By UMSU Executive Committee
During the first half of 2019/2020, UMSU’s centennial year, we’ve been focused on two things: building on a number of different advocacy initiatives that have been underway since last year, and making UMSU more engaged with and responsive to the needs of its members and stakeholders going forward. Here’s what we’ve achieved so far.
This year began with two major wins for students. Released in May, the university’s 2019-20 operating budget contained an extra $500,000 in funding for undergraduate bursaries – a large portion dedicated to international students in financial hardship due to the province’s decision to strip them of health care coverage – and $250,000 towards a sexual violence resource and support centre on Fort Garry campus, due to open in January 2020. Both issues were a major focus of UMSU’s advocacy efforts in 2018-2019.
Further progress on sexual violence came in September, when the university publicly committed to upholding 43 recommendations of an independent review on its sexual violence policy. Arguably no other issue has tarnished our campus environment more in the past several years. That is why UMSU has worked tirelessly to push for urgent action, by consulting student groups, activists, community organizations and the university administration; and conducting our own independent research and analysis of progressive sexual violence campus policies elsewhere in Canada.
All that work is paying dividends. On top of soon opening the centralized sexual violence resource and support centre, and accepting the recommendations from the independent review, the university has also agreed to include all but one of UMSU’s 15 proposed changes to its new stronger, more transparent sexual violence policy. This includes a ban on faculty-student relationships wherein a power imbalance exists, the elimination of a capped time period for reporting and recognition of the need to take intersectionality into account in disclosure and support processes.
In doing so, the university is finally taking the right steps to address sexual violence by listening to student and survivor voices. Moving forward, UMSU will continue to push for those voices to be included in the university’s implementation process for its new Respectful Workplace and Learning Environment (RWLE) and Sexual Violence policies.
We also hit the ground running to get prepared for what, by spring time, had become Manitoba’s worst kept secret: an impending provincial election in fall. As of early July we were already lobbying each of Manitoba’s political parties on 10 key priorities for post-secondary students in the province as identified through extensive student consultation.
These lobbying efforts included face-to-face meetings with NDP and Liberal party leaders and submitting a detailed policy recommendation package to all parties on our core five asks – increased funding for Campus Manitoba to improve adoption of open source learning materials; maintaining the provincial program offering zero-interest student loans; the reinstatement of international student health care and Access program funding; and returning university operating grants to pre-2017 levels. Both the Manitoba Liberals and NDP have directly credited UMSU’s research and advocacy as having contributed to their policy platforms, both for the campaign period and going forward as opposition to the re-elected Pallister government.
On the heels of Manitoba’s September election, we shifted our focus toward the federal elections in October. In conjunction with the Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities (UCRU), UMSU joined 46 other student unions, representing some 900,000 students, in releasing a national letter pushing federal party leaders for action on three key priorities for students across the country: eliminating interest on federal student loans and increasing grants for post-secondary students; creating high-quality jobs and work-integrated learning opportunities; and increasing support for Indigenous students while implementing the calls of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Here locally, UMSU ran an energetic Get Out the Vote campaign, and on October 3, we also hosted one of the 100 Debates on the Environment held across the country, with local MP candidates debating environmental issues as well as other student concerns such as sexual violence, mental health, financial aid, and funding for post-secondary institutions.
Parallel to our elections advocacy, we also extended our support to other groups fighting for their own causes aligned with UMSU member interests.
In August, alongside the U of M Indigenous Students’ Association (UMISA) and UMISA Womxn’s Council, we demanded that the University of Manitoba withdraw its support for the construction of the thirty metre telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which is considered sacred Indigenous land. We raised the issue directly with the Student Experience Committee, co-signed a national letter opposing the project, and issued our own letter to University President David Barnard in conjunction with the co-presidents of UMISA.
In September, UMSU’s board of directors took a decisive stand to support the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 (ATU) during their labor dispute with the City of Winnipeg. UMSU’s membership is the largest bloc of transit riders in Winnipeg, and weeks after throwing our support behind the ATU, the City reached a deal with transit workers.
That same month, UMSU joined student associations and student unions across the province as part of the #HealthHasNoBorders campaign, calling for the reinstatement of health care coverage for the 18,000 international students in Manitoba in recognition of the huge economic, cultural and academic value they contribute to our province every year. The campaign generated some 800 signed letters that were sent to Manitoba’s premier and health minister.
However, throughout this whole time we also made sure to not lose sight of our responsibility to show leadership on student issues here on campus.
This year’s board has created four separate policy-focused working groups. We struck UMSU’s first ever Indigenous Students’ Working Group to investigate key Indigenous issues on campus in consultation and collaboration with Indigenous students to identify ways that both UMSU and the university can further prioritize reconciliation. We also struck the second iteration of the Mental Health working group to examine current mental health services and resources on campus and compare them with those of other universities to create UMSU’s inaugural mental health strategy. Lastly, we renewed and expanded the mandate of the Participatory Budget working group and UMSU’s Sustainability working group (SWG). The SWG was established in 2018/19 to devise ways in which both UMSU and the university community can contribute to local, provincial, national and global efforts to address climate breakdown.
