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Letter from Rachel Steeves to Shawn Graham

September 29, 2007

Hello Premier Graham,

I am a concerned former student of the University of New Brunswick, Saint John campus. I am writing to address the recent discussions of post-secondary education in New Brunswick.

When I started my first semester at UNBSJ, I wanted to be a Sociology major. A worse but more common offense, I wanted out of the Maritimes. I wanted Montreal, or Toronto, or anywhere. I wanted to live in the middle of everything, and how was I going to get there? I was going to get there with a degree in Sociology. Or Psychology. Sociology/Psychology was going to set me up in a lovely apartment in some urban center, and every day I would go to my great (and surprisingly easy) job, and every night I would go and see another band that was just in from Scotland, or New York, or wherever. These plans slowly fell to the wayside, but the two points I want to make clear are these: 1) I wanted to leave, and 2) post-secondary education wasn’t what I expected it to be. It wasn’t an easy road towards financial salvation. I was forced to make tough decisions, I was forced to evolve and adapt, I had to stick with it. I think that this idea can contribute to an overall attitude in regards to a University education. You stick with it, you adapt around it, you evolve with it. The payoff can be spectacular.

Early on in the recent development of this issue I heard that political leaders and advocates of the commission were claiming that students were being unfairly led by their professors. Professors were getting their students all riled up in an effort to protect their own interests. Something like that. Perhaps it is easy to view the student body as naive, the professors radical and selfish. Would you not, in your position of leadership, expect a sizable group of people to rally in support of you if your position or job were in jeopardy? As far as I am concerned, the reality of the situation at hand is this: UNBSJ employs a large number of exceptional human beings. One of the selling points of UNBSJ for potential students is the spirit and dedication of that young body of professionals. These are people who will go far out of their way to help their students. My own experiences, as an average student at UNBSJ, have shown me that these are the kind of people that will offer students independent study opportunities while they are on sabbatical. These are the kind of people that are legitimately excited by their students’ ideas and successes. We will fight for them. We will fight for them because they have fought for us. They have made countless sacrifices for their students and for the community. They work tirelessly, taking on roles in the community that would, in a larger or more stable city, be allocated to graduate students or community leaders. Professors at UNBSJ are symbolic in the community of unwavering support and encouragement. We don’t stand behind these people, and behind the lives that they have created for themselves in our community, because we have been told to. We celebrate these people, we respect these people, and we will defend these people and what they stand for. Please do not insult us by implying that we are a community that has no sense of loyalty, love or respect. It only makes you look like a monster.

Although you balk at the students’ display of loyalty to professors, you simultaneously encourage a standard of regional loyalty in New Brunswick. You want graduates of New Brunswick institutions to stay and work in New Brunswick. Do you believe that people are leaving the region because they have no positive feelings for it? My sister is in Edmonton, finishing up her Masters degree at the University of Alberta. She has worked in several fields, including government. She has been looking online for available Maritime jobs in her field for many years. Please know that there are many people living elsewhere who are simply waiting for the opportunity to come back; these people are not waiting for more industrial and factory jobs to pop up on the radar. Many people leave, before or after graduation, because they absolutely must in order to fulfill their goals. There are people who will come back, and there are people who have come back. I had a high school friend drop off the radar completely, only to show up years later in an apartment on Carmarthen Street — with a Law degree and a new job with a Saint John firm. There are countless examples of people who have left the region, only to return when it became possible for them to do so financially. Do you think that the people of New Brunswick don’t care? The majority of people who leave the region are leaving their entire family behind. You are not governing over a province of unthinking robots without values. Family and community values are of a proven importance in the Maritime region as a whole.

One way of making a human being care about the Maritimes is by showing them things about the region. You can refine that love of home that I would argue is within each native of the Saint John area. You can place wonderful people in a position of structured leadership in an effort to reveal things that people might not have ever seen, heard, or understood on their own. You can’t make every Southern New Brunswicker love their region by teaching them how to read a meter on a gas pipeline, or how to assist someone who assists someone who cleans teeth. You can’t lump people together like that. You want to initiate a trend in which graduates stay put in the region? Show them that their home is worth their loyalty. Show them that this is a place that values the positive aspects of our unique society, show them that they can rely on a government that will fight for their basic human needs. Use the professors of UNBSJ as an example of a core group of people who have earned, through dedication and honesty, the loyalty of thousands and thousands of people; imagine the effect that such support would have on your next run at the polls. This is the kind of support that you are fully capable of earning. Please don’t interpret the anger that has been directed towards you in recent weeks as a sign that the people have written you off. People realize and understand that government can make mistakes. It’s not too late to turn this issue on its head. I remain hopeful that this government will do the right thing. I look forward to supporting a government who supports positive and fair growth in New Brunswick.

Please recognize how unique the Maritime region is, how appealing the distinct sense of regional identity. I took a Maritime Poetry class with Dr. Anne Compton in my second year of University. A friend of mine who did very well in that course was an exchange student from Cologne, Germany. This girl wrote her term paper for the class on George Elliott Clarke. Several months ago, while exchanging emails with this girl after a long period without contact, I learned that she had recently completed her graduate studies in Germany; she had written her thesis on Clarke. This is a girl who was exposed to the richness of our regional literature for only a very short period of time. And look at the impression that it made in her life! This effect, this potential for interest in our region, is only possible if you, in your position of power, choose to protect and value it. Consider the words of Isabella from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: “It is excellent / To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant.”

I graduated from UNBSJ in the Spring of 2007. I earned an Honours degree in English Literature. I wrote a thesis about Lynn Coady’s reinvention of Cape Breton, informed by gender and managed through humour. UNBSJ granted me the incredible opportunity to write my thesis under the supervision of a Governor General’s Award winning poet, and a leading voice in Maritime literary theory. Take a moment to acknowledge the value of such guidance in the field of regional studies. Shortly after graduating, I moved to Texas with my husband. Please do not disregard what I have said here simply as a result of this fact. I miss my home and my family very much. Everything I have done since coming here has been done in an effort to achieve financial stability and independence. I am in a position that allows me a certain amount of freedom, and I have recently begun plans for a non-profit organization that will contribute financially to artistic opportunities in the Maritimes. I look forward to the day that we are able to move back to my home region.

Saint John is a beautiful city with so much life, so much passion, so much creativity. It has so much promise. I don’t know what else I can say in support of UNBSJ, as it is, and in the direction it has been heading. It is absolutely essential to the city. I moved into an apartment in Saint John the week after I graduated from high school. I spent two years working in terrible jobs before deciding to go back to school part time. I was taken advantage of by employers, I couldn’t afford to buy milk, most of my friends were worse off than I was. I have seen aspects of economic and emotional destitution in that city, up close and personal. I have had disappointing friends, I have met disappointing people, I let some of these disappointing people influence my life or even hurt me. People in Saint John have let me down. But UNBSJ has never let me down. The city of Saint John has never let me down. The buildings, the beauty of the place, the potential in that city for amazing things. Saint John has only ever excited me. Please hear the voice of the people of New Brunswick on this incredibly important issue. I hope to recognize my city as a place of imagination, creativity, and opportunity for all when I return; not a place that has been left creatively destitute by another fumbling by the New Brunswick government.

My very best wishes as you work towards finding a positive solution to this issue.

Rachel Steeves

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