One-on-one with newly elected pres. Jermain McKenzie
By Matt Wincherauk and Taylor MacPherson
Congratulations on your win! How are you feeling now that the campaign is over?
It’s been very humbling. Very, very humbling. I have seen enough elections to know they’re never predictable, and so I was surprised when the results came out. I was actually coming from work, and it was one of the candidates actually – Connor [MacNeil] – who broke the news to me by congratulating me first, and that’s how I found out. Ever since then, I’ve just been thanking people, showing my appreciation for the hard work that they did to get me elected, just letting them know that I will be doing my best, and I don’t plan to disappoint them or shy away from the issues that truly affect them.
In your interview with the Carillon’s Derek Cameron, you stated that tuition was priority number one. You felt that URSU was not forcefully talking to the government about rising tuition. How do you plan on changing this?
I think my main aim in trying to get some action on this issue is by first seeing how we can cooperate with the University of Saskatchewan on this issue. I think if we speak in a more unified fashion that the chances of us being heard will be much greater. So that is one thing that I’m definitely hoping to do on day one – get in touch with their student union, see where they are on this matter, and what are some of the ideas that they think could be effective in addressing this issue, because they are affected similarly. That is one tactic. Once we start that communication, we’ll develop other tactics as to how we should get this addressed, but we’ll definitely be speaking to the government on a more regular basis about this issue. We hope to definitely get media involved in this issue, because I think that yearly increase in tuitions is unacceptable, especially in light of what is taking place in other provinces. We believe we can get the government to act on this issue, because we think in the long term it’s in the best interest of the province.
Aside from tuition, what else do you plan on lobbying the government for?
We also need to look at some of the issues of international students, look at going back to some of the positions that were in place before the Harper government and trying to make it easier for international students to get their permanent residence after graduation and work towards becoming citizens. We come here and we pay, on average, three times what local students pay. For some internationals it might not be such a burden, but that’s not the story of all international students – you have a group of international students who face this immense burden. So we need to look at how the provincial government can work closely with the federal government in terms of making it easier for international students to transition into P.R. and citizenship so that they don’t face that additional barrier after they have graduated.
What do you plan on lobbying the U of R administration for? Do you have anything in mind?
Oh, definitely. I was happy when I saw in the Leader-Post recently that the U of R is finally planning to move toward Open Access textbooks. That was one of my own platform issues that I campaigned on. I think the pilot project is welcome, but I really want to work with the University to promote it and expand it as rapidly as possible, so the majority of students can start benefiting as soon as possible. Another issue with regards to textbooks is seeing how we can work with the administration and professors to ensure that textbooks that cost above $100-150, that we work towards getting at least two of those books on reserve in the library. It’s unfair to students that are unable to afford these books that they’re denied access to the materials they need in order to pass these courses. Education is supposed to be the great equalizer.
The Owl has obviously rebounded a bit in recent years, but it’s still not at the level that a lot of students would like it to be. How do you hope to turn The Owl around, and make it profitable?
When I started out, I was one of the most religious patrons of The Owl. I remember fighting with friends to go there. Being at the University, I always felt safer going to The Owl, and most of the patrons are also university students, so it’s a much safer environment. I realized that over time The Owl has kind of taken on a dimension where it’s not reaching out to as wide an audience as it should. I think a lot of the international students don’t feel as if The Owl has regular activities that cater to their needs and their interests. I think that’s a huge community that can be approached with the intention of getting them to traffic The Owl on a more frequent basis. I want to look at the possibility of having a salsa night. We have an increasing Latin-American community; we have a lot of those students as exchange students as well. I think putting on a salsa night doesn’t just cater to Latin-American students; it’s something that if you market it right and get the right people involved in it, we could get a lot of traffic. That’s just one idea. I think we need to work with the different student groups as well to help promote their events, and see if we can reach out to a wider audience.
I’ve heard the food has improved, which is welcome. I would like to see a wider variety, even vegetarian options. People appreciate good food, so once The Owl keeps improving the quality of the food that it’s presenting, I think we will see improvements in the overall profitability of The Owl.
U of R students are fairly apathetic. Do you have any steps you think URSU can take to help get students more involved in URSU and school-related activities?
