Breaking up with Canada's largest student lobby group -

Breaking up with Canada’s largest student lobby group

Thirteen students’ unions petition to leave the Canadian Federation of Students


Although this blog is supposed to focus on advice about going to university, please allow me a moment to dive into the dark waters of student politics. The McGill Daily has the story: 13 students unions across the country are going to run referendums in an effort to leave the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), Canada’s largest student lobby group.

I’ve been following the story of the CFS for years, first as a student journalist and then in my work at Maclean’s. And the entire time dissatisfaction with the organization has been slowly growing. It seems to have come to a head in the past couple of years; two years ago, three student unions (Kwantlen, SFU, and Cape Breton) attempted to leave the union, albeit unsuccessfully. Now another 13 are petitioning their students to leave.

The McGill Daily sums up the reasons why these students’ unions want out as:

• A student politician from Trent believes CFS staffers are “incompetent lobbyists” and use their considerable resources to attempt to sway the political perspectives of students (Please note that I don’t necessarily agree with this statement.)

• Some student politicians felt that the organization is not transparent and accountable to members.

• Many of the unions are unhappy with the CFS’ track record of aggressive litigation, often against students.

I wrote a story a couple of years ago about how the CFS deals with student journalists. It described how mere hours before The Eyeopener–Ryerson’s student newspaper–was to go to press, the CFS hand-delivered a letter to the editor threatening legal action if she included certain statements about the CFS in the next issue of the newspaper. This wasn’t a reaction to the newspaper printing something inaccurate or defamatory; this was preemptive–the CFS hadn’t even read the article yet. The Eyeopener did not alter the story and the CFS did not end up pursuing any legal action, even though those “certain statements” were included. The incident seemed to me to be a clear attempt to intimidate student journalists.

Probably because I wrote that story, I was interviewed by the writer of the McGill Daily article. I told her that in my experience as a journalist, the CFS is the most aggressive organization I’ve ever reported on. I don’t mean most aggressive “student organization” but most aggressive organization–period. This includes stories I’ve done on criminals, coal companies, you name it.

Why should the regular student care about this backroom student politics nonsense? Here’s why: The CFS represents some 80 colleges and universities in Canada, which means that half a million students are members of the organization. And it’s funded by student levies that you cough up when paying your tuition. So that means that a student organization is taking student funds and using it to sue and threaten students. Does that sound like an appropriate use of these resources?

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Breaking up with Canada’s largest student lobby group

  1. The mantra: re-publish what somebody else wrote (in the student press); add your own axe-grinding; crap on the CFS for imagined transgressions; and refuse to verify allegations.

  2. What a one sided piece…
    If you’ve had problems in the past with the CFS, that sucks but it’s no excuse to write a one sided smear campaign article like this.
    You mentioned some student unions who have held referenda to leave the CFS but you included an important fact “albeit unsuccessfully” as if it was an after thought. To be clear, this means that some people on campus started the referendum process, one was held and the majority ruled that they wanted to stay with the CFS.
    Are the 13 you speak of actually holding referenda or have a couple people just started petitions? I could start a petition on my campus to declare Thursdays “Nathan Day” but I don’t think you could report that student were behind the idea.
    You also ignored the unions that joined. The CFS has seen massive growth over the last few years. with new members joining from coast-to-coast. The only student union to leave was the grads at U Vic.
    1 student union left out of more than 80 – oh ya, that sounds like a real groundswell of departures to me.

  3. Whoa. It’s called blogging.

  4. And, when did Maclean’s ever refuse to verify allegations? Ask away and we’ll be happy to look into it.

  5. I just have to wonder this: how did CFS become very aggressive in the first place? Why go after student governments and student newspapers, who could be potential allies? Why the “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” mantra?

  6. UPEISU: being sued by the CFS

    Acadia: sued for more than a decade by the CFS

    SFSS: being sued by the CFS

    KSA: sued by the CFS

    Just about every single campus paper has received a CFS ‘phone call’ or better, a letter from their lawyers.

    PGSS: threatened with lawsuit last year for playing this video:

    part 3 of

    Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail journalist – same threat as PGSS for embedding that same video

    Best part, in the latter two cases, the CFS and Philip Link (Director of CFS-Services the $-cow for CFS) actually copyrighted the legal threat letters and told them that if they showed it to anybody or published the letter they would be sued for copyright infringement! I couldn’t make this up.