The accelerating climate crisis is arguably the greatest existential challenge our society will face in our lifetimes. It is something we can no longer pretend is a future event – it is unfolding before our eyes, right now. In September, UMSU’s board passed a motion declaring a climate emergency and demanding the university follow suit. Given the economic and institutional clout and public responsibility the U of M has within Manitoba, we will continue to press the university administration to lead by example by committing to a 50 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050, supplying a definitive step-by-step plan on how it will meet these targets.
The SWG has also played a key role in promoting climate strike actions on campus in line with the Global Climate Strike on September 27, organizing a campus clean up in October and heavily influencing the university’s 2019-2023 sustainability strategy. Under our leadership, multiple task forces have also been created to work on an array different projects including a campus greenhouse, research into zero emissions pathways and sustainable purchasing promotions, and put forward student proposals on how to incorporate geothermal or solar power into the U of M energy system.
We are also collaborating with the university on lobbying the City of Winnipeg to construct a pipeline to funnel biogas from the Brady Landfill to the Fort Garry campus in order to use this ostensible waste product as a primary fuel source. Multiple studies have shown this would be the most affordable renewable energy source locally available to the university and generate massive economic and environmental benefits. We look forward to assisting in this lobbying effort along with the U of M Graduate Students’ Association (UMGSA).
In addition, we have taken strides to broaden the recognition and involvement of students in the union and elsewhere. We’ve created student research assistant positions to offer students paid work-learning experience opportunities; established a new association for students in Community Health Studies and Science; and streamlined the process of student clubs and student associations receiving Co-Curricular Record for the volunteer hours that they put it at their various organizations. We’ve also consulted the Inner City Students’ Council and University 1 Students’ Council (U1SC) on ways to update and strengthen their constitutions – and in the case of U1SC, establish their own standalone endowment fund to finance scholarships and special projects.
In addition, in September UMSU gave out five awards during its first ever Student Club Appreciation Ceremony, recognizing endless hours of volunteer work student club members put in to building the campus environment in the areas of culture, advocacy, academics, athletics and social activities. Nominations will be opening in January for the second round of awards, with a club transition and wrap up towards the end of winter term.
Meanwhile, we have continued to expand on professional development training for student leaders, with workshops offering training in cross-cultural interaction, mental health peer support, consent culture and conflict management. For the first time, we also combined our Executive and board retreats into a single day as a cost-saving measure.
Furthermore, changes to community initiative funding have come with the added aspect of new monthly town hall meetings, where community members from the Womyn’s, international students, LGBTQ2S+, Accessibility, and Indigenous students communities are able to come together to discuss priorities for spending on community initiatives with their respective representatives.
We have also made a conscious effort to communicate better with our membership using technology.
We unveiled the new @studentsofumsu Instagram account – a parallel channel to UMSU’s other social media accounts focusing more exclusively on showcasing the lives and stories of students, and offering students the chance to participate in takeovers and contribute photography.
In October, we rolled out UMSU’s first ever comprehensive digital annual member survey to allow you, our members, to voice your opinion on UMSU’s programming, businesses and service offerings. A massive thank you to everyone that participated. The feedback we got was invaluable, and has provided a roadmap for both current and future executive teams to create services and launch initiatives to enhance both the learning and social experience of all UMSU members during their time at the University of Manitoba.
In addition, the roll out of the UMSU News page on our website has created a central hub to keep up with UMSU’s advocacy efforts, announcements from the UMSU community, developments related to post-secondary education in Canada and to read thought leadership essays from the Executive team on important issues of interest.
However, we also haven’t forgotten to be self-reflective and look critically at the structure and effectiveness of the union’s governing documents and the board of directors.
Over summer, we began a detailed line-by-line technical review of the union’s cumbersome Governance and Operations Manual, looking for ways to remove redundancies that have hindered UMSU operations through adding unnecessary administrative burdens or unreasonable stipulations on decision-making. Making those changes will improve UMSU’s agility as an organization, and will make our governing documents more transparent to all our members. Meanwhile, in November, UMSU’s board of directors met its obligation of serving members in a visionary, forward-looking capacity by approving the appointment of an external governance consultant with decades of experience in non-profit organizations to conduct a comprehensive review of the board’s structure and effectiveness.
Amid all of this work, we have also managed to put on huge variety of programming over the past several months, beginning with UMSU taking proactive measures to be included in the U of M’s Making The Grade introduction to university event in July, which saw nearly 1,000 incoming students attend a session to hear more about UMSU, what the union provides and how they can get involved.
September kicked-off with the launch of a revamped GPA’s store – its first renovation in 20 years – and Orientation week – including free breakfasts at both Bannatyne and Fort Garry and beverage gardens on campus – followed by Frosh Fest, Clubs Fest, Student Financial Awareness Week and Healthy Sexuality Week. That was followed up in October by Mental Health Week and a sold-out Malpractice social.
