DSU ponders its national lobby effort

Review committee will present its initial findings next week

This story has been updated since initially published.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, right, was among the MPs and senators Dalhousie Student Union president Sagar Jha spoke with at a federal lobbying event last week. (Photo: Rob LeForte)

Dalhousie University student leaders took their fight for an expanded grants system and greater opportunities for aboriginal students to Parliament Hill last week. But the trip may have been the student union’s final appearance in Ottawa as a member of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.

The student leaders spent the week talking to more than 120 members of parliament, cabinet ministers, senators and staff members.

“I would say they were very receptive to our concerns,” said Dalhousie Student Union president Sagar Jha, who also spoke with NDP leader Thomas Mulcair. “They even raised their own concerns about post-secondary education, which were in line with our views. I thought that it was very successful in that sense.”

Jha, alongside Dalhousie Student Union vice-president internal Ramz Aziz, attended about 10 meetings during CASA’s Advocacy Week.

CASA’s platform this year includes lobbying to expand the Canada Student Grants budget, advocating to reduce barriers for aboriginal students and creating more mental health awareness.

Dalhousie’s student union downgraded its membership in the association last March for one year to re-assess its investment with the federal lobby group. The student union paid about half of the almost $50,000 it spent as a full member last year.

The student union is expected to decide this spring whether to remain a part of the organization it helped establish in 1994.

With the review ongoing, Dalhousie Student Union president Sagar Jha said he was focused on the present — taking advantage of the opportunity to speak with political leaders.

“With good purpose, right? This is a tool, I’m going to try and use it,” he said.

CASA does not campaign for lower tuition fees, a major difference between the 24-member national organization and the similar Canadian Federation of Students, the country’s largest collective of student associations.

The other CASA members from Nova Scotia are student unions at Saint Mary’s University, St. Francis Xavier University and Acadia University.

Dalhousie’s student union has created a review committee with two executives and 11 councillors and students from different faculties to help decide its federal lobbying future. Student union vice-president academic and external Aaron Beale said the committee will present its initial findings at next Wednesday’s council meeting.

“We’re going to start narrowing down concrete questions of what the (Dalhousie Student Union) should be doing, as opposed to consulting so broadly,” he said.

Beale, the executive responsible for the union’s lobbying platform, did not attend Advocacy Week. He said he stepped aside so a colleague could join Jha and learn about CASA’s goals.

Beale voted in favour of the motion last spring to withdraw from the advocacy group.

CASA hopes Dal remains involved

CASA national director Jonathan Champagne said last week’s series of meetings were successful. He hopes the student union at the Maritimes’ largest research university finds further use in rubbing shoulders with federal politicians.

“I know that when a school like Dalhousie sits at the table that all the other institutions, all the other members, definitely listen to what is to be heard,” he said. “Losing that voice at the table would be a tremendous loss.”

The Dalhousie Student Union cancelled its town hall meeting Thursday to discuss its advocacy efforts. Another date has not been announced.

The Canadian Federation of Students is also at risk of losing members. About 50 student activists protested the federation’s restrictive rules for withdrawing membership last weekend in Gatineau, Que. About 15 student unions have tried severing ties since 2009.

Update: Dec. 4, 2013: Dalhousie Student Union VP (A&E) Aaron Beale voted in favour of the motion to withdraw from the advocacy group. He did not present the motion.