USC president brings town-gown priorities into focus

On Tuesday, University Students’ Council president Matt Helfand delivered the annual State of the USC Address during which he identified three major areas the student government has prioritized during its term – community relations, student wellness and transparency and fairness.

What follows is the community relations portion of his address.

*   *   *

The first principle I wish to highlight is the fact we, as students, want to live in a city that cares about us and meets our needs; and we want a police force that serves us and keeps us safe.

In order to achieve this, we recognized the importance in building relationships with police and the city. Before we were elected, Vice-President External Jen Carter, Vice-President Internal Emily Addison and I prioritized building a good relationship with the London Police Service (LPS). During our campaign, we went on a ride-along, where we had the opportunity to have a conversation with some of the leaders of the LPS.

This was a very interesting experience for a number of reasons, as it placed a bit of perspective on what is, quite frankly, a challenge to any city, and that is the influx of around 50,000 students, between Fanshawe and Western, coming to London every September.

Though I may be biased, I know students are the intellectual, social and economic drivers of London and deserve respect because of that. I also know the police have a job to do in keeping our community – a community that includes students – safe. I believe a collaborative, proactive approach to community safety is an effective approach to community safety, and we have been working with the LPS to enable just such an approach, while at the same time working to make sure at the same time that programs such as Project LEARN (Liquor Enforcement and Reduction of Noise) are administered in a way that is not unfairly punitive to Western students.

I do want to take a moment to acknowledge the recent attack on a member of the London Police Service in the Flemming Drive area. Assaulting an officer is never OK, and I want to reiterate our commitment to building strong, positive relationships between Western students and the London police based on education and mutual respect.

Homecoming serves as an excellent case study to highlight the trilateral relationship between the USC, London Police Service and Western.

Over at our sister institution, Queen’s University, we saw homecoming celebrations being cancelled only a few years ago for over-the-top behaviour. Cancelling homecoming is an unacceptable outcome for Western and for London.

However, last year on Homecoming, we saw the peculiar circumstance of our cheerleaders being ticketed for cheering, and we have seen enough community response to Homecoming to merit a Ward 6 candidate, Western’s city council ward, make public statements that Homecoming ought to be cancelled. This candidate was unsuccessful, though only narrowly. I would like to give a shoutout to Phil Squire, our new Ward 6 councillor-elect, who has come out strongly in favour of Homecoming, recently having tweeted, and I quote, “LOL, I love Homecoming.” Thank you, Phil.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, the USC will never let Homecoming be cancelled.

But as much as we love Homecoming, for the last three years on Broughdale, we have seen the street shut down by revelers, inaccessible to emergency service, while people are drinking alcohol on rooftops. Needless to say, this is a dangerous combination. The Broughdale street party hasn’t always been a tradition and need not be one.

Trust me, I have been here for quite a few years. What we do need is a new tradition.

Together with university administration and police services, we were able to get the ball rolling on a Homecoming celebration on campus, a celebration that brought nearly 2,000 students, clad in purple and white, to join us in celebrating all that is Western. We didn’t quite draw the same numbers as Broughdale, but I am hopeful to see a new, better Homecoming tradition establish itself and supplant off-campus locations as the place to share Mustang pride.

Another very significant interface the USC has with the city is around transit, as we broker the tuition-based bus pass on your behalf. Students represent the largest contingency of the London Transit Service (LTC) ridership, Western students making up a very significant contingent of that. This year, we had 98 per cent of students pick up their bus pass, our highest rate ever. That said, the LTC themselves have admitted the current transit system is not sufficient to meet current – let alone future – needs.

It is well documented the LTC is by far the most underfunded transit system among comparable cities in Canada; the LTC simply does not receive enough funding from City Hall. Students need a reliable means get to campus. It is unacceptable to have full busses frequently pass by students, who rely on the LTC to get to classes and exams on time.

More broadly, however, a reliable, functional LTC goes beyond just mobility; a functioning transit system is the backbone of a functioning city, and of a thriving economy. We know the city has made student retention a goal and one element of making that happen is the opportunity and mobility that a strong transit system brings. Every Western student is a major stakeholder in the LTC and it is partly up to us to make that a reality. I have had the opportunity to meet with on several occasions the senior administration of the LTC, and I can assure you they know what it takes to run a good transit system.

We now have a new city council, and I have had the chance to meet many of our new representatives. I know they will serve London with great diligence and pride. Still, though, when it comes to the LTC, there is much work to be done. I hope transit becomes a city priority, and you should hope that, too.

As we move forward, I am excited continue to work with the LTC, and City Hall to make a better transit system for students and for London.