a $16 million organization and one of Canada’s leading student unions. We’re happy to hear this program will be brought back next year.
Town hall assembly-style meetings for the Community Initiative Funding – another new measure introduced last term – also carried on, with student groups and representatives from the 2SLGBTQ+, international, Indigenous, accessibility and mature/part-time student communities able to discuss their priorities for the remainder of 2019/2020. This was the pilot year for this updated format for determining how UMSU can best support student community initiatives and we want to thank everyone that took part. We look forward to seeing our successors improve and streamline the process going forward so that more students can access this funding and put on their own student-led events and programming.
As February rolled around, UMSU celebrated Black History Month under the theme ‘The Future is Black’. Our choice was inspired by the federal government’s theme of Canadians of African Descent: Going Forward, Guided by the Past, which itself stems from the United Nations’ commitment to making 2015-2024 a decade of international celebration of people of African descent. Throughout the month we hosted events with UMSwing, ran a social media campaign highlighting Black world leaders and decorated campus with various inspiring art displays crafted by students.
Then, as midterms arrived, UMSU partnered with the Science Students’ Association, Bumble, and Nimbus Tutoring to provide students with snacks and tutoring services to equip them to take on their exams. For those looking for some escapism instead, UMSU put on ‘Moose Night’, where over 5,000 students attended a Manitoba Moose game at the Bell MTS Centre with their friends free of charge. In addition, we ran a variety of giveaways and deals for students throughout the term. Some of these partnerships included a Reading Week deal for students to attend a Jets game, contests with Bumble and Ignite Cycle & Strength, free movie passes for students and more.
In an effort to make UMSU services more accessible to our members going forward, we also pledged that UMSU would create a comprehensive UMSU Group Guide showcasing all of the services we offer to students. This guide is expected to launch in Fall 2020.
Amid all of this, we never lost sight of UMSU’s central principle – to advocate for the interests of post-secondary students.
First and foremost, learning requires a safe and secure environment, one where toxic cultures are confronted and necessary support is given to those who have been harmed either physically or emotionally. In that regard, this year started with a major milestone. The Sexual Violence Resource Centre (SVRC) – the U of M’s first ever dedicated space for sexual violence disclosure, response, education and resources – opened its doors on Fort Garry campus on January 27. The space was made possible by $250,000 in university support, funding that came as a direct result of UMSU advocacy over the past 18 months.
And the effort continues. One of UMSU’s recommendations for the university’s upcoming budget is to increase funding for the SVRC to expand its services to all U of M campuses. Meanwhile, UMSU will continue to find ways to work hand-in-hand with the SVRC to ensure all students are aware of the resources offered to survivors and the broader campus community.
A related priority for us this term was to provide further consent culture and Bringing in the Bystander training to our staff at the Hub Social Club. We urge future executive teams to extend this training to all part-time and full-time UMSU staff. Plus, keep a look out in Fall 2020 when, alongside Justice For Women, we will release our latest colouring book and sexual violence resource guide.
UMSU continued to lobby for change through holding separate meetings with both Manitoba’s minister of economic development and training, Ralph Eichler, and his opposition critic on the same file, NDP MLA Jamie Moses. We delivered detailed policy proposals on the need to adjust freedom of information regulations to improve institutional transparency for sexual assault survivors; create a public buy-in option for international student health care; and help fund the creation and adoption of open educational resources and a publicly available credit transfer database through expanding operational grants for Campus Manitoba.
On the heels of those efforts, UMSU executives joined their counterparts from across the country to take part in the federal lobby week of the Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities (UCRU), a coalition representing over 250,000 students from some of Canada’s largest research universities. They convened in Ottawa to lobby elected members of parliament on recommendations for how to improve our post-secondary system. This included a proposal for how to better retain international students as highly-skilled members of the Canadian workforce; ideas for how to expand paid research opportunities for undergraduate students; suggestions for supporting Indigenous learners who want to earn their degrees; and ways to increase student affordability and financial aid for those most in need. Altogether over a dozen student leaders from UCRU conducted a coordinated advocacy blitz that secured valuable facetime with more than 70 MPs, including cabinet ministers and their staff.
