Thursday, July 18, 2019

Post-elections post-secondary: Now that student society and municipal elections have passed, what does 2019 hold in store for post-secondary life?

January 7, 2019 by Fred Cameron, features writer

The fall of 2018 was a time of political change for students here at Camosun. Elections have come and gone for both the Camosun College Student Society (CCSS) and municipal councils on the lower island. We’ve also been given an option to reform our provincial electoral system with the proportional representation referendum. The referendum is a historical crossroads, and the rest of the country is watching closely.

These changes all impact students, from what bike lanes Saanich council approves to what student organizations your student society joins. So where are we headed in 2019? I caught up with some of the people making these decisions to find out.

The CCSS election was of great importance. A total of 697 students voted to decide on who will fill some of the roles within our student government. There were also two referendum questions: one asking whether or not we should join the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) and one asking about what to do with money that had been collected for Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) membership fees after the CCSS were expelled from the CFS in June of 2018.

CCSS executive director Michel Turcotte and external executive Fillette Umulisa agree that the CCSS election is very important because it’s one of the ways that students can express themselves democratically.

“Through participation, students learn about democracy, but also have an influence on the college, because you want to potentially influence policies,” says Turcotte. “The CCSS has quite a bit of influence in terms of the direction the college chooses, or doesn’t choose at times. That is why student government is so important, because who else is going to speak for the students?”

Camosun College Student Society external executive Fillette Umulisa (photo by Adam Marsh/Nexus).

Umulisa says the decisions of governments and policymakers affect students at Camosun, but as individuals our voices aren’t always heard.

“Not everybody can just go up there and do it on their own,” says Umulisa, “so they need people to represent them. People who have the courage and strength to speak on behalf of other people. Hence, student governments exist to help the students who can’t stand up for themselves, or don’t have the time to go forward with concerns and issues and be heard. The CCSS is here to advocate and guide people through their lives as students.”

The student society has two elections every year; campus directors are elected in the fall, and there are bi-elections in the spring. 

“We do have a number of new representatives that will be coming to the table,” says Turcotte. “Hopefully the fresh faces will bring a desire to learn, and also to participate in governance. I hope that they will be proposing new ideas. Sometimes ideas are great, and may not have been tried at the college before.”

Turcotte says that new ideas come from the students, so the CCSS election is necessary for progress.

“Ultimately, I’ve always felt that it is the responsibility of the elected members of the board of directors to be proposing things that are going to make me slightly uncomfortable,” says Turcotte. “If they’re not doing that, they really aren’t doing their jobs. I am at a different point in my life. I really enjoy advocating for students, and I’ve been doing it for a number of years, but it is that youthful energy and activism that helps student societies and other organizations progress.”

In terms of historical significance, the “yes” vote in the referendum to join CASA could prove to be paramount for generations of Camosun students because, as both Umulisa and Turcotte say, it gives us a voice on the larger issues on a national level.

“Camosun is a small college by Canadian standards, but we have hopes of amplifying our voice to have influence nationally, so we hope to amplify our voice through CASA,” says Turcotte. “We were doing that previously through the Canadian Federation of Students, but that opportunity is no longer open to us, because there was a falling out. We are no longer affiliated with that organization. The federal government has a lot of influence on issues that impact students, from funding faculty to student loans.”

Umulisa says that the CASA affiliation strengthens the CCSS because the student society can focus on internal issues at Camosun while CASA represents Camosun students on the larger, federal issues.

“Not everyone can stand up to the federal government or the provincial government,” says Umulisa. “If I was to advocate for student housing at Camosun I would talk to the minister of housing in BC. If it’s something bigger than just Camosun, we have to talk to the federal government, but how am I, as a student at Camosun, going to reach out to the federal government? CASA is a path to what is impossible for us to reach.”

So what should we expect for 2019? Turcotte says it’s hard to say, because that depends on what the elected candidates might be interested in.

