During a recent Carleton University Student Association meeting, it was announced that a petition for a referendum on continued membership in the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) will circulate. The potential savings for Carleton students are huge: just under $500,000 in student fees that are sent off campus annually to CFS National and CFS-Ontario.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the CFS, it’s an organization that collects millions in membership fees from Canadian university and college student each year in exchange for supposedly providing services and lobbying the provincial and federal governments. Its main goal is the elimination of tuition fees. In my opinion, Carleton should leave the CFS because the organization is ineffective, undemocratic and doesn’t appear to be careful with student money. Let me explain.
First, the CFS is not effective at lobbying. Its approach includes pre-budget consultations, annual lobbying weeks where student politicians rub shoulders with provincial and federal politicians and occasional “Drop Fees” protests. These protests can be quite silly. Last spring, a small group of CFS-Ontario (CFS-O) employees and student politicians twice occupied the constituency office of former Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Glen Murray to protest what they see as high tuition. This is despite the fact that the Ontario Liberals followed through on an election promise to provide relief for students in the form of the 30 per cent off tuition grant. It’s hard for politicians to take the CFS-O seriously when it calls on them to lower the financial burden of tuition and then dismisses policies that do exactly that.
The second reason students should question their membership is undemocratic behaviour. In 2009, the CFS faced the very real prospect of losing tens of thousands of its members and millions in membership dues. Students at 13 schools circulated petitions seeking referendums on continued membership (also known as defederation). This movement was met with much animosity from CFS executive members, staff and supporters. One such supporter claimed it was a big right-wing conspiracy. The rules regulating a referendum to decertify have been a point of contention. The CFS, as well as its provincial components, have been and continue to be involved in a number of lawsuits, and some of these cases stem from the CFS’s refusal to recognize the democratic will of students who voted to leave. CFS has been in legal proceedings with the Concordia Student Union, the Concordia Graduate Students’ Association, the Post-Graduate Student Society of McGill and the Guelph Central Student Association, to name a few. Although it hasn’t initiated all of these lawsuits, hundreds of thousands of dollars of students’ fees have nonetheless gone into the pockets of the federation’s legal counsel in recent years. What a waste.
The undemocratic nature of the CFS has been implied for years. In a scathing article published in Simon Fraser University’s The Peak student newspaper in 2008, entitled The CFS is broken and can’t be fixed, three former self-described ‘CFS insiders,’ wrote this:
The national and provincial General Meetings are tightly controlled. During debates many of the strongest speakers in support of motions are CFS-loyal staff and not the elected representatives. This lack of trust and paranoid desire to control goes much deeper… Each of us has been asked by CFS staff to spy on delegates with known or suspected anti-CFS views. We have been asked to report back about who the suspect person was talking to and what they were saying. New delegates are often roomed with CFS loyalists in order to control their sphere of influence. We have been those roommates.
The CFS continues to be accused of being undemocratic today. At its most recent semi-annual general meeting, in November, the Canadian University Press’s Ottawa Bureau chief had trouble getting access to report on the meeting. When she did get permission to attend, she witnessed two measures aimed at increasing transparency be rejected.
Finally, the CFS also appears to be irresponsible with students’ money. In Sept. 2012, Haanim Nur, the University of Regina Student Union’s (URSU) former president and CFS-Saskatchewan (CFS-SK) chairperson, admitted in an interview with The Carillon student newspaper to stealing from the CFS-SK. In that interview, she said:
I spoke to the people from the Federation [about this first], so we spoke about the matter, and figured out a solution. They just said, mistakes can happen, people move on, never do it again. And so, I continued to work with them during my term as president. […] They [CFS] were like, you know, you continue doing your job as president and just make sure it just doesn’t happen again. Ok – sounds good.
Adam Awad, the CFS national chairperson responded by telling the Regina Leader-Post he found it very difficult to believe anyone in the CFS national office would have had that response. Shortly after Nur’s admission, URSU sent a letter to Awad requesting an audit of CFS-SK finances. Nathan Sgrazzutti, URSU’s current president, recently informed me they have yet to receive a response. In Nov. 2012, the Regina Police Service charged Nur for fraud under $5,000.
This seeming disregard for student money reminded me of another case. In June 2005, the Douglas College administration began withholding membership fees it collected on behalf of the Douglas Students’ Union (DSU) because the student union had failed to file financial statements for the fiscal years 2002, 2003 and 2004 and was thus not in compliance with British Columbia law. Evidence of financial irregularities had reinforced the administration’s decision. What did the CFS-Services do? It advanced $276,000 in order to cover the DSU’s health and dental plan premiums. Meanwhile CFS-British Columbia provided loans totaling at least $200,000. Wouldn’t it have been more responsible to hold on to students’ money until it had been resolved?
I think that the idea of having a national student organization is theoretically sound. However, in practice, the CFS has become a bureaucracy that is ineffective, sometimes undemocratic and appears irresponsible with students’ money. For these reasons, I encourage students to take a closer look at what the CFS does and whether they benefit from their membership—other than by receiving a free International Student Identity Card.