The Canadian Federation of Students collects millions of dollars in membership fees from hundreds of thousands of students each year. In exchange, they mostly lobby governments. You’re automatically a member if you enrol at a school whose student union has signed up. In recent years, the CFS has faced protests from critics who don’t like their political positions, or who believe it’s too difficult to leave what they see as an ineffective organization. As a result, there tends to be plenty of discord at semi-annual general meetings, where they plan for the following year. Brad Evoy, a veteran student unionist from the University of Toronto, was at last weekend’s AGM near Ottawa and offered his take on it, while Jessica McCormick, national chairperson, answered some questions by email. (She was not available to talk.) Here is what students need to know about the AGM. Politicians may also want to take notes.
1. One student union was added, one exited and some remain in limbo.
The Capilano Students’ Union (CSU), out of North Vancouver, held a referendum on campus in March where students voted to leave the CFS. That vote was recognized at the AGM, meaning the CSU will no longer need to collect fees to remit to Ottawa, as of June 30. Just as Capilano left, the CFS welcomed the Student Association of Collège Boréal, which has members on campuses across Ontario. In the past, the CFS has not been willing to let student unions go without a fight, even after apparently successful votes, such as that which took place at the University of Guelph in 2010. Despite claiming otherwise, student unions at Concordia University and the Post-Graduate Students’ Society at McGill University remain members, according to McCormick.
2. It’s still harder to hold a referendum to leave than to join.
The number of signatures required to start the process of leaving remains at 20 per cent of the student body, while only 10 per cent are required to hold a referendum to join. Evoy was disappointed that a motion to make the two equal did not pass.
3. Membership fees appear to be much lower.
Financial statements provided at the meeting showed the total membership fees collected in 2013 was $717,684 lower than last year, when they made up $3.37 million of a $3.43-million budget. Evoy calls it “an open secret that there are a number of members that owe a fair bit of money.” McCormick writes that it’s due to changes in accounting made “in consultation with the auditor,” and adds that “the actual amounts of membership fees collected in the 2013 and 2012 years are quite comparable.”
4. There were big victories celebrated.
Delegates tweeted all weekend about the fruits of their lobbying. McCormick calls Newfoundland and Labrador’s replacement of student loans with student grants “an inspiring victory” that “will be an important example, as the student movement continues to fight to replace the Canada Student Loans Program with grants.” She also points to the success of a campaign to protest the federal Fair Elections Act. The CFS joined a number of other groups in arguing that the Conservative proposal amounted to voter suppression. The act was greatly amended before it passed.
5. The CFS doesn’t plan to shy away from politics.
In the past, the CFS has been criticized for taking political positions on everything from Israel to the evils of bottled water. This year, their resolutions include supporting the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation in their dispute against the provincial government, and efforts to get universities to divest from fossil fuels. They will also target the 2015 federal election. “This will be an ambitious campaign, with the goal of getting students’ issues on the platforms and agenda of political parties,” writes McCormick. “It also includes a significant amount of outreach and education on our campuses, with the goal of increasing youth voter turnout in the next election.”