Reflections on the Closure of the The Language Centre, Saint Mary’s University

Lauren McKenzie
CUPE 3912 Vice President, SMU, the Language Centre

The first stop for most non-native English speaking students (NNESS) attending universities in Canada are language schools within the university. Language schools also act as a pipeline for international student tuition fees as learners are accepted conditionally to university programs upon completion of language courses, usually called ‘bridging programs’. Students undertake intensive courses in academic communication, critical thinking and research standards to prepare for full time study.  Moreso, students are welcomed into a community where they find safety.

The Language Centre (TLC) at Saint Mary’s University (SMU) has been supporting the cultural and academic transition of learners and newcomers for 25 years. Thousands of students have passed through these doors and many have gone on to earn degrees from SMU and become permanent members of our community. 

Closure of The Language Centre

Once a thriving, profitable school in the heart of Halifax, TLC was left unrecognisable as a result of poor management and neglect. On January 23, 2024, CUPE 3912 was informed that all operations at TLC would cease by the end of April 2024. SMU has chosen to abandon all English language programs, the IELTS Testing Centre and the teacher training course that share the building. 

Impact on Instructors

In spite of the importance of their work, language instructors are amongst the most precariously employed workers in the increasingly unstable labor force. Very few English language teachers in post secondary education are unionized and most have no more than 8 – 12 weeks of job security. Most have no health benefits or access to university pension programs. They are typically excluded from perks such as access to parking or to wellness facilities and tuition discounts. Despite the fact that these are highly educated and specialized workers, they are second-class citizens in our sector.

Local 3912 is disappointed with the callous way that TLC instructors have been treated. The university administration did not consult with instructors and no business plan or vision for the future was ever communicated. The University stood by as the previous director of TLC hired three full-time instructors from outside the union to teach English language courses. This ignored precedence and robbed CUPE 3912 members of their right to bargained work. That director was fired, and the position left vacant. For the past several years the employees have stood witness as more administrative staff were hired, even though the University stopped recruiting and student numbers dwindled. 

The first time instructors, many of whom have been at TLC for decades, heard from the senior administrator overseeing the unit was in an after-hours email from a complete stranger who laid off the entire workforce over their lunch break, before they had to face awaiting students. They were deeply saddened by the loss of their jobs and the impact that this will have on international students and the community.

Impact on Students

The other casualty of the university’s callous actions are the international students who came to Saint Mary’s in good faith. These learners gave their significant international student tuition fees to The Language Centre with hopes of starting full time study at SMU, which has now abandoned them in their journey to full-time post secondary study. This is not just about money as these students have strict visa rules that require them to attend the programs they have been approved for. Thus, SMU has cast students out with no clear plan as to how they will begin full time study in the fall, bringing doubt and uncertainty to their visa status, educational plan, and future.

We are left asking what will future language learners at SMU do and how will their academic needs be addressed? The internationalization of higher education means more than just accepting large tuition fees from non-citizen students. It requires meaningful academic support so that learners are successful. Saint Mary’s has systematically disassembled the academic community that created a fair and equitable academic environment for international students who speak English as an additional language. International students are poorly served by an institution that depends so significantly on them because students are marginalized by their language and immigration status. 

CUPE 3912’s Response 

We were in the midst of bargaining our next Collective Agreement when the Employer indicated that they would not return to the bargaining table, as TLC would close. Our CUPE National representative advised us to request a return to the bargaining table from the Employer, citing the statutory freeze in place due to the status of active bargaining and the possibility of filing an unfair labour practise complaint. Fortunately, the employer agreed to return to the bargaining table to discuss the terms of the closure of TLC.

After a difficult day of negotiations, we reached an agreement for TLC instructors. This included non-monetary items, such as access to the Extended Family Assistance Plan, SMU email accounts,  Brightspace course shells, the Patrick Power library, employee records, and the health clinic for those who receive primary care at SMU. The Employer agreed to 3% retro pay and a lump sum payment to the local, so that members at TLC can determine the most equitable way to allocate funds. The Employer repeatedly referred to the dire financial situation at SMU – and we reminded them no one feels that more than instructors at TLC.

