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News / March 6, 2019

Students and Others Speak Out on NSCAD University Strike

Multiple students say they are unhappy with how administration has handled labour concerns at the art school, and at least one city councillor is also concerned about the strike
A picket line outside NSCAD University. Photo: Facebook / Faculty Union of NSCAD (FUNSCAD). A picket line outside NSCAD University. Photo: Facebook / Faculty Union of NSCAD (FUNSCAD).
A picket line outside NSCAD University. Photo: Facebook / Faculty Union of NSCAD (FUNSCAD). A picket line outside NSCAD University. Photo: Facebook / Faculty Union of NSCAD (FUNSCAD).

Ice pellets. Snow. High winds. Freezing rain.

Monday was one of the worst weather days in Halifax this winter, with Dalhousie University cancelling classes, local public schools closed, and, late in the day, a plane sliding off the tarmac at the Halifax airport.

But NSCAD University faculty on strike still picketed outside of the 132-year-old art school. And multiple students joined them in solidarity.

“I chose NSCAD 100% for the faculty,” said MFA student Alex Linfield, who was there in support of strikers. “But if there is no faculty, and [the university] is not willing to retain the amazing faculty they have, there is no future for this program.”

“It doesn’t feel as though we are being listened to in any meaningful way” by the administration, said one MFA student.

Morgan Melenka, another NSCAD MFA student, agreed. She said MFA students’ attempts to convince the administration of the importance of addressing faculty concerns—concerns Melenka believes are reasonable—have not been responded to adequately.

“The MFAs in particular started a letter-writing campaign in early February to administration, to ask them to avert the strike,” said Melenka. “It doesn’t feel as though we are being listened to in any meaningful way.”

MFA thesis defenses are due to start this week, which raises the stakes for second-year MFA students in particular.

“I’ve been working on these projects for the last year and a half,” says student Katarina Marinic of her MFA exhibition “Composed with Fragments,” which opened Tuesday at NSCAD’s Anna Leonowens Gallery. “Now we are caught in between all of this and it’s putting a really dark cloud over things we should be celebrating.”

The administration has said MFA thesis defenses will be delayed until after the strike has ended. And if related MFA exhibitions have ended in the meantime—each is only a week long—then documentation will be used for the defense, says the administration.

But: “It is extremely difficult for any artist working with any kind of digital media to document their artworks and get the same feeling across through documentation,” says Marinic.

“We are here and we are working really hard and we fully agree with the faculty and we are supporting them,” says Marinic. “We would also just like to feel some respect and support from the administration. Don’t treat us as numbers on a page but as real people spending time and effort in studies.”

“We are doing all we can to mitigate the impact on our students,” says the administration.

What the Administration is Saying

“NSCAD is disappointed that an agreement could not be reached at the negotiating table and that the Faculty Union has taken strike action,” said a NSCAD University spokesperson via email on Monday. “We understand that this is a difficult time and we are doing all we can to mitigate the impact on our students.”

During the strike, NSCAD facilities are open where possible, though it’s said that all people entering campuses need to sign in with IDs or swipe cards. Classes taught by members of the union unit on strike—FUNSCAD Unit 1—are cancelled, but some classes taught by instructors who are not part of that union unit are still ongoing. The library, gallery and bookstore remain open.

“We value the work and significant contributions of our faculty and have put forward a proposal that is fair, affordable, and sustainable in the long term. NSCAD remains ready and willing to meet with the Union at any time if we believe there is the possibility of reaching a deal that does not put the future of NSCAD in jeopardy.”

Over the past number of weeks, the NSCAD administration has been emailing memos to students about its perspective. These memos, also posted on the NSCAD website at a link provided to students, provide some insight into how the administration is framing its concerns—and how that framing is shifting with student feedback.

One February 12 memo signed by NSCAD president Dianne Taylor-Gearing states: “Our future success and sustainability is tied to four key pillars…. We must ensure we do not do anything that compromises these pillars.” The pillars were then listed as (1) Financial Sustainability, (2) Recruitment Efforts, (3) Infrastructure Renewal, (4) Academic Program Excellence.

In a later February 25 memo, following critiques from some students, these priorities are shifted in order, with academic excellence is shifted from last pillar to first: “As we have said on many occasions, NSCAD’s success depends on four pillars: a. Academic excellence and program renewal; 
b. Financial prudence and sustainability; 
c. Enrollment growth; and 
d. Infrastructure renewal for campus facilities that are not ‘fit for purpose’”

Overall, the memos put forward that the historic NSCAD Fountain campus “must be replaced within 10 years,” and that all government-funded institutions must meet provincial accessibility standards by 2030. The memos also note that provincial government funding is increasing only 1% per year, that tuition hikes are limited to 3% per year, and that “our expenses are growing faster than our revenue… We simply cannot afford the proposals put forward by the Union.”

The February 12 administration memo also indicates that at least $1.7 million of surplus funds NSCAD reported in 2017–2018 have been allocated by the board towards “fundraising support.”

