Getting the band back together: Inside the UVSS’s split—and possible reunion—with the ABCS

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In December 2013, the Alliance of B.C. Students (ABCS), a non-profit advocacy group with a mission to address issues facing post-secondary education in British Columbia, was formed. The University of Victoria Students Society (UVSS) was one of its founding members.

But two years later, at the end of the 2014-15 academic year, the UVSS quietly withdrew from the alliance, choosing instead to go its own way in lobbying the provincial government on issues including the rising cost of student housing and post-secondary education.

Now, a little over a year after it left, the UVSS is being courted once again by the ABCS, as Chairperson Alex McGowan made a presentation to the UVSS Board of Directors on Monday, July 11, making the case for the UVSS to rejoin.

But is going back to the house the UVSS helped build all that it’s cracked up to be? That depends on who you ask. The Martlet reached out to those involved in the ABCS’ past and present, including McGowan and current and former directors at the UVSS, to find out.

FORMING THE ALLIANCE

At the time of incorporation in 2013, the ABCS was comprised of the Alma Mater Society of UBC (AMS), the UVSS, the Capilano Students’ Union (CSU), and the University of Fraser Valley Student Union Society. It now consists of five member societies: CSU, UBC Graduate Student’s Society Vancouver, Langara Students’ Union, Kwantlen Student Association (KSA), and UBC Students’ Union — Okanagan.

According to its website, the goals of the alliance include advocating for the interests of post-secondary students as represented by the alliance’s members, facilitating coordination between member societies, and addressing issues of “accessibility, affordability, and quality.”

“All ABCS asks are well-researched, achievable, accessible, and decided democratically by the members,” McGowan said at the July 11 meeting.

McGowan emphasized the ABCS’ collaborative approach to provincial lobbying while praising the UVSS’ past campaign efforts. He explained that the ABCS will lead two major campaigns during the 2016-17 academic year: housing and the upcoming provincial election. McGowan further stated that he would like to see the UVSS involved with the former campaign in particular.

Joining the ABCS is a simple matter of applying in writing to its board of directors, which then resolves to accept the society’s application. Members in good standing are then allowed speaking rights at ABCS meetings and may draw on alliance resources for their own initiatives (if approved by two-thirds majority vote of the board).

ABCS delegates vote for ‘new and improved’ bylaws at their annual general meeting on May 15, 2016. The UVSS is obviously not at the table. Photo by ABCS via Facebook

ABCS delegates vote for “new and improved” bylaws at their annual general meeting on May 15, 2016. The UVSS is obviously not at the table. Photo by ABCS via Facebook

Speaking to the Martlet over the phone, McGowan said that “from the ABCS perspective, we’re always trying to collaborate with anyone and everyone.

“I think we do good work, and if [the UVSS agrees], then being a member just makes the most sense. Having that voice at the table just helps us make better decisions.”

McGowan made it clear to the board that one of the key principles of ABCS membership is “easy to leave, easy to join,” and that it tries not to enter legal disputes with its members.

That could be interpreted as a reference to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), another lobby organization against which the UVSS entered a drawn out legal dispute for the right to decide on its continued membership. (Of note: McGowan is the current VP External of the KSA, which is also a member of the CFS. McGowan did not respond to a request for comment on this relationship.) The UVSS won that battle on Mar. 29, 2011, when students voted in a referendum to leave. [Editor’s note: Read our feature on that decision here.] Which brings us to . . .

GOING THEIR OWN WAY

The UVSS withdrew from the ABCS in May 2015, a year and a half after they helped bring it together. Kenya Rogers, former UVSS director of external relations, began her term as a lead director for the UVSS at the same time as the withdrawal, though she had some involvement with the ABCS while serving as a UVSS director-at-large the year prior.

Speaking about her experience working with the ABCS both on and off its board and what went into the decision to leave, Rogers explained that the ABCS was born out of a political environment that saw numerous institutions in B.C. trying to separate from the CFS, and that it was formed in part as a way to fulfill the need for a unified provincial student movement.

