New Public Interest Research Group conditionally accepted by UVSS

Campus News

Funding for PIRG will not be put to referendum, against recommendation from former UVSS Chief Electoral Officer

File photo by Belle White

Last week, the UVSS Board of Directors gave their conditional approval to the installation of a new Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) in the Student Union Building. In addition, the board decided not to put the PIRG funding to a referendum as recommended by the former UVSS Chief Electoral Officer after the results of a referendum on the funding of the former Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG) — which terminated their relationship with the UVSS in August — was ruled invalid

The goal of a PIRG is to conduct research of interest to the public and through that research they hope to foster progressive political and social change. Some issues that PIRGS have lobbied on behalf of are minimum wage, environmental regulations, and open educational resources (OERs).

In their time at UVic, VIPIRG conducted research on and lobbied for the construction of more low-income housing in Victoria, food security, tenant rights, mental health, and solutions for the opioid crisis.

It’s been a long road to the formation of a new PIRG at UVic, and it’s not over yet. Here’s a brief breakdown of the situation so far.

Background

On August 26, the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG) abruptly terminated their lease agreement with the UVSS and relocated to their new office on Fifth Street. Although the move itself was sudden, the termination of the long-standing relationship between the two groups was unsurprising after the previous UVSS Board put VIPIRG’s funding to a contentious and inconclusive referendum. 

Since then, VIPIRG’s funding has still been collected through students’ UVSS fees — $3.00 for full-time students and $1.50 for part-time students — and held in trust as the UVSS board discussed how to move forward.

At the UVSS Board meeting on December 2, the UVSS decided to request proposals for a new Public Interest Research Group. If accepted, the VIPIRG funding would be given to this new group. In their request, which closed Jan. 3, the UVSS made clear that the new group would need to conduct research in the interest of the needs of the community, adhere to the B.C. Societies Act (which governs all not-for-profit organizations in the province), and be non-partisan in the carrying out of their duties. 

The search for a new PIRG

The Board unveiled the shortlisted PIRG group at the Jan. 13 emergency Board of Directors meeting, where members of the potential PIRG presented and answered questions from Board members. Representing the PIRG for this presentation were graduate student Kenya Rogers, as well as undergraduates Hanseen Ghebari and Joshua Ngenda (Photo Editor at the Martlet). 

In a 10-minute presentation to the assorted audience of UVSS Board Members and Martlet reporters, the trio of presenters expressed a desire that their new PIRG would focus on the needs of both the UVic community and wider Victoria community. 

Ngenda and Rogers stressed that they feel collaboration is key to rebuilding relationships between a PIRG and the SUB’s occupants, and Rogers added that the consultation of advocacy groups would be welcomed by the new PIRG.   

When questioned by the board, Rogers stated that some members of the new PIRG had been involved in VIPIRG in various capacities, but had not been involved at the time of the group’s exit.

After the meeting, the group — known as the UVic PIRG — was conditionally accepted by the UVSS. However, this decision is, as clarified in an email from Juliet Watts, UVSS Director of Campaigns and Community Relations, pending the revision of the UVic PIRG’s constitution and bylaws “to better reflect the affiliated nature of the group.” After these revisions and the first UVic PIRG Annual General Meeting, the Board will vote to officially accept the proposal.

A new PIRG

The new UVic PIRG is made up of 11 members — five are undergraduates, three (including Rogers) are graduate students, and the remaining three are community members. 

“A lot of the folks who are engaged in this work are already involved in particular research methodologies that work to decolonize their practice,” Rogers said in a phone interview with the Martlet. She believes this will allow the group to “[move] away from a framework of research that is extractive and really centering in being in good relationships with folks.” 

Given the complicated history of PIRGs in the SUB, Rogers said that UVic PIRG will have to work to create relationships with the UVSS, the GSS, as well as advocacy groups so that they “aren’t feeling siloed or isolated.”  The model for conducting research will be based around the tenets of reciprocity and building relationships within the research community.

The UVic PIRG hopes to work not just with the UVic community and advocacy groups, but also with local Indigenous nations. Through this, Rogers said they hope that the UVic PIRG will be able to represent the community as a whole. 

“We see it as our responsibility to get out into the community and that’s going to mean … a really broad outreach strategy — getting on the ground and meeting folks where they’re at and having conversations about what type of work our stakeholders are interested in,” Rogers said, regarding how research projects will be chosen.

Logistics and funding

There was, however, another initial caveat to the UVic PIRG’s acceptance.

In the UVSS’s 2019 Annual Survey, they asked if students would be willing to continue paying the fee needed to support the work of a new PIRG. Although the results of this survey are not yet public, at an emergency meeting on Jan. 16 the UVSS voted on whether to put the fee levy to a referendum as recommended by the former UVSS Chief Electoral Officer (CEO).

The UVic Society for Students with a Disability (SSD) and the Engineering Students’ Society (ESS) both submitted letters stating that their support for a new referendum stemmed both from a belief that students should have a right to choose whether or not they fund new services established by the UVSS, and that the installation of a new PIRG without a referendum would go directly against the recommendation of the former UVSS CEO.

Despite the letters of support for a referendum, the motion did not pass during the 48-minute meeting. 

The board is scheduled to give a more detailed update on the 20th of January, and there are still many details to be worked out surrounding the new PIRG.