Finally, in March we submitted four budget recommendations to the University Budget Advisory Committee during its deliberations for the U of M’s 2020/2021 budget. Alongside requesting additional funding for the SVRC as mentioned, our asks included more funding for on-campus counselling services to help students with their mental health, the renewal of the international student hardship relief fund, and a financial commitment from the university toward planning for a net-zero carbon emissions future at the U of M.
Not to be lost in all this was how UMSU’s Vice President Student Life played a key role on the U of M’s inaugural Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, which conducted a variety of student consultations in conjunction with UMSU. These consultations gave students the opportunity to share their feedback on their experiences with how the university is shaping a diverse and equitable campus for all.
However, in an odd twist, the year’s most intense advocacy fight was not over winning commitments to new funding or services, but rather struggling to preserve the U-Pass, an existing service with obvious benefits.
When it comes to standing up against the accelerating climate emergency, the U-Pass program is a prime example of a small, but integral solution. Nearly two-thirds of students are daily U-Pass users, and between 80-90 per cent use it to a lesser degree during their terms. On any given day during term time the U-Pass program takes thousands of cars off our streets. We also know that students using transit are more likely to be within the lowest income brackets; if the U-Pass was removed, these students would have to pay over $250 more each year for transit service – nearly as much as the cost of an additional course.
As the first U-Pass contract expired in 2019, its renewal came with both opportunity and concern. The City of Winnipeg’s decision to accommodate the expansion of the program to include Red River College in a renewed contract – the expansion of the program an evident testament to its need and success – meant that UMSU’s continued membership would come at a greater expense to students.
In January, the UMSU Board of Directors voted to give students three options in a referendum, empowering them to make their own decision on the fate of the U-Pass: continued enrolment at a higher price per student, dropping out of the U-Pass program or continued enrolment with a higher, voluntary rise in price to cover a proposed summer extension. The referendum, held in mid-February, saw a record turnout for any vote in UMSU’s 100-year history, with 78 per cent of voters casting their ballot in favour of preserving the U-Pass even at the new, higher rate.
However, despite the referendum result showing students’ desire for re-enrolment – and an UMSU survey in January finding 81 per cent of students believe that the U-Pass program is important for improving Winnipeg’s environmental sustainability – when the city released its proposed budget in March, the U-Pass was initially cut.
Shocked, but not deterred, we immediately got to work by collaborating with students across the city to protest the change and lobby city councillors to reverse their decision. Joint action led to some 16,000 signatures on a petition, 70 UMSU members signing up to speak at hearings at City Hall, and a financial analysis of the City’s proposed budget that found a $4.3 million mistake in their calculations of the overall cost of the U-Pass. This last finding was crucial, because it shredded the basis of City Council’s decision to cut the U-Pass program, which they claimed was too much of a drain on city coffers to maintain. These actions ultimately lead the City to reinstate the program at a $200 per term rate, which was accepted by the UMSU board on March 26. U-Pass saved.
In recognition of how our lives and prosperity are intertwined with those around us, we also made sure to ally with other social justice movements locked in overarching struggles for peace, sustainability and Indigenous rights.
On March 4, UMSU joined in the national student walk out in support of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, demanding that the RCMP and Coastal GasLink withdraw from sovereign Wet’suwet’en territory immediately. UMSU booked a bus and brought students down to the walk out to show our solidarity with the Unist’ot’en camp, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and Indigenous land protectors across turtle Island including the incredible activists in Winnipeg. UMSU’s Board of Trustees also officially committed to divest any financial interest from fossil fuels and weapons manufacturing companies. This is a major step and will ensure UMSU as an organization is fully divested in the near future. We look forward to pressing the U of M to do the same.
With an eye on the future, March also played host to elections that saw UMSU’s new executive team and community representatives selected.
