For any of you who don’t know me, my name is Cat Dunne and I am the Vice President of the USC. My role is to lead student advocacy and lobbying on behalf of the organization to all levels of government and Western’s university administration. I also have the pleasure of serving as President of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance where I represent over 150,000 university students across the province of Ontario.
When putting this speech together, I tried to think about where we were about a year ago when I began my USC journey as a candidate in the very same election students are putting nominations forward for this week.
Students were actively voicing their concerns about gender-based violence on campus.
Students were struggling to find summer internships and meaningful employment upon graduation – present company included.
Students continued to demand for more mental health services on campus.
Students were frustrated with the state of equity, diversity, and inclusion on campus and looking to the USC and Western for answers.
And almost to the day, students learned one year ago about the student choice initiative and the cuts to OSAP. Students were anxious and many began to question whether they would be able to return to school in September. The USC was facing significant uncertainty about the future of our organization and our capacity to advocate.
These concerns have shaped the priorities my portfolio – Mackenzy, Maham, PJ, and Matthew – has worked tirelessly to address for the past eight months.
The efforts made by the student leaders in my portfolio aided by the support from the full-time staff have allowed our portfolio to have many successes this year. Our work to holistically improve our students’ lives also could not have been possible without our incredible partners at Western, without the help of community organizations, city councillors and staff, provincial and federal politicians, and of course, our students.
Students wrote over 1000 letters to elevate the impacts of the cuts to OSAP.
Over 900,000 collective student voices supported a National Student Letter asking all federal parties to focus on Financial Aid, Undergraduate Research and Work-Integrated Learning, and support for International Students and Indigenous Students if elected to government.
Together, we are helping to amplify the voices of our students – and those voices are being heard.
The federal government recently committed to many of our long-term advocacy priorities related to student financial aid: to increase Canada Student Grants by 40%, increase the interest-free grace period from six months to two years, and increase promise graduates they won’t have to pay until they are making at least $35,000 annually. We witnessed a milestone investment of 1.5 million dollars in dedicated funding to implement a national framework for post-secondary institutions to combat gender-based violence. Finally, we witnessed a commitment to develop 84,000 new work-integrated learning opportunities for students by 2023.
Provincially, we secured over 60 meetings with Members of Provincial Parliament, Ministers, Parliamentary Assistants and Staffers in one week alone during OUSA’s Student Advocacy Conference. Over the past year, we have secured multiple meetings with members of the Ministry of Colleges and Universities, the Premier’s Office, and other relevant ministries. We are consulting on students’ concerns of gender-based violence, student financial aid, work-integrated learning and the need for significant investments in mental health to the highest levels of government – and I am optimistic about what changes are to come.
Municipally, we know that it has been a difficult year with financial pressures from the provincial government. In the last year, Bus Rapid Transit – an advocacy priority of the USC for over a decade – was not approved where students live and work. We still have much more work to do to ensure that BRT connects our students to where they live, work, learn, and play.
As the City begins a difficult budget cycle, the USC continues to provide perspective and input on issues that matter to students – transit, lighting, sidewalk clearing, sustainability and safety. We also continue to work on the implementation of the Safe Cities report, and work with various partners to develop bystander intervention training for bars and pubs on campus and in our community.
On campus, the USC advocated for a more survivor-centric and transparent gender-based and sexual violence policy review – and were successful. We elevated interfaith concerns and we are making changes to ensure that our prayer spaces are safe for students and that students of diverse faiths have access to chaplaincy services. We are working with the registrar’s office to implement modernized academic counselling, as well as increasing access to student financial aid for students experiencing financial and food insecurity.
And we still have federal and local advocacy weeks to come!
While tonight you are hearing me talk to you about my portfolio’s achievements, goals and vision, I truly believe that all good advocacy begins with listening. There is still much more we can do for students – and that requires a committed presence on campus to hear students’ everyday concerns and address them with appropriate stakeholders.
As much as I really wish I could be, one of my biggest takeaways from my term thus far, is that I cannot be in two places at once.
This is why I am deeply encouraged by our council’s support of our executive’s recommendation to create a new Vice President position responsible for advocacy.
Next year, my role will largely be divided between the Vice President External Affairs and the Vice President University Affairs. Together, these positions will not only be fierce advocates to all levels of government and the university, but they can also begin to tackle the visionary projects that our executive could only dream of having the capacity to begin.
This includes creating more comprehensive campaigns related to municipal, provincial, and federal issues to encourage civic engagement from our students at all levels of government; creating a dedicated position to help students understand their rights and responsibilities under university and academic policy; and focusing on growing our partnerships across Canada to create a more robust and cohesive student movement.
The addition of a new VP position will enshrine equity-based advocacy as a key responsibility of a member of the USC Executive to ensure the critical topic is no longer reliant on prioritization of each year’s executive team.
In sum, this change will ensure the advocacy-focused vice presidents have adequate capacity to meaningfully elevate the concerns of all students on our campus that come up throughout the year. Advocacy is at the heart of our organization’s mission, and we have reached a point where it is time to reflect this focus in the composition of our executive team.
I am incredibly optimistic about what it is to come for improving the quality of life for all undergraduate students at Western.