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Student Politics Should Focus on Serving Students

This past weekend, the Board of Directors of StudentsNS asked me to write a response to the recent disaffiliation of the Dalhousie Student Union and the different statements made to justify this decision.

Given how personal the turmoil has been at Dalhousie for myself but also for many of our volunteers and staff, I could only really write a personal response grounded in my own experiences.

Three years ago I left a little bachelor’s apartment I was sharing with my girlfriend and a well-paid job in Parliament to move home and be the Executive Director of Nova Scotia’s primary provincial advocacy group.

Despite some heartache, in many ways it was one of the best choices I have made in my life.

Students Nova Scotia, then ANSSA, was just securing a significant fee increase that would allow us to expand our full-time staff complement from one to three. We had won a referendum at Dalhousie and council votes at Acadia, CBU and StFX – we’d lost a referendum at SMU but would win the next year with close to 75 per cent approval.

I was hired with a clear mandate to help build a bigger and stronger organization, with an emphasis on effective research and policy. I did the best I could, facilitating the organization’s rebranding, a complete overhaul of internal governance policies, reconfiguration of our approach to student engagement, and the construction of a new foundation of research to inform the organization’s interactions with government, students and the public.

Over that time I have worked with many outstanding student leaders, who were thoughtful and tough, but also remarkably kind. The Board of Directors that hired me was an especially tight-knit group whose members worked hard, but also really enjoyed each others’ company, including absolutely the DSU representatives. Then, as now, we have all dedicated hours to the work of StudentsNS that we were not paid for and that made it more difficult to fulfill our other responsibilities. We engaged in tough conversations in a spirit of mutual respect and collegiality.

StudentsNS’ work has always been focused foremost on helping students who have the odds stacked against them, but have a right to equality of opportunity and to build fulfilling lives in the ways that are meaningful to them. We have been able to achieve results that advance this goal, so our volunteers and staff work in the knowledge that they are helping people to follow the life paths of their choice.

Our work on student financial assistance that helped increase available funding and reduce debt levels, especially for students with the highest debts. Between 2011 and 2014 alone, the Province increased funding to the Nova Scotia Student Assistance Program by $24 million in direct response to engagement with StudentsNS.

We’ve worked to support students with disabilities financially, academically and professionally, seeking funding for psycho-educational assessments and changes to institutions human rights policies.

We’re currently completing a project recommending improved supports for African Canadian, Aboriginal, rural and low-income Nova Scotians, including those who are on income assistance or chronically unemployed.

We designed and persuaded the Province to implement a $3.7 million Nova Scotia Graduate Scholarships Program.

We’ve prioritized MSI coverage, strong student services and other financial supports for international students – the Ivany Report’s goal to double the proportion of international graduates settling in Nova Scotia resulted directly from our work.

We’ve taken action on Sexual Violence Prevention including a review of student union practices and our internationally recognized More Than Yes Campaign.

We’ve developed our Mend the Gap Campaign that seeks to empower women to take on leadership roles traditionally dominated by men, including within our own organizations.

We’ve brought together Nova Scotia’s university and community college students for the first time, thanks especially to leaders at the Kingstec NSCC Students Association.

In many ways it has been among the great privileges of my life to have this job, to be able to learn from this experience but most of all to meet and work with remarkably good people. So much of my experience has reflected what student politics should be about, in terms of engaging in a strong community, generating improvements in people’s lives, and learning about the world and yourself.

The only aspect of the experience that has entirely failed to live up to the rest is the last two years’ membership fracas with the DSU.

StudentsNS staff and volunteers have undergone almost two years of bullying in a slander campaign carried forward by activists for the Canadian Federation of Students within the DSU.

Our Board Members, staff and other volunteers have been characterized as liars, sexist, racist, corrupt, unprofessional and people who foster an “unsafe environment”. We have been “called out” for our presumed sexual orientations, ethnicity, family incomes, or “tokenistic” intentions.

Many of our attackers barely know those they are slandering, if they ever met us at all. All the assertions we know of have been made based on anecdote, creative interpretations or painting individuals’ actions across a much broader community.

If and when DSU Board Members have had issues with StudentsNS of any kind they have systematically opted against raising them constructively at the Board, choosing instead to slam us at Council Meetings.

Fundamentally, the disaffiliation of the DSU, including the disrespect for student voice reflected in the decision process and the defamation used to justify it, says far more about the current state of the DSU than it does about StudentsNS.

Many of StudentsNS’ volunteers and even staff are actually somewhat relieved. One Board member (who happens to identify as a woman) has noted that the Board feels as though a cloud has been lifted; basically everyone can now expect each other to be kind and up-front even when they disagree. It is wild that we could be relieved to have the organization we strongly believe in lose roughly 40 per cent of its members, but the people engaged in this organization have a right not to suffer personal attacks.

If I learned anything in the last three years it’s that student politics doesn’t have to be horrible. It shouldn’t be horrible. It should be empowering, inspiring and respectful, focused on serving students.

We’re going to continue showing who we are and what we are about through our actions. Day by day, brick by brick, we’re going to help build a better province for students and youth, focusing on concrete changes where we can do the most good.

But personally I’ll be moving on from StudentsNS this April to complete my Master’s, in absolutely no way because of the recent ugliness but because it’s time.

I’d like to thank the students and alumni of Dalhousie for their participation in StudentsNS since 2004. We have been able to make a difference together and I will personally always be thankful for the opportunity to work with and for you. I’ll take with me many lasting friendships and a great deal of pride in the work we’ve done.

What I hope won’t carry forward is the defamation generated against our volunteers and staff. I hope the DSU will issue a formal apology to all the thinking, feeling human beings that their activists have disparaged.

I’d lastly invite Dalhousie students to consider whether their student union’s horrible politics represents you. Based on my experiences with many very decent Dalhousie students, the answer is obvious. Only you can change it.

In kindness,

Jonathan Williams

Jonathan Williams is the Executive Director of Students Nova Scotia.

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