New to this year’s elections was a successful non-partisan ‘Why I Vote’ student mobilization campaign to encourage students to vote, while also highlighting why every vote matters. The office of the CRO also introduced the first ever online town hall-style forum through UMFM. This question and answer debate among candidates utilized UMFM’s new 360-degree camera, giving students the opportunity to scroll around the room to see all the candidates from the comfort of their own homes, notably improving student participation in the election process.
And, as promised, through participatory budgeting UMSU let Fort Garry students decide how to spend $20,000 of our budget and Bannatyne students decide on $10,000. The former voted in favour of $20,000 being split equally between scholarships and bursaries and mental health resources; the latter opted for $10,000 to go towards scholarships and bursaries specifically for Bannatyne students. Next year’s executive team is keen on continuing to give students a voice in how their member fees are spent – keep an eye out for details.
And then, the world forever changed.
On March 12, provincial health authorities announced Winnipeg’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, the lethal respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus that has swept across the globe and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in a matter of months. Within days the U of M campus was closed, and by late March UMSU made the immensely difficult decision to shutter its businesses as a precaution to keep our employees and customers safe.
From there we pivoted to how to best aid students through an unprecedented crisis. UMSU advocacy was vital in persuading the university to offer a $1.2 million relief fund that was tapped out after the first 48 hours saw 2,000 students apply. The university plans to re-open this fund once concerted efforts help to replenish it.
Our tireless efforts engaging university administration also secured a pass/fail grading option for students, as well as a six month suspension of provincial student loan repayments. We also created a detailed resource guide for students to help them cope with all the academic disruption, and worked with UCRU and other national and local student advocacy organizations to establish a national student survey on concerns over the exclusion of students from the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit. This feedback ultimately formed the basis of the federal government’s decision to create the Canadian Emergency Student Benefit alongside other measures as part of a $9 billion student aid package that was passed in the House of Commons on April 29.
Throughout this confusing time, we have tried our best to help students adjust to their new reality.
We brought back our wellness campaigns to highlight how students can practice social, emotional, physical and intellectual wellness. Tips and suggestions for each dimension were featured across all of our social media platforms. With social distancing in place we also worked to ensure all students had access to tutoring from home by funneling all our tutoring services through the Nimbus Tutoring app. Our 2020 Sustainability Week also migrated online, offering among other things a series of articles showing that a tiny silver lining within the pandemic has been evidence of ecosystems around the world healing themselves given the sudden halt in human activity.
UMSU itself has also taken concrete steps toward a more sustainable future. As part of Sustainability Week we committed to net zero emissions in all our businesses by the year 2050. And at its final meeting of the 2019/2020 year, our Board of Directors approved a sweeping sustainability mandate for the organization. It includes 21 calls to action for UMSU to work on in coming years, including the hiring of a full-time sustainability manager; tying funding opportunities for students groups to a sustainable events guide; increased composting on campus for both pre- and post-consumer organic waste; the endorsement of UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and several other crucial initiatives. A huge thank you goes out to all those on the Sustainability Working Group who made this possible.
Then, just before the end of term we received word on the final outcome of the U of M’s Front and Centre Campaign – a whopping $626 million donated from some 62,000 individuals in 48 different countries. Launched in 2015, the fundraising campaign has made a very real impact in supporting Indigenous achievements, undergraduate research, student child care, and improving our UMSU University Centre building. We look forward to UMSU collaborating with the U of M on how to help put that money toward the best use for students both in the short term and years to come.
Looking back, it has been an absolute pleasure and honour to serve each and every one of UMSU’s 25,000 student members during this past year. Being granted the privilege of engaging student issues from a position of leadership has been something that none of us will ever forget.
In his last column for The Manitoban, outgoing UMSU President Jakob Sanderson neatly summed it up for the five of us: “We need those who speak for us to speak with us and to understand us. No person can resonate with all the challenges of the people they represent. But I do believe that acknowledging your own hardships — and admitting what you don’t and can’t know — is the best start in finding out.”
We wish you all a well-deserved, safe and happy summer, and can’t wait until our paths cross again in the future.
– UMSU Executive Commitee, 2019/2020