Canadian graduate students vote Some election issues of note for graduate students

Much has been made about so-called “student issues” in the upcoming federal election on Oct. 19. Actually, the provinces are the ones directly responsible for post-secondary education – they make the laws concerning tuition rates (such as Manitoba’s cap on tuition tying fee hikes to inflation) and determine the operating grants that will be offered to universities. For undergraduate students, at least, federal policy impacts their education only indirectly.

Graduate students, on the other hand, are much more likely to deal directly with the federal government. Many graduate students seek Tri-council (CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC) grants, which are administered at the federal level. Students who are not intending to work in academia may in many cases end up working for federal agencies. Research often depends upon data that is gathered by these agencies. Also, the demographics of graduate students are different than undergraduates, and certain special-interest issues are more likely to apply to them.

Many issues of federal jurisdiction that have been discussed in this campaign either directly concern graduate education or are more likely to be of interest to graduate students. On many of these issues, the current government’s record has been less than stellar, and a new Conservative government would have to pull an about-face in order to support study and research at the graduate level.

Here are some key graduate student-related issues to watch out for in this election.

Government science and research

Under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, there have been numerous documented instances of government scientists, especially environmental scientists, being prevented from discussing their research with the media.

In 2011, when Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick was one of the authors of a paper in Nature concerning an ozone hole of unprecedented size in the Arctic, Environment Canada officials refused at first to allow him to speak to the press, though he expressed his desire to discuss the research in public. Media relations officials at Environment Canada provided answers in Tarasick’s name that, it later emerged, Tarasick was not involved in writing.

Tarasick was eventually allowed to speak, but by that time all the major stories about his research had already been written. An important discovery based in part on the work of a Canadian government scientist was reported to the public without that scientist’s insight – not because the scientist was unwilling to speak, but because senior bureaucrats decided for reasons that are still unclear that he should not be allowed to.

Numerous similar examples are discussed in a 2013 report by then-University of Victoria law student Clayton Greenwood. This report was sent along with a letter to the office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, triggering an investigation that is still ongoing with no end in sight.

The graduate students of today are training to be the federal scientists of tomorrow. But intelligent people will not want to work for agencies that will treat them so outrageously. Sidebarring the issue of democratic transparency, muzzling federal scientists is simply a bad long-term strategy.

Another issue is the cancellation of the long-form census. Though this makes a convenient government-bashing stick for anti-Harper partisans who care little for the data, there are many kinds of research that depend on detailed demographic information about Canadians. Informed decision-making by government, academia, and even business depends on this data. As sociologist Susan Prentice said in a public presentation on child care at the University of Manitoba, “if you don’t track it, it’s easy to ignore it.”

Speaking of federal data, as a cost-cutting measure, Fisheries and Oceans Canada closed seven of its 11 libraries last year, including the library at the Freshwater Institute adjacent to the University of Manitoba’s Fort Garry campus. Though a great deal of material was salvaged from the closures, and there is probably a legitimate discussion to be had about the merits of digital versus hard-copy archives for government libraries, a great deal has also been lost. The nature of the library business is that it will be decades before this loss is felt.

The graduate students of today will also be the federal statisticians and librarians of tomorrow. But these people will not want to enter a climate where decisions with long-term impact are made hastily in order to shore up a short-term balance sheet.

Even research that is being carried right now out may depend on timely access to information from federal sources. And in any event, the principles of an open and justly governed democracy demand that research that is conducted by public agencies be made available to the public. A change in direction on access to government science and government data collection and retention should be an election priority for graduate students in any field.

Tri-council funding levels

For several years now Tri-council funding for graduate scholarships has been stagnant. Looking at the average awards for the Canada Graduate Scholarships (CGS) at the master’s and doctorate levels from each of the councils, one sees very little change from 2009-2014 (unfortunately, CIHR’s poorly presented data prevents any longer-term perspective).

Of course, for anything related to annual operating costs, the lack of an annual increase is tantamount to a decrease. In real terms, CGS award amounts have been almost uniformly declining over this period.

