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The Communist Who Ruled the AMS: An Interview with Blake Frederick

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Five years ago today, on November 27th, 2009, news broke in The Ubyssey of a scandal that would polarize campus for months to come. Two incumbent members of the AMS Executive, President Blake Frederick and Vice President External Timothy Chu, had gone behind the backs of AMS Council and taken drastic action to try to start a conversation about rising tuition and the barrier it represents to postsecondary education.

In what is now colloquially referred to as “UN-Gate,” Frederick and Chu filed a human rights complaint to the United Nations against the Government of Canada. With the help of PIVOT Legal Society, a local NGO, they argued that the Canadian government was violating its commitment to make higher education accessible (and eventually free) for all.

Frederick and Chu’s action started a firestorm on campus and in the broader Canadian media. Their opposition camp accused them of wasting AMS money on frivolous legal support, claimed they were wasting the UN’s time, and said they had embarrassed the university on the global stage. Meanwhile, their supporters thanked them for standing up for students and congratulated them for calling widespread attention to an issue that is consistently swept under the rug. In January of 2010, Frederick was very nearly impeached as a direct result of the incident.

In honour of the action’s fifth anniversary, Blake Frederick sat down with The Talon to talk about the UN scandal, what it was like being a radical leftist in the AMS, and whether or not UBC students can actually count on our student society to win meaningful compromise from the university in the fight for lower tuition.

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Could you tell me the story of your action, in your own words?

The UN complaint came at the end of a very long and frustrated political effort on my part to push the issue of tuition in the AMS. […] It was one of the main motivating reasons for why I was involved in the AMS, and why I wanted to run for President in the first place. I made that clear in my campaign and then Timothy Chu and I were constantly pushing in the AMS to adopt a policy to lobby for lower tuition, which we thought was a pretty modest idea but we confronted a lot of resistance. Every time we tried to put a motion forward to the council it would be rejected, so council wouldn’t even consider a motion about tuition.

Eventually this idea came up of putting forward a UN complaint at our Executive Council. So we instructed our policy manager to look into it and to contact PIVOT. Then we decided to file it because of the frustration that had built up to that point, but also because it was designed primarily to put the issue of tuition into the media. That’s really all it was designed to do – to get the issue of tuition into the media so that we could talk about it and why it’s an issue and why it acted as a barrier for students accessing post secondary education. The secondary purpose, which we were somewhat aware of at the time as well, was to piss off AMS council. And that effort succeeded on both fronts. But it was never part of any larger movement. It wasn’t part of any other action, other than our own personal efforts to push the issue of tuition.

Why did you initially decide to use the AMS as a platform for activism and radical politics?

Because it’s what I already knew and what I was already involved in. It was when I came back from a program I did called Canada World Youth after my second year at university. Half of that program I lived in Cuba, and I became open to different ideas when I was there. […] I was really inspired with the fact that education was free there. Obviously there’s a lot of problems but I was really inspired by that so [when I came back] I naively thought “Oh yeah we should push for this at UBC and the student union is the place to do that”. It was naive because I didn’t understand at that time that it was a conservative-leaning institution that had no interest. It’s a business. It’s operated as a business and the money just goes in to fuel this bureaucracy which then supports this business. I didn’t understand that at the time.

I also didn’t understand that the people who are getting involved are the people who are the least affected by the policies of UBC and the government. So, I was involved in this policy-writing job. And I was young and I thought: ‘All we need is good policy, if we just convince the university with our good arguments they’ll build more housing! We just need to convince them that its a good idea.” And then as I met them, as I met Brian Sullivan who was the VP of Students and I tried to talk to him about housing, I started to piece things together and realize that they weren’t actually committing to the agenda, they were just trying to pacify us to go away. It’s really the experience that I had in the AMS, interacting with the university, that radicalized me, guaranteed. So I just continued down that path. I was a bit involved with the Resource Groups as well but I just stayed on that path that I’d already started.

Around the current tuition hikes there has been a big debate about that sort of strategy, about whether the best way to fight the decisions is to sit at the university’s table and play nice rather than protest. What do you think about the AMS’ tendency to take the ‘play nice’ route?

Well, I can speak from when I was involved. A lot of my fellow executives who were elected and the council members are explicitly interested in currying favour with the higher-ups at UBC because of the work prospects that that will bring them after they graduate. I think that’s one reason why the AMS tends to be more conservative.

