Has the Canadian Federation of Students lost its way?

Student group seems distracted and afraid of transparency

A 2008 CFS rally (Joey Coleman/Maclean's)

What do the War of 1812, the Israel-Gaza conflict and bottled water have in common? They are causes the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) decided, on the closing evening of the semi-annual general meeting (AGM), to campaign about. How odd for organization that’s supposed to be focused on student issues.

During that Nov. 30 meeting in Ottawa, the CFS voted to organize letter-writing campaigns against the Harper government’s representation of 1812 and its opposition to Palestine’s observer status at the United Nations. This came after hours of debate on transparency and openness—two areas the CFS would do well to improve on. Some of the measures that would improve openness and transparency were, unfortunately, rejected.

The Canadian Federation of Students, funded by mandatory student fees from dozens of universities and colleges, is meant to represent students on issues like tuition. The fact that these non-student (albeit important) issues take up so much of their time shows the CFS may have lost its way. Worse, students may have no idea what the CFS is up to because it seems to fear transparency.

I was the only student journalist reporting on the meeting. Although other student reporters requested access, I was left to “live Tweet” all by myself. It took a Herculean effort just to get in. When the Canadian University Press, where I am Ottawa Bureau Chief, first asked for access to the plenaries, we were told it was closed to reporters. We would only be allowed in the workshops.

It took a board meeting just to allow me in. This seems wrong, considering students fund the organization and I am a student journalist. (At least they allowed me to attend eventually.)

At the meeting, the executive listed off many impressive past campaigns and lobbying efforts.

But one of those campaigns didn’t sit well with me. Their push to ban bottled water is supposed to force schools to provide higher quality water fountains and make students use reusable bottles, thereby helping the environment. In practice, as a student at the University of Ottawa, it just deprives me of water and forces me to purchase carbonated diabetes-in-a-bottle instead.

Unfortunately, those issues went unnoticed, and CFS members across the country will continue to celebrate Water Bottle Free Day and the newly added World Water Day next year.

While the majority approved of bottled water campaigns, the majority also fought tooth and nail against some proposals that would allow for more transparency: writing a comprehensive history of the organization, releasing information about lawsuits from member units trying to leave the CFS, and recording in the published minutes how local representatives voted at the AGMs.

What dumbfounded me the most was rejecting the motion to write a detailed history. During the debate, excellent points were brought up about learning from one’s mistakes. One speaker pointed out there are lots of negative things written about the CFS but not many positive ones. Sure, a history would show failures, but it would also show successes, and those can be pretty cool.

Why was the motion voted down? Resources should go to campaigns instead, opponents said.

And who has time for transparency and history when there’s bottled water to fight?

I don’t think CFS is a bad organization. A lot of the work the CFS does, like fighting against discrimination and standing up for student rights, is admirable and successful. But they are too distracted by political causes that have little to do with their core mission.

It’s also hypocritical to demand government accountability, as they often do, while discouraging media scrutiny and after voting against measures to improve openness.

What is the CFS afraid of? Unlike some people, I don’t believe there’s a conspiracy or something that the CFS is trying to cover up. But when the CFS isn’t open about its operations, it makes the student-funded organization seem closed off and unaccountable to students.

Jane Lytvynenko is Ottawa bureau chief the Canadian University Press. You can follow her at @JaneLytv on Twitter. Have a comment? Share it below.




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Has the Canadian Federation of Students lost its way?

  1. FINALLY a post that talks about how awesome our history of the Student Movement motion was!

    Seriously though as a delegate your livetweeting helped me keep up with everything rather than tweet about everything, thanks and see you at the next one!

  2. And of government themselves, have they lost their way? People are a product of what they are seeing.

    • I think that government’s actions are a whole other issue, but I disagree that people are a product of what they are seeing. People are a product of many things. The environment is one of them, certainly, but I think there is more to it than repeating what you see.

  3. I LOVE that because water bottles are banned, this person believes they are forced to buy pop. That’s the biggest load of bull I’ve ever heard! So hilarious. Something obviously makes them too special to buy a reusable water container like other people.. but hey if they don’t care about the environment, and have $3 per day per water bottle, then I guess that’s their “right.”

  4. Hi folks,

    I think part of the issue I’d have with the analysis here is that it lacks a critically important context about the debate surrounding what is defined as a student issue.

