April 24, 2017

NOPIRG plans to stop student fee

Opt-outable $4 fee makes up almost half of organization’s revenue, says co-ordinator

Stuart Clark, ArtSci ’14, wants OPIRG to lose its opt-outable student fee.
Stuart Clark, ArtSci ’14, wants OPIRG to lose its opt-outable student fee.
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A ‘no’ campaign has been launched against the Ontario Public Interest Research Group’s opt-outable student fee. It’s the first time in the organization’s history at Queen’s.

The $4 fee has been in place since OPIRG was started at Queen’s in 1992. AMS student fees go up for renewal every three years.

“The chief motive behind the campaign is the use of student dollars or more precisely the misuse of them,” said Stuart Clark, chief organizer of the NOPIRG campaign.

On Jan. 24, Clark, ArtSci ’14, submitted a letter of intent to the AMS to register NOPIRG as an official ‘no’ campaign.

According to AMS policy, a ‘no’ campaign can be organized against a student fee referendum question. ‘No’ campaigns are entitled to a $50 budget and a maximum amount of 25 posters in accordance with AMS policy.

The campaign started last Tuesday under the Facebook page QSAFE.

Clark said around 24 volunteers have become involved with NOPIRG and have helped put up posters and deliver class talks for the campaign.

“Any contact that we’ve had with OPIRG has been largely confrontational unfortunately,” he said. “At the [cafeterias] we’ve had certain OPIRG sympathizers surround and yell at our volunteers.”

Clark said the volunteers have been called “fascist” and “racist.” Kavita Bissoondial, OPIRG Kingston coordinator wasn’t present during the incident and said she was unable to provide comment.

“This event lead to the adoption of student constables,” he said.

Patrick Allin, AMS speaker and chief electoral officer, said a student constable was offered to each group during the campaigning due to increasing hostilities. Only NOPIRG has utilized this thus far.

Allin, ArtSci ’13, said the AMS has been in regular contact with both parties and neither has violated the rules of AMS referendum, though supporters of both groups have “publically harassed and defamed members,” of the other group.

According to an AMS press release issued yesterday, those responsible will be held accountable under the non-academic discipline system.

Clark said NOPIRG doesn’t take much issue with OPIRG as a whole.

“The issue that we have is about the use of publically available funds for certain activities that don’t reflect the values of the entire community,” he said. Clark said right now QSAFE is committed to stopping OPIRG’s student fee.

“Even if they lose the ability to opt out, no student is prevented from making an individual contribution to the $30,000 salary of the co-ordinator,” he said.

Bissoondial said her salary becomes $24,000 after tax.

“I definitely do think that [NOPIRG] is personal,” she said. “The campaign about my salary is absurd.” Bissoondial, ArtSci ’10, said she has dedicated her life and work to community-organizing.

“Twenty-four thousand dollars for a recent Queen’s graduate, it’s not a lot of money,” she said, adding that hers is the only salary OPIRG Kingston pays for.

The focus of the NOPIRG campaign is on defining OPIRG as a political organization, Bissoondial said, adding that NOPIRG organizers believe OPIRG shouldn’t receive student funding.

Bissoondial said NOPIRG’s organizers have confused the political with the ideological.

“To me the issues that OPIRG works on, those being social and environmental justice … are not left issues but they’re issues that affect everyone,” she said. “We work on that to better all students.”

OPIRG Kingston is one of 12 provincial public interest research groups. They are all comprised of working groups that focus on social issues.

Bissoondial said the AMS student fee amounts to $36,000, almost half of the organization’s revenue.

Other sources of annual revenue include around $10,000 from the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) and $12,000 from an agreement with the other public interest research groups in Ontario.

The SGPS opt-outable OPIRG fee of $4.36 isn’t up for renewal until next March. The NOPIRG campaign only extends to the AMS student fee.

“OPIRG Kingston’s fee is actually the lowest of all the PIRGs in the province,” Bissoondial said.

The organization has thought about raising the fee in the past, she said, but this has never come to referendum.

“We recognize the climate on this campus,” she said.

Two weeks ago a similar campaign was launched at Carleton University to try and rally students to opt out of the $6.47 student fee. The results of the campaign haven’t been announced.

If OPIRG does lose the opt-outable fee Bissoondial said she would go to the AMS Annual General Meeting in March to try and bring it back.

“It’s not the end,” she said.

Bissoondial said on Thursday there was a verbal confrontation between OPIRG and NOPIRG volunteers.

“There was an argument, but it was a reciprocal situation,” she said.

OPIRG isn’t utilizing a student constable. “I don’t’ really understand the use or need for student constables, I feel like most of the attacks … have been online,” she said.

AMS Clubs Manager Craig Draeger took a three-day leave of absence from his position to join the NOPIRG campaign.

“I was dragged into the referendum campaign by a series of online assaults on my character, identity, and integrity that were supported by OPIRG affiliates,” Draeger told the Journal via email. “This included a very homophobic and queerphobic rant about my sexuality, as well as the misappropriation of my image by their previous Director.”

Draeger said his relationship with OPIRG in his professional position has revolved around making AMS-owned resources like funding and spaces available to them.

“The Clubs Manager has no responsibility ‘over’ an organization like OPIRG,” he wrote. “When I return to my job on Thursday morning, I will resume treating OPIRG with the respect and professionalism I have always displayed.”

This isn’t the first time students have campaigned against an initiative or fee.

In 2002, students campaigned against the AMS joining the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA). Though 50.1 per cent of voters voted against OUSA, the campaign was dismissed after it was found that it had violated campaign rules.

Campaigns against the Bus-It student fee, that allows students to ride Kingston Transit for free, have also been launched unsuccessfully.

'No' OPIRG campaigns

Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, 2012

Undergraduate students will vote whether or not to continue to provide student funding for OPIRG at Queen’s in the AMS referendum.

Nov. 25, 2011

The University of Toronto Graduate Student’s Union voted against removing OPIRG’s funding.

Sept. 15, 2011

An open letter, addressed to McGill students, is posted online entitled “QPIRG: Opt Out! Your Money, Their Politics”.

Aug. 5, 2011

SFPIRG faced a possible eviction at Simon Fraser University. They haven’t been evicted.

Jan. 21, 2009

Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association Campus Activism Training Sessions occur at three universities. Specific sessions include ‘Campaign Strategies and Tactics for Challenging and Defeating PIRG.’

— Meaghan Wray

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