The CFS membership is on the move
//Samantha Thompson, News Editor

The Canadian Federation of Students is an organization that unites over a half-million students across Canada. When it was first founded in 1981, it seemed as though the CFS had enviable ideals – it was going to be the organization that connected students across a large nation and became the voice of advocacy for student issues.

Over the past few years, however, there has been an unsettling trend. Different student associations have been attempting to leave the CFS en masse, but due to a few key changes in the organization’s bylaws, have found their ability to do so dictated by a strict set of guidelines.

It is clear that the CFS believes strongly in its cause. Its members consistently work tirelessly to advocate for things like lowering tuition fees, banning bottled water and fair copyright. According to the CFS, their primary purpose is to represent students’ ideas and concerns to the government.

In spite of this, at least 13 schools have openly voiced intention to circulate petitions about continued membership in the CFS since 2008.


The CFS was founded 30 years ago when a group of 61 students’ unions, who cumulatively sent 131 delegates, came together to “provide students with an effective and united voice, provincially and nationally,” according to the CFS’s website. Prior to the establishment of the CFS, there were several other organizations that brought together students’ unions. For various reasons, many of the organizations eventually ceased to exist and the CFS emerged, bringing together the National Union of Students in Canada and the Association of Student Councils. Although the CFS is not the only student advocacy group in Canada, it typically receives the most attention.

Despite the fact that the group of students’ unions presently trying to decertify from the CFS have encountered some setbacks, they are not the first locals who have attempted to leave. At the national general meeting of the CFS in May 1995, the CFS accepted the disaffiliation votes of seven students’ unions. In addition, between May 2000 and 2009, the number of CFS member schools increased from 60 to 85.

Since that time, further amendments have been made to Bylaw I, which is the bylaw that outlines membership within the CFS. The bylaw has seen many amendments made to it, some occurring as far back as the early 1990s. Most recently, changes occurred at the November 2009 and May 2010 national general meetings. In November, the infamous Motion 6 passed, which changed the percentage required for a petition looking to initiate a referendum on continued membership. Prior to this motion, petitions needed 10 per cent of a students’ union’s members to sign it, however Motion 6 increased the requirement to 20 per cent. At the meeting in May, there were several decisions made about the referendum process, including the means by which a petition would be delivered to the CFS, and the acceptance of “counter-petitions” alongside a petition on continued membership. Counter-petitions, if signed by an individual member, will effectively remove that student from any petitions they have signed where they say they are in favour of holding a referendum. There were also guidelines put in place with regards to how many schools may hold a referendum in a certain time frame.

As it stands, if a member wishes to hold a referendum on continued membership, they must circulate a petition and collect an amount of signatures that is the equivalent of 20 per cent of their student population, and then submit the petition to the CFS. If the CFS determines that the petition is valid, a Referendum Oversight Committee will be formed, comprised of two representatives from the CFS and two representatives from the member students’ union. The ROC will then decide upon the rules and procedure for holding a referendum. Once the referendum begins, students can vote and decide whether or not they want to continue their student union’s association in the CFS. The ROC will count the ballots, and the results should be announced soon after the referendum polling stations close.

There are presently a few students’ unions who are attempting to hold referendums on continued membership with the CFS, however what makes each case interesting are the slight differences between them. Three of the students’ unions that are attempting to hold referendums are the Kwantlen Student Association (Local 26), the University of Victoria Students’ Society (Local 44) and the University of Regina Students’ Union (Local 9).


The referendum that occurred at the Kwantlen Student Association was originally set to take place from March 18 to 20, 2008. It began when the KSA collected more than 2,000 signatures on a petition requesting a referendum.

However, because the KSA was running a “10 Reasons to Leave [the CFS]” campaign, says Ashley Fehr, current Director of Operations for the KSA, the CFS sued the KSA because that particular campaign was outside of regular campaign time. The judge felt that the KSA had the right to have campaigned when they did. The CFS also wanted to move the referendum to the fall of 2008. Although the judge did not move it to the fall, he did move the dates of the referendum to April 8, 9 and 10, as he felt the CFS deserved more time for their own campaign.

“The original referendum was to be at the same time as the UVic Grad Students' Society and the Simon Fraser Students' Society,” says Fehr. “Moving the referendum dates pulled us out of the clout and we had our referendum relatively alone.”

The KSA referendum failed, meaning that the Kwantlen students would remain members of the CFS. With a voter turnout of 1,665, the unofficial results stated that 43.54 per cent of voters voted to leave the Federation, and 56.04 per cent voted to remain members.