“It differs a lot from year to year,” says Turcotte. “Sometimes you have people who don’t really have a desire to do anything more than what’s already being done. They just want to ensure that the CCSS is operating in an accountable manner. That’s a good thing, too. Other times you have people elected that are really striving to do new things or reach different students that we don’t normally interact with as well as we would like to. I am hoping that we get some of those people, too.”

Umulisa says she is excited because the incoming group reminds her of her beginnings with the CCSS.

“From my experience on the board as Lansdowne director, I would go to meetings, but I did not fully understand what student government does, and what our purpose really is,” she says. “But it comes to you, and you learn to look at things in a selfless way. You look at things with all possible explanations. New people bring new ways of looking at problems, so it is always in our best interest. I am really happy to have new people on board and I’m really excited to work with them.”

Meanwhile, off campus, municipal elections were held on Saturday, October 20. In total there were 8 councillors and a mayor elected in both Victoria and Saanich, as well as a referendum on whether or not Victoria and Saanich should form citizens councils to discuss the possibility of an amalgamation of the two municipalities.

Both Lansdowne and Interurban campuses are situated in Saanich, under the jurisdiction of new mayor Fred Haynes.

“The Saanich electorate has elected nine independent members of council,” says Haynes, “eight of them who are new; I’m a new mayor. We’re going to embrace new ideas and new ways of thinking. If you look at who was elected, the age of those who were elected, it’s a very significant demographic shift in the members of council, and one must expect that to affect how we view things like housing for young working people and individuals. The imperatives for transportation, the imperatives for economic development, and, now, green space. We will certainly expect some new ways of envisioning the steps forward for Saanich.”

The voters in the Capital Regional District’s two biggest municipalities gave a very clear message. Haynes and Victoria’s incumbent mayor Lisa Helps agree that the recent election has a few key issues that are very relevant in the lives of Camosun students.

“The platform I ran on was to bring more housing opportunity for working families, individuals, and students,” says Haynes. “Housing is a big part of it, as well as improvements to transportation and road safety, and working on our green space and agricultural lands, not just in terms of protecting them but trying to revitalize our farming.”

Down the road in Victoria, Helps ran on a very similar platform.

“I think there are three key things on our council’s agenda that we heard loud and clear,” says Helps. “The biggest issue in the campaign was affordable housing. We’re already pulling out all the stops we can to support, incentivize, and partner to create more affordable housing.”

The province of British Columbia recently announced 588 units of affordable housing in Victoria and Helps says that three out of five of those projects have city land as part of them.

“Those [units of affordable housing] range in income from people who are on income assistance to working people, so there is a whole range of affordable housing,” she says. “Some one bedrooms starting at $579, some one bedrooms starting at $700. What we will see in the next decade is more affordable housing built, without question.”

One of the issues faced by Camosun students is the distance between campuses, and the travel that goes along with that; Haynes says that Saanich has an ambitious active transportation plan. (For more on student concerns on Saanich bike paths leading to the Interurban campus, see page 1.)

“If you want to go to our website you can find all of the current bike paths, and the planned bike paths going through five or 10 years,” he says. “Also how we are trying to coordinate that with other cities, like Victoria, View Royal, and Oak Bay. We do have a very robust planning piece that’s been completed, and I’ll invite you, and any of the students at Camosun, to have a look at that and give us your feedback. Are our priorities that we’ve identified the same as the priorities that you might have as students? That public consultation was completed and it was very extensive, but there is still room for input and conversation.”

The issue, Helps says, is more about making Victoria livable again.

“Affordability is about more than just housing,” she says. “It’s about the cost of living more generally, so the other thing we are working on is the continued rollout of the bike lane network. People will have more and better low-cost options for getting around. People won’t necessarily need to have a car. We are also really working hard on better and more frequent transit.”

Haynes says that the other key issue in Saanich is economic development.

“We want to make sure people have the opportunity to find jobs that they’re being trained in,” he says. “The job market is pretty hot right now, but we struggle to fill those jobs because we need more housing that is affordable for individuals and young working families.”

