UPDATE: UVSS, NSU oppose UPS conference after granting $6000 in funding

Photo by the Martlet.

Photo by the Martlet.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Blake Desjarlais as the administrative councillor for NSU; he is in fact the firekeeper. We sincerely regret the error.

The print version of this article also stated the conference’s topic was national sovereignty. In fact, the title of the conference is meant to reflect a move away from state-centric ideas of sovereignty. 

On Nov. 2, the UVSS and Native Students Union (NSU) voiced their opposition to the annual Canadian Political Science Students’ Association (CPSSA) National Conference, titled Modern Discourses on Sovereignty: Land, Bodies, and Borders, slated to take place January 2016 at UVic. This opposition was based on the grounds that the CPSSA failed to include any campus indigenous groups — including the NSU — in the initial planning, or seek the consent of those groups for hosting the conference at UVic.

The board’s opposition came on the heels of a presentation at the same meeting by the Undergraduates of Political Science (UPS) course union, where the board was to vote on a motion approving a $6 000 academic grant to the student union for the conference.

This grant had already been approved by the Course Union Council (CUC) in a meeting on Oct. 7, but all academic grants in excess of $2 000 must have further approval by the board. That motion for approval was tabled from a previous board meeting on Oct. 26, pending a presentation by the UPS.

Wesley Boyd and Kayleigh Erickson, UPS President and Vice-President respectively, were joined by Maks Zouboules, CPSSA social committee chair, in presenting to the board.

The three were enthusiastic about UVic hosting the conference, now in its 20th year. They said the conference had “a lot of departmental support,” and that they were trying to be as inclusive as possible in planning speakers, particularly with including indigenous voices.

However, NSU firekeeper and board representative Blake Desjarlais said it was concerning that the conference was going ahead without indigenous groups’ prior consent.

Speaking with Desjarlais after the meeting, he said that his primary concern was “what the rhetoric [was] going to be behind [the conference].”

“Of course, it’s what we thought it would be [which is] more damaging rhetoric than productive rhetoric due to a lack or exclusion of indigenous voices,” he said.

This was addressed to Boyd, Erickson, and Zouboules directly at the meeting.

“You’re already at the point of logistics,” said Desjarlais, which he said was too far in the process to start bringing in indigenous voices, and was “tremendously offensive.” He then called on the board to reject the motion for funding, as the NSU council had voted to do.

However, it was revealed during the meeting that a cheque for $6 000 had already been written before it could be properly approved by the board.

None of the executives present could explain how the error was made, nor could they identify who had signed the cheque, but Chairperson Brontë Renwick-Shields made it clear that whoever wrote the cheque would be held accountable.

According to Bylaw 12.3 of the UVSS Constitution and Bylaws, signing officers of the Students’ Society include the Chairperson (Renwick-Shields), the Director of Student Affairs (Kaylee Szakacs), Director of Finance and Operations (Tristan Ryan), Director of Events (Solenn Madevon), Director of External Relations (Kenya Rogers), and the General Manager (Dale Robertson). The bylaw also states that the “signatures of the General Manager and any two of the executive directors shall be required for the disbursement of any funds or the execution of any funds or the execution of any legal documents on behalf of the Students’ Society.”

Robertson was absent from the meeting, as was Szakacs.

The meeting continued with the three parties — UVSS, NSU, and UPS — trying to address the repercussions of cancelling or delaying the conference, and how the board should proceed.

Boyd said he had personally incurred personal costs for the conference, and so to cancel any contracts related to it would be a burden on him. It would also come with financial and legal repercussions. Desjarlais encouraged the board to offer their support to Boyd and the UPS should there be further costs involved.

Rogers said that the board needs to be part of reconciling the damage caused.

Renwick-Shields concurred. “We made an error here.”

Aaron El Sabrout, the Students of Colour Collective (SOCC) board representative, said there needs to be reform on how money comes out of the UVSS, especially as it pertains to advocacy groups.

Ultimately, it remains unclear how this will unfold, or how the UVSS will reconcile the damage done, both to the NSU and the UPS.

Speaking with the Martlet afterwards, Desjarlais said that the problem is fundamental to the society’s governance structure, and that significant changes need to be made in order to move forward.

“It’s a symptom of an inherited consequence of how institutions like this run, whether that be the NSU, the Martlet, or the UVSS,” he said. “When new people come into positions, they inherit certain qualities that make them inefficient, or in my words, bad medicine. And it takes efforts of boards like the UVSS and the NSU to recognize those things, even though it comes at a cost, to move forward and break those institutional inheritances, that bad medicine, in order to provide opportunities for growth.”

Desjarlais hopes that good can come from it, and says he’s open to working with the UPS and CPSSA in the future. “Events like this [conference] should take place, but there’s a process,” he told the UPS at the meeting.