Fehr says that when the results were first announced, she was not expecting it to turn out the way it did. “But, looking back at the facts, it isn’t a surprise. We had put a lot of time and effort into informing students about the referendum and about the reasons for leaving,” she says. “Reasons to leave the CFS were pretty solid, and they very much didn’t represent Kwantlen students. It seemed like an obvious decision. However, there were a lot of factors that led to the failure.”

These factors, according to Fehr, included the resources the CFS has access to. In addition to offering International Student Identity Cards (free to members of the CFS), they also had people power.

“They brought campaigners in from all over the country to work on this,” says Fehr. “The KSA had limited resources, we didn’t have a rotation of people to work on the campaign, it was the same people collecting signatures to have the referendum who carried all the way through to campaign in the referendum.”

“When it comes down to it, the CFS is not representative, and they are self-preserving,” says Fehr. “Instead of recognizing that students' societies are unhappy with their membership and dealing with that, the CFS has ignored the opportunity to make a stronger organization, and instead have just made it more difficult to leave.”


Two years ago, at the University of Regina, some students on campus started circulating a petition for a referendum on continued membership in the CFS. At first, the University of Regina Students’ Union was prepared to conduct their own referendum, as it took about four months for the petition to be recognized. However, URSU came to an agreement with the CFS to host a referendum with both parties involved, to occur in October 2010.

“Apparently their constitution superseded that of our constitution for election bylaws,” says Kyle Addison, President of URSU, of the referendum. “It was actually quite difficult, it was quite challenging and it was the least democratic situation I’ve ever been a part of.”

The Referendum Oversight Committee was comprised of two delegates from the CFS, and two from URSU. Mike Burton and Peter Jelinksi represented URSU, and Lucy Watson and Ben Lewis represented the CFS.

Addison was not impressed with the campaigning occurring on campus.

“Some of the things that were going on were extremely unethical, in our opinion. It was just not overall a positive experience for the students at the University of Regina.”

Once the polling stations had closed however, the ROC found itself questioning the eligibility of some voters. Burton told the University of Regina’s The Carillon that there were five categories of voters whose eligibility was in question: students on education work terms, students on co-op work terms, First Nations University of Canada students, eligible voters who couldn’t be verified at the polling station, and the ineligible voters. Although eligibility of the other categories could be agreed upon, the ROC was having trouble reaching consensus about the eligibility of FNUC students.

The students’ association of FNUC is Local 90 of the CFS, whereas URSU is Local 9. Although students at FNUC pay CFS fees under Local 90, they pay student fees to URSU and are thus constitutionally members of URSU as well. Typically, CFS fees and students’ union fees are two separate levies. FNUC was only paying the students’ union portion of fees to URSU, not Local 9 CFS fees.

“We were under the impression the entire time that Local 90 was a separate membership base and that they would not be eligible voters in this referendum,” says Addison.

As it stands, URSU students are still waiting to hear results of their referendum. Addison says that they are hoping for results by reading week.

According to Addison, URSU wanted to hold a referendum because they “realized that the $90,000 a year that collectively [their] students are paying was really going towards nothing.”

“I’m a firm believer that what makes the CFS a successful, prosperous and beneficial organization are their provincial components and what the organization can do on a provincial level,” says Addison. He’s heard many success stories from Eastern Canada where students have received benefit from membership because the provincial components of the CFS have worked very well with the provincial governments. He pointed out that post-secondary education is a provincial issue.

“In some provinces the CFS well-represents their institutes and their members … in other provinces they’ve sort of just … left us out high and dry, and … ignored us.”

A group of schools in Saskatchewan have started the Saskatchewan Student Coalition, which is a coalition of the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union, the University of Regina Students’ Union, Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology Students’ Association (Kelsey and Woodland Campuses), and the First Nations University of Canada Students’ Association (Regina Campus). The coalition is aiming to be the “non-partisan voice of member undergraduate student unions and/or associations in Saskatchewan.”

The coalition does not charge its members to join, and has so far been quite successful, according to Addison.

“Let’s all save some money here, cut our losses, and grasp onto an organization that really truly is going to help us free of charge,” he says.

“Any students that are involved in any future referendums, [should] do their due diligence, go out and dig up the information, find whatever information that you can online and research the organization and develop your own opinion. Don’t let anyone try to sway you … try not to develop an entire opinion solely on the people out campaigning because there’s a large number of people that are flown in from around the country on your campus that are trying to persuade you,” says Addison.

“URSU stands regardless of the decision of the referendum, regardless of what the outcome may be,” he says. “If our students have decided to remain members, we’re willing to work with the CFS.”


