Kwantlen student proposes creation of Public Interest Research Group

Proposed KPIRG aims to promote social and environmental projects.

Proposed KPIRG aims to promote social and environmental projects.

By Sasha Mann

Kwantlen students are set to vote on the creation of an independent Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) at the end of February. If the referendum is successful, it will be the fourth in B.C., following in the footsteps of Simon Fraser University (SFU), the University of Victoria (UVic) and the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC).

PIRGs are campus-based organizations that exist to help students take on projects related to social and environmental justice. They first sprung up in the 1970s, and have since spread to more than 20 Canadian universities.

If passed, the cost to Kwantlen students would be $0.80 per credit, with the option for students to opt out.

The idea of a Kwantlen PIRG (KPIRG) was first put forward by Richard Hosein, the students of colour constituency representative at the Kwantlen Student Association (KSA).

Richard Hosein of the KSA encourages the creation of KPIRG. (Matt DiMera/The Runner)

“As a wayward youth I’ve been travelling across Canada,” says Hosein. “I’ve always found the PIRGs to be an inclusive space where you can meet with progressive people and not be marginalized.”

In Eastern Canada — where Hosein first encountered them — PIRGs are particularly active. The PIRG at the University of McGill puts on the Rad Frosh every year: a three-day event combining music, burritos, bonfires, house parties and politics. It’s billed as an alternative introduction to the school year, significantly different from what McGill normally presents to students.

Although nothing that drastic is likely to come out of KPIRG — at least initially — it would operate similarly to McGill’s PIRG, or any of the 21 current Canadian Public Interest Research Groups.

It would likely run on a consensus model and would support social justice, fighting against the mistreatment of aboriginal people, queer people and other marginalized groups. Students wanting to start a project or do research related to social or environmental causes could apply for a grant from the PIRG.

Hosein believes a PIRG is a way for students to “collectively be inclusive,” without letting the KSA or the university administration “impede on social justice.” He sees progressive thought being purposely blocked by conservative groups on campuses across Canada.

“That’s the beauty of the PIRG is that it’s independent. You don’t have to worry about anyone else telling you what to do, you can just go do it,” he said.

Arzo Ansary, the KSA’s director of external affairs, is supportive of Hosein’s proposal and hopes it transforms Kwantlen life. “I would love to see us turn into a social justice hub or centre,” she tells The Runner.

Ansary believes it’s essential that Kwantlen provides a place where students can “learn about the issues that plague them, where they can learn about the things that affect us all because we live in a global community, and then also have an outlet for which to use that energy and that new found knowledge.”

To her, that’s exactly the power a PIRG has: “the ability to inspire passion, creativity, and then providing you an outlet for doing something about that.”

SFPIRG, the SFU group, has set up a bike tool co-op, a student lounge and a social justice library since it was founded in 1981. It has also put on regular events, including a weekly discussion on critical masculinity. In reflecting the world they want to see, all decisions at SFPIRG are made by consensus.

As for what projects a Kwantlen PIRG would take on, that remains entirely up to the students who get involved. Members could publish a journal of radical intellectual thought, like McGill and Concordia do with their joint publication, Convergence. They could create edible gardens and a farmer’s market, as Prince George’s PIRG has done.

They could organize a queer film festival like at the University of Waterloo. The only limits are the amount of funding and dedication of volunteers.

To Hosein, Kwantlen’s location south of the Fraser is important. He believes it’s essential that an activist-related project such as a PIRG be started in Surrey specifically, because of the problems the city faces. “We have a large poverty rate,” notes Hosein.

“We have lots of socioeconomic problems that kind of magnify into organized crime, prostitution, all these different things that basically socioeconomic marginalization leads to. And I think that will breed a new interest in activism in Surrey.”

Will this new breed of Surrey activism truly emerge? Will the referendum pass? Hosein says it will. Students, especially those who aren’t social justice oriented, might begrudge the idea of paying more student fees, but they can always opt out. And to those students who are interested in anti-oppression work, a PIRG will be a critical resource.

The referendum vote will take place at polling stations on all four Kwantlen campuses during the KSA general election on Feb. 27 and 28, 2013.