PSAC Local 901 suspends food support fund for Queen’s graduate students

Photo by Joel Muniz.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) Local 901, the union representing graduate student workers at Queen’s University, has suspended its emergency food support fund after exhausting funds beyond what was budgeted for.

The union said this clearly demonstrates the great level of need among members, and for intervention from the university. 

According to Local 901, 457 applications were received with $31,325 being paid out to members over the course of 15 weeks.

Justyna Scezwyck-El Jassem, the new President of PSAC 901, said that, upon offering the funds, the union quickly realized they would need to find more ways to support their members.

“We were hoping that it would just help a couple of people, but as time started passing, every week we were just getting more and more applications,” Scezwyck-El Jassem said.

“Quickly, we realized that we sometimes needed $3,000 a week to cover the needs of our members. The need was overwhelming.”

She added that, as a labour union, it isn’t really their job to do this for grad students, but they pulled money from different parts of their budget to ensure members weren’t left stranded in the middle of the semester. Between that, a GoFundMe that raised roughly $5,000, and donations from other unions at Queen’s, PSAC was able to provide that funding for members, but they said it isn’t sustainable. 

Scezwyck-El Jassem said launching the GoFundMe was also a way to try to show to a wider net of people that grad students are struggling and need more.

“We wanted also to raise awareness when we started this fund,” Scezwyck-El Jassem said. 

“That’s why we opened a GoFundMe page to reach out to community, not just at Queen’s, but elsewhere into the world to basically scream that our members need food support.”

In a statement, Queen’s University said grad student tuition along with the tuition freeze is a part of a larger discussion about operating costs and inflationary pressures. The University outlined food organizations like Soul Food and PEACH Market that it contributes to, as well as the AMS Food Bank.

Queen’s said, in spite of its own challenges and facing an operational deficit, that the school continues to contribute for students. 

“Emerging from the pandemic, the decline at Queen’s in international student enrolment and increasing inflationary pressures have negatively impacted our financial performance. Factored together with the provincial government’s tuition cut and freeze we now find ourselves with a $62.8M budget deficit,” Queen’s University said in a statement.

“Despite this, we know that the university’s academic and research mission can only succeed when we offer students the outstanding education and high-quality supports and services that help them succeed. To that end, Queen’s is supportive of a funding model—inclusive of grants, the tuition framework, and financial assistance—that protects the financial sustainability and quality of Ontario’s universities, while also ensuring access for students.”

Grad students feel simply that it isn’t enough, and say the depletion of the emergency food support fund clearly shows that. Scezwyck-El Jassem said it doesn’t really feel like the school is listening.

“I think it paints a picture of Queen’s not really listening because we’ve been raising these issues for a long time,” Scezwyck-El Jassem said. 

“And the fact that we run into this wall in a way of not being helped… the students of Queen’s University and employees of the university don’t earn enough money to support themselves.”

The low vacancy rate and high cost of living in Kingston compounds the problem for grad students, and Scezwyck-El Jassem said that, especially in lieu of a raise for grad students, Queen’s needs to step up and provide more affordable housing. John Orr Tower and Ann Clachan residences provide more affordable options to grad students, but they were built in the 70s and no new units have been built for that purpose since.

Scezwyck-El Jassem said the school needs to take a more leading role in solving the problem in Kingston. 

“I think it’s time for the university to take responsibility for housing graduate students and to take responsibility in relationships with the city,” Scezwyck- El Jassem said.

“I think the university also owes this to the Kingston community to be involved in solving the crisis of housing affordability.”

On that front, Queen’s said it’s on their mind, but funding in order to do so is not yet available.

“This past fall, the university introduced over 300 new undergraduate residence rooms and is actively renovating another 100,” the university said in a statement.

“The demand for graduate housing is also high. In a report to the University Senate on April 18, our Vice Principal Finance and Administration reiterated the university’s desire to invest in creating additional housing for graduate students. While funding for that investment has yet to be identified, graduate student housing remains an area of focus for us.” PSAC 901 hasn’t said if they will try to resume the fund for the fall semester.

Owen Fullerton is a Kingston-based reporter with the Local Journalism Initiative (LJI).

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