For the second time in a year, the Brock Undergraduate Student Union is running a referendum to defund OPIRG Brock. While the current Board and staff work tirelessly to reintroduce OPIRG as a staple of resources for social and environmental change, you can’t help but wonder why the student union feels especially committed to removing this longstanding connection between Brock campus and the greater St. Catharines and Niagara community.
Established in 1988, it is no secret that, historically, OPIRG Brock has gone through waves of consistent presence to inactivity. In 2016, upon seeing a gap in the organization’s initiatives, a group of Brock students and community members took on the task of rebuilding OPIRG Brock, beginning with re-establishing the OPIRG Board of Directors. From here, the organization was able to prioritize developing consistent programming, re-establishing its Action Group structure, and creating extensive and diverse opportunities within the organization.
In discussing the changing role OPIRG Brock has taken within the community, I spoke with Kathleen Driscoll, the Volunteer Coordinator of the St. Catharines Poetry Slam – a performance collective with audience largely filled with Brock students. Driscoll noted how by becoming an OPIRG Action Group, they are able to expand their outreach to “more projects open to folks that don’t necessarily get on a stage”. Driscoll went on, pointing to how “so often people look at art as something separate from the political” when artistic spaces can be integral to validating the voices that are often excluded and unheard.
Brock student activist Tegh Kaur explained “we need an actual space where students can say ‘this is what I’m dealing with’ and they are actually given space to navigate those situations and actually bring change”.
Despite the vast expansion in programming, networking, and volunteer opportunities within OPIRG, Kaur explained “OPIRG has always been brought to the student body through BUSU with a negative light”. With BUSU formally backing the push to remove the undergraduate student levy, and effectively eliminating OPIRG’s annual budget, this remains to appear the case.
However, this opposition to developing a culture of collaboration is not the universal opinion of students on campus or those working within the student union’s structure. Tom Lillo, a Student At Large member of the Brock University Student Administrative Council, opposed this referendum, saying “every group can only handle so many objectives so it’s important to have a neutral group on campus that provides resources and facilitates grassroots movements”.
With a large misconception that the BUSU managed Student Justice Centre should and can be the sole voice for equity-driven student organization, not only does this ensure a certain pre-approved mould of activism, but tokenizes the fight for social change as only the responsibility of some, rather than the entire student and community population. Kaur also spoke to the importance of organizations aimed at developing coalitions as “there’s need for networking and partnership because working with each other, there would be more discussion to what students need… If OPIRG and SJC were taking partnership with community resources, there could be active change.”
Driscoll, having been involved in a range of activist initiatives in her six years at Brock highlighted that “far too often, there is a huge Brock to St. Catharines divide”, and that to combat this separation, “folks from OPIRG are so eager to give you the information. They want you to be able to partner with them. They want you to be able to help you in anyway possible and provide you with resources; and very much wanting to facilitate a community experience”.