José Barrios, along with several other students at the University of Victoria, began to circulate a petition about continued membership in the CFS in September-October of 2009. After receiving around 11.3 per cent of the student body’s signatures, they submitted the petition to the CFS. At the time of the petition submission, the CFS’ bylaws still stated that only 10 per cent of the student population needed to sign the petition in order to initiate a referendum. Around the same time that Barrios began his petition, a counter-petition was also being circulated around campus – a petition that students could sign asking to be removed from any petition requesting a referendum. The CFS acknowledged that they had received both petitions, and informed the UVSS that due to the counter-petition the number of signatures on Barrios’ petition no longer met the requirement needed to initiate a referendum.

In November of 2010, nearly a year after the petition was originally circulated, the University of Victoria’s Students’ Society (UVSS) took the matter to court.

“Going to court was a difficult decision for us because we’re not in the best financial situation, but we wanted to defend the democratic rights of our students,” says UVSS Chairperson James Coccola.

Legal counsel for the CFS and the UVSS appeared in court on January 6 and 7, 2011, in front of Justice Malcolm Macaulay. Although at their May 2010 general meeting the CFS passed a motion allowing counter-petitions, this change did not apply to the UVSS case, ruled Macaulay. His ruling was announced on February 1 of this year.

“Individual members like Barrios seeking to obtain sufficient valid signatures on a petition in the fall of 2009 would not reasonably have expected that otherwise valid signatures on a petition were subject to being withdrawn. It is impossible now to determine if having that information would have impacted Barrios’ decision to stop seeking more signatures when he did,” wrote Macaulay in the ruling.

Macaulay granted the UVSS a referendum, and partial costs for the court case. Although it is estimated that the UVSS has currently spent around $30,000 on the proceedings, they were awarded costs of likely near $10,000.

“We’re very happy that the judge ruled in our favour and is going to be willing to let students have the decision of whether or not they stay in the CFS,” says Coccola. “The students themselves will decide what they want to do, and how they want their membership to be in the future.”

While Coccola acknowledges that it was unfortunate that the situation had to end up in court, overall the UVSS is happy with the ruling. The judge has ordered that a referendum be held through the ROC process. If the referendum is to be held this semester, it will have to occur by April 15, which is what the UVSS is hoping for.

One complication that could occur, however, is that the CFS has recently claimed that the UVSS owes them over $250,000 for fees back from the 1990s, which Coccola points out is barred by the statute of limitations. Under CFS bylaws, student unions are not allowed to hold referendums while they still have outstanding debt with the federation. Whether or not this will become an issue in the UVSS’s situation is yet to be determined.

“We’re really hoping that a referendum can occur this semester so that students can move onto other more important issues that are affecting them. This issue is taking up a lot of time and … students should’ve had the option to stay or leave and when that happens we can go and focus on actual student issues,” says Coccola.


Although the UVSS, KSA and URSU have all held (or are planning to hold) referendums on continued membership in the CFS, all three schools admit that there are many benefits to membership in the CFS.

The services that the CFS offers, particularly if the institution has the population of a smaller school, are particularly beneficial, says Fehr. The CFS offers services such as the International Student Identity Card, website services for students’ unions, handbook services, the National Student Health Network, the Studentsaver Discount Card and free access to the tax filing service,

Of these services, the Capilano Students’ Union (CSU) is currently distributing ISICs and Studentsaver cards, however independently does its handbook and website services. Although the National Student Health Network will likely be a contender in the CSU’s developing health and dental plan, their final decision for insurance provider will not be decided for a while.

In addition to services, the CFS also does a lot of advocacy work.

“If you care a lot about social justice, they are really good at taking on social justice issues,” says Fehr. Coccola agrees, adding that they provide a lot of good campaigns.

And, says Fehr, “They can be fun.”


As a result of these many court cases, a large amount of student fees from both the students’ unions and the CFS are going towards legal fees. Members of the CSU pay approximately $35,000 in membership fees every year to the CFS.

Despite these three examples, reasons for leaving or staying in the CFS appear to be varied, and it is difficult to pin down exact reasons for why an organization should or shouldn’t leave. As Addison says, “I think it’s different for every organization. It’s very situational.”

“As individual members of the CFS, your only right as a member is to vote in membership, either to join the CFS or to leave the CFS,” says Coccola. “Those are your rights and as soon as the CFS denies those rights you as an individual student do not have any voice in this organization.”

Regardless of who is a part of which organization, the student movement, in its many forms, will still exist into the distant future. It seems that students know how to fight for their cause, whatever that cause may be.

Despite multiple interview requests, the CFS was unavailable for comment as of press time.

//Samantha Thompson, News Editor

//with files from Titus Gregory and Kailey Willetts

//illustrations by Samantha Smith

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