“We want, ultimately, accountability, but we want to do it in a good way.”

The Martlet will have more on this story as it develops.

7 Comments

Avatar Justin D. Whitehead

Blake Desjarlais said that the conference represented “… more damaging rhetoric than productive rhetoric due to a lack or exclusion of indigenous voices.” Is this really the case?

Wesley Boyd is himself an indigenous student. He is the president of the UPS. At the Course Union Council meeting, Wesley also indicated that there was much involvement by some within the faculty of Indigenous Studies as well as invites sent out to other potential indigenous speakers.

The facts at hand do not support the assessment Desjarlais made. Alternatively, Desjarlais stated that he found it “tremendously offensive” that the UPS did not come to the NSU immediately to seek their consent. The fact that Desjarlais and the NSU were offended is not in dispute. Wesley and the UPS apologized for not including the NSU earlier on in the process.

The reaction to all of this seems far more punitive than anything. Desjarlais stated that he thinks that conferences like this should take place, but indicates that there is “a process” involved before they are to take place. As the UVSS agreed with Desjarlais’ assessments, should all Course Unions & Clubs of the UVSS be operating under this unwritten “process” when planning any events in the community?

As a Co-Chairperson for the Philosophy Student’s Union, I would certainly like to know. The last Course Union Council meeting also had several other Course Union leaders asking similar questions. Is this now UVSS policy? Does the NSU have ultimate authority to either give or withhold consent for any/all events, conferences, debates, etc… held by Course Unions or Clubs within the community? Did the NSU not welcome the UVSS to operate on these unceded territories? Are Course Unions and Clubs not a part of the UVSS?

The facts show, as Wesley is himself an indigenous student, he had made efforts to include academics from the Indigenous Studies department, and extended invites to other indigenous speakers for this conference, that the decision here by the NSU was made more due to the offense they felt by not specifically themselves being asked for consent and involvement, rather than any actual question of the involvement of indigenous persons in this conference.

Avatar Romy

UThis is a really great point to bring up. As the UVSS is a governance body, it is within their responsibility to make sure that their practices align with their policies. The next step for the UVSS would be to produce the particular policy/procedure that justifies this decision. I’d be interested to know if there is precedent for student conferences requiring explicit permission from advocacy groups (and this particular advocacy group) before entering the planning stages.

Avatar Noah

It comes, again, at a time when advocacy groups are aggressively clamoring for more student funds, and shaming UVSS members whenever money is used for any other purposes then theirs. Is it just a big coincidence that when money is involved the NSU feels offended that they weren’t personally consulted?

Avatar Romy

Having been part of the planning of Canadian Political Science Students’ Association (CPSSA) national conferences in the past, my opinion is that the judgement of the UVSS board is misguided.

The position that the NSU firekeeper has taken (in feeling offended that indigenous groups haven’t been involved in the planning process) would be appropriate if this conference were being organized with a cultural or social justice premise. That would be justified, and rightly so. However, CPSSA conferences are academic in nature – they are not social justice conferences, they are undergraduate political science conferences. The inclusion of groups beyond academic groups in the planning process is not necessary. The inclusion of other groups at the conference itself (in the form of guests, speakers, presenters, etc) is, however, an appropriate space to do so because it adds diverse voices and perspectives to the discussion, which is what I speculate the NSU values and would like to see at this conference. It is entirely reasonable to have a planning committee made up of academics for an academic conference. By extension, it is entirely reasonable to have a planning committee made up of political science students for a conference that is for the discipline of political science. Moreover, there is no authority, from my understanding of Canadian post-secondary, that dictates that political science students have to be/are of a particular racial background, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, culture, etc etc etc… in other words, political science students can be all of colours, shapes, and sizes, so an argument of racial/cultural inclusion or exclusion is unreasonable.

Now for a more frank point of view, if you’re still with me:
Look, I understand and advocate for the importance of diversity and the inclusion of indigenous voices at any table. I, myself, am an advocate for the recognition of traditional indigenous land and consider myself a vocal ally to aboriginal issues. That said, with the facts provided above, I call on those student leaders who made the decision to pull funding and publicly oppose this undergraduate (emphasis on undergraduate) conference to take a step back and give this situation a second thought. Post-secondary studies, and specifically undergraduate disciplines, are a place to learn and grow – and a space to learn the skill of critical thinking. Political science as a discipline is an especially great example of an exercise in critical thinking due to its inherent analysis and challenge of local, provincial, and national governance practices. CPSSA is the only known undergraduate space for these sorts of conversations to happen among students. I challenge the UVSS to exercise leadership and give this another chance.

Avatar Noah

Since when was Blake Desjarlais elected the gatekeeper of Indigenous voices on this Campus? Does he think there are no indigenous students in Political Science? How much longer will we put up with this kind of self aggrandizing sophistry by unelected individuals who put politics before students?

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