    Since the formation of the national student movement, formally, in the 1920s, there has been on-going debate surrounding the limits and greatest extensions of ‘student issues’. In fact, this debate spurred the division between several student organizations – including that, in part, of the CFS and CASA. The Federation has always, since its inception, defined larger societal issues as tied to those which seemingly more directly impact students (which was one of CASA’s central differences, when those unions left the Fed in 1994 – not as much now, though).

    In the case of the Bottle Water Free campaign, folks often speak of it in terms of the impact of the comodification of water within a society which is already deeply comodified and as a society which already places so much cost on those who are vulnerable economically – including students. Equally, by taking a stand on this matter, such unions are being consistent with stances against the overall comodification of the University as a whole.

    Admittedly, though, not every campus has had explicit agreements in place with their University to ensure more fountains (esp. of the bottle-fill station variety) were placed on campus before the ban went into effect. This is something which should have been more carefully considered across the board by all those campuses which implemented the campaign.

  5. It’s unbelievable that, still to this day, the CFS (the people currently heading the organization) take issue with allowing student journalists into these meetings. LaRotonde, the francophone student newspaper at uOttawa, had its request to send a journalist denied because it had missed the “deadline”. When pushed to provide the date of the deadline, the CFS refused.

    See more here: larotonde.ca/?p=2859

    The more the organization attempts to impede access to its meetings and its documents, the more students have reason to be suspicious. Whether or not the CFS has something to hide, the simple fact that the organization lacks any kind of transparency is reason enough for its individual members to ask questions and speculate as to why this is.

    For example, the CFS doesn’t make its general meeting documents available online to its members. This, in my opinion, is very problematic. The argument of those who promote the status quo is bizarre to say the least: They argue that having such documents available online would allow public officials (i.e. government “spies”) or dissenting groups to become aware of any internal “fractures” as well give up the CFS’s “strategies”. For supporters of the status quo to believe that the CFS is so influential that government officials would actually take the time to go read CFS documents is quite a statement indeed. When the status quo is defended with such arguments, it would appear to demonstrate the existence of a certain level of paranoia within the CFS’s core supporters. I will close with some shameless self-promotion: many Canadian Federation of Students documents have been made available at studentunion.ca.

  6. Further to my above comment:

    For years, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) has been paranoid about providing national general meeting media credentials to student journalists. When it has done so, the CFS has forced them to sign a “Media Protocol” which imposes strict limitations on the journalists’ ability to do their job. A French copy of this “Media Protocol” can be found here: scribd.com/doc/110691248/Canadian-Federation-of-Students-Media-Protocol-Protocole-des-medias.

    Furthermore, when the student journalists are given access to the organization’s general meetings, a CFS staff member “babysits” them throughout the proceedings. From what I’ve been told, this entails having a staff person either sitting beside them or standing close-by constantly looking over the journalists’ shoulders as they “live-tweet” or live blog the proceedings. Not only is this unnecessary but it’s also extremely intimidating for the journalists.

    Having spoken with many francophone students (and myself being a francophone) since information to the effect that LaRotonde (the uOttawa francophone student newspaper) had been denied access to the CFS’s most recent national general meeting, it is clear that the CFS has insulted and alienated a large number of its francophone members. For an organization that claims to be “bilingual”, it’s quite shocking that the CFS would refuse to allow francophone student journalists into their meetings. It’s also quite unfortunate that the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), a “bilingual” organization that represents the undergraduate student population at the University of Ottawa, chose to remain silent when asked by a LaRotonde journalist to comment on this issue during the SFUO’s monthly board of administration meeting.

  7. The problem with the CFS is the 50 plus year old staffers who call all the shots, even the elected officials take their marching orders from these staffers. The only way the CFS will become truly democratic and transparent will be to fire these long in the tooth non elected employees who haven’t been students for well over 30 years.

  8. Contrary to your conclusion: There IS a conspiracy, and the CFS IS trying to cover things up. The problem is, you should know full well Ms. Lytvynenko if you did the research into the CFS’s sordid and suppressed history, that the moment any journalist tries to dig deeper, the CFS lawyers are contacted and paid with student funds to send cease and desist letters to your bosses threatening legal action.
    The CFS campaigns are just the sheep’s clothing to the wolf’s activities.

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