On Oct. 25, students gathered in the University of New Brunswick’s Student Union Building to meet Fredericton member of parliament Jenica Atwin.
Atwin came as part of “Coffee with Your MP,” which was an open dialogue on issues such as immigration, mental health, public healthcare, education and Truth and Reconciliation.
Atwin said she wanted to be “approachable and accessible” to students. She emphasized the importance of hearing from students’ on society’s ever-shifting “top issues.”
“This is where society meets,” said Atwin. “This is where we can peel back the layers of what’s happening and feel the real-world effects of bigger, broader issues.”
Atwin said she appreciated the “diversity of voices” and was surprised students brought up specific pieces of legislation like the use of artificial intelligence in the workplace or copyright reviews.
She also said she learned about some challenges in the education system.
“Even though [education] is in the provincial jurisdiction, it is the path that led me [to politics] so I keep those roots pretty strong. I love working with my provincial colleagues … and seeing where we can strike new policies,” said Atwin.
Throughout the event, Atwin distributed her business cards and said she would follow up with students on their specific issues. She explained that bringing up student issues at the federal level consists of sequentially discussing them at weekly regional, Atlantic and national caucuses.
“I really appreciate the mechanisms,” said Atwin.
“I do feel like my voice even as an individual MP [is] able to have input [that] I see reflected at the cabinet table. It feels empowering. It feels like we do have the ability to make a change and that makes us want to keep working.”
Atwin said she is against the idea of government and people being separate, stating that “we all need to work together.” She plans to revisit UNB to chat again with students.
“[Issues] shift all the time … it’s critically important to be engaged,” said Atwin.
Denver Hayes is a 19-year-old arts student at UNB from Gesgapegiag First Nation. He attended Atwin’s event and asked her about the alternative education system designed for Indigenous students who struggle to stay in school.
His view of them is highly negative.
“Before I asked the question, I was literally shaking because I was so into the issue. It affected me so hard,” said Hayes.
From his time at Oromocto High School alternative site Kinapuwi Kehkitimok, he explained that the school days are three hours long, consist of diluted curriculums and, though intended for students who are struggling, are filled with academically strong students who are capable of succeeding in regular systems.
“I was not there by choice,” said Hayes. “My mom didn’t want me there. The chief who runs the reserve didn’t want me there. And the teacher there was fighting for me.”
He said that rejoining regular schools is “very difficult”. His transition process took nearly two years of discourse with the administration, which delayed his graduation. He also shared that the diplomas the schools give are “useless” for any kind of future pursuit.
Hayes said the system is “segregating” Indigenous students from public schools and contributing to the structural unemployment of Indigenous people.
“I knew I was going to get my voice out there,” he said about attending Atwin’s event. “I wanted to make people aware of this activity that is really wrong. [Schools] are still suppressing us with a modern method that is brand new.”
Hayes said he knew the topic would be “new news” to Atwin, but said he felt that she was receptive to his ideas.
“But her team wasn’t in sync with her. It seemed like the team was scared to talk. They were really shy, which is a problem. It seemed like the team was like ‘this isn’t my cup of tea. I want a different cup,’” he said.
He believes that other topics at the event — like immigration and healthcare — gained much more traction.
“Everyone was shocked and everyone was speechless, that was the problem,” said Hayes. “You shouldn’t be speechless hearing about this. You should be like, ‘Okay, how are we going to address this issue going forward.’”
Still, he especially appreciates Atwin’s transparency.
“It’s very new to politics, being transparent,” says Hayes. “I felt like she’s pretty transparent.”
He plans to return to future events that Atwin has planned at UNB, the soonest of which will be on Nov. 29.