It can be lonely being a campus conservative. There are clubs, for sure, for conservatives, libertarians and others who share traditionalist, fiscally responsible and pro-development views. But they tend to be small, if they exist at all, and badly outnumbered by liberal, NDP and other progressive groups. If right-leaning students were inclined to identity politics, they could declare themselves an oppressed minority, because the left routinely demeans its ideological opponents as bigoted, unintelligent, and exclusionary.
The vast majority of university and college students have nothing to do with either camp. They’re mostly focused on schoolwork, part-time jobs, and partying as much as possible without blowing assignments or their meagre budgets. All they know about campus politics is that they have to pay dues totalling several hundred dollars a year to support the students’ union and other campus organisations. Many don’t realize that some of their money winds up funding leftist political causes.
One of the biggest left-wing campus organisations in Canada, although it’s not very-well known by most students whose dues fund it, is the “Public Interest Research Group”. PIRGs are present on many major university campuses across the country, including Queen’s, Waterloo, Toronto, Dalhousie, McGill, and Simon Fraser.
An import from the United States, PIRGs have been advocating for progressive causes on and off campus since they were founded by the famous American activist Ralph Nader and his fellow academic and lawyer Donald Ross in the early 1970s. Nader and Ross developed the concept in their co-authored book: Action for Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing. It laid out a plan for collecting mandatory student fees to fund social justice activism, including consumer protection, anti-poverty and environmental litigation that was central to Nader’s career (along with several unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. presidency). The first American PIRGs were established in New York, Minnesota, Oregon, and Massachusetts; they first arrived in Canada in 1972 at Waterloo University.
Today there are 23 PIRGs operating in six provinces, many of which collaborate with larger off-campus organizations like the British Columbia Public Interest Advocacy Centre and Public Interest Alberta.
PIRG projects that have received funding from student fees, referred to as “Action Groups” or “Active Working Groups,” include movements such as Palestine Solidarity Network, Greenpeace, In Arms Queer Theatre, Mental Health and Intersectionality Research, Fossil Free UWaterloo, the Boycott Divestment and Sanction Movement against Israel, Radical Skills Workshops, and Gender and Sexual Identity in Education.
The language used to describe PIRG projects often references goals such as “educational research”, “safe space advocacy”, “mental health awareness”, “student action groups”, “feminism”, and “non-discrimination based on class, race, sexuality, gender, etc.” The mandate of the Ontario PIRG chapter at Queen’s University in Kingston, for example, is to “strive to work towards a more socially and environmentally just world.” One of its current initiatives is a research project it hopes will “inspire and ignite a conversation, and action, about how we account for and address racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and all form of marginalization within our discussions and actions around mental health.”
Unlike other PIRGs, Queen’s students can opt out of paying the fees that support the Kingston PIRG. Some decided that simply opting out wasn’t good enough when they learned six years ago that OPIRG-Kingston had used the $4.00 student fee collected from every undergraduate and graduate student who didn’t opt-out to rent a bus to drive student protestors to the violent Black Bloc protests during the 2010 G-20 Summit in Toronto. In advance of the protests, the PIRG offered fully funded “armour making workshops” to teach student demonstrators how to protect themselves during violent confrontations with police.
Another common PIRG campaign calls for their host universities to pull their endowment and pension fund investments out of oil and gas companies. WPIRG at the University of Waterloo, where students enrolled in environmental studies pay a mandatory $30 fee to the Waterloo Environment Students Endowment Fund, supported an aggressive “Fossil Free UWaterloo” campaign last February in hope of forcing the university to completely divest its holdings related to fossil fuels.
Besides paying for various PIRG projects and causes, student fees fund PIRG staff salaries. In 2014, according to the Queen’s Journal student newspaper, OPIRG Kingston Coordinator Kavita Bissoondial was paid a $30000 annual salary. Some students complained that student fees ought not to be paying the wages of a non-student (although Bissoondial was a recent Queen’s graduate). At the time, the salary was higher than that of the President of the Undergraduate Society at Queen’s.
Another controversial PIRG financial practice is the transfer of revenues between PIRG chapters. In Ontario, the “OPIRG Provincial Network” operates as a kind of equalization program where more prosperous PIRGs funnel money to financially needy ones. In other words, student fees don’t necessarily stay within their corresponding campus PIRGs, but are also used to fund the activities of PIRGs across the province. This practice, among others, led concerned students at Queen’s to call for an audit of OPIRG Kingston, which the organization has so far refused to undertake.
PIRGs across Canada could improve their financial accountability by moving to a completely voluntary opt in system of fee collection. Even on those campuses where PIRG dues are not mandatory, many students don’t realize they have to pro-actively opt out to avoid paying the dues. The PIRG fee is a one line item on a tuition invoice, and many students just pay it without really knowing what it’s for – or how their money will be spent.
Full disclosure: I am a recent graduate of Queen’s and while I was there I was heavily involved in two “NOPIRG” campaigns, including co-managing one. NOPIRG is a word-play we, the campaign volunteers, coined for our anti-OPIRG campaign. Our goal was to remove the $4.00 opt-outable fee paid by undergraduate students to OPIRG, via a democratic student referendum.
Queen’s undergraduate students have actually run three NOPIRG campaigns, and successfully denied the organisation its fees in two of them. Without money flowing in from Queen’s students, OPIRG-Kingston relied on private donations and grants, as well as transfers of student fees collected from other universities under the OPIRG equalization scheme.
Grassroots campus campaigns to deny PIRGs access to mandatory or opt-outable student fees have been getting stronger and more successful, notably at Queen’s and at McGill University in Montreal. This September, the University of Waterloo held a referendum asking students whether they wanted to keep or remove the mandatory WPIRG fee of $4.75 per term. A whopping 82 percent of students who voted endorsed scrapping the fee.
Such campaigns are successful when students become aware that some of the far left campaigns and causes that are occurring on their campuses are being paid for with their money. Once that awareness is in place, NOPIRG campaigns attract the volunteers they need to organize and execute successful referenda against PIRG fees.
Left-wing groups on campus usually have good intentions. They do what they think is best for students. Many of them are funded by private donations and grants, which they work incredibly hard to obtain. And they have as much right as anyone to freedom of expression and the freedom to organize and advocate for their causes. But PIRGs are founded on a fundamentally undemocratic financial model that amounts to confiscation of students’ money without their explicit, informed consent. This is their method, and it clashes with fairness, transparency, and accountability on campus.
If you are a student with concerns about PIRGs on campus, please know that you don’t have to put up with it. There are many other young people who don’t agree with the progressive agenda and the confiscation of their money to support it. Find them and help organize at local NOPIRG campaign on your campus. You will learn a lot about political organizing that won’t show up on your transcripts, but will be just as valuable to your life.