The 2017-2018 NSCAD annual report trumpeted a surplus of “$3,075,711, after amortization and before principal payments on debt.” It also indicated it was considering a plan to create a new waterfront facility with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the cost of which is yet to be determined.

“I think it’s understandable that we do need a new building,” said a faculty rep, “but we also have to invest in our human infrastructure.”

What Faculty Reps are Saying

The current strike is reportedly the first at NSCAD since 1986, with key issues for labour being compensation and workload, among other concerns.

Faculty union representatives say that after several years of forgoing adequate wage hikes in order to get NSCAD University in the black, they want to see progress again.

“We think that our proposals are reasonable proposals—we haven’t made them irresponsibly, we have costed everything out as realistically as we can,” said FUNSCAD president Mathew Reichertz on Monday. “There is an unwillingness at the moment for the administration to discuss some of our more substantial proposals—maybe because they have prioritized other things, like fundraising for a new building.”

The union says that it understands the need for physical infrastructure renewal—it just wants human infrastructure to be adequate as well.

“I think it’s understandable that we do need a new building,” says Reichertz, “but we also have to invest in our human infrastructure. We are not in a deficit position. There is money. There is just an unwillingness, it seems, to direct any of it towards us.”

The faculty union’s position has found support at the Canadian Association of University Teachers—a national organization with more than 72,000 members, many of whom are facing issues similar to those at NSCAD.

“Those who teach at NSCAD have the highest workload of any university in Canada,” contended CAUT president David Robinson in Toronto yesterday. Robinson says at most universities in Canada, faculty teach four or five courses over two semesters. But at NSCAD, he says, it’s six.

Robinson also says that he sees the issues NSCAD’s faculty union has raised around the rights of contract instructors being mirrored in other university campuses across the country.

“The issues of casualization and contingent faculty” are at hand, says Robinson. “About a third of the [NSCAD union] membership is precarious labour, and that is something we see across the country as well.” Many of these contract teachers only find out six weeks before a course starts whether they are working or not.

And this has impacts on students at NSCAD and elsewhere.

“When there is constant turnover in instructors, it can be hard for students to get references for employment or graduate studies,” Robinson noted. He says it’s sensible that art universities have the option for artists to teach contracts from time to time, but there’s a problem when the same people are having to be rehired semester after semester after semester.

“Anything that hurts NSCAD in the short or long term is bad for Halifax,” a city councillor stated.

What the Government is Saying

Over at the Nova Scotia Ministry of Labour and Advanced Education, representatives are hoping the strike will be resolved soon.

“We encourage the parties to resolve their differences at the negotiating table,” said a ministry spokesperson via email on Monday. “As always, the department’s conciliation and mediation services are available to assist the parties in reaching a collective agreement and we encourage the parties to take advantage of these services.”

Regarding the latter point, the union and administration already met at least 18 times to negotiate in recent months, and at least five times during conciliation sessions as well. The previous contract expired in July 2018.

Waye Mason, city councillor for Halifax South Downtown, says the NSCAD strike has an impact on the city that he is concerned about.

“I think it [the strike] is really unfortunate, NSCAD is an important part of the fabric of our cultural community, and adds vitality across our entire community,” Mason said in an email to Canadian Art. “Anything that hurts NSCAD in the short or long term is bad for Halifax.”

Mason is also concerned about the impact on the city’s cultural scene in particular.

“From craft and visual art to indirectly, all art and creative industries, this strike has an impact,” Mason stated. “I worked in music for years and a lot of our best musicians came out of NSCAD. A lot of part-time faculty are active artists who are now going to face struggles in their day to day because of loss of income.”

Mason’s son is in his second year of studies at NSCAD, he added, saying “I hope it [the strike] is resolved soon.”

“We are encouraging students to join the picketing,” said a student union VP, “because the longer the picket line, the shorter the strike.”

What Will Come Next?

Despite their differences on terms, both the union and the administration have expressed a common interest in having more dialogue and resolving the strike, which began on March 1, quickly.

“We are hopeful that there’s some movement on their part and that we can reach and agreement as quickly as possible,” said Mathew Reichertz of FUNSCAD. “The faculty don’t want to be out on strike. And the students support us which is fantastic, but we don’t want to put them through a strike either.”

In a Chronicle-Herald article on March 1, the first day of the strike, NSCAD president Dianne Taylor-Gearing also expressed a similar sentiment.

Back at NSCAD, another student, undergraduate Peri McFarlane—also VP Financial of the NSCAD Student Union—says that she will continue joining the faculty picket when possible in hopes the strike comes to an end as soon as possible.

“The sooner the strike ends the better, but until then we are standing in solidarity,” McFarland told Canadian Art on Monday. “We are encouraging students to join the picketing, because the longer the picket line, the shorter the strike.”

MFA student Alex Linfield also continues to support faculty—and understands students may be in their shoes someday, too.

“As MFA students, we came here because there is a focus on pedagogy, which means we are interested in being faculty at other universities someday,” Linfield told Canadian Art on Monday. “We have no interest in bargaining down our future as educators.”

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via