LeBlanc: Don’t make uOttawa students choose between books and food
For a year and a half, I worked at the food bank at the University of Ottawa.
It was extremely rewarding work, but it was also all-consuming. Keeping the food bank open five days a week without full-time staff was very difficult, and I was always unloading deliveries or trekking across town to pick up bread.
Even though roughly 300 to 400 students a month depend on the food bank, including many with children, the food bank only has stable funding until April 30. If funding is not secured on time, the university must pick up the bill or vulnerable students will suffer. Moreover, the university should create and publicize a contingency plan to protect this service, instead of keeping students in the dark.
There are two reasons why the food bank, which is funded and run by the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), is in trouble. First, the Ontario Progressive Conservative government made student union dues optional. Without guaranteed funding, the food bank and other crucial student union services will be in danger. Long-term budgeting will be impossible. Can you imagine the stress of scrounging up enough money for a new freezer when you have no idea how much money the food bank will receive next year?
The second thing jeopardizing the food bank is the dispute between the university and the student union. After allegations of financial mismanagement at the SFUO, the university administration announced it was cutting ties with the union, which put its funding — and very existence — in danger. uOttawa then held a campus-wide referendum on whether students wanted to keep the current union or choose a new organization. On Monday, the results came out resoundingly in favour of scrapping the existing student union and starting from scratch.
After the referendum, the university released a bombshell: The new student union will have to “secure the agreement of undergraduate students” for each individual service’s funding to be transferred. The food bank, and all other services, will need to pass another campus-wide funding vote. Until that vote passes, there’s no funding lined up past April, meaning the new union only has until the end of this semester to fix this. If this vote fails, the funding will run out and services such as the food bank will be defunded. The stakes are dangerously high.
The university’s decision to blindside students by requiring all SFUO services to be voted on again by students is an erosion of student health and safety. Students already voted to fund these services, over a period of decades, but the university is arbitrarily requiring that the new union redo the whole process within a couple of months. And with a brand new student union, something could backfire, resulting in the defunding of crucial services. The university’s move is further exacerbated by its refusal to protect any of the services, including the lifesaving food bank. Although the new policy set by the provincial government makes this difficult, uOttawa is clearly capable of saving a small food bank. Moreover, there are over a dozen other student union-run services in jeopardy. Many are essential to the well-being of students, such as the Pride Centre, the Indigenous and Racialized Students Centre, and the Centre for Students With Disabilities.
It’s been a tough year for students. The Ontario government drastically slashed OSAP, which will force some students to decide between paying tuition or putting food on the table. After raising tuition every year for over a decade, the least uOttawa can do is keep the lights on at the food bank. I’m calling on the university to stopgap the food bank’s funding and create publicly available contingency plans for other crucial student union services such as the Pride Centre. If uOttawa is forcing the new student union to re-establish every cent of its funding, it must have a backup plan for essential services. Campus life and student safety are in danger, and uOttawa needs to take this much more seriously.