The other reason is that a lot of the people who are involved in the higher echelons of UBC – like the VP Students position and the President – when you interact with these people they are very very effective at disarming you and making you believe that they are well-intentioned and that that’s good enough. […] These are powerful people and you want to believe that they’re telling the truth. What I’m trying to get at, I guess, is the level of charm that’s involved with their “look at my world, everything’s nice over here”. They’re rich people, the people who you interact with at the UBC executive level. They’re rich people and they know exactly what students want to hear.

Another aspect of it is that, the people who get involved, that’s what they think is an effective way. They don’t want to ruin their relationship because of some belief that if you say the wrong things that UBC will no longer work with the AMS. One of the aspects of the SUB project that I hated so much was that it increases the propensity to do nothing on political issues because of this multi-million dollar partnership that the AMS and UBC have. When Tim and I would get political over issues like tuition, Brian Sullivan (the VP Students) would often come back and be like “Now, we’re also working on the SUB project, we need to be very careful how our relationship proceeds because the SUB project is really important and blah blah blah blah.” So there’s just a lot of institutional relationships that I guess the people involved in the AMS worry they will be breaking if they get too political.

My response to that is that the whole purpose of having a student union is to act as a political organization, to represent the students. Your purpose is not to be a service provider. Your purpose is not to run an effective business. The purpose is to advocate on behalf of students and push for their agenda.

Around some of the initial planning for the #IAmAStudent teach-in and movement, AMS folks such as President Tanner Bokor expressed concerns about protests damaging their relationship with the university.

I think its naive. This Tanner fellow probably believes that if he just makes the right argument he will convince UBC to do the right thing. That’s completely wrong. The university is a business. It is run as a business, and in order to make it do something that’s contrary to its business interests, you have to force it. You don’t force it by talking in a room at a table – that’s not leverage. It doesn’t make any sense. He can play his game of suits and ladders and whatever, but at least use the student protests behind you to your advantage. That is your bargaining power, that is your everything. If you have no threat of disrupting the business as usual then you have nothing.

Yeah we’ve seen some of that type of pushback against I Am A Student, the recurring claim that we can only stop the proposals if we bring the right types of arguments and thorough financial research to the university.

One thing that most people involved, even at the Council level, do not understand – or haven’t had the chance to see I guess – is that UBC acts like they’re well intentioned when they are dealing with the AMS… they are not. They are extremely aggressive and manipulative. It became very clear through the SUB process. They would sneak in clauses, they would try to screw the students out of millions of dollars through these interest rate clauses. We had to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on lawyers to even understand what they were trying to do. They would lie to us – they would agree to something but then they would put it back in. It’s a historic pattern of lying and manipulation. […]

It always comes back to that point: they’re operating as a business, they are aggressive, they are trying to cut costs. And there’s a lot of ways to do that using the AMS as an enabler of sorts.

One thing that came up (off record) during the Knoll interview series was that during Tristan Markle’s time as VP Admin, the AMS would go to the legislature to try and lobby for post-secondary funding and then the BC Liberals would de-politicize the action by offering internships to the students. Did you have experience with that too?

Yeah, I went through that before I was President. I was Associate VP External at that time and I went to “Lobby Days”, that’s what it’s called. It’s a junket, it’s like a political junket. It’s the people who are involved in Council spending students’ money to go have wine with the decision makers. […] It was so fascinating when I went because I did not understand the relationship between these people who were involved in the AMS and the people who were involved in government until I went there, and I saw and experienced it – people putting on suits and going to the meetings and being all happy and jovial with one another when myself and some other people were there… we were angry! We were angry and mad as hell, right, and this was our opportunity to confront the people who were responsible for a lot of the injustices that were going on on our campus. And … they were just shaking hands and taking photo ops. Literally, they were taking photos with one another. My partner was there too and she was told by multiple Ministers how cute it was, that she reminded them of their granddaughter, who really wanted to make a difference. And she was like: “I’m not here to ‘make a difference’, I’m here to tell you that you are the problem.”

I remember that Tristan refused to wear a suit on one day and he got into this super heated argument with this guy named Matt Naylor. […] He was yelling at him about how disrespectful it was to not wear the right clothes and it was so obvious to me that we are coming here to become them rather than to push against them. So I went to that and the next year, when Tim and I were in office, we cancelled it (laughs). We just didn’t do it. And they really wanted to, they would not accept that. We mentioned that we wanted to cancel it and they were like “well we’ll pass the resolutions and do it anyways.” So we’re like “Ok, we’ll do it, we’ll do it. Don’t worry, we’re planning the meetings” and then we just never did.

