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A Taste of Guelph's activist community: OPIRG's Welcome Dinner

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

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Written by andrea benett and Victoria Brunet

If you're a full-time student, you're a member of OPIRG, the Ontario Public Interest Research Group. The Guelph chapter , located at 1 Trent Lane behind Creelman Hall on campus, is paid for in part by a refundable levy that comes from your tuition fees.

Cindy Regalado, the volunteer coordinator, said that OPIRG is "a space for students to gain access to the skills and tools needed to initiate their personal fight for social justice."

OPIRG held a Welcome Dinner, with food provided by the Salsateria, on Wednesday between 4 and 6:30pm. The event opened with a prayer ceremony led by Lois Macdonald from the Anishnabeg Outreach Centre .

After the ceremony, Jo Grey from LIFT (Low Income Families Together) took the floor to talk about a broad range of issues, from human rights to poverty to politics to youth.

Jo anchored the talk by advocating the use of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as a tool for organizing and action. The covenant came into effect in 1976, with Canada as a signatory. The Covenant's first article declares that citizens have a right to self-determination; its second article demands that governments spend their maximum available funds ensuring that citizens are guaranteed decent working conditions, a working health care system, and accessible education.

Jo went on to assert that Canada has regressed since it signed the Covenant, and that our country is now effectively run by NAFTA and its accompanying trade bureaucrats.

"There is no legal protection for poor people in this country," she said, adding that there is a lot of stigma attached to poverty. Pointing to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Jo asserted that economic status wasn't part of it.

However, she said that the Covenant is a positive tool for making Canadians, especially low-income Canadians, feel empowered about fighting for their rights.

Her closing words to the new and returning students gathered in Peter Clarke Hall underscored the need to organize: "It's important for us to work together to get our country back. If we say we're going to be our own country, if we say no to the SPP, to GNEP, to Harper, to Bush, to NAFTA, then we can show the world how to actually realize Human Rights. We need to push positive examples and create our own. We have the brains, the power, and the resources to do it."

We asked Jo, who's from Toronto, why she likes coming to Guelph to speak. "Guelph is smaller and more intimate than Toronto," she answered, "which means there's more potential for people to work together in a strategic manner." Jo also mentioned the Salsateria, the parties, the GUTS dinner , and all the many things you get in Guelph that you can't find anywhere else. Jo laughed before saying finally, "I keep coming because people keep inviting me back!"

Griffin Epstein of Griffin and the True Believers , who played songs from her new album after Jo Grey spoke, said what she liked about Guelph was how accepting the arts and social justice communities are, and the extent to which the two communities are integrated. "There's a great community-based group of people in Guelph who make art, who are inherently connected to all sorts of political initiatives."

Erica Hall, an Animal Biology student originally hailing from Sudbury, found out about the OPIRG Welcome Dinner through the O-Week Guide. Acknowledging that it "takes a lot of guts to meet new people," she said she decided to check OPIRG out because she's looking for places to volunteer while she completes her degree.

"OPIRG's a great place to volunteer," Mel Willson, a former staff member, quickly pointed out. "They have a big house, a big library, and working groups, all concentrated on exploring environmental and human rights issues."

OPIRG's volunteer coordinator, Cindy Regalado, pointed to the achievements of the Students Against Sweatshops (SAS) working group. SAS organized a referendum question for the last CSA election which saw the UofG students vote against the renewal of Coca Cola's exclusive contract with the University of Guelph.

Cindy encouraged new students to come to OPIRG's downtown lunch at 11:30 on Friday, saying that it was an opportunity to get a taste of different people and projects associated with OPIRG. The lunch is being hosted at the Salsateria's new location, and people should call the OPIRG office at (519) 824-2091 to reserve a spot. The lunch is followed by a radical tour of downtown. Check out OPIRG's Orientation Week Guide for details.

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