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Freedom of Information request about donations to U of O raises eyebrows

Photo by Tina Wallace

For two years, Alexandre Nanoff and Nathan Boivin have attempted to investigate the University of Ottawa’s private donation practices. Nanoff and Boivin, both undergraduate students at the U of O, filed a Freedom of Information request and subsequently wrote their own report on the difficulties they faced trying to obtain information about the university’s policies.

“We wanted to take a look at the relationships between the mining sector and to a larger extent private industry and the university,” Nanoff said.

Throughout the process, he was able to see that there are close ties between Ian Telfer, chairman of Goldcorp, and the U of O. Telfer donated $25 million to the school of management at the U of O, which now bears his name. However, Goldcorp, a Canadian mining company, has come under fire in the past for alleged human rights violations in Latin America. Telfer himself settled $200,000 with the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) for telling a friend how to avoid email monitoring through Blackberry Messenger.

Nanoff and Boivin got the idea to investigate donations after reading about strategic lawsuits against public participators in the Walrus, a Canadian and international affairs magazine. They also wanted to investigate under what circumstances the Devonshire Initiative, a forum for non-governmental organizations and mining companies, was moved from the University of Toronto to the U of O.

“Our research just released to us for the first time the Telfer donation agreement, and we see that the agreement is completely devoid of any terms of agreement,” Nanoff said.

He said it’s a problem for “a business leader to be an example for students.” According to Nanoff, such large-scale donations devoid of transparency are devaluing the student experience and education.

“If a private individual is going to donate to a not-for-profit, there are certain tax breaks that are accorded to such a person,” he said. “I feel like it all comes back to the conversation on how we are shifting around our resources to make sure our education is affordable.”

Nanoff said he understands the university is pegged between the province, which doesn’t want to pay more, and students, who also don’t want to pay more.

“I think that it’s been a broken record for year after year after year — drop fees, eliminate fees — we don’t even take a look at what these guys are doing with the very money they receive,” he said. “We should take a closer look at these numbers, narrow down our criticism a little better and hopefully we can say, ‘Why are we subsidizing Mr. Telfer’s donations?’”

Representatives for the U of O were unavailable for comment at the time of the Fulcrum’s publication.

According to Anne-Marie Roy, president of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), the issue is a “multi-layered problem,” and that the federation does examine where the funds received by the university are allocated.

“We do pay attention to where the U of O is spending money,” she said. “We do understand that on some level universities and colleges have been chronically underfunded for many years now.”

Roy said the university does spend “millions of dollars in admin costs” and that there could be a review done to examine how the university spends its money. She said the campaigns enforced by the SFUO, like Education is a Right and Enough is Enough, do look into where the university allocates its money and how effective they are.

According to Nanoff, large-scale private donations are not unique to the U of O. Goldcorp’s recent $10-million donation to Simon Fraser University was scrutinized in 2010. Nanoff said universities need to “leverage political will among students” and that accepting short-term private donations will not properly address underfunding.

Boivin and Nanoff are currently facing tribunals in an attempt to get access to more Devonshire and Goldcorp documents. Their report on the Freedom of Information request has yet to be published.