In Parting

I extend my heartfelt best wishes to all my colleagues at TLC. I thank the CUPE 3912 Executive Board for moral support, the knowledge and experience that helped to navigate this situation for the instructors at TLC. Being a CUPE VP has opened my eyes to the world of the labour movement and the incredible challenges facing the post-secondary sector. I intend on staying involved, continuing my education and activism and stepping up when and where I can make a difference. I look forward to attending the first All Committee Meeting (ACM) of the Post-Secondary Action Committee in Ottawa this month, where I will speak to the issues – the creation of a second class within the higher education sector, shoddy contracts for newcomers, and international students’ contentions with citizenship issues – while building solidarity with workers facing similar challenges across our sector.

Working people don’t get what they deserve, they get what they negotiate

Cameron Ells
CUPE 3912 President

 “Working people don’t get what they deserve, they get what they negotiate.” CUPE 3912 NSCAD member Rebecca Roher created this image some years ago. The text is a variation of a 1996 Chester Karrass book title. She gave permission for CUPE 3912 to use this image in our current bargaining cycles of Collective Agreement negotiations with Dalhousie University (Dal.), Saint Mary’s University (SMU), Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU), and the Nova Scotia of Art and Design (NSCAD). 

Three are the next version of the 2020 – 2024 Collective Agreements with Dal, SMU and MSVU. Two will be first collective agreements with NSCAD and for the SMU Teaching Assistants, two units new to CUPE 3912 in 2023. One is for the SMU Language Center Instructors, where the employer is closing their program.  Our Lead Negotiator for what might be six employer agreements in 2024 – CUPE Staff Representative  Mark Cunningham – reminds us that negotiations are about our relative balance of power.

Institutions, be they social, educational, legal, political, or otherwise, have long term sustainable strength  – like an ecosystem – where there is a capacity to adapt to ever changing circumstances.  

Within the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), compared to some other organizations, there is relatively more space, scope and opportunity for local, independent decision making. Within CUPE 3912, there is space, scope and opportunity for the six different Negotiating Teams to do things differently while sharing a similar mission, and some resources, to improve member working conditions. 

CUPE 3912 members are also an uncommonly and relatively diverse group of backgrounds, experiences, and skill sets. The opportunities are there, to speak, listen, think about, discuss, and consider a variety of perspectives, before legitimate democratic decision making takes place. 

Innovations, improvements, experiments, or adaptations by one CUPE 3912 negotiating team may be an influence on what is used by other teams. Some “oh whoops” or some accidently “spilled milk” along the way, can be part of an acceptable price to encourage creativity and informed risk taking. Our SMU Instructor Bargaining Proposal mandate involved online voting for each proposal. Some developing first contract text being developed will be shared by the new SMU Teaching Assistant and NSCAD teams. Innovative pension proposals developed for one unit of CUPE 3912 instructors will be used in proposals with other employers. We help each other.

A now former Dal President thought that the 2022 CUPE 3912 Dal strike was probably necessary in order to achieve our November 2022 agreement. Our demonstrated capacity to competently organize and execute a strike if necessary, is a useful tool, effort and option, in support of our negotiations.  

With each bargaining cycle, CUPE 3912 members have ever increasing opportunities to be informed, involved and contribute to our negotiations and related efforts to achieve our goals. Our diversity, encouragement of creative adaptations, informed risk management, and bottom up decision making instincts, helps us to achieve our goals.    

Towards shared governance at SMU

Karen Harper
CUPE 3912 member at SMU and MSVU
Former CUPE 3912 President and Communications Officer

A union such as CUPE 3912 helps improve working conditions for its members through collective bargaining and grievances. Another way union members can influence working conditions in the academic environment is through shared university governance. University governance is essential to the operation of the university and includes the Senate and Board of Governors. The Senate is ‘responsible for the educational policy of the University’ and the Board of Governors ‘oversees the conduct of the University’s affairs’.

Full time faculty and sometimes part-time faculty are involved in governance at Canadian universities. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has a campaign on Shared Governance (see their video). ‘Decision-making powers are concentrated in the hands of a few, who act behind closed doors, while the voices of academic staff and other key stakeholders are being weakened or silenced. Collegiality — or shared governance — is at the heart of what a university is and should be.’ CAUT is putting together information on university governance across Canada including the composition of Board of Governors and Senate. An initial glance at their results shows that at least ten universities have a Senate with at least one designated member who is a part-time instructor.

