Division of Power #6 UWSA needs to think practically and locally

The University of Winnipeg Students’ Association, and in particular community liaison Zach Fleisher, should be commended for a recent partnership between Couns. Harvey Smith and Ross Eadie, as well as the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, to oppose the impending 20 cent transit fare hike in a practical and realistic way at the council level.

The partnership involves a public relations campaign meant to prompt protestors and concerned citizens to attend a public works committee meeting en masse on February 28. The meeting will see councillor Smith (if his health improves) table a motion to revoke the transit fare increase, arguing that the hike is blatantly rash and unjust. 

Of course, Couns. Eadie and Smith are right on both counts. The transit fare hike, which was proposed and passed within a few hours after St. Norbert councillor Justin Swandel had an unfortunate (and rare) epiphany, will force riders to pay for the second phase of a bus rapid transit line that should have been paid for with government grants.

However, the mayor decided that the grant money had to be diverted to road and bridge infrastructure; particularly in areas with little or no transit activity. He also claimed that Winnipeg should transition to light rail transit, with federal money that didn’t exist.

This startlingly incoherent story goes on and on in perpetuity.

However, outside of the importance of the issue, what I like most about the UWSA’s initiative is the positive example it sets in terms of re-evaluating the organization’s role on campus and in the community.

By partnering with politicians and community organizations, the UWSA was able to demonstrate not only that it disagrees with a decision that will adversely affect students but that it is willing and able to do something about it. This is in stark contrast with the organization’s approach to Garbonzos Pizza Pub and Starbucks in the newly opened AnX and, most especially, with the Day of Action held on February 1.

Firstly, the University of Winnipeg has maintained a bottled water ban, kick-started by a UWSA campaign, since 2008. Starbucks now sells bottled water. Additionally, the UWSA has run Soma Cafe on campus for several years and naturally views Starbucks as a competitor.

While I have heard UWSA executives and others involved in the organization privately curse the presence of Starbucks (and, to a lesser extent, Garbonzo’s); they have done nothing about it on a practical level.

Why not accept Starbucks as a valued service for students as well as a Soma competitor but also publicly insist that it live up to the standards and values of the University of Winnipeg?

Secondly, the Day of Action is simply bad policy communicated badly. While I admire getting the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on board, I can’t for the life of me understand why the UWSA would support across-the-board tuition reductions that will benefit all students (including very rich students) equally; rather than attempting to improve access for low-income students, which could potentially be done with the support of provincial NDP MLAs.

While I think the UWSA does some great work (the Day Care, Info Booth and Food Bank being the most potent examples), they need to get more involved at the community level; find initiatives that benefit people (and students) locally and partner with people who have the policy-making authority to get things done. 

Division of Power is a biweekly exploration of politics and federalism as it pertains to Winnipeg.