When Evolution Not Revolution won the Concordia Student Union (CSU) election they promised to improve relations with the administration, re-build Concordia’s reputation, improve the quality of life on campus, and increase transparency.
It has been four months since Evolution has held office and in a candid interview, CSU President Nathalie Pomerleau and VP Academic Vi Hoang speak openly about the CSU and how they are working to keep their promises.
Niketh Pareek: Let’s start with the biggest news so far. Your VP student life representative John Michael Toews, has been asked to resign by The Link because he has failed in his duties. In turn, he has charged that The Link stole a document off his computer.
Nathalie Pomerleau: He charged The Link [with] stealing documents off a computer when they had the permission to use that computer originally.
Pareek: But surely he knew by allowing the media to use his computer, problems could have occurred.
NP: He…the person, someone was supposed to be watching the reporter, and they stepped out to get water and in that time he managed to e-mail himself a word document.
Pareek: What are you going to do to address this problem?
NP: We are looking at the accusations The Link has suggested. We are working on some communication problems we [Toews and the CSU] have had in the past with each other.
Pareek: In the handbook you wrote that the CSU’s priority is to put students first. What do you mean by that?
NP: We felt that in the past the main focus of the CSU was to defend students’ rights outside the school, to focus on outside political events. Whereas we want to focus more on what is going on at Concordia, what affects students here; issues that maybe other people see as small but really affect the students who spend all their days on campus.
Pareek: What have you done for those students?
NP: We have created some lounge space on campus because there is a real lack of space on the GW Campus. We are also creating other lounge spaces, more club offices because currently clubs are sharing offices sometimes up to five to a room. We are also focusing on putting on events for students such as a large orientation and weekly movie nights to just having more of a fun environment on campus.
Pareek: Do you think that campus activities are more important to students than issues like health care and tuition?
NP: No, not that it’s more important, it’s just one aspect that has been ignored. We are obviously still focusing on things like campaigning to make sure the tuition remains frozen.
Pareek: What are you doing with respect to tuition then?
NP: We have been working with the other national and provincial organizations that we are members of, which are the CSA [Canadian Students Association] and the CFS [Canadian Federation of Students]. We participated in the one-day strike and protest with the CFSQ [Canadian Federation of Students of Quebec], which was also organized by FEUQ [La FEdEration Etudiante universitaire du QuEbec]. We also have a petition in our front office protesting that [rising tuition].
Pareek: How effective are these strategies in getting the provincial government to listen to student concerns with respect to tuition?
NP: I think they are fairly effective. If the universities and colleges work together as a large group and are organized, it can be very effective.
Pareek: The issue of politics is very important to the school. What happened last September is still fresh in the minds of everyone, and you have stated as part of your election campaign, Evolution would not deal with political issues. However, the Sept. 9 protest exposed deep fissures within the student body. Don’t you think that by ignoring the political aspect relevant to the student body, you are failing in your duties to represent your constituents?
NP: We are not ignoring the aspect, we are just allowing the individual clubs to take the majority of that. It’s not really fair for a large organization [the CSU] that represents all students to take sides on diverse political issues that do not really represent all students.
Pareek: But by allowing clubs to take the lead, how would you keep them in check? Last year, from what I remember there was all sorts of posturing campaigns where one side traded accusations of, well let’s be honest here, pretty horrific things. How would you prevent such events from occurring if you are not taking a stand on the issue. Aren’t you giving them free reign to cover the walls of Concordia? How will you reign them in?
NP: It is hard to take a stand and mediate in what they are doing and control what they are doing.
Pareek: I’m not asking you to take a side. Because this issue is so polarized, it appears you are reluctant to enter the realm of politics, and you are allowing individual clubs free reign. Do you think they will damage Concordia’s reputation and if so how will you reign them in, if things get out control?
VP academic Vi Hoang: In terms of this issue, we are not ignoring any groups, whereas last year, there were forces [in the CSU] that encouraged one group, allowed one group to have their say, and tried to suppress the other. Now what we want to do is to have all groups, everyone to expose their feelings, their thinking, so no one thinks that they are being [singled out].
Pareek: How do you promote dialogue if you are not going to be in that environment? Are you going to mediate this?
VH: In previous years, there was no mediation.
Pareek: The impression I am getting is that the CSU will not foray into politics at all, [will] let the clubs do what they want. The Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights invited Benjamin’s Netanyahu’s nephew to give a speech at Concordia. This could be another flash point. How do you control the clubs? What methods of control do you have, and why haven’t you used them?
VH: We have said this before. In terms of having people invite speakers, we encourage speakers being invited. Free speech is important. It’s important because last year there was a moratorium on tabling, which meant students were stifled.