    Shall I go on?

    So, why the with / against mantra? $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ The CFS relies on its membership dues (MILLIONS of $ across Canada) to keep the bloated fat cats at the top in their lush salaries, and hipster toys (shiny new apple laptops and Blackberries), and ZERO accountability jobs.

    Since the CFS is so awful and unsuccessful at student lobbying (except for making cool t-shirts and shiny posters… and selling people pens, day planners, and health insurance), they need to shut people up, crush dissent, and develop Draconian bylaws to keep student unions from leaving their organization, and worse, taking their pots of cash with them.

    When people start talking about the CFS openly, it’s never ends in flattery for the organization: tuition fees keep rising, so do CFS fees, and their great hope for national act post-secondary education act is an obvious pipe dream.

    But, as long as students are kept uninformed, or scared to talk, the odds that they will muster the will, let alone the troops and resources to fight these corrupt hacks are slim to none.

    The CFS is the worst kind of corporate enterprise – a rabid wolf in sheep’s clothing, interested in sustaining itself at all and any cost. They’re already on the ground harassing petitioners to try to keep the question of continued membership in the CFS from even being asked. There is nothing more anti-democratic than trying to prevent your members from triggering a vote … but that has never stopped the CFS, now has it?

    Courage to those fighting these people: don’t give up.

  7. Ignore Peter. That’s the typical CFS response. Discredit dissenting voices.

  8. I am still really confused about that McGill Daily article:
    Is it the student union executive/council at each school running petitions or is it independent groups of students? (I assume it is different at each campus?)
    How are these various factions on various campuses organized? Is it a semi-formal association? A facebook group?

  9. “Whoa. It’s called blogging.” – an unacceptable excuse for being lazy with the facts.

  10. Beth, it wasn’t an excuse. I’m absolutely not making any excuses for myself, because I wasn’t being lazy with the facts, and no excuse is necessary.

    What I mean by pointing out that this is a “Blog Post” is that it is not a comprehensive article, but a brief opinion about an article that the reader ought to read for herself. Nathan, it is not intended to be anything but one-sided, as it is a “Blog Post”.

    For those readers who aren’t hip to what a “Blog Post” is–since there are clearly some out there who missed the past decade in online media: “Blog” is a contraction of the original term “weblog,” which is a online place where an individual or group of individuals offer commentary about news or another topic.

    Nathan: this isn’t a smear campaign. That accusation implies that this one “Blog Post” is part of an organized effort to smear the CFS, which is definitely not the case. It’s just little old me (Erin, not Ben) writing from my living room couch at 8am, and I haven’t written about the CFS in like a year because I usually have better things to do. Which reminds me, why am I still commenting? I have to be somewhere in like 15 minutes! Ahhh!

  11. Erin, I take your point and would accept it if you were posting on your own site. “Erin’s random musing of articles I read and agree with” “Erin’s pet peeves” are just a few suggestions (admittedly not very good).

    Just cause Joe’s gone, doesn’t mean you have to fill his wreckless shoes.

    Your pre-coffee snippy response was somewhat amusing (I always enjoy sarcasm) but I think it misses a bigger point of the evolution of “web logs”. More has happened than a name change.

    Blogs now are increasingly seen as good sources of information, and when they are hosted on a reputable news source like Maclean’s, I think it’s fair to expect a certain standard of journalism.

    Sure you linked to the article and it’s fair to suggest that your readers should delve further if they are interested but you presented your own statements of “fact” and did not present them as opinion.

    “And the entire time dissatisfaction with the organization has been slowly growing. It seems to have come to a head in the past couple of years; two years ago, three student unions (Kwantlen, SFU, and Cape Breton) attempted to leave the union, albeit unsuccessfully. Now another 13 are petitioning their students to leave.”

    My point is that dissatisfaction has not been growing. Sure it has found voice on the internet and that’s fine, but the growth of the organisation proves that it is support for the CFS that is, in fact, growing.

    As for accusation that it is impossible to leave, I think U Vic grads proved that complaint wrong.

    Also, I think a valid question has been raised regarding another of your assertions.

    “Is it the student union executive/council at each school running petitions or is it independent groups of students?”

    While both are ligit, there is a fundamental and important difference.

  12. are they going to run refernda, or are they jus tpetitioning….. also a VERY important distinction.