At Saint Mary’s University, full-time faculty and students are part of the Board of Governors and the Senate, but part-time faculty are currently not eligible to vote or serve on Senate, despite teaching a third of the courses.

Efforts to change this started years ago in 2016 when Phil Bennett (CUPE 3912 VP for SMU PT instructors at the time) requested and received a legal opinion from CAUT about whether part-time faculty have the right to vote and stand for election to the Senate and Board. The response was YES – the Senate is not within its rights to exclude us.

One of my goals when I became president of CUPE 3912 in 2019 was to explore options for our members to serve on Senate. I made some progress at SMU before the pandemic and bargaining became too overwhelming. I met with the chair of the SMU Senate bylaws committee and forwarded a letter I requested from CAUT about the importance of part-time faculty being on Senate.

Last fall I resumed my quest by meeting with the SMU Senate bylaws committee. They are very supportive and plan on proposing a bylaws amendment that will enable us to vote and serve on Senate as academic staff (bylaws) . However, this would not establish designated seats for part-time faculty on Senate, which would require the opening of the University Act. Senate currently includes fifteen members selected by the academic staff.

The bylaws committee is gathering information about the wording of eligibility for part-time instructors at other universities and determining the wording of their proposed amendments. Any proposed bylaw changes would need to be approved by the entire Senate. They have asked me to survey SMU part-time instructors to provide information to present to the entire Senate. This is a great opportunity to educate our members and to get your input on whether we should seek designated seats on Senate and to assess how much interest there is for individual members to run for election to serve on Senate.

What you can do:

  • Keep informed and please complete the short survey about governance this spring.
  • The Senate has recently established a Cross-faculty Committee to review the ICE (student evaluations) including issues related to EDI and would like to include a part-time faculty member. If you are interested in sitting on this committee, please contact by March 15, 2024.

Want to Build Our Collective Power Together? Form a Caucus or Working Group!

Neil Balan
CUPE 3912 Member at SMU and MSVU
Member of the SMU PT Faculty Negotiating Team

As a long-time contract faculty member involved collectively with different unions across different universities, I’ve joined and participated in caucuses and working groups (for instance: universities fossil fuel divestment, universities and migrant rights). Though similar to a more formal sub-committee, a caucus or working group is an informal issue-centered way of organizing semi-regularly to talk, engage, and exchange ideas and assessments. They can serve as valuable ways to build unity, tease out internal contradictions and antagonisms, and connect members. While they don’t have any formal remit within the union, and while they aren’t tasked with any kind of policy development, caucus or working group work can generate opportunities to collectively organize and mobilize our membership. They provide methods for clarifying ideas about our labour, the institutions we navigate and negotiate, and the wider social and structural forces that shape how we work.

Beyond your teaching work and your time spent trading your labour for pay, do you have an outlet for some of your social, political, or political economic concerns whether in relation to university spaces or beyond? It could be that you’re able to work, write, and/or produce academic or scholarly work that addresses these concerns. Maybe you’re part of a research or community-based action network. Or maybe you scream (daily) into the social media void, generating bits and pieces of analysis or commentary.

My sense: our common interests as union members and workers allow us an opportunity to share, develop, and discuss whatever we deem to be matters of concern and importance. A caucus or working group need not be onerous. It can work like a reading or study group with decidedly measured expectations. The goal: we can learn about issues collectively and together. It can start in an inchoate way with the core concern “in-solution” and requiring further condensation and consolidation enabled by way of ongoing encounters and meetings. The initial task of most working groups or caucuses is straightforward: agree on a mandate or goal, select a more concrete focus, and decide on a way of structuring engagements. Go from there.

Consider this a call to action by way of doing what many of us do well: reading, thinking, writing, talking, and sharing. For my part, I’d like to propose two working groups: the “Neither Excellence nor Excellent: Austerity and the Barely-Public University” Working Group and a “What’s New in Progressive PSE Policy in Canada” Working Group.

If you’re interested in ether, email me at or

If anything, working groups and caucuses are at their best when they are member-driven and ground-up. If neither of these proposed groups aligns with your interests, think about proposing or pitching something else. Doing things together only makes us a stronger unit and stronger union as we head into our next round of bargaining.