The University of Calgary Graduate Students' Association debated membership in a "radical" organization, as grad students munched their lunches in the Graduate Lounge.
In conjunction with normal GSA executive forums, Michael Conlon of the Canadian Federation of Students and U of C grad student Ray Novak went head to head on March 14 to debate the pros and cons of the GSA joining the Canadian Federation of Students.
"In terms of the reputation of the organization, this is a huge concern," said Novak, who is a firm opponent of GSA membership. "Part of the reason for joining was that we need a national voice, but there are lots of MPs that won't meet with the CFS because their tactics are too radical, [and] they don't like having bricks thrown at them. They want a more reasonable dialogue."
Novak emphasized other reasons to oppose a GSA membership in the CFS including legal difficulties over the ownership of the student travel agency Travel Cuts and affiliations with what he termed "radical left-wing organizations," including the New Democratic Party, the Canadian Auto Workers and a number of other unions.
Conlon, who is the chair of the National Graduate Council, scoffed at Novak's points.
"I'm somewhat amused that he included the United Church in there," said Conlon. "Our position on affiliating with groups is very pragmatic. Unions represent a lot of working people in Canada, and there are some issues of common concern around post-secondary education. We don't have any formal ties with any unions; we work with a variety of groups to further our goals, to protect public research in Canada and to keep tuition fees as low as possible."
Novak expressed concern that the NGC membership fee, which amounts to $6.82 per student per semester, would be used to promote agendas other than educational.
Undergraduate student Pierre Poilievre shared these concerns.
"The CFS has a reputation for radical, extreme and often exclusionary tactics which often undermine the cause of education," stated Poilievre. "I understand that they were responsible for supporting students to go down and take part in violent and radical activism in Seattle at the World Trade Organization meetings. The WTO has nothing to do with the education system.
"We all have opinions and we'd all like to advocate for those opinions, but what the CFS does is take students' money to take their causes around the world and across the country and that's really unfair. The CFS is starting to gain some credibility with the general public in their quest for better education, however, because of its radical extremism the CFS tends to scare away a lot of sympathetic people."
Conlon did not directly address the CFS involvement with non-educational issues, but pointed out the NGC role in government relations and research funding, their national student health network and discount program as benefits of a strong national lobby organization which would benefit University of Calgary graduate students.
"U of C grad students should talk to the 50,000 other graduate students who are members in the CFS," said Conlon. "These are all people who have looked at the issues, at what the CFS has done, and fully support the work that we do. There's no radical left-wing agenda here; this is an organization for students by students and we're hopeful that U of C grads will see that."
Novak, on the other hand, encouraged graduate students to save their money for a lobby group that isn't as "ideologically rigid" with a clear mandate to focus on educational issues .
"I don't think we need an organization that has policy on abortion, native land claims or free trade, or anything that doesn't immediately impact education," he said. "Fine, get up there and talk about tuition, scholarships, whatever. Don't tell me what to think about these other social justices."
GSA members will vote in the referendum March 12-19, 2001.