I said tuition is my number one issue, but I think this issue might even be greater than that. We won’t get the type of action we need from the government without greater student participation. If we only have a few people lobbying the government, they can afford to ignore us. But if the student body is united on the issue, and realizes that it affects all of us, and is engaged [on] the issue, and understands the issue, then there has to be action. It will be an immense challenge. I think we have to look at social media, and how we continuously find ways to engage with students through that means. Whether URSU starts putting out a weekly video, or other ideas that we’re not trying, we should be go out of our way to get students involved in the process. I think once the students see us working hard for their interests, they will start to take more note of the organization. Devon [Peters] has, for the last two years, done a commendable job at turning around the internal operations of the organization, but now we need to be making a greater outreach to get to students and bring them on board. I think that will be a key pillar of my tenure as president – to get that interaction up.
As a candidate, you made a great effort to put yourself out there and talk to as many students as possible. Now that you’ve won, how do you plan to keep communications open with the student body?
One of the ideas I have is to get a weekly video on the Facebook side or the website side – I think it probably gets more hits on Facebook. Closer collaboration between the union and the school paper can help to facilitate that continuous dialogue between URSU and the students. So definitely a lot more effort into our social media. For me, I think I will take it up as a personal challenge to definitely continue that – go to meetings when the student groups meet, meet with their presidents on a more regular basis to hear what’s happening, and definitely.
U of R is going through some financial difficulties right now – FNU is offering buyout packages to faculty and staff, and there is a lot of deferred maintenance. As president, is there anything you can do to help minimize the impact this has on students?
That’s a tough challenge. I think one of my roles as president of URSU is to work closely with the administration in seeing how we can address some of these issues. The University, they don’t receive the type of funding from the government that they need to carry out much of this important maintenance, and other issues that are economically driven. So we need to work closer with the administration to lobby the government for increased funding to make that sure we are adequately addressing these issues. With the virus outbreak recently, we have seen that maintenance and cleanliness are of vital, vital importance. If it was something more serious and spread at the rate that it did, we would be in serious trouble.
We have a provincial election coming up, and URSU has been encouraging students to vote. Without officially endorsing anyone, which party do you feel would be the best for students?
I was recently at the post-secondary forum for the candidates, and I was somewhat disappointed by some of the responses. I was not pleased with a lot of responses that were coming out from the present government platform. It didn’t seem to go far enough, especially where the issues of tuition are concerned. It seems as if the status quo is something that they are satisfied with, but the students are no longer satisfied with it. So if they form the government again, we definitely have to sit down and see where we can come up with a real policy to address the rising costs of tuition.
How do you plan on minimizing the transitional period as you start your term as president?
I spoke with the outgoing president, and we’ve had a respectful relationship, so I think the transition period should go relatively smoothly. He’s a person that I have tremendous respect for, and what he has done with the organization, and so I’m looking forward to learning as many things as I can from him, and I should be meeting with him as soon as next week to start the process of transition.
Can you talk a little bit about the RISE summit you’re attending this weekend, and what that’s about?
The RISE summit is about “Racialized and Indigenous Student Experience.” I see the union as taking on a more activist role, not just tuition, but also issues that concern the wider community, on a global level. We are the intellectual nucleus here, within the city, and I think we have a huge role to play in addressing issues of social justice and public policy.
Outgoing president Devon Peters is known for his tremendous beard. As the new president, do you feel any pressure to stop shaving?
That’s Devon’s trademark – I guess I will have to try to develop my own. I’ve been told that my eyes aren’t too hard to look at, so I guess that might become my unique personal characteristic that people might readily identify with me. My beard definitely doesn’t grow as wonderful as Devon’s beard, but I’ll have to try to work with my own strong points.
Any final thoughts for students?
The message is based on creating a more engaged student community. I am not deluded into thinking that I am going to come in and be able to solve all the issues that are wrong with URSU or the University. I am saying that I have a vision that I hope they will support, but I will need their work. I will need them to stand behind me in promoting these issues on their behalf. And I don’t know everything either, so I want to hear from the students – I am the servant of the students, and I think that leadership has moved away from the idea of servant-hood, and I want to bring that back. I’m excited for the challenge; I’m excited to do the work.