  13. I find these comments wholeheartedly amusing.

    It seems defenders of the organization are more concerned with the blog post than the actual substance; why is it that students at 13 student unions across the country are all seeking petitions? Even if it was 13 individual students, why is it happening across the country? Why aren’t you concerned with the answers to those questions?

    this hasn’t likely happened in the CFS since 1994/1995 when a bunch of larger student unions collectively left.

    To all those who say “impossible to leave” – I hear that in the SFU case, a full two-thirds of students who voted in a referendum recognized by the university said “leave” and the CFS refuses to recognize the result, resulting in large legal fees for members who remain in the CFS. perhaps some questions need to be asked about that…

    Do a little fact checking of your own opinions before you dump on the student journalists who posted this…

  14. Ryerson University is also working on collecting petitions.
    April will be a great month. Hopefully will have 14 schools practice their autonomy!!!!

  15. “Best part, in the latter two cases, the CFS and Philip Link (Director of CFS-Services the $-cow for CFS) actually copyrighted the legal threat letters and told them that if they showed it to anybody or published the letter they would be sued for copyright infringement! I couldn’t make this up.”

    That would be very ironic considering their position to have less stringent copyright laws in Canada.

  16. “this hasn’t likely happened in the CFS since 1994/1995 when a bunch of larger student unions collectively left.”

    even that defederation drive is exaggerated. the CFS had 65 member unions before, and 59 member unions after. See the student newspapers cited at

  17. Nathan, sweetie, you need to take a breather! The poor fella’s gonna drown in CFS Kool-Aid.

    Come on, let’s be the bright young academics we all are and admit that none of us actually have the statistics to say whether dissatisfaction is empirically “growing” or not. It’s a pretty moot point — unless the CFS wanted to spend some of its “research” budget on hiring some REAL RESEARCHERS to find out exactly whether, or how much Canadian students want them out.

    What we can say for sure is that a petition drive is no small feat, that it takes dedication, coordination, and effort. It’s not easy to run around with a clipboard all day and collect signatures from strangers, knowing that you’ll have to work for weeks to get a simple democratic referendum question on a ballot, that the petition will likely be tied up in court, and that then you’ll have to wait months to find out if they’ve found some way to invalidate it. Even if you do get a referendum question, you know that you’ll have to campaign against people with nearly unlimited resources to spend on self-preservation (haven’t seen the War Plan yet? scroll down to 08.02.04, who run the Referendum Oversight Committee, and are just about rolling in cash to spend on pretty pins, stickers, and bus ads. It’s an uphill battle, and it’s not something you do for fun. It’s something you do because you’re DISSATISFIED. Something you do because you’re fed up. Something you do because tens, or hundreds, of thousands of dollars are being spent on… wait, what are we paying them for again?

    The point is, thirteen schools (in fact, word on the street is that there are even more) have students who have somehow been coordinated enough to start petitions in the very narrow window that the CFS bylaws allow all across the country. Student papers are reporting on this issue everywhere. I’m sorry to disappoint you Nathan, but this isn’t just a few belligerent kids.

    So here’s your “Student Movement” — the most coordinated, democratic, and open source one I’ve ever seen! People on the far left and far right are talking together, people are finding total strangers with petitions and asking to help out. It’s so ironic that the most united I’ve ever seen students is when they’re against the CFS.

    So, SOLIDARITY ! (but for real)

  18. Irony – having CFS defenders trying to hush-hush a story written about CFS hush-hushers.

  19. Wow, a bit of a hubbub, eh? I thought it was a good blog highlighting an across-the-country issue. The student press devotes much of its time to covering the CFS, and CFS supporters are often – I agree (and think these posts show) – highly, highly aggressive. Not to mention just a tad petty.
    Are there honestly any major student papers in Canada who are NOT extremely critical of this organization?
    There have consistently been issues, as the article mentioned, with transparency, ethical concerns, and support given through CFS for political issues, movements or unions that did not necessarily reflect the positions of millions of students across Canada. Plus, that big rally they have on Parliament every year, where everyone wears “F**k tuition” T-shirts? All it serves to do is make university students look like a group of people who can’t even think up a good T-shirt slogan.
    A good article. I wish all the schools – including my own – luck.

  20. I don`t know where I stand on all of this stuff but I do know that it seems interesting that the CFS in under such attack.

