A group of students led by a recruiter for the provincial Young Progressive Conservatives is putting NSPIRG's feet to the fire.
The left-leaning Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group, a fixture on Dalhousie's campus for nearly 20 years, faces loss of its core funding from the Dalhousie Student Union if a controversial motion passes at the union's annual general meeting April 1.
The battle seems to have a ripple effect well beyond campus. Organizations including Oxfam, the Ecology Action Centre, the Atlantic Council for International Co-operation and others have spoken up in support of the student-run PIRG.
NSPIRG runs on a model started at American universities in the 1970s. Its mandate includes "research, education and action on social and environmental issues," both on campus and in the broader community, according to program coordinator Angela Day. There are more than 15 PIRGs in Canada and over 200 in the US.
NSPIRG's projects and campaigns depend on its inherently transitory student population. (Full disclosure: I was a student volunteer for PIRG in 2001.) Presently, NSPIRG initiatives are a community garden, a campaign against a garbage dump in the black community of Lincolnville and Students' Coalition Against War, among others. PIRG has also published 17 studies on topics ranging from homeless youth to colonialism.
PIRG's budget pays for two part-time employees, overhead and funding for working groups and research grants for students. Like other PIRGs, it is funded through a levy, approved in a 1991 referendum, of two dollars per semester per student.
Therein lies the rub, according to Ben Wedge, administrator of stopnspirg.org. Wedge says his campaign against PIRG is "about accountability." The organization's $64,000 budget includes "80 percent overhead. Very little of their funding gets to actually help any group."
Stopnspirg.org wants DSU to evict NSPIRG from its campus office and withhold its funding. Failing that, the group is circulating a petition asking for a new referendum on PIRG's student levy.
In Ontario last week, reports surfaced of Conservative Party workshops for university students on strategies for undermining PIRGs---though Wedge denies any knowledge or connection to these workshops.
Regardless of who's leading the charge, Wedge's campaign has local community groups shaking their heads. "We've collaborated with PIRG on many different issues over the last 15 years," says Brian O'Neill of Oxfam, an international social justice advocacy group. "At times I'm amazed of the breadth of activities that are generated by PIRG, given the limited financial resources applied to staffing."
Lauren Dale of the Atlantic Refugee and Immigrant Service Society agrees. "Support from NSPIRG has been crucial to the existence of ARISS," she says.
Lyndon Hibbert of Fight for Justice, an East Preston-based organization that initiated the Save Lincolnville campaign, chimes in to say that NSPIRG was "instrumental from the beginning" in providing legal and advocacy support to the campaign.
Although Wedge admits that Lincolnville is a "good campaign," he insists that the fact the group is "no longer run by students" (referring to PIRG's one non-student employee) means it should not get funding from the general student body.
Angela Day counters that the new group has ideological bones to pick. She notes that while Wedge's group has offered to give surplus from donations to its website to Feed Nova Scotia, "PIRG does public education on questions like 'why do people have to rely on the food bank?' We try to explain why there's so much food in the world people don't have access to. Meanwhile, they attack us."
Wedge insists his group contains views from across the political spectrum, even though he is a recruiter for the Young PCs, and PIRG funding is really a "campus issue."
He may be right: Regardless of community support, it seems that PIRG could lose its funding from the student union without recourse to a referendum, if there are enough anti-PIRG votes at the upcoming meeting. That would be a major loss to the community, according to Hibbert. "You need opposition to injustices that are going on."