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Students feel 'frustrated' and 'confused' as Lethbridge university strike wears on

Ongoing uncertainty, a lack of communication and a loss of academic opportunity are worrying students at the University of Lethbridge while classes remain cancelled.

Faculty and administration have not met for bargaining since strike began Feb. 10

Lethbridge university students Ziv Corenblum, left, McKenna Layne, middle and Amy Mendenhall have been without classes since mid-February. (Submitted by Ziv Corenblum, McKenna Layne, Amy Mendenhall)

Ongoing uncertainty, a lack of communication and a loss of academic opportunity are worrying students at the University of Lethbridge while classes remain cancelled.

The strike began 21 days ago, after the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association and administration were unable to reach an agreement over faculty contracts. It's been the same length of time since both sides met to bargain.

Roommates Taylor Blais and Kelsey Racicot, both students, say they feel "frustrated" at the situation and unsupported by the university. They say the communication they've received from the university hasn't been enough.

"Just a lot of frustration and confusion, and just feeling like we have no idea what's going on," said Blais.

Racicot was set to defend her master's thesis in her neuroscience program this summer, and Blais was in her final semester studying human resources. They, like many students, have a lease on an apartment in Lethbridge that comes up in May.

Political science student Ziv Corenblum wakes up every morning and checks his inbox for updates on the situation. He says he's worried about falling behind in his studies and can only study so much independently. 

Corenblum describes feeling caught in the middle of the back and forth between faculty and administration.

"It kind of feels like students are being … we're kind of being used as puppets."

Corenblum says should the semester be extended much longer, he may have to drop it as he had planned to volunteer for a political campaign this summer.

University of Lethbridge students Taylor Blais, left, and Kelsey Racicot say that ongoing uncertainty this semester has meant not being able to plan for the future. (Submitted)

Negotiations stalled

The university says it has been in communication with its students since the strike began, and that the priority is to resolve the strike and have students complete the semester.

"Students are at the forefront of our contingency planning. The objective of these plans are to help students complete the term in a timely manner at the conclusion of the strike, although perhaps later than originally planned," it said in a statement Friday.

Faculty and administration have not met to bargain since the strike began Feb. 10. 

The university board of governors has accused the faculty association of refusing to come to the bargaining table. The board says it has "always been willing to negotiate with ULFA."

"Productive meetings cannot be predicated on conditions that will jeopardize the university's fundamental need for financial stability," the board said.

Dan O'Donnell, president of the faculty association, says that's not the case.

"We've issued unconditional invitations to meet several times since the strike began."

On Feb. 28, the faculty association filed a labour relations complaint against administration alleging it "failed to bargain in good faith," is using surface bargaining techniques and also is unwilling to bargain.

Faculty at the University of Lethbridge have been at the picket lines for three weeks. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC )

The university says the complaint is "without merit." It previously filed a bad faith bargaining complaint against the faculty association in early February.

O'Donnell says the Alberta Labour Relations board has recently contacted them saying it would consider a resolution conference to deal with both complaints.

He said that could happen in March, barring other events taking place.

He says there have been preliminary conversations between both sides about setting up a "voluntary enhanced mediation process."

"It looks to me like the university is starting to feel some heat," said Bob Barnetson, a labour relations professor at Athabasca University.

Barnetson has been following the strike.

"I would say Lethbridge is in some jeopardy of experiencing pretty serious reputational harm," he said.

He points to the example of the student sit-ins that began this week outside of administration offices. Fourth year Indigenous student Amy Mendenhall attended and helped organize those sit-ins.

"Every student there is angry," she said.

Mental toll on students

Many of the students who spoke with CBC News described feelings of stress and anxiety over their academic situations.

That's to be expected considering academic disruptions already caused by the pandemic, says Michael Huston, a psychologist and counsellor who works with students at Mount Royal University.

"So to have to deal with the strike, and to worry about how to cope with this interruption, is going to be additional demand … and it's going to result for a lot of students in more stress," he said.

Fifth year sociology student McKenna Layne says she's feeling that stress. She says she wants to know what options exist within their current semester so that she can decide what to do.

The university is continuing to offer counselling services to students despite the strike and lockout. It says that "student well-being is a top priority" and that it has been in contact with students and students groups throughout the strike to support them.

Environmental science student Jaydy Perkins says she is strongly considering dropping the semester.

"I don't think I have much choice," she said.

Perkins has a lease on an apartment in Lethbridge that expires in April and says she has to work on her family farm in Spruce Grove, Alta., over the summer. 

She says the whole experience has damaged her opinion of the university despite enjoying her programs and feeling supported by her professors.

The university says it is reviewing its contingency plan but couldn't confirm the "specific accommodations," like reimbursements, that it will be able to offer students at the end of the strike.


CBC Calgary has launched a Lethbridge bureau to help tell your stories from southern Alberta with reporter Jennifer Dorozio. Story ideas and tips can be sent to jennifer.dorozio@cbc.ca.

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