This isn't the first time the University of Calgary Students' Union has discussed shutting themselves out of the federal political arena. And you can bet it won't be the last.
Our SU, at least for now, is a member of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations. For their part, they pay upwards of $29,000 in membership dues, send elected officials to CASA events (at their own expense), and incur various other taxes on their budget and resources. In return, they are given a voice in the federal political arena, unmatched access to federal politicians and a real chance to influence decision-makers in Ottawa.
While education is primarily under provincial jurisdiction, there are many reasons to have this sort of contact with federal MPs and bureaucrats, not the least of which is student financing. The federal government holds the purse strings on countless dollars in student loans and scholarships, and a substantial portion of provincial funding comes from federal transfer payments. The more importance politicians place on post-secondary education, the more likely they are to open their wallets. This will become even more important as Canada's new Prime Minster Paul Martin shifts federal focus to health spending and budget slashing.
It may well be the lobbying by student politicians that keeps federal dollars flowing into students' pockets, and it would do the SU some good to be part of that.
Some members of the SU suggest we don't need CASA, that we could do it on our own. This is a tall order to place on our already busy executive, not to mention a virtually impossible dream.
The primary problem of distance is almost too obvious to waste ink pointing out. We sit three provinces west of where the core lobbying takes place. Phone calls can only accomplish so much, and sending members of the SU gallivanting around Ottawa on a frequent basis leaves little in the way of financial savings. That is, if they can even get access.
CASA remains the student group most consulted by federal officials, with far more access than even the other national lobby group the Canadian Federation of Students (the U of C Graduate Students' Association is a member). On our own, representing only 25,000 students, it's wishful thinking that we be could taken seriously at all (even if we hired our own professional lobbyist, which is another ridiculous and impractical suggestion made by members of the SU).
Herein lies perhaps the most peculiar of all arguments: pull out, save the money and let CASA do what they do. After all, when CASA affects policy, we reap the rewards regardless of our membership. Canadian students, as a demographic, would still have an important voice in Ottawa even without U of C's participation.
Not only does this argument try to absolve the SU of any responsibility as student politicians, but it aims to remove U of C's voice entirely. Without involvement, we have no say. As a group whose purpose is to represent students and advocate for us, this is an option students cannot afford.
To be fair, CASA has problems. It has long suffered from internal conflict and structural difficulties, not dissimilar from our own SU, and some schools--the U of C included--feel their voices aren't being heard when it comes to shaping policy. Fortunately, these problems can be fixed, and the SU can take an active role in promoting change instead of complaining from the sidelines.
There aren't any other viable options, either. Vice-President External Lauren Batiuk called the CFS "anarchists," which, while bordering on libel, is nearly a fair evaluation. If the SU left CASA, the only other option would be inaction.
Clubs Committee Chair Shawna Little suggested in a meeting of the Students' Legislative Council that the money instead be used to fund more "creative approaches," like busing scores of students to Edmonton or blocking major highways. Similar suggestions followed, but this type of single-minded approach to changing policy (forgetting the importance of effective, professional lobbying) is exactly why the SU needs an organized lobby group like CASA on their side.
At $29,000, membership in CASA is still a substantial investment, but one that comes with responsibility. Quitting would send the wrong message to students about the SU commitment to federal lobbying, and the wrong message to federal politicians about our commitment to fostering change.
As a political body, the SU can't afford to pull out of CASA.
With a budget of over $10 million and growing, they can certainly afford to stay in.