    It seems to me that this is more of a case of the grass being greener.

    It`s easy to attack an organisation but overall, I think we`re all better off with them lobbying on our behalf.

    Besides….. I like my ISIC and as long as the CFS fees are less than the cost of an ISIC, I really don`t care what else is going on.

  21. I just wanted to correct two points–from the orginal article:

    “two years ago, three student unions (Kwantlen, SFU, and Cape Breton) attempted to leave the union, albeit unsuccessfully.”

    SFU has not been unsuccessful, they are in court trying to have the CFS recognize a 70% vote in favour of leaving. Further, the UVIC Grad students successfully left at the same time as the KSA, SFSS and Cape Breton, so there were actually four student unions running campaigns at that time.

    …and re Phil’s comment …

    “SFSS: being sued by the CFS”

    While I think the rest of the lawsuit remark is accurate, I believe SFSS itself went to court to force the CFS to recognize their (successful) result. So while it is fair to say the CFS is fighting with SFU in court, it isn’t the case that CFS sued SFSS (in this instance). SFSS sought a summary judgement and lost–but this doesn’t mean they have lost, it just means they have to go to a full trial in order to have their referendum recognized (or failed). If the trial finds in favour of the CFS, at that point SFSS will have lost that one, for now, its still up for grabs.

    For the record, the judge in the SFSS case spoke against waisting student fees on court cases, and I heartily concur. The CFS should let SFSS go without this big fuss.

    The SFSS ruling can be found here

  22. Great post Erin. When I was in student government, I always thought Maclean’s OnCampus did a great job covering the national student groups.
    Clearly this post has started quite the debate! It’s unfortunate that some have taken this opportunity to mud sling, rather than contribute to what’s clearly an important conversation.

  23. Well all I can say is that there is a growing concern about being involved in the CFS here at Western. YES we like our ISIC cards, but were looking into having them integrated into our university student ID cards. YES we like being advocated for, but this isnt the 60’s any more there are more effective ways of “fighting the man.” NO we do not like being affiliated with corruption, which seems to be more than not. NO we don’t like student money being spent to sue other students. NO we do not like the lack of transparency. NO we don’t like how the services are sub-par and mostly overpriced. NO we do not like how anti-democratic the CFS is about holding the referendum. Look at what is happening at Carlton! That place is literally a war zone. Anti-petition, CFS staff and peons taking pictures of the petitioners, petitions being snatched on run bys – like how criminals steal purses from old ladies. Just disgraceful.

    Why wouldn’t any school welcome the choice of staying in or getting out? It should be up to the student body, and it shouldn’t be so hard to get done.

    I know I’m on the black list at the CFS, in fact they probably have a picture of me on their wall with a list of “known associates” and who is under me and who i report to (like on a cop’s wall dealing with the mafia). But I proudly signed the cover letter on our petition knowing that my colleagues now have a chance for democracy.

    I’m really glad that more schools are doing this, now we have the ability to defend from the inevitable: legal war from the CFS

    in Solidarity,


  24. Jonathan,

    Can’t wait to sign mine.

  25. Students who are members of the CFS really need to spend time looking at both sides. The problem comes is that students either don’t care or can’t be bothered to see what is going on. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying all students are like this but a majority are.

    If the CFS really did believe in democracy why are they making it harder to leave? If students want to exercise their right to referendum then why is it made so hard? Is it because if they know if students really look into their membership with the CFS they will see that they really get nothing out of it? How can the CFS call themselves a democracy when they do not let healthy discussion occur at meetings, they always cut off the speakers list after 3 or so people have spoken on the pros and cons side. Is that really enough? So only a handful of people’s opinion is the one that will represent the students the CFS represents. The main argument against is that, oh well that would take too long, well you know what, I think it would be worth it to leave some time to debate the issues at heart and come to some sort of agreement. This does NOT happen in the CFS!!

    The CFS is not the only student movement in Canada, there is also CASA (Canadian Alliance of Student Associations). CASA seems to be an organization that actually practices democracy. Just take a look at their by laws and regulations and compare it to the CFS. Leaving and joining CASA is made very simple, if a student association wants to leave they do not have to waste time and resources on a referendum. Also the CFS claims that students are members yet they do not get a vote or a chance to freely express themselves at these meetings they have. A member student cannot just show up to a meeting on their free will, then why should we pay them individual fees? On the contrary, CASA never says that individual students are members but rather the student association that represents them.