[Note to reader: Lobby Days still takes place]

So besides the UN scandal and the new SUB, what else was happening with the AMS during your time as President?

Another really interesting involvement of the year when I was involved was – the university and Translink were working together to put an underground bus loop in the middle of campus. It was going to be funded mostly by Translink and so UBC was in favour of it because it was free infrastructure money. Everybody knew it was a terrible idea. Even the non-left-leaning students on Council showed up to all the consultations and made a lot of noise about it. So, I had meetings with UBC and they told me “we have information that the bus loop might be in jeopardy, don’t tell anybody.” And I was like “I’m not going to not tell anybody… like, if you’re telling me this I’m going to speak about it.” And they’re like “Okay, as long as you don’t tell anybody outside of council.” I was like “I’m going to tell council, and its going to get out anyways, but if you guys want to tell me what’s going on….” And so they told me that Translink was thinking of pulling the funding but they weren’t sure yet.

I immediately issued a press release (laughs) to the effect of ‘the underground bus loop was in jeopardy and needs to be cancelled for all these reasons.’ Well.. that somehow landed on the 6 o’clock news and then I felt the full wrath of UBC come upon me. They were not happy. I got a phone call from the President telling me that I was jeopardizing the reputation of UBC.

Stephen Toope?

Yeah, like I singlehandedly was jeopardizing the reputation of UBC – as if I had any ability to do that. He sent a letter to Council telling [them] that I had done this horrible action and that the value of a UBC degree could go down as a result of what I had done and they believed it. The people on Council believed it because it was like their boss telling them that they were being reprimanded. So I got censured for that and that was one of the first instances where the university really tried to punish me in an explicit way.

So did you ruin UBC forever?

Yeah, I think it was ruined before I got there.

  • Konstantin Prodanovic

    Love how relevant the discussion here is. Just looking for clarification RE: “Canadian government was violating its commitment to make higher education accessible (and eventually free) for all.”

    Commitment or obligation? Does a formal commitment like this actually exist? Because if so, wow.

    • SpencerK

      Yes, to a point. Canada ratified the Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976. Article 13 provides for the provision of education. In particular:”higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;” And a ratified treaty has the weight of domestic law. The Supreme Court of Canada has been very clear on the need to uphold this.

      That being said, the provision itself is really unclear. The free part is in the secondary clause. which is structured in an almost aspirational tone or as one valid method of fulfilling the right, with the right itself being equal accessibility on the basis of capacity. A state party to the covenant could argue any policy that works towards achieving that goal is fulfilling the obligation. Similarly, neither the United Nations nor the courts in general are inclined to interfere with the decisions of democratically elected governments as long as they fall within a range of reasonable policy options.

      So yes, there’s an obligation. But the obligation itself is likely very limited, though that won’t be clear unless there’s a court case.

      • Konstantin Prodanovic

        Beautiful. Thanks for that!

        Yeah that’s a huge problem with those international agreements. Largely symbolic, no structure to hold anyone accountable etc.
        I mean, North Korea has signed and ratified ICESCR too…

        There’s a systemic issue with those sorts of agreements. I doubt a court case would hold up, unfortunately. Anyways, thanks for pointing me to that!

  • Vera Dikun

    this is a fascinating interview, but the title is just clickbait, given that communism isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the article.

    also, it leaves me with a lot of questions, like:

    – what is the AMS?
    – what is its relationship with UBC? what is its relationship with the students?
    – how does the AMS make decisions?
    – and Konstantin’s question: does UBC actually have a formal commitment to make higher education accessible for all? if it does, what does that commitment really mean?

    • Jordan Boschman

      The Alma Mater Society is UBC’s student union, though it operates far more like an executive board for student and campus services.
      http://www.ams.ubc.ca/

      And as SpencerK pointed out, there is a legally binding commitment to gradually introduce free higher education. Though it could be easy for the government to legally and/or bureaucratically squirm out of it.

      • SpencerK

        Just to clarify, I don’t think there’s necessarily a commitment for free education but to accessibility.

        • Jordan Boschman

          Article 13.2.c says in full: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;”

          http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CESCR.aspx

          It explicitly stipulates that introducing free education should be a particular focus.

