Student leaders from across Canada descended on MacEwan Student Centre this week to plot out the direction of Canada's second largest post-secondary lobby organization.
The University of Calgary's Students' Union hosted the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations annual policy and strategy conference. The week-long event saw presentations on post-secondary issues as well as meetings setting the tone for CASA's lobbying efforts for the upcoming year.
The conference is the first for recently-elected CASA national director Arati Sharma as leader. It is essential in ensuring policy be directed at the grassroot level and not dictated from above, in accordance with CASA's mandate, she explained.
"I think this conference is really important because we're a national organization, so for us to get together, which we do three times a year . . . ensures that we're member-driven," said Sharma.
At each policy conference, the membership discuss issues affecting students. From there, members organize into smaller groups to analyze topics and report their findings back to the assembly.
"Then they bring those [priorities] to plenary, which is where the entire membership decides what they want to work on for the year," she said. "Once that is decided, that goes to our policy committee, where our policy committee chair is elected and any member can sit on the policy committee to formulate all the policies about it."
As the organization has grown, it has tackled the challenge of balancing the advocacy priorities of diverse members. Sharma noted that the nature of federal governance makes CASA's size an asset rather than a liability.
"People say that it's harder because we're a national organization, but I actually think it's easier," she said. "When it comes to federal advocacy, it's very consensus-based and it's very dependent on what the federal government is working on and what they can do. That's very different from what the provinces deal with on a local level."
Delegates from the majority of CASA's 24 member schools were in attendance, in addition to observers from many organizations, including provincial lobby groups like the Council of Alberta University Students and the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. Sharma noted that the presence of other groups at the conference facilitated collaboration.
"The membership decides where we want to go with our partnerships and our executive obviously decides what areas we want to focus on and who we want to collaborate with," said Sharma. "CASA actually has a framework that was brought, constructed and passed by membership a couple of years ago Â-- that's our partnership framework. That framework basically states that we work with student groups throughout Canada, provincial and federal student groups, and that's all mandated by our membership."
Students' Union vice-president external Kay She attended not only as a representative of U of C students and a conference host, but also as vice-chair of CAUS. She noted the organizations share some common goals due to overlapping constituents. While She said her focus was to follow through on her campaign platform goals, working through a national body is sometimes the best option.
"Last year, one of the huge gains that I thought CASA had a huge part in was the $2 billion in deferred maintenance funding that we got from the government," she said. "That was our Level 1 priority for us to lobby on and it was so important. I just think that University of Calgary students get a bang for their buck when the Students' Union pays [CASA] membership fees, because this is something that U of C students would not be able to achieve on their own," said She.
The SU pays $46,000 in membership fees annually.