October also saw UMSU put on the first ever #OpenUpUofM campaign focused on raising awareness of open educational resources (OERs) among students and faculty alike. During this week we brought together representatives from UMSU, the Digital Print and Design Centre, the U of M libraries, Book Store, U of M administration and Campus Manitoba to focus on ways to integrate OERs into U of M curriculums as a means to vastly improve student affordability.
UMSU research this past February found that the average first year student taking a 30-hour credit load consisting of some of the top 10 most applicable courses at the U of M spends nearly $1,700 on textbooks in their initial year of university. This is a clear financial barrier to post-secondary education being affordable and accessible. It’s something that UMSU has lobbied the U of M administration and provincial government on, and will continue to work on in the new year, with the goal of forming a multi-stakeholder OER working group in early 2020 to examine how to better adopt OERs in first year U of M courses.
Programming continued in November with Indigenous Students’ Month. Some major highlights were a panel discussion on Indigenous women and leadership, and a screening of Angelina McLeod’s film Freedom Road, which tells the inspirational story of the resilience of Shoal Lake 40, a community on the border of Manitoba and Ontario cut off from the mainland more than a century ago to make way for water distribution to Winnipeg. November also saw us put on events for Wellness Week and continue UMSU’s Centennial Speaker series, this time hosting Laverne Cox, the trailblazing African-American transgender actress and activist best known for playing the inmate character Sophia Burset on Netflix’s smash hit TV series Orange is the New Black.
As December – and thus exam season – has rolled around, we’ve turned our attention to taking a bit of stress out of life. From December 2-5 we brought in Pause for Paws, offering students the chance to decompress by playing with puppies in the UMGSA lounge and Elizabeth Dafoe Library. Not to mention the student snack cart was making the rounds! Meanwhile, for students looking to gain an edge on their studies, we also had tabling in UMSU University Centre offering study tips and resources.
Another key point of action in this regard actually happened months earlier, with UMSU renewing our contract with Nimbus Peer Tutoring, which brought add-ons to the popular peer tutoring app, such as custom in-app branding to differentiate tutor/tutee interfaces, assistance with outreach, better pricing for tutees and news/poll functions.
For those in our community in extra need this holiday season, we delivered holiday hampers to 156 students and their families. We were fortunate enough to receive over 1,500 food items and more than 150 toys through donations from students, faculty and staff. We also secured more than $6,000 in financial donations to keep the program going strong.
On a more solemn note, on December 6, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, UMSU took part in a commemoration ceremony and memorial wall unveiling hosted by the Faculty of Engineering to honour the 14 women tragically murdered in the École Polytechnique shooting in Montreal 30 years ago. It was a reminder of the collective need for all of us to continue to work together to end gender-based violence.
Going into the New Year, UMSU will be turning out attention to examining the feedback from students in our annual survey in order to continue to create more options in our businesses, especially healthy food options. IQ’s will be installing a panini station and smoothie machine, and come spring time Degrees will be expanding its garden, which will in-turn allow us to sell students more fresh produce, grown right on Fort Garry campus.
Plus, as part of the participatory budget process, we want to hear more from you, our members, on what UMSU should spend $20,000 of our funds on next year. Tabling and surveys will be made available for you to offer your feedback throughout the winter term on both Fort Garry and Bannatyne campuses. One major submission already put forward by the Mental Health working group recommends $3,000 of that money be spent on mental health initiatives, such as speakers, campaigns, resource awareness and workshops.
Speaking of mental health, the second Mental Health Week of 2019/20 will be happening at the end of January, and will cover topics such as addictions, body image and intersectionality, leading up to mental health activities on Bell Let’s Talk Day on January 30. UMSU will also continue to work behind the scenes by holding meetings with the university’s Health and Wellness Office to continue to work on alcohol and drug harm reduction strategies for campus.
Beyond that, the winter term is once again chock-full of other events, from Winter Orientation in January – including free breakfasts and lunches on both Fort Garry and Bannatyne campuses – to Black History Month in February and UMSU elections in March, plus much, much more. Keep your eyes on your inbox for more details as they come.
And finally, during all of this time, your Executive team will continue to lobby elected officials on behalf of post-secondary student interests. We are meeting with Manitoba’s minister of economic development and training in January, and will play a leading role in UCRU’s federal lobby week in Ottawa in the beginning of February. UCRU policy recommendation consultation sessions will take place at UMSU board meetings in January, where all UMSU members are welcome to attend and have full speaking rights.
But for now, we want to wish each and every one of UMSU’s 25,000 student members a well-deserved, safe and happy holiday break. We’ll see you in 2020.
Jakob Sanderson, President
Sarah Bonner-Proulx, Vice President Advocacy
Kyra Fanning, Vice President Community Engagement
Mbuli Matshe, Vice President Finance & Operations
Jelynn Dela Cruz, Vice President Student Life