Students at 13 unions petition to leave CFS

MONTREAL (CUP) – Members of 13 student societies across Canada have started petitions asking their peers if they wish to leave the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), Canada’s largest student lobby group.
The development comes almost two years after student unions at the University of Cape Breton, Simon Fraser University, and Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia tried unsuccessfully to leave the federation because either the student unions failed to meet CFS’s referendum by-laws, or students ultimately chose to stay with CFS following litigation.
Students circulating the petitions expressed strong disenchantment with CFS, and some felt that the fees their union pay to the group – ranging from $40,000 to $300,000 annually – could be better spent elsewhere.


Many student petition organizers expressed frustration with what they feel is a track record of aggressive litigation by CFS. In recent years, many of the student unions that have tried to de-federate from CFS have found themselves in hot legal water when they failed to follow CFS bylaws.
Simon Fraser University’s independent student paper the Peak reported that a case between CFS and their student union, on whether it had the right to leave the federation, went to the Supreme Court of B.C.
Derek Robertson, director of external affairs with the Kwantlen Student Association at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C., confirmed that his society was taken to court for similar reasons. Similarly, the Acadia University Students’ Union in Nova Scotia spent almost 10 years in litigation after they tried to leave CFS in 1996.
Former Canadian University Press (CUP) president and Maclean’s OnCampus writer Erin Millar said that legal threats from CFS have extended beyond student unions to student journalists in the past.
“In my experience, working as a student journalist, and my work at CUP and Maclean’s, CFS has consistently been the most aggressive organization I’ve ever covered as a journalist,” she said. “They’ve done that by employing legal means. They spend a lot of money using lawyers . . . which I think is a completely inappropriate way to spend students’ [dues]. . “Journalists, particularly student journalists who are inexperienced, are intimidated.”

Revolving doors

Other student organizers were concerned with what they saw as a revolving door policy between pro-CFS student politicians and the CFS national or regional headquarters. Robertson pointed to the example of Hamid Osman, the pro-CFS president of the York Federation of Students who became the CFS national executive representative for Ontario after his time at York University in Toronto, during which students tried to impeach him.
“Instead of him facing the students for reelection he became the national executive representative for Ontario,” said Robertson.
Concordia’s independent student newspaper the Link reported that Noah Stewart-Ornstein, CFS national deputy chairperson, kept his job after being caught on security tapes tearing down a slate’s posters during Concordia’s Arts and Science Federation of Associations’ (ASFA) general election campaign last year.
Sabotaging a campaign violates the CSU’s election rules, though Stewart-Ornstein was not a candidate in the election and could not be reprimanded. He was the chair of CFS-Quebec, a separate provincial entity, at the time of the incident, and had previously been the VP Communications for the Concordia Student Union (CSU).

Transparency and reform

Many student leaders stated that they felt CFS was not completely transparent and accountable to its member organizations. Both Robertson and Veronique Dorais, president of the Graduate Students’ Association of the University of Calgary – both of whose schools are holding petitions to leave CFS – said past executives had become frustrated with CFS for these reasons.
“One of our executives last year went to a [CFS National Graduate Caucus] meeting and . . . every motion he proposed, asking for financial audited statements or minutes from the meeting were defeated,” Dorais said.
Devin Alfaro, former VP External with the Students Society of McGIll University (SSMU), said that during SSMU’s time as a prospective member at CFS – from fall 2006 until fall 2007 – its executives found it very difficult to pass motions they hoped would improve CFS’s accountability.
“SSMU presented a series of motions at one [annual general meeting], that were not well received. One was accepted – that executive reports list resolutions [from previous years] and what [the executive] had done to follow up on them. One motion wasn’t well received, that gave student media full access to the [meeting] – most of it happens behind closed doors. The final motion [would have] posted meeting minutes online,” Alfaro said.

CFS responds

Though CFS National Treasurer Dave Molenhuis said that he could not comment on some of the litigation between the CFS and its members because it predated his tenure at the CFS, he said that as a democratic organization, any problems members had with the CFS could still be fixed internally.
“The CFS is the common democratic framework under which the student movements in Canada make decisions on campaign lobbying and services decisions. The bylaws of the federation are voted on by delegates at general meetings. Student unions vote on their common democratic framework; it’s up to them,” he said.
Molenhuis also said that CFS is a transparent organization, and ready to provide its members with any documents they require.
“With [regard to] financial records, the audited financial statements are presented in budget committee. They are handed to absolutely every delegate who attends a federation general meeting. They’re sent to every member local of the federation who does not send delegates to a national general meeting,” he said.
“All the financial records are available to students who wish to access them, because they are housed in the student unions of schools who are members. [It’s] the same with copies, by-laws, and constitution of the federation for every student to see and review.”
Molenhuis added that a member of CUP is invited to CFS annual general meetings to represent the press.

The road to referendum

If the petitions at the 13 student societies achieve a 10 per cent quorum, their supporters will have to wait up to five months before CFS recognizes their petition, and a date for their referendum can be set.
During that time, CFS will first have to acknowledge their receipt of the petition, then within three months decide on whether to acknowledge its legitimacy. If the CFS chooses to approve it, they have 60-90 days to set the date themselves.
A student organizer at Guelph University highlighted some of the obstacles the system posed to student societies attempting to de-federate.
“You can’t campaign from April 15 to Sept. 15, and can’t campaign over winter holidays,” he said. “In six and a half months, you only have a window of half a month to initiate a referendum campaign.”
Dorais said student organizers at her society were nervous their petitions could lead to legal action by the CFS.
“We’re going to try to work with the CFS to follow the referendum and guidelines point by point, if this is what the student body wants,” she said.
Societies can expect CFS supporters to arrive on campus during their referendum. When the Graduate Students’ Society of the University of Victoria successfully left the CFS in March 2008, the university’s student paper The Martlet reported that pro-CFS supporters flew in from across the country to support the pro-CFS campaign.
Students at Post-Graduate Students’ Society of McGill University, the Concordia Student Union, the Graduate Student Association of Concordia, the Dawson Student Union, the Society of Graduate Students at Western Ontario University, University of Windsor Students’ Alliance, Carleton University Students’ Association, the Central Student Association at Guelph University, the Trent Central Student Association, the Kwantlen Student Association, the University of Victoria’s Student Society, the Graduate Students’ Association of the University of Calgary, and the University of Regina Students’ Union are all circulating petitions to leave the CFS.

Erin Hale
The McGill Daily (McGill University)

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