But during her time on the ABCS board, Rogers said “[we] never really spent any time talking about advocacy or campaigns because we were so busy trying to figure out what we were.”

“[There] was so much [going] around the table and nothing being done, really, which I understand is part of the process of becoming an organization,” she continued. “But at the time [when we left], the UVSS was in a position where we were ready to take our advocacy to the next level and the ABCS wasn’t there.”

Ultimately, the split came down to a difference in priorities which was exacerbated by the fact that many of the ABCS members were located on the mainland, leaving the UVSS isolated. Rogers cited last year’s TransLink plebiscite in Vancouver as a campaign that the ABCS poured significant resources into, despite it not affecting UVSS students at all. (B.C. Transit provides services to the island and rest of the province outside of the GVA, and is a separate entity from GVA’s TransLink.)

“[The mainland societies were] putting all these resources and time into that campaign, which is great,” Rogers said, “but maybe it’s something that doesn’t have to be centred out of the ABCS. Maybe that should be centred out of their own unions.”

Rogers says the incident that solidified the decision to split from the ABCS occurred in March 2015, when UVSS representatives brought forward policy around housing, student loans, and other issues that they had been tasked with developing for the alliance. Rogers and other UVSS reps attended an ABCS meeting in Vancouver only to find that ABCS execs had “watered down” what the UVSS proposed for the agenda.

“[ABCS execs] said they just wanted to format [our policy] into their format but they took out portions, [and] they completely changed the language,” Rogers said.

The meeting, according to Rogers, turned into an hours-long discussion where the UVSS was ultimately told they were “too left.”

“[Other board members] just said that we needed to learn how to basically take off our UVSS hat and put on our ABCS hat,” Rogers said.

The decision to leave came shortly after.

“As someone coming into her board term, and who had spent a previous board term with all this pushback, I was like, ‘I don’t want to waste our time sitting around these tables and doing work that doesn’t affect us,’” Rogers said.

The UVSS split from the ABCS in May 2015 to focus on their own lobbying efforts like the Education is a Right Rally on Feb. 3, 2016. File photo by Gwen Rosser

The UVSS split from the ABCS in May 2015 to focus on their own lobbying efforts like the Education is a Right Rally on Feb. 3, 2016. File photo by Gwen Rosser

The transit plebiscite was also mentioned by Jessica Lar-Son, former ABCS chairperson, who said that spring was marked by a “shift in student politics,” leading to a lot of turnover within the ABCS.

“When we were trying to be more inclusive and work with folks [outside student unions] . . . you kind of saw the folks who left [the ABCS] were the ones who were perceived to be at the far-left or the far-right.

“[But] the ABCS was always an organization that was okay with people coming and going,” she said, explaining that it didn’t want membership to be too “restrictive” for its members.

When contacted by the Martlet, McGowan declined to comment on the politics behind the UVSS’ departure, but said that it didn’t stop the ABCS’ desire to work with the society.

“We’ve been in contact with the UVSS since they left and it hasn’t stopped us from collaborating on a couple of different issues, including most recently the ABCS lobby days event which was held in April 2016,” he explained.

That recent collaboration, where the UVSS joined the ABCS at the provincial legislature, was also acknowledged by Rogers. “We got [the ABCS] to agree to having a tuition freeze put on [the asks brought forward], and nobody ever thought that would happen.”

ONGOING CONCERNS

In speaking with various sources for this story, the Martlet found a common concern was the issue of ABCS membership fees.

At the July 11 board meeting, McGowan explained that the ABCS’ fee structure allows for members to buy into different campaigns, with the housing campaign running $750 and the provincial election campaign running at a cost yet to be determined. Fees for buying in to certain campaigns would be an additional cost to a base membership fee of $3239.10 per year (based on 16 594 full-time students at UVic).

