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Student lobby group pressures leaders on Parliament Hill

By Fabian Mayer, November 27 2014 —

Student leaders from across Canada gathered in Ottawa last week for the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations’ (CASA) annual advocacy week. CASA met with around 140 MPs, senators and policy-makers to push student interests at the federal level.

“We had about 60 student delegates in attendance who were acting as lobbyists for the organization. Those 60 students collectively represent about 400,000 students across the country,” said Travis Gordon, CASA board chair and University of Prince Edward Island Students’ Union vice-president academic and external.

Discussion focused on access to financial aid, student mental health, youth unemployment and research.

University of Calgary Students’ Union president Jarett Henry and vice-president external Levi Nilson attended the conference. They met with high-profile politicians including Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau.

Nilson met with Calgary area MPs and senators, as well as Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May. Nilson’s advocacy efforts focused on expanding the Canada Student Grant Program.

“Student aid is more accessible to students but it’s in the form of repayable student aid such as student loans. The grant program — non-repayable student aid — is fantastic, but it hasn’t really kept up with inflation and rising tuition fees,” Nilson said.

Student leaders also advocated for a campaign to decrease stigma around mental-health problems, removing caps on financial support for aboriginal students, changing the way income affects federal student loans, labour market research and increased funding to offset research costs.

Nilson was surprised by how their recommendations were received.

“With the potential budget surplus there’s a little bit more wiggle room and receptiveness to some of our big asks,” Nilson said. “We try to be really pragmatic and realistic. The grant program ask is $173 million but people were receptive to it.”

CASA passed two advocacy policies last week, one to move money from university tax credits to non-refundable grants and another to eliminate funding limitations  for students with parents or a spouse who make over $60,000 per year.

Gordon said that no policy is a higher priority than any of the others.

“I think they all pertain to key student issues. CASA’s values overall are that we want a post-secondary education system that is accessible, affordable, innovative and of the highest quality. I can’t really say if any of those are more important than the other,” Gordon said.

While Gordon believes their lobbying efforts will make a difference, he said they won’t know for sure until the next federal election in 2015.

“The federal budget, when that’s dropped for 2015, will be the true tell-all,” Gordon said.

Gordon said all federal parties seemed equally receptive to student issues.

“As an organization we pride ourselves on being explicitly non-partisan. A lot of the recommendations we have to make the post-secondary education system better have received broad cross-party support,” Gordon said.

Nilson said he believes that last week’s advocacy efforts will result in tangible policy changes and MPs will keep student issues on the agenda.

“We are really optimistic, especially with the reception we got,” Nilson said. “We asked [MPs] to bring [advocacy week] up in caucus. We asked them for questions in question period.”

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