We live in an age of austerity, and it is getting worse. Canada ranks seventh of 17 developed countries regarding income inequality and the gender income gap—this is a “C” grade. The Council of Canadians estimates that over the next three years, 80,000 jobs will be lost in the public sector through retirement and attrition, job losses which the federal government expects will come under the auspices of volunteers and private sector-charitable organization partnerships.

Essential services that had previously been financially supported by the provincial and federal government have been cut dramatically in the last few years. Organizations which have seen their funding cut or disappeared by the Harper and Cretien governments include national child care organizations, educational support services, immigrant settlement programs, universal health care, women’s centres and health organizations, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, environmental organizations, and many, many more.

Alongside cuts to civil society organizations, many integral Aboriginal services have been abolished including The National Aboriginal Health Organization, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, and the Sisters in Spirit – a group researching the over 582 missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls of Turtle Island (Canada).

In Peterborough, city-funded organizations which address poverty, health, the social safety net, food insecurity, sexual assault, political advocacy, racism, women and gender inequalities, and more are inundated with high levels of worsening need. Despite significant funding cuts over the past 10 years, these organizations are expected to meet this need in addition to expanding their programming; as per Harper’s expectations, much of this work is being taken up by volunteers.

In this community, students at Trent voted to increase funding reliability for organizations with a strong social justice and/or environmental mandate or contribute greatly to the vibrancy of student life.

Non-refundable levies allow students autonomous control over essential organizations and services not provided for by government or donation-based non-profits. Although these levies provide some waged labour for students and community members, all levy groups also require massive amounts of volunteer investment to function.

The Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre (KSAC) provides free, immediate, confidential counselling and group support to students and community members who are survivors of sexual violence.
Sonya Vellenga, Executive Director of KSAC, spoke to the history and contemporary impact that the organization has in the community. KSAC was founded in 1977 by student volunteers at the request of the Trent University Administration, following a number of sexual assaults reported on campus. In 1988, KSAC received its first funding from Trent University student levies in 1988 through the referendum. This allowed KSAC to dramatically increase their provision of services.

Trent students are prioritized for services that include a 24-Hour Crisis Line, individual and group counselling, advocacy, accompaniment, outreach services, and public education events such as International Women’s Day. In addition to staff, KSAC operates with a large pool of volunteers who are trained to provide services ranging from Crisis Line counselling and for accompaniment to court and/or medical services if needed.

From their website, Trent University Emergency First Response Team (TUEFRT) is a “volunteer organization which runs 24/7 during the academic year to provide first response to any medical situation on Symons Campus. Our personnel are trained First Responder to the standards of Red Cross and will respond to any medical emergency no matter the severity. We are not a replacement for EMS but we do provide a response time which currently averages at three minutes.”

In accordance with their mandate, Arthur’s non-refundable levy provides a medium free from commercial or administrative controls through which students and community members cover a wide-range of issues impacting the Peterborough and Trent communities. In my opinion, this weekly newspaper is an invaluable component of campus debate and dissent. In addition to volunteer contributions, Arthur provides part-time positions for students and community members.

Sadleir House was purchased through a non-refundable levy, achieved in 2003 in lieu of a lack of student space and in the outrageous aftermath of the undemocratic sale of a downtown college. Sadleir House provides office, meeting, events, performance, and study spaces for student and community organizations as well as Trent and Peterborough members.

Dan Ledandan of the Organic Trent Vegetable Gardens commented on their non-refundable levy, a donation-based model, and what the Gardens do for Trent.

“The levy makes it happen, without the levy we would not be able to staff the garden or monitor volunteers or buy seeds. It’s the reason the gardens exist. The gardens could not sustain based on donations; essentially, the students help the garden sustain itself by giving to it every year. I think that the Vegetable Gardens make Trent the incredible, unique university that it is.”
All of the aforementioned groups receive non-refundable student levies which allow them to provide essential services that actively contribute to the vibrancy and function of Trent and Peterborough life.

The Seasoned Spoon receives a refundable student levy. When speaking to staff member Robyn Smith, she highlighted the importance of the levy in challenging our unsustainable economic system which make levy groups a necessity.

“In our current economic model, subsidized accessible food of the type that you find at a food bank tends to be at low nutritional value, pre-packed, and coming from far away. Our student levy allows us to challenge that economic model by paying local farmers fairly and providing high quality local food at accessible prices.” Additionally, the Seasoned Spoon provides practical educational skill-building opportunities to students in addition to providing waged jobs for student and community members.

Other levy groups which provide educational, creative, skill-building, community-building, and advocacy opportunities for students, community members, the marginalized, excluded, and/or underprivileged include OPIRG, The Centre for Gender and Social Justice, Trent International Student Association, Trent Radio, Sustainable Trent, Kawartha World Issues Centre, Trent Queer Collective, Active Minds, B!KE, and more.

Many of these organizations rely heavily on volunteer contributions in order to develop a coordinated response to needs in our community but have been able to effectively expand their services, programs, outreach, and more through their levy.

Amidst this age of deepening austerity, government suppression and repression, we must utilize and involve ourselves in these autonomous organizations in order to strengthen and meet the needs of our community.