That fee structure, McGowan said, “ensures recognition that different sized institutions have different capacities to pay, without penalizing members for being large.” But in speaking with Rogers, just the idea of introducing fees at all raised concern when she was a member of the ABCS board.

“In the wake of the CFS, and everything that went down with the numerous lawsuits [around CFS membership] that happened in B.C., I think folks were just wary of having membership fees,” Rogers said.

Kathleen Yang, former VP External at the Simon Fraser Student Society, which was never formally a member of the ABCS, said that fees also have the potential to cloud the democracy of the organization. “What made the ABCS different from the CFS was they weren’t going to collect fees so they wouldn’t have that whole [situation of], ‘Well, the AMS and UVSS contributed this amount of money therefore we should have more votes . . . and we should have more say,’” she explained.

“I think [the introduction of fees is] what led to a lot of people dropping out.”

The fragmenting of the ABCS was brought up by Jude Crasta, former AMS VP External, at an AMS board meeting last October. As reported by The Ubyssey on Oct. 22, Crasta said that “with so many people fractured from the ABCS [and] refusing to work with the ABCS, it’s not even asserting that mandate [of providing a unified student voice] any more.”

The Martlet reached out to Crasta as well as current AMS VP External Affairs Kathleen Simpson for this story but received no response from either at press time.

Minutes for a general meeting on Nov. 15, 2015, show finances were an issue as recently as last fall, and that the ABCS was owed $6 186.46 from student societies, but also owed $10 049.71 to both current and former members.

The minutes show debate took place around the assessment of membership fees and how to cost out campaigns. But perhaps most concerning for any society looking to join the organization’s ranks is a line that reads: “The focus, at present time, should be maintaining enough of a bank balance to ‘keep the lights on.’”

Minutes from a KSA board meeting on Oct. 16, 2015, include a report from McGowan stating that “several of the ABCS officers have resigned due to workload, internal issues at student associations [sic].”

This apparent instability didn’t seem to concern McGowan, however. Speaking to the Martlet, he said, “As we establish ourselves, it shouldn’t be hard for us to prove our value and worth to organizations, and so I don’t see that fluctuation in membership would be a major issue moving forward.”

However, issues with the ABCS go beyond just fees and political disagreements. On May 15, 2016, the ABCS tweeted that the board had approved its “Vision to 2020” strategic plan; but as noted by the news blog The Western Student, this document is not available on the ABCS website or anywhere else online.

When the Martlet asked McGowan if he could provide the strategic plan, we were told he could “send it along as long as we have finished touching it up.” But McGowan did not respond to the follow-up request for the document and has yet to do so at press time.

TAKING THE NEXT STEP

The question now is whether or not current UVSS executives see the value in joining an organization that, in the past, may not have offered much value to UVSS members and may lack the transparency needed in student politics.

Speaking to the Martlet on July 13, Maxwell Nicholson, current UVSS director of campaigns and community relations (formerly the director of external relations position) said: “I have differing feelings about [joining] . . . I’m sort of postponing that [decision] until I hear other opinions.”

Nicholson said there’s value in collaborating with a variety of student groups inside and outside the ABCS, including UBC AMS and SFSS. “Having coordination with those is just as vital as coordination with the other institutions in the ABCS,” he said.

The new director also praised McGowan’s efforts, saying that “he’s committed, very knowledgeable,” and able to “bring ABCS to the next level this year.”

But when asked if the UVSS should take the extra step towards membership, Rogers was much more direct: “No . . . I don’t think that we need to stamp a logo on our work.”

“UVic made the choice to leave,” said Lar-Son. “It’s kind of up to them [to rejoin]. It’s not a bad idea to work with your fellow students.”

Despite alluding to a discussion to be had at campaigns committee, Nicholson did not provide a timeline for when a final decision on membership will be made. As he says for now, “I’m sort of comfortable with the UVSS’ position working with and coordinating with [McGowan] and the ABCS while also coordinating heavily with Kathleen [Simpson] and Christine [Dyson, SFSS VP External] of the UBC and SFU.”

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