The University of Manitoba Graduate Students’ Association (UMGSA) has had a rocky organizational history. This was most evident in the 2000-2001 school year, when the graduate student union was at the centre of a number of controversies and upheavals driven by their nemesis and president of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU), Steven Fletcher.
Fletcher is now better known as the former Conservative Member of Parliament for Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia, ousted in a surprise upset in the Oct. 19 election. He was a busy backbencher, perhaps now most famous for his advocacy on disability issues and his well-considered opinions on assisted suicide and end of life.
But in 2000, Fletcher was a fiery MBA student with rhetorical flair and a ruthless mind for business. And he was president of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU), of which UMGSA was then a subgroup.
There had been talk of UMGSA’s separation from UMSU for many years before Fletcher – there were even several motions carried to that effect, but none of them stuck. This talk intensified in the combative climate of Fletcher’s second year at UMSU’s helm.
Though Fletcher criticized the voting process and threatened not to recognize the results, a separation referendum was set for Oct. 26-30. An overwhelming 92 per cent of voters were in favour of secession from UMSU, with 19 per cent voter turnout (unusually high for student elections of this period). Only 36 students voted against secession.
This election did not remove UMGSA from UMSU, but it gave them an unmistakeable mandate to pursue autonomy as far as they could. At a Nov. 30 council meeting, UMGSA announced that it would unilaterally end an agreement with UMSU – the first step in leaving the union, as the university’s board of governors would not consider an independent UMGSA as long as the contract stood.
Through this process, Fletcher maintained that UMGSA was mismanaging money and that an independent graduate student union would have higher fees, fewer resources, and less representation in university governance. He distributed literature to that effect and frequently appeared in the pages of the Manitoban to oppose the secession.
Membership in CFS
At this time, UMSU was a member of a right-leaning national organization known as the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations. There was talk in the air of joining the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), the demonstrative left-wing national union of which the University of Winnipeg and Brandon University student associations were already members.
Fletcher’s opponents at UMGSA were very much in favour of CFS membership, with Fletcher’s arch-enemy on the UMGSA council Krishna Lalbiharie explicitly stumping for them on several occasions. UMGSA decided to hold another referendum in January 2001 on whether to pursue membership in CFS.
Fletcher would have none of it. He decried CFS as “the terrorists of the student movement” and wrote a lengthy article in the Manitoban opposing UMGSA’s separatism and any association with CFS.
In the lead-up to the referendum, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations mailed out anti-CFS literature to U of M grad students and U of W students in joint graduate programs. However, this had little effect – the referendum was 80.5 per cent in favour of CFS membership with 18 per cent turnout.
Fletcher continued to criticize UMGSA and questioned the legitimacy of the referendum. He alluded to a written complaint he had received from a student who claimed to have been “intimidated by hired goons from across the country.”
The UMSU election
With UMSU’s support critical to the projects of secession and CFS membership, UMGSA hoped for Lalbiharie to win the presidency in the 2001 UMSU general election. Though Fletcher was not running in the election, he still did not want Lalbiharie to win, and he continued to write anti-UMGSA and anti-CFS articles in the Manitoban.
On Feb. 24, with the assistance of UMSU vice-president Colleen Bready and a security services officer, Fletcher entered the offices of several student groups he said were suspected of hiding illicit pro-Lalbiharie campaign materials.
These groups included the Womyn’s Centre, Rainbow Pride Mosaic, the U of M Recycling Group, and UMGSA. The groups were not notified in advance, and at least one of them was unaware of the search until the Manitoban contacted them to interview them about it.
Although most of the offices searched belonged to student groups overseen by UMSU, one was the Manitoban – which has a special agreement that guarantees funding from students to be collected by UMSU while allowing the paper to exist as a separate corporation in order to preserve editorial integrity (the Manitoban has a broadly similar arrangement with UMGSA to produce the Gradzette).
Bready entered the Manitoban‘s office over the objections of then-editor-in-chief Phil Koch. Koch had offered to walk her through the office, but she entered unilaterally before he arrived on campus, claiming that he had in fact given her permission. No campaign materials were found.
In the end, Lalbiharie lost the election by a few hundred votes. However, UMGSA’s president and vice president were re-elected, and the new UMSU president and vice-president, while sharing many of Fletcher’s policy positions, were less committed to his aggressive and confrontational style of conducting business.
Though the new executive continued to oppose the graduate students’ independence, they promised to work with UMGSA on a number of issues.
Engineering student Chad Silverman, the sole outspokenly anti-secession candidate for UMGSA council, lost an uncontested race for his seat.
In reading this history, it becomes clear that a lot of this organizational upheaval was driven by personal dislike of Fletcher. He characterized the UMGSA as “all over the map” on the question of whether relations with UMSU were positive, citing the 1999 outgoing UMGSA president’s cordial letter to UMSU at the end of his term.
“One year the relationship between UMSU and GSA is ‘hunky dory,’ the next year things, apparently, are not,” Fletcher wrote in the Manitoban.
The major difference from one year to the next was, of course, Fletcher’s presidency. His tenure, which began in the 1999-2000 year, kicked off the sourest era of UMSU-UMGSA relations that ever occurred, leading one to wonder what the structure of the student unions might be like today had Fletcher never become president.
In any event, most of Fletcher’s doomsaying predictions have not come true in the intervening 15 years. The UMGSA has not collapsed under the weight of its own expenses as he was sure it would if left unaided. The graduate students have their own organization that provides a very different kind of service and advocacy that is more appealing and useful to this older, more educated demographic. All this is more or less as Fletcher’s opponents at the time said it would be.
However, some of Fletcher’s predictions now seem prophetic, such as his warning that an independent UMGSA would lose almost all say in how space was used at University Centre. For better or for worse, the commercialization of this building – a process that Fletcher launched, opening up a number of UMSU businesses and bringing Starbucks on campus – has been largely driven by UMSU for its own benefit.
Perhaps most interesting are Fletcher’s warnings about the graduate students’ membership in CFS, which has come back to haunt them 15 years down the line. UMGSA currently maintains that it is not and technically never was a member, while CFS insists that it is. Disputes over CFS membership are commonplace across the country, and the national union has not been shy about taking disputed members to court.
A recent article in the Manitoban reported on the Cape Breton University Students’ Union’s court loss to CFS in which the former’s defederation referendum was ruled invalid. The Cape Breton union was slapped with $400,000 in damages and court costs, which amounts to 80 per cent of their annual budget.
UMGSA is not quite in the same boat, but it’s hard not to wonder whether there’s a CFS lawsuit in their near future. And while Steven Fletcher has gone on to bigger and better things, I almost expect a two-page op-ed in the next Manitoban with a headline of “I told you so.”
This article will be published in condensed form in the December 2015 issue of the Gradzette. Be sure to pick up the issue for features on music, archival studies, and indigenous issues on campus.
For more on the Fletcher-UMGSA-CFS affair, consult the U of M Libraries’ digital archive of past issues of the Manitoban.
Feature image credit: Beibei Lu for the Manitoban.