If anything, knowing this speech was going to happen, the school could’ve decided to close down the building as a safety option. Or perhaps having it off campus. Encourage them to do things like that when it is clear it is a dangerous situation. They had the Oscar Peterson Hall, which is larger than the Hall Building. Why wasn’t it moved there? Why wasn’t that suggested? Why wasn’t that pushed for?
Pareek: Does that mean the CSU has the power to dictate where events can be held?
VH: In that situation apparently they had some say, maybe not dictating, but some say. In situations like that, the CSU could’ve held their ground. Students can foresee it would be dangerous. So if you can foresee it is dangerous why didn’t they clean it up, why didn’t they make it clearer. Not only did the talk not happen, but [also] lives were in danger.
Pareek: From what you’ve just described to me, what steps are you going to take to avoid this scenario?
VH: Depends on the situation
Pareek: Netanyahu’s nephew speaking at Concordia?
VH: If you can foresee it being it an issue then not having the speech in the middle of the day when everyone has class. If anything move it to the library room at Loyola, it’s [safer]. We will just close it off for a few hours…
Promises to ConU
Pareek: I’m going to move towards Evolution’s electoral promises. The issues you brought up were improving relations with the administration, improving the reputation of the school, and increasing transparency. Let’s start with the relationship with the administration.
Your group has faced much criticism when Evolution declared that co-operation with the administration was going to be the policy used. Some feared it would make the CSU subservient to the administration. How would you respond to these claims?
NP: There is a difference between treating someone with respect and being subservient. At some points in the past, the CSU would enter negotiations and demand things, then become very annoyed and frustrated, yell insults at people when demands weren’t met. This only infuriated the university. The administrator didn’t want to deal with the CSU if they only demanded. They were not required to give to them. We wanted to take a more respectful tone but there are times when we differ – on tuition – for example.
Pareek: Has this spirit of co-operation been productive? What have you accomplished?
NP: Yes, it has been productive. We have been given permission to set up lounge spaces. We are still working on our space plan that would provide quite a few club offices on the seventh floor, and the kitchen mosaic project.
Pareek: What’s the kitchen mosaic project?
NP: It’s a student run cafeteria…Different clubs from different ethnic groups can prepare and serve their own foods, so students can have a more multi-ethnic cafeteria
VH: It’ll be on the seventh floor.
Pareek: I’d like to talk about Concordia’s fragile reputation. With the uncertainty surrounding education funding, the university is looking to outside sources for funds, alumni and corporations in particular. What are you doing to restore their confidence with the university?
NP: We have been going to some alumni events and focusing on getting positive media attention, had a press conference…get positive things out there.
Scandals at ConU
Pareek: The administration arresting an elected member of the CSU brought media attention to the school, how was this helpful?
NP: I don’t think it was helpful in improving the reputation of the school at all, with the police on campus again!
Pareek: How did you feel stating you want to work with the administration, and they turn around and arrest an elected member of your organization?
NP: It was frustrating.
Pareek: On the issue of transparency, I have two topics. The first deals with electoral fraud. What are you going to be doing about it for the next election?
NP: The problem with elections is that another person runs it. The [person] is an employee of the CSU but it’s not something the CSU can step in and change. It is run by the [Chief Electoral Officer] of the election. I know she wants to make some changes for the next election. Perhaps not running ballots in the election. Council will make suggestions, but ultimately it’s up to her.
Pareek: The second topic concerns financial control. A few years ago, a CSU executive stole $193,000. Has the money been recovered?
NP: The person has been caught. We have a legal case against her where she owes us over $240,000. Money she stole as well as lawyer fees, and other penalties. We’re going through the process of taking it from her salary for years upon years until it’s paid back.
Pareek: What controls are in place to prevent this from happening again?
NP: In the past, the CSU only had a bookkeeper. Now we have a registered chartered accountant on staff. She goes over everything, and is the only person who writes the cheques. That way people can’t decide to print cheques to themselves. VP Finance Tyler Wordsworth and I are the only signing officers. After he approves the request, the accountant makes sure everything is valid, and on budget. Only then can we both sign the cheque. Also, because we are accredited, we have monthly audits performed.
Pareek: Finally, you’ve been an officer since June. When you finished your term, what do you hope to have accomplished?
NP: I hope we significantly reduce the number of TBA’s [To Be Announced] in the schedule. I’m hoping students will feel like they belong on campus, feel more comfortable staying here between classes and participate in the events organized here.
We have a lot more space on campus for students to stay here instead of going to cafE’s to study or sit down. Also, a lot of events planned by the clubs never got the word out. Hopefully, when our newsletter gets out, people will be more informed.
Pareek: Thank You.
Editor’s note: The interview took place two weeks before Netanyahu’s nephew Eric Ben-Artzi spoke at Concordia.