          • SpencerK

            Except tuition is a provincial matter in Canada, so free education achieved through federal fiat is not an appropriate means, or else it would be creating an explicit contradiction with the constitution.

            The presumption of statutory interpretation is international law will be read in such a way as to reduce contradictions.

  • SpencerK

    So… I’m also a law student, and there’s not much point in getting in a pissing match about our relative qualifications at this level because, quite frankly, law students don’t know anything.

    I’m not saying it creates an obligation for free tuition. In fact I was saying it probably doesn’t, but it has an obligation to create accessible education, which the federal government clearly has the right to do through the student financial aid system. And yes, when the government has agreed to a treaty and ratified it, it has been transformed into domestic law as long as its intra vires. I can’t remember off the top of my head what the best authority is (Hape, maybe?) but after that it turns into a matter of statutory interpretation and the court will try to interpret the treaty in such a way as to conform to domestic laws and the constitution. And in the case of an incredibly vague obligation, it would probably find that was satisfied.

    • Lawgirl604

      There has been no case in Canada to successfully show that the gov of Canada has breached their legal obligation under a treaty because treaties are not automatically part of Canadian domestic law. If Canada has created domestic law in accordance with the 1976 convention what is that legislation? Moreover, agreeing to a loan program is very different than an agreement to prevent rates in tuition hikes. Additionally if Canada did create domestic law in accordance with the 1976 convention Canada would be bound by the words of that domestic law – which I am willing to bet would have language far less broad than the international commitment they have signed.

      As far as I have been instructed Hape is about the application of the Canadian charter rights to search and seizure outside of Canada. Moreover, it spoke to customary international law and its capacity to bind Canada’s action.

      But as you said, as a law student my knowledge is limited. I love this class and it is what I happened to be studying when I read your comment. I am sorry if it came off as stand offish.

      I found the UN complaint on behalf of UBC students embarrassing when at this point victims of torture do not have clear rights under international law.

      • SpencerK

        I can’t find an act because it seems to have been adopted as a function of federal-provincial negotiation: http://parl.canadiana.ca/view/oop.debates_HOC3001_13/421?r=0&s=1 Which just makes the whole thing a lot more ugh.

        But we definitely agree there’s no automatic obligation unless there has been a domestic implementation. And to the extent that I think there is one, I don’t think it has a lot of teeth. But that’s not to say it’s totally devoid of meaning.

        • Jordan Boschman

          As not a law student, I’m curious why the responsibility for implementation of this ratified treaty wouldn’t be split, with the federal government taking on that which falls under its jurisdiction, and the feds working with the provincial governments to try and implement that which falls under their jurisdiction, as was done with the the Convention on the Rights of the Child: http://www.loc.gov/law/help/child-rights/canada.php

          “Since Canadian constitutional law does not generally permit the federal government to legislate over matters that fall under provincial jurisdiction even for the purpose of implementing an international agreement, Canada makes reservations to this effect if implementation would require provincial cooperation. The federal government has had to work with the provinces in implementing aspects of the original convention dealing with such matters as education and health care.”

          Obviously this lays out that the feds can’t force this stuff on provinces, but it seems to infer that because jurisdiction for implementing parts of the international treaty fall to the provinces, the federal government must try to work with the provinces to implement those parts. As SpencerK pointed out, some nebulous consultation and negotiation between provinces and the federal government did happen prior to ascension, so is there any way to leverage such consultations and approvals as tacit provincial agreements to implement elements of the treaty that do fall within provincial jurisdiction? Does the federal government have a responsibility to push for provincial-level implementation in its dealings with the provinces?

          • SpencerK

            Sorry I didn’t respond to this sooner but exams got in the way. Sufficed to say, it works like this: (1) the federal government can sign anything it wishes, but it doesn’t mean anything unless it has (2) been transformed into domestic law through explicit ratification, or by conduct, or a by other domestic measures, and (3) it cannot do that unilaterally over provincial measures without (4) provincial consent (see the negotiations over the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU for the portions affecting provincial areas).

            So signing doesn’t compel the federal government to work with the provinces, except to the extent that it wants to do so. But if in this case there was some sort of transformation of the treaty at the provincial level (and it’s an interesting research project for someone less busy) then there would be ground for a judicial review application.

  • Matthew Naylor

    This article is amazing, and a decent overview of Blake’s term and it’s controversies. Aside from my vanity-inspired tantalization at the ellipsis within “Matt Naylor. […] He was yelling”, it’s top notch.