The CGS is one of the major instruments for funding graduate students in Canada. The inflation-adjusted decrease in CGS award amounts causes increased pressure on Canadian graduate students to find ways to pay for their degrees. Perhaps most disturbingly, adjusted for inflation, the CIHR, which funds research in the health sciences, offered CGS awards that were on average smaller by $2,200 in 2014 than in 2009.

These scholarships represent a federal commitment to funding research and training researchers, and this commitment is gradually eroding. An increase in CGS funding amounts is long overdue.

Immigration and visitors to Canada

International students made up over a quarter of the graduate student body at the University of Manitoba as of 2014. While not strictly related to graduate education, immigration and issues concerning the social status of visitors to Canada are clearly of interest to graduate students.

The question of whether face coverings such as the niqab can be worn in citizenship ceremonies would seem to be a non-issue. But for something so seemingly irrelevant to the concerns of Canadians today, it has attained the strange status of a powerful electoral wedge. The Conservatives have taken their success on this front and run with it, pledging to consider a niqab ban for public sector workers and citizens seeking government services from federal agencies.

These proposals pretty clearly follow the model of France, where legislation and policies that ban face coverings and religious symbols per se in practice is meant to apply to the traditional attire of some Muslim sects. This is thinly veiled discrimination that has no place in a multicultural Canada.

Along with the proposed “barbaric cultural practices” tip line – a not-very-high-pitched dog whistle obviously meant to breed suspicion of Muslims – the niqab “issue” is a fairly clear-cut example of the Conservatives pandering to their base by stirring up anti-immigrant, and particularly anti-Muslim, hysteria. One hopes that there is nothing more to it than pandering, but that may be too much to hope for.

The recently enacted provisions of the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, which allow the government to strip the Canadian citizenship of dual citizens under certain circumstances, are another concern. This act is a major blow to the status of dual citizens and the thin edge of a potentially very dangerous wedge.

The last few weeks of this election campaign have seen a marked increase in high-temperature xenophobic rhetoric coming from the Conservative corner. At the high levels of the party it is doubtful that this rhetoric is sincerely believed – they only say these things because, apparently, it works. But the rage of the white middle class is a dangerous force to play with.

The kind of language being bandied about ought to be disturbing to any serious person; to immigrants or visitors from other countries, who make up a large portion of the graduate student population, I imagine it must be terrifying.

Academic integrity

Without getting into detail on the merits of specific policies vis a vis the environment, it’s fair to say that the current government has been less than willing to engage in open discussions on environmental issues. Its few concessions to environmentalists look more like appeasing manoeuvres to shut them up than genuine engagement.

Perhaps the most sordid example, recently reported by the Tyee, was the government’s years-long indulgence of former Harper aide and multiply convicted criminal Bruce Carson. The short version of the story is that Carson was appointed head of the federally funded Canada School of Energy and the Environment (CSEE) at the University of Calgary, a position he held while also serving as the vice chair of the Energy Policy Institute of Canada, an energy industry think tank. Carson has been charged with three counts of illegal lobbying in connection with these appointments.

Carson’s association with the CSEE undermines the school’s credibility from many different directions – Carson had no particular environmental credentials, he was elbow-deep in Tory politics and oil industry groups before and during his time as the CSEE’s director, and he was hired despite concerns about his multiple criminal convictions, which the University of Calgary declined to comment on when asked by the Calgary Herald in 2008.

Sidebarring concern about the environment per se, it is in the interests of graduate students to know that their institutions are being run with integrity, from the actions of their supervisors all the way up to senior administrative staff. Any research carried out at the CSEE during Carson’s time there is now suspect. Everyone who worked there while he did is tainted by association. The University of Calgary’s decision-making on this matter represents a culpable lapse of judgment at the very least.

The Conservative Party’s reputation on academic integrity is uniquely tarnished, and it will take dramatic evidence of a newfound commitment to integrity to restore it.

Feature image credits left to right: Alex Guibord (CC Attribution 2.0 Generic), Florence Cassisi (CC Attribution 4.0 International), Federal Government of Germany.

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