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Campus activism at Carleton under threat

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Photo: Greg Macdougall

Later this week, undergraduate students at Carleton University will vote to decide the future of OPIRG-Carleton, a social justice organizing centre that has been serving students and the broader Ottawa community for the past 33 years.

A referendum is being held April 3-4, and one of the questions asks whether to discontinue the undergraduate student levy that funds OPIRG ($6.84 per year for full-time undergrads). The collective total of this levy amounts to just over $127,000 per year, close to 85 percent of the overall OPIRG-Carleton annual budget. Without this funding, the future of the organization is in serious doubt.

OPIRG stands for Ontario Public Interest Research Group, and OPIRG-Carleton operates under the provincial OPIRG umbrella organization, along with PIRG’s at 10 other Ontario campuses. PIRGs more broadly started in the early 1970s on U.S. college campuses, based on a model proposed by Ralph Nader, and in the U.S. are also organized at the state level.

OPIRG-Carleton’s long history has included leading the campus fight against South African apartheid, and bringing recycling to Carleton, along with many other campaigns, events, and supporting many self-organized working groups on different issues. There are currently 17 active working groups (listed at the bottom of this link).

The organization is a good example of what Alan Sear terms 'infrastructure of dissent': "the means of analysis, communication, organization and sustenance that nurture the capacity for collective action;" or as Jeff Shantz puts it, 'infrastructures of resistance': "Pre-existing infrastructures, or transfer cultures, are necessary components of popular, participatory and liberatory social re-organization."

OPIRG-Carleton serves this important function on campus, exposing students to political issues and activism, and allowing for a deepening understanding, commitment and collectivism for those who become involved.

This is all at risk in this coming referendum. The proposal to end the student levy was initially put forward as part of a proposed ‘omnibus’ referendum question which would have ended three different levies and created one new one. The Constitution and Policy committee of CUSA, the Carleton University Students Association, decided to split that separate the question into four different referendum questions, and then voted not to approve the question looking to defund OPIRG. But a majority vote of the full CUSA council overrode that decision, putting the defunding OPIRG question onto the referendum.

OPIRG has already been actively engaged in defending itself through this process. A 1991 contract between CUSA and OPIRG had ensured that both would have to agree on the wording of any future referendum question, and CUSA had not lived up to this, so ended up having to approve a re-worded question at an emergency council meeting and set back the date for the referendum until April. As well, OPIRG successfully fought to ensure more fairness on the electoral board, as the original people who were going to be overseeing the referendum were friends of the initiators of an ‘Opt-Out of OPIRG’ campaign from earlier in the year that was encouraging students to get their OPIRG levy refunded (there is a period at the beginning of each term where students who have paid the levy can come into OPIRG and have it refunded; however, usually only a handful of students decide to withdraw their financial support).

The whole campaign to defund OPIRG is not isolated to Carleton; notably, OPIRG-Kingston lost its undergraduate funding in February of 2012. This past September, an article (‘Defunding the Public Interest’) was published in Briarpatch magazine exploring the strategic Conservative-aligned organizing to attack PIRGs, and looking at how supporters of PIRGs can push back against these attacks. Insight into the anti-PIRG strategy was provided when a leaked recording of a 2009 Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association workshop was uploaded to Wikileaks (selected quotes here).

Ryan O’Connor was one of the workshop leaders, and one of his points of advice to these Conservative anti-PIRG campaigners was, "A lot of people aren't involved in partisan politics, and they don't know about messaging, they don't know about get out the vote, they don't know about things that you guys are exposed to on a regular basis whenever we have to campaign for the legislature or Parliament ... take those lessons and apply them on campus."

Pretty sage advice: if Carleton student voting history is any indication, 'get out the vote' is a hugely important strategy, and knowing how to do it could be the key to whether OPIRG-Carleton survives. In last year’s referendum, there were four questions and none of them had more than 850 tallied votes, out of a total undergraduate student population of around 23,000. 

Many students are unaware, or simply can't be bothered. And the folks pushing for OPIRG's defunding are the same ones who've swept the CUSA executive elections for two years in a row.

The 'Vote No, Save OPIRG' campaign is working hard to keep a solid space for progressive politics alive at Carleton. They have set up a website, Facebook page, Facebook event, and Twitter account, to try and get as much support as possible from the school’s undergraduate students (the ‘Vote Yes to end OPIRG fees’ campaign also has a website, and a FB page and event). The voting takes place April 3 and 4, and results will be announced on Friday April 5.


Greg Macdougall got his start in collective activism with WPIRG, the Waterloo Public Interest Research Group, in the early 2000s.

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