If you can’t win, change the rules

The Canadian Federation of Students is considering making it harder for student unions to leave


If you can’t win, change the rules. That seems to be the strategy that at least one students’ union thinks Canada’s largest student lobby group should take.

The Carleton University Students’ Association has proposed a change to the Canadian Federations of Students’ bylaws that would make it more difficult for student unions to sever ties with the organization. Representatives from CFS members unions will vote on the change at their semi-annual general meeting next weekend.

Read Joey Coleman’s analysis “The CFS is its own worst enemy”

The move comes in the wake of four membership referendums, in which students at Simon Fraser University, Cape Breton University and in graduate studies at the University of Victoria voted to leave the CFS. SFU students paid $400,000 in fees to the CFS in 2005. Students at Kwantlen University College voted to remain members in the CFS.

Currently, student unions that wish to leave the CFS must give the group six months notice before holding a student vote on the issue. There are usually weeks long, aggressive campaigns on either side leading up to the vote.

The proposed changes brought forward by the Carleton students would give the CFS national staff power to set the dates of the referendum. It also expands the responsibilities of the referendum oversight committee, which is a body comprised of two representatives from each the CFS and the students’ union. The changes also raise quorum from five per cent of the student body to 10 per cent.

J.J. McCullough, who was the 2008 chief electoral officer of the SFU referendum and student elections, says that the proposed changes are problematic. He points out that most student elections only attract around five per cent voter turnout. “I see this as an attempt to make the process of leaving more difficult,” he said.

He also argues that the power to set the dates of a referendum is best left with the students’ union. “The students’ union understands the needs of their own campus – when exams are, for instance – and knows when an appropriate time to schedule the referendum is,” he said.

Amanda Aziz, national chairperson of the CFS, said that she was unable to comment on proposed motions before they had been voted on by CFS membership. The Carleton University Students’ Association did not respond to requests for an interview.

McCullough was charged with the duty of overseeing the spring referendum by the Simon Fraser Students’ Society (SFSS) after the referendum oversight committee was unable to resolve a number of disputes, including the dates of the referendum and wording of the question. He said that the composition of the committee (two representatives from either side of the campaign) was the root of the problem. “The [committee] broke down,” he said. “The process is designed to fail, designed to be difficult for members to use.”

Although McCullough is critical of the proposed changes, he is adamant that he went into the referendum campaign without favouring either party and says that he has voiced strong criticism about the SFSS as well in the past.

SFU students voted 67 per cent in favour of withdrawing from the CFS. The SFSS has since filed a petition in court to have the referendum results recognized. The CFS is expected to oppose the petition, likely in part because of McCullough’s appointment as CRO.

Carleton’s proposed changes would also ban campaigning outside of the designated campaign period, which was an issue that came up during the Kwantlen University College referendum.

The CFS complained to the committee that the Kwantlen Students’ Association (KSA) began campaigning against the CFS months before the official campaign period, in part by publishing anti-CFS material in their newsletter. After the committee was unable to resolve the complaint and a number of other issues, the CFS went to the B.C