    I know by reading this so far one may thing oh well this person is a pro CASA person and so on but don’t get me wrong because I am not. I simply used CASA as a comparison to the CFS and they already looking like a much better organization. I do not know enough about CASA to say that they are the best but it is something that I think I will look into.

    In the end, I think student unions should be encouraging students to look into what they are part of to encourage them to be critical. I know it is not easy but come one we are in post secondary and students should be able to do and should be doing it on a regular basis.

    Good luck to all the schools trying to leave the CFS, I wish you luck and hope you are able to get students on your campuses to make their own decisions on whether or not they really want to be members of the CFS. I also hope the CFS allows this democratic matter to occur in a fair method (don’t worry I don’t have high expectations for them to actually do this).

    One note to the members of the CFS that will attack this post and have attacked others. STOP ATTACKING AND TAKE A LOOK AT WHY SO MANY SCHOOLS WANT TO LEAVE! TRY TO RESOLVE THE ISSUE!

  26. Why doesn’t the CFS encourage debate on various issues, including on itself as an organization, on its own website forum or talk back function at the bottom of its press releases and news articles? In a style similar to this site perhaps…

  27. I have to say, I find it quite funny when Nathan goes ahead and questions the factual basis of what Erin writes while, in the same breath, makes the following statements:

    “You also ignored the unions that joined. The CFS has seen massive growth over the last few years. with new members joining from coast-to-coast. The only student union to leave was the grads at U Vic.
    1 student union left out of more than 80 – oh ya, that sounds like a real groundswell of departures to me. ”

    First of all, MASSIVE growth in the last few years? That’s already enough of an exaggeration, without claiming that only one student union has left. While the UVic GSS is the only school that was *allowed* to leave by the CFS, students at both SFU and Cape Breton voted, by clear majorities, to leave, with challenges currently before the courts.

    I think the fact the CFS won’t even acknowledge these organizations as having left or wanting to leave when their students overwhelmingly voted to leave tells you all you need to know about what kind of organization it is.

  28. Pingback: Conspiracy to commit student government. « Without the Agenda

  29. Every attempt at “reform” was proposed by associations which already had one foot out of the door (including the PGSS, which is petitioning to defederate right now).

    And presenting 42 motions at a time is ridiculous.

    Honestly, even if the intentions of the people moving this might be good, it would be too easily construed as a attempt that’s designed to fail, just to provide more arguments for defederation.

  30. In this case I think gradual reform of the CFS is not a good idea, debate about reform should consider the organization as a whole.

    The PGSS doesn’t just have its foot out the door, it was pushed by the CFS.

  31. The CFS has already started bringing in members from other schools to counterpetition here at UVic. Our executive, who are campaigning on students time with the counterpetition, have been requested to provide a public copy of the petition to make it a public document. Right now our requests have been refused.

  32. cfs counter-petition? not surprising. they sent their big guns to UWO already (Katherine Giroux-Bougard, National Chairperson of the CFS and Federico Carvajal, field worker for CFS, and former ontario graduate caucus chair for CFS, etc..) to do the same. it does have the benefit of bringing further awareness of the petition campaign in the first place with many more students making a concerted effort to have their signature count!

    it is sad they are so afraid of letting students actually have their say on whether or not to hold a referendum, let alone the referendum itself! cfs democracy indeed. whether or not one believes one should be a member of the cfs, why try to stiffle disenting opinion. do we not support freedom of expression here in canada? hold the referendum and let the students decide! don’t all student voices count?

    i would be interested in knowing how much this cross-country tour is costing us students. it would also be nice to see the counter-petition itself published somewhere, but that would be asking the CFS for a modicum of transparency and accountability….

  33. They showed up at Trent and UofO, I’m pretty sure they found a copy of this wholesale ridiculous anti-petition petition there, if you want a public one! I’m sure that those who found it are following this page… ;)

  34. What a lovely day for a 359175! SCK was here

  35. I do enjoy the way you have presented this issue plus it does indeed present me a lot of fodder for thought. On the other hand, through just what I have witnessed, I simply just trust as other commentary pile on that men and women stay on point and in no way start on a soap box regarding the news du jour. Yet, thank you for this exceptional point and although I can not necessarily go along with it in totality, I respect the point of view.