Student unions from postsecondary institutions across Canada, representing almost 900,000 students, have joined forces in an attempt to get the federal parties to consider their priorities in the run-up to this October’s election.
The unions are set to release a joint letter Tuesday that outlines the groups’ top policy priorities: the elimination of interest on federal student loans and the increase of federal grants, the creation of high-quality jobs and work-integrated learning opportunities, and an increase in support for Indigenous students. The goal is to get every party leader to acknowledge the letter and pledge to address the priorities.
“These three issues are really at the heart of student advocacy across Canada,” said Cristina Ilnitchi, vice-president, external affairs at the University of British Columbia’s student union. “They’re not the only issues that need to be addressed, but … student leaders hear about them every single day.”
Prompted by the desire to get students’ needs co-ordinated, Ms. Ilnitchi and the other organizers felt the power of numbers was the best way to get themselves recognized nationally. Months ago, they began a grassroots effort to bring the unions together. As of Monday, 46 schools had signed on.
“What we’re really trying to do with this letter is bring these priorities to the centre stage of the federal election and make them an important issue that federal parties have to be talking about if they want to win students votes,” said Cat Dunne, vice-president of the University of Western Ontario’s students’ council.
All of the priorities they settled on revolve around making education more accessible for all students, Ms. Ilnitchi said.
Regan Ratt-Misponas, president of the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union, sees the letter as a massive display of allyship for Indigenous students.
“Education is the driving factor of what reconciliation can look like in the future,” said Mr. Ratt-Misponas, who is Nehiyaw and a member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band. Educational opportunities are crucial to improving the economic and social conditions of Indigenous peoples, he said, and he sees this student priority as aligning with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
The student unions are specifically asking for an end to what they call the “backlog” of Indigenous students that want to obtain higher education – the discrepancy between the needs of those students and the actual funding and support systems available to help them get there.
Only a fifth of Indigenous students with the credentials to pursue postsecondary education in Canada are supported by the federal Post-Secondary Student Support Program, which provides First Nation and Inuit students with funding to attend higher education. Statistics also show a 22-per-cent gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples that go to university. The unions want that gap addressed in part by increased funding from the government.
“We face the urgency to act to better support Indigenous students in their communities, after report after report comes out with calls for action and calls for justice,” Ms. Ilnitchi said.
The student unions also want to see an elimination of interest on federal student loans and the reallocation of a portion of the $1.5-billion in tuition tax credits, little used by low- and middle-income students, toward upfront grants administered by the Canada Student Loans program.
The third request asks the federal parties to provide students with more opportunities to prepare them for success in the work force, such as undergraduate and graduate research opportunities, work-integrated learning opportunities and co-op placements.
Tiwa Omolade is a fourth-year business administration student and member of the University of Windsor Student Alliance with almost $30,000 in student loans.
“It’s just frustrating because the government is supposed to be on our side – they should be taking action in ways to actually benefit citizens, especially people from marginalized backgrounds," Ms. Omolade said.
She feels prepared to enter the work force, but is disheartened about the opportunities that await with her debt hanging over her head – despite being awarded five scholarships during her university career.
Ms. Omolade sees the priorities around affordability as ones that would directly affect diverse students in their aims to graduate with less debt and get high-quality jobs.
Student unions from coast to coast are pairing their advocacy with “get out the vote campaigns,” designed to bring political awareness to students and create easy access to voting on campuses.
No matter what a student’s priorities are going into the election, Ms. Ilnitchi added, she hopes they demonstrate their importance as a voter at the ballot box.
“We see that often, the conversations at the federal level don’t always include students and young people,” Ms. Ilnitchi said. “And this is the reason for this letter, to bring attention to every single party that wants a chance to be the next government of Canada.”
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