What to know about the UWSA referendum

Students vote on joining federal advocacy organization CASA

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

This year’s University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) general-election ballots, which students can cast from March 4 to 6, include a vote on joining the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), an advocacy organization that lobbies federal politicians on issues facing post-secondary students.

If the vote is successful, University of Winnipeg students would each pay $4.07 per year to help fund CASA, which currently represents 274,000 students at 23 post-secondary institutions across Canada.

UWSA president Tomiris Kaliyeva and vice-president student affairs Christine Quiah participated in CASA’s 2023 Advocacy Week, when student representatives from across the country met with MPs to present CASA’s proposals for expanded federal support of post-secondary students and institu- tions.

In recent years, CASA’s lobbying has focused on issues like mental-health support, international-student rights and affordable tuition and housing.

Kaliyeva, who is an international student, had the opportunity to correct MPs’ potential misconceptions about the availability and affordability of housing in Manitoba.

“You might think it’s the cheapest place in Canada, but it’s actually horrible, and these are the numbers,” she says. “Most of the time, they were shocked ... that the prices in Winnipeg grow so much.”

Winnipeg students’ median personal rent payments are higher than anywhere else outside of Vancouver or Toronto, according to a 2022 survey by Montreal-based social enterprise UTILE. Eighty-three per cent of students in the Prairies spend at least 30 per cent of their income on rent.

Kaliyeva says she also spoke to MPs and senators about how “universities have to take responsibility for (student) housing” with better support from the federal government.

CASA’s 2023 advocacy document Reframing the Future recommends that the federal government “unlock housing supply by investing $3.25 billion dollars to support the addition of student-oriented units to be completed within six years.”

Students can register individually to campaign on either the “yes” or “no” side of any referendum question in a UWSA election. UWSA communications manager Alex Nguyen confirmed via email that no one registered to campaign in favour of or against CASA membership before the Feb. 8 deadline.

If the referendum succeeds, the UWSA would become the second student association in the country – alongside the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) – to hold joint membership in CASA and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).

CASA and the CFS have historically been considered rival organizations. CASA was founded in 1995 by student representatives dissatisfied with CFS’ social justice-oriented approach to student advocacy.

At the time, a Canadian University Press article by Samer Muscati described the two organizations as engaged in a “bitter power struggle” with “no indication of reconciliation in the near future.”

Muscati quotes founding CASA national director Alex Usher as writing “hard as it may be for some of us in CASA to believe, there are indeed student associations who may prefer to be represented by an organization that takes stands on social issues, no matter how irrelevant to higher education they may seem.”

In 2018, then-UMSU president Jakob Sanderson penned an editorial in The Manitoban arguing that CASA offered better value for student money than CFS. He deemed CFS’ campaigns on social issues, such as fossil-fuel divestment and support for labour unions, “not an appropriate use of student funds.”

Sanderson did not reply to requests for comment.

Kaliyeva hopes the UWSA and other student unions can work collaboratively with both the CASA and CFS.

“With this line of work, we can never have too many allies,” she says. “For quite a (few) topics, (the organizations) come from differ- ent perspectives and different lenses, which is also valuable.”

Published in Volume 78, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 29, 2024)

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