Meet SFU’s independent student societies

You may have walked by their offices without knowing they were at risk...

Illustration by Tiffany Chan

By: Gabrielle McLaren

Last December, The Peak reported that student societies independent from the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) may be in danger of losing their on-campus spaces due to a lack of space in the Student Union Building (SUB) and the upcoming expiration of their current leases in June 2018. These on-campus student societies include the Embark Sustainability Society, the Simon Fraser Campus Radio Society CJSF, and the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG). The SFSS has responded that the decision stemmed from an overwhelming interest from clubs and student unions for space in the SUB, and that space was never formally promised to these groups in the first place. Putting aside technicalities and the story’s continuing development, an important part of understanding these societies’ situations includes understanding who they are, what they do, and what is at stake for them.

First off: what is a society?

In British Columbia, a society is an entity regulated by and in compliance with the Societies Act. Among other legal obligations, societies are non-profit organizations, oriented towards a particular goal that they have defined for themselves. A student society more specifically is defined in the University Act as a society “whose purpose is to represent the interests of the general undergraduate or graduate student body, or both . . .” Here at SFU, this is the SFSS’ role.

From each student’s tuition, the SFSS collects a membership fee (paying this fee is a requirement to qualify as a member in good standing of the SFSS), fees for services that it offers (e.g. the U-Pass), as well as fees on behalf of other independent societies on campus. In this sense, part of your tuition is like paying taxes for services and organizations that benefit the SFU community as a whole, allowing them to continue operating. You can find the exact financial breakdown on membership fees on the SFSS’ official website.

A society’s status as a legal entity is its main differentiation from a club or a student union. At SFU, clubs and student department unions are housed under the SFSS and are therefore subject to SFSS regulations. This also makes them reliant on the SFSS for funding, whereas independent student societies on campus receive funding from their membership consistently and independently from SFSS regulations.

Note: Although The Peak Publication Society is also an independent on-campus student society, The Peak has ceased to pursue office space in the SUB.

So: who are the independent student societies affected by the SUB’s construction?

CJSF: SFU’s campus community radio

CJSF has been in its current studio for more than 25 years. Photo courtesy of Chris Ho.

These are the voices you hear at 90.1 FM from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. seven days a week, all the way from their studios in the Rotunda to Burnaby and the American border. No radio? No problem — you can listen to CJSF live online. Their full program guide can be found on their website, and they even take requests at (778)-782-CJSF (2573). CJSF has been around since 1974, though campus-community radio has been on the Burnaby campus since 1966 under different call letters, making CJSF only a year younger than the university itself. They have been in their current location for over 25 years.

A fleet of 200 volunteers and students part of the Work-Study program have a hand in running the station. Throughout their time at CJSF, volunteers gain free training and experience with writing, audio editing, and production, but they also contribute to the station’s strength and enable CJSF to achieve its mandate. As Jesse Wentzloff, CJSF’s public affairs and talk co-ordinator, tells us that part of the station’s mandate is to share the voices, perspectives, and cultures of groups that go unrepresented both on and off campus.

“We’re a place where the students can mix with and learn from diverse members of the community, all united by a passion for grassroots media, arts, and culture,” Wentzloff says. “Few student resources offer the opportunity to interact with both students and non-student community members on a daily basis [that] CJSF does . . .”

Despite this far reach, CJSF depends on their on-campus studio to gather and provide an easily accessed space for their volunteers, over half of whom are SFU students. This space currently includes meeting and work spaces, a music library boasting over 80,000 items, as well as the space for their servers and FM equipment.  

Undeterred, Wentzloff goes on, “We fully intend on continuing to provide the unique and invaluable media exposure [and] experience to students as we have done for the past 50 years and this requires long term stability.” But the possibility of moving, and the costs and technical requisites that are entailed, are enormous and unsustainable for the society.

“In short, we would be a radio station without a station,” he says.

SFPIRG: Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group

SFPIRG’s office is open to all students, even if it’s just for a nap… Photo courtesy of Chris Ho.

One of CJSF’s Rotunda neighbours, SFPIRG was established at SFU in 1981 as public interest research groups appeared in universities across Canada in the ‘70s and ‘80s. SFPIRG describes itself as a “student-funded and student-directed resource centre dedicated to social justice and environmental justice.” However, SFPIRG’s director of communications Craig Pavelich assures The Peak that SFPIRG isn’t just for students who identify themselves as activists. Everybody is welcome at SFPIRG, he says, “Even if it’s just to hang on the sofas …”

When asked about SFPIRG’s activities, Pavelich has a list the length of his arm. Among them, SFPIRG supports students trying to create a tumbler-share program with Renaissance Coffee, fighting the decline of wild salmon, promoting body-positivity, and conducting research for inmates through the program Letters for the Inside. They have resources and supplies on hand for SFU students involved in social or environmental action, a bike tool co-op, and they also help students facing financial troubles to access the Quest Food Exchange program.

“One of the greatest things we’ve seen happen over the last few years is a shift on campus at the institutional level, a growing awareness of the need to prioritize social justice and intersectional anti-oppression,” says Pavelich. “More and more, student organizations and SFU departments and programs have been coming to us for training and education.”

SFPIRG’s multifaceted interests and projects, all grounded in their dedication to student voices and the acknowledgement of social injustice, make them a unique resource. Pavelich admits: “We regularly hear from students that this is one of the only places on campus they feel safe talking about their experiences of injustice. Students need more than simply space — they need a wide array of programming and support.”

Embark Sustainability Society

Embark operates The Learning Garden where students can grow their own food. Photo courtesy of Embark.

Currently housed in 2623 West Mall Centre, Embark 
offers and shares its vision of a future where all SFU students lead environmentally sustainable lifestyles and act as leaders in the field on and off campus.

Since its creation in 2003, Embark has advocated for sustainability initiatives and conducted assessments across campus. A referendum in 2010 made undergraduate students members and financial supporters of Embark. Though Embark is the youngest society on this list, their website nevertheless tallies 65 accomplished student projects such as the Food Rescue program and the Dining Services’ Monday veggie challenges. They have built a community garden on the Burnaby campus (students can rent plots in the Learning Garden) and secured seats to represent students on relevant SFU boards and committees, including the Senior Sustainability Council.

According to Embark’s communications and operations manager Jao Dantes, the threat of losing their space comes as Embark prepares to tackle its new strategic plan for 2017–20.

“We are planning more diverse programming addressing sustainability challenges in connection with multiple perspectives, values, and barriers,” he says. “A great example of this is how we’ve been connecting how food systems interact with cultural values in our monthly Community Kitchens.”

Unlike other societies, Embark may be able to continue leasing their space through the university according to SFU President Hangue Kim. However, as Embark grows, Dantes says that the society is feeling the need for more and more operational space to have a strong, accessible, visible presence on campus.

Space is once again at the heart of their operation’s efficiency and facility, and their ability to engage and develop both internally and externally. Embark’s predicament seems to reflect a growing claustrophobia across SFU campuses as the Surrey campus outgrows its capacity and the parking situation on the Burnaby campus worsens.

“While we do not face the same risks as the groups located in the [R]otunda, we do stand in solidarity with them,” Dantes concludes.

Embark, SFPIRG, and CJSF definitely seem to be sharing a sense of overlapping concern as the threat to lose their spaces also threatens their ability to fulfill their unique on-campus mandates.

“Whether or not SFPIRG loses space on campus, students should be paying attention to what’s happening on campus right now — SFPIRG is not the only organization under threat,” says Pavelich.


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