Conservative Party strategy to take over student unions exposed

Audio recordings, photographs and documents that were leaked from a recent Conservative Party student workshop in Waterloo expose a partisan attempt to take over student unions and undermine Ontario Public Interest Research Groups (OPIRGs) on campuses across Ontario.

At a session held in early February by the Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association (OPCCA) and the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, campus Conservatives, party campaigners, and a Member of Parliament discussed strategies to gain funding from student unions for the Conservative Party and ways to run for—and win—positions within student unions.

The leaked materials were posted on WikiLeaks.org over the weekend and add to the growing body of evidence that the Conservative Party has a strategy for interfering in campus student unions. In early 2002, the campus press first learned of a secret Millennium Leadership Fund that the party’s campus wing used to fund candidates in student union elections. Now it appears that strategy has evolved into a campaign to falsely obtain student union funding and destabilize student clubs with a social justice mandate.

Among those present at the workshop were Member of Parliament for Kitchener-Waterloo, Peter Braid and his campaign manager, Aaron Lee-Wudrick. Lee-Wudrick is heard on the recordings providing advice on how to siphon money from students’ unions through "front organizations" that would work to further the goals of the Conservative Party.

Braid took the riding of Kitchener-Waterloo from Liberal incumbent Andrew Telegdi in the last federal election. Telegdi had held the riding since 1993. Braid won by 17 votes, a margin that Lee-Wudrick identifies as being the reason why getting students involved in federal politics is so important.

MP Peter Braid [in suit], Aaron Lee-Wurdruck and Ryan O'Connor [pictured on right].

MP Peter Braid [in suit, Aaron Lee-Wurdruck and Ryan O'Connor [pictured on right]."]

In the presentation caught on the recording, Lee-Wudrick and Ryan O’Connor, a former Vice-President of the Waterloo Federation of Students, spoke about how they were able to manipulate the student union board to run a referendum to refund the fees of the Waterloo OPIRG (WPIRG) chapter in the early 2000s. They disclose that when O’Connor was a Vice-President, he worked with Lee-Wudrick, then President of the campus Conservative club, to push forward their partisan agenda, often by using the resources of the students’ union.

In the presentation, Lee-Wudrick said, "If it’s possible if, in one fell swoop, to take over the Board of Directors [of OPIRG], I think that it would be pretty impressive, and you’d be a hero to the Conservative movement if you can pull that off."

OPIRGs are campus organizations that are usually funded through a dedicated student levy to coordinate campus campaigns on human rights and social justice.

"We’ve always had people who wanted to destroy OPIRG. The interesting thing is the explicit participation of Conservative party members in these events put on by the OPCCA where they are discussing how to do these takeovers and end the role of OPIRGs on campus," said Terrence Luscome who sits on the board of directors of the York University OPIRG.

"Of course when there are actual Conservative MPs involved, you have to question where this group is getting its funding and [people need to follow] the money trail, and to which interests within the government [it will lead]," he added.

While Lee-Wudrick and O’Connor’s plan to cancel WPIRG’s funding failed in 2002, they boasted that it paved the way for another attempt in 2005, and expressed hope of success in the future.

They also identified student unions, campus radio stations and the Canadian Federation of Students as potential targets of a campaign to eliminate each organization’s funding. "Part of the objective here is to bring people into the Party. That’s a good thing," said O’Connor. "Young liberals will help you out…and they’re some of the strongest allies on student issues," he added.

During the workshop, student Conservatives were also coached on how to set up "shell groups" as a way to advance a partisan agenda on campus.

"Yeah we had a front group like that: the Campus Coalition for Liberty. It was really just a front for the Conservatives, but it gave us like two voices." said Lee-Wudrick.

He added: "Don’t think that the Party doesn’t like that, because they do. They’re things that will help the Party, but it looks like it’s an organically-grown organization and it just stimulated from the grassroots spontaneously. They love that stuff… Remember all of the Rallies for Democracy … that’s just an example of how big those things can get."

Listed as having been present at the Waterloo or other Ontario workshops were Richard Ciano, Founder of the Conservative Campaign University, a political training school for conservative activists, Nick Bergamini, student councillor and vice-president student issues-elect for the Carleton University Students’ Association and Kevin Wiener, a student senator at Queen’s University, candidate for the National Council of the Conservative Party of Canada and secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Progressive Campus Youth Association.

Also listed was Chris McCluskey, Program Coordinator for the Manning Centre for Building Democracy in Ottawa and a former Vice-President of the Dalhousie Students’ Union. He has conducted a workshop, called "Strategies that work: Running for student government" at several other sessions including one in London and Ottawa.

Shelley Melanson, Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario was surprised when told of the leaked strategy. "Campus students’ unions are there to represent students and should be free from the partisan interference of federal and provincial parties," she said. "The contribution of students’ unions and OPIRGs to the broader social justice movement in Ontario is important and it’s disturbing to think that Canada’s governing party would use its resources to undermine democratic student organizations in this way."

While recordings are available from only the Waterloo workshop, the OPCCA and the Manning Foundation have held similar Conservative training sessions on campuses in Ottawa, Toronto, London, Halifax and Winnipeg.

Braid was not the only sitting Conservative politician to attend such a workshop. Monte Solberg and MP Chris Warkentin attended similar seminars in Ottawa on Nov. 20, 2008, while Nova Scotia Environment Minister Mark Parent, Deputy Chief of Staff Stephen Greene, and Former New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord all participated in the Halifax workshop held from October 26 to 28, 2007.

In 2002, a secret Millennium Leadership Fund of the youth wing of the Progressive Conservative Party was exposed by the Western Gazette in an article called "Tories plot to infiltrate student government."

The article referred to an email leaked in March of 2002 in which then OPCCA President Adam Daifallah boasted to fellow party members about Millennium Leadership Fund recipients who were successfully elected that year at Queen’s University, the University of Waterloo and the University of Windsor. According to the Gazette, the Millennium Fund was largely paid for by senior Progressive Conservative members and supporters.

Influencing the results of campus student elections and referenda continue to be on the priority list of the OPCCA.

Eric Merkley, president of the OPCCA and deputy campaign manager of Braid’s successful election campaign was also present at the workshop. In his election platform for president of the OPCCA, Merkley promised that, "Team Merkley will continue with progress made in providing across-province training sessions for recruitment and campus activism for student election and referendum campaigns."

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