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UNBC students hold rally, call on gov't to intervene in strike

University of Northern B.C. students waiting in limbo during the ongoing labour dispute between the school and its faculty said they need to protect their own interests by bringing the issue to the provincial government.
UNBC student Molly Fredeen speaks at a rally at Canada Games Plaza Thursday.

University of Northern B.C. students waiting in limbo during the ongoing labour dispute between the school and its faculty said they need to protect their own interests by bringing the issue to the provincial government.

More than 150 people came out to a noon-hour rally at Canada Games Plaza Thursday to advocate for a swift resolution to the strike that has shut down the university since March 5.

UNBC and the its faculty association returned to the bargaining table at 10 a.m. Thursday, almost a week after the discussions stalled at 1 p.m. March 6.

As of 5 p.m. Thursday, the two sides had parted ways without an agreement, but with new information for faculty to consider with administration apparently making a "slight adjustment" to its last tabled proposal.

"There is still a long way to go before this offer addresses our core issues," said a post on the UNBC Faculty Association's website. "The bargaining team is meeting tonight and tomorrow to prepare a counterproposal, which we are scheduled to provide to the employer on Saturday."

Thursday's rally was hosted by UNBC's Graduate Students' Society.

"Public education institutions in this part of the province are starving and we're tired being overlooked in the north," said society president Jessy Rajan.

One graduate student urged his colleagues to take a more active approach. Ian Newcombe, who is in the midst of earning a master's in psychology, took to the microphone after the formal speakers list had wrapped up to outline a plan of "active neutrality."

This morning at 8:30, Newcombe will walk up University Way to the school, where he intends to cross the picket line and make his way to the school's administrative building. Once there, he said he will sit outside university president Daniel Weeks' office until noon "until he provides me with answers as to what's going on," Newcombe said.

If there's no response or he doesn't like what he hears, Newcombe said he will return at the same time at the start of the next week.

The response Newcombe received at Thursday's rally indicated he wouldn't be making the trip alone.

Students are the innocent bystanders in the dispute, said undergraduate student Molly Fredeen, but they can do more than pick a side.

"Keep in mind, without students there is no university," Fredeen said, noting that as a separate voice students could pressure the administration, faculty as well as the provincial government to find a workable solution.

To that end, the Graduate Students' Society drafted a letter to Minister of Advanced Education Andrew Wilkinson, outlining the effects a prolonged dispute has on their education including not having access to supervisors, missing important deadlines and eliminating their practicum work.

GSS vice-president Rahul Poojary was supposed to defend his thesis on Tuesday. "Instead, I am here now, talking to all of you," he said.

As an international student, he also has study permits and a visa extensions to consider in addition to missing out on applying for jobs.

Students across the board need to stand united, said Eric Depenau, chairperson of the College of New Caledonia student union.

"We're all here today because we're losing," Depenau said. "When I say we I'm not referring just to students, but also administration and the faculty. No party wanted the situation to start and no party wants this to continue. We're losing our time, our money and the certainty of our immediate futures. We need to take control of the situation, not only for ourselves but for the alumni and for the future graduates of our wonderful university."

UNBC could soon find itself in the same situation as the college, said Depenau. CNC is facing a $2.8 million deficit and has a variety of programs that could be losing staff.

"We're being squeezed. Education isn't being taken seriously at any level," Depenau said. "Current legislation does not promote the best learning atmospheres for us, it does not fund our schools properly."

But the idea of government intervention in the strike has its detractors.

The Facebook page created to promote the rally was the site of spirited debate among students, who said they felt any overture to the province was a direct anti-faculty stance, especially given the frosty climate between the province and the B.C. Federation of Teachers.

The letter to the advanced education minister includes an appeal to "help both parties move beyond this impasse" and notes that government intervention in post-secondary disputes in New Brunswick, Ontario and Manitoba resulted in tentative agreements that "respected the collective bargaining process and rights of each party."

A student-hosted, pro-faculty rally is scheduled for Saturday at noon in front of the courthouse.

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