Editorial: The great refugee referendum debate

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

The Student Refugee Program is clearly a good one, but that may not be the issue in this year’s referendum.

The referendum asks students to roughly double the financial support given to the Student Refugee Program to increase the number of refugees brought to study at the University of Calgary from one to two per year. Currently, full time students pay $1.00 per semester and part time students 50 cents per semester. The referendum seeks an increase of $1.25 per semester for full time and 50 cents per semester for part time students, to bring the total to $2.25 and $1.00 per semester respectively. Though it might seem immediately intuitive that, for such a small amount of money, this program should be unquestionably supported, there are deeper considerations.

With both Yes and No sides campaigning, the apparently simple question winds its way into a labyrinth of challenging arguments. The primary problem facing students in untangling this muddied campaign is that the two sides are approaching the question in totally different ways. The Yes campaign is following the obvious line that this is a good program with the tangible benefit of actually changing a person’s life for the better. The No campaign, while acknowledging this as a fine program doing good work, despite a couple of flaws, challenges the principle underlying the referendum — maintaining that students should never be forced to donate to any charity, irrespective of its relative worth. The No campaign argues that if students value the program then they should be able to privately donate to it, but that it should never be imposed.

When carefully considered, the No side presents a powerful argument, though perhaps leads to an emotionally uncomfortable result. But there are significant problems with it.

Raising funds through a levy allows an obvious level of stability for the program’s operation. Switching to a system of soliciting private donations, though this works for a number of charities, will jeopardize this continuity. The program commits to each refugee student it chooses for the four or five years it takes them to complete their degree, removing financial stability would significantly challenge the ability to commit to students to this extent.

The No campaign counters that a reserve of money could be saved up to ensure this doesn’t become a crippling problem. Yet, the actual transition to this type of program may not be feasible. If students are not paying into the program as part of their fees it is doubtful the program would continue at its current level. In theory, people would donate to the program if they felt it was beneficial, but it would become pretty easy to simply ignore it. The obvious argument that the program’s volunteers would be able to adequately fund it if they put in the effort to solicit corporate and private donations isn’t sure to work — humans have a powerful capacity to ignore good work.

The most compelling aspect of the No campaign’s argument is centered on the principle that students should never be forced to donate to any particular charity. There is the consideration that students do accede to it through this referendum, but the robustness of that argument is deflated by the fact that at some point all the students who decided upon it will be gone from the university, but the fee will still be imposed on students who had no say in the matter. The fact that the current levy has been in place since the year I was born demonstrates this clearly. And it is precisely in this fact that the No campaign derails.

The argument that on principle no charity should ever be forced upon students is strong, but this is not what this referendum is about. Voting no to this campaign will not repeal the levy, it will just halt its increase. And here is the disconnect. The No campaign is arguing a principle that is not actually being challenged in this referendum. In order to coherently argue the principle of the issue, the issue at stake would need to be its principle.

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