Photo by Hannah Walters-Vida
By: Olivia Fava
On August 8, Premier Doug Ford visited McMaster Innovation Park along with two other Progressive Conservative party members, Member of Provincial Parliament Donna Skelly and MPP Ross Romano, the training, colleges and universities minister.
During the tour, they were notably received by leaders from Fusion Pharmaceuticals, a cancer research group, the Biomedical Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing Project Centre and the EcoCAR Mobility Challenge.
Premier Ford’s visit was met with some pushback from the McMaster community.
Gord Arbeau, director of communications at McMaster, described the visit as a means of raising awareness in government about McMaster’s successes in research.
“McMaster certainly prioritizes connecting government leaders and officials with our students, with our researchers and we look for opportunities to ensure that they understand the importance of the work that our students and faculty do here and the impact of that work.”
Regarding the visitors themselves, he added that it’s not often provincial leaders can come to campus, so this was a good opportunity to arrange a visit.
Ethan Pereira, a third year engineering student and member of the EcoCAR team, was present during Ford’s visit, which he recalled as a very brief interaction involving little preparation on part of the students. The Premier came to speak with the students, asked what they were working on, and shook hands with him after the brief exchange; photos were taken afterwards. According to Pereira about ten to fifteen students were present for the visit.
Visited McMaster Innovation Park @MIP_Hamilton with @RossRomanoSSM and @SkellyHamilton to show our support for the work they are doing to innovate in Ontario’s auto sector and create jobs for the future of the industry. pic.twitter.com/XtKDsOWfXi
— Doug Ford (@fordnation) August 8, 2019
The visit was first announced after it occurred, on the Twitter accounts of the visiting politicians. McMaster’s Daily News site also released a news article on the day of the visit after it occurred. Confidentiality was discussed with the students of the EcoCAR team before the visit, according to Pereira.
“We actually didn’t know that long, he came on the Thursday and we knew on the Monday, however, were told to keep it confidential as it was a confidential visit…it was just his media team,” he said.
Members of CUPE 3906, a McMaster union of academic workers, speculated that confidentiality was emphasized to avoid protest due to the Ford administration’s cuts to education, including OSAP, and the implementation of the Student Choice Initiative.
“The fact that the Premier of the province didn’t announce his visit I think was very intentional to prevent student protest…you would assume that the University would send out news blasts in advance asking you to come,” said Julia Pyryeskina, a CUPE volunteer. “He’s a public servant, he has a responsibility to face the music that he has created. We have a democratic right to protest the policies that we disagree with.”
“[Prime Minister] Trudeau has been here before, and they have always made announcements, have booked videos…I think that McMaster actually not saying anything to the community, it’s a shame,” said Perez, referencing Prime Minister Trudeau’s January 2018 visit. “This is a way of silencing and repressing your own community.”
Similar concerns were also raised by groups such as the McMaster Undergraduate Academic Librarians’ Association.
Arbeau explained that the focus on confidentiality was a function of the visit’s purpose. “There are different types of visits; there are some where we have government officials that come to the university to announce a new program or new funding, this was more of a fact-finding visit and so the purpose was to meet one-on-one.” He also cited short notice as another reason. “I don’t think there was a long lead time in terms of planning.”
Another point of interest is why McMaster Innovation Park was chosen as the venue. According to Arbeau, it was because of a visit this past April by the former Minister of Training of Colleges and Universities, Progressive-Conservative member Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, and MPP Skelly herself, for a grant announcement for Fusion Pharmaceuticals, which left the two with a positive impression.
“They were so impressed…I think they went back to Queen’s Park and were talking with their colleagues there about McMaster Innovation Park, and so that led to the tour by the Premier and by the new minister [Romano],” Arbeau said.
Pyryeskina considered the choice of venue to be connected to both the confidentiality of the visit and the Premier’s public image.
“If he’s visiting the furthest part of McMaster pretty much no one is at because he doesn’t want to be seen, I think that’s a very intentional tactic,” she said. “I think he just picked something that is all about progress and automation and getting jobs and all of these things when he’s actually part of cutting jobs, cutting access, cutting equity, in so many ways.”
In the opinion of CUPE members, this visit does not show solidarity with students and faculty on the part of the university.
“The university considers provincial government to be a significant stakeholder…but they are also are here to serve their students and…to best represent their employees and faculty, and it’s clear which way they went on that,” remarked Nathan Todd, CUPE local’s current president.
Pereira also discussed the significance of this visit to the EcoCAR student team, particularly the appearance of Romano as the Minister of Training for Colleges and Universities.
“I’m guessing he [Romano] was there mainly…to see what our opportunities are in the future, or how they expand by doing this competition, and how investing in students early on can help in the future,” he said, also adding that it was always exciting to show officials what the team has been working on.
Arbeau indicated that the administration had not received any concerns, and that the university is consistently advocating for its students. “We take the opportunities as they present themselves to ensure that all levels of government understand the impact of the work that happens here.” He concluded by stating: “We look for opportunities to connect government with students and with our researchers and we’ll continue to do so.”