There was also a provincial referendum deadline of December 7, which gave voters in BC the option of reforming our electoral system in favour of proportional representation. Turcotte thinks that a “yes” vote could help ensure that every election vote counts. (Referendum results were not available before this issue went to print.)

“Currently, we have a system in Canada that allows a party to get elected to a majority government with about a third of the vote,” says Turcotte. “Because of the way that the vote is distributed, they are able to capitalize in a number of ridings and get elected. It’s troublesome, from a democratic accountability point of view, when the system is designed to essentially create majority governments with less than the majority of support. I think it will allow young people and students to become more engaged with the system if they think they can make a difference. Right now, many young people are disillusioned with the system, and they don’t think there is anything they can do to make a difference.”

Camosun president Sherri Bell says that Haynes contacted her shortly after being elected and that the two will meet to discuss various issues that impact students.

“We, as a college that has been in the city for almost 50 years now, work with whoever is elected, and are happy to do that,” says Bell. “The municipal elections don’t necessarily affect us as long as we can continue the kind of relationships we’ve had in the past with other councils and mayors. This looks really positive. Fred and I do have an appointment to meet to talk about a variety of things, but housing will certainly be on our agenda. As far as student housing, it has been something that I’ve wanted to see at Camosun since I arrived here.”

Haynes says that we’ve seen some results from his term as a Saanich councillor already, as the University of Victoria, working with the province, has made an announcement of 620 new units of student housing. Haynes hopes to find similar results working with Camosun.

“At Camosun, you have some land assets, and we have talked about housing options, but in a gentle way when I was a councillor,” says Haynes. “What I found was that Sherri Bell is open to talk about a whole range of items that can best benefit the campus experience and the student experience. Just by way of example, I am the council liaison to UVic; it’s a formal position. I would like to talk to your president about having a similar position for one of our councillors to be a liaison to the Camosun campuses to make sure that there is enough good quality conversation on the needs of the campus life at Camosun.”

There has already been some discussion of student housing on Camosun campuses, and Bell says that the college has been working on a preliminary proposal to submit to the provincial government about student housing.

“We have a lot of work to do on it, but we’ve been going back and forth with the ministry in looking at the possibilities for housing at Camosun,” says Bell. “We’re not a university, and we don’t have a track record with housing, but we would love to put in housing.”

Bell adds that consulting company Scion did a feasability study last year about student housing at Camosun.

“What they found in doing the research with students and also looking at the community at large is that we could support housing on both Lansdowne and Interurban campuses,” says Bell. “We would probably start at Lansdowne, and then move to creating housing opportunity at Interurban. Right now we are certainly talking to our municipal partners, talking to government, looking at options for perhaps some grant funding as well as loan funding to move forward with housing. That’s not going to happen overnight.”

Haynes says that they need to look at what Camosun’s housing needs are and look at the costs, because provincial funding won’t cover the whole cost of on-campus housing.

“For example, let’s say Camosun came forward with a request to make 200 or 400 [units of] on-campus housing,” says Haynes. “What’s the cost of that? How would that be funded? The UVic experience was that the provincial money wasn’t all of the money, it was part of the money. Does Camosun have any alumni funding? What other sources of funding can you bring to the table? That’s where Camosun, hopefully, can be nimble, and there’s no reason why students themselves can’t also be nimble.”

Bell says that Camosun hopes to talk to the provincial government in the new year about what the college’s financial options are for on-campus housing.

“Our students are very different than UVic students, when you look at the demographics,” says Bell. “At UVic about 75 percent of the students come from outside of this area, whereas about 75 percent of our students are from the lower island. Our students are also a little bit older on average, so the kind of housing they want is different. We don’t have any designs. We’re not that far along yet. We are basically saying to government that we are really interested in student housing, so we’ve put a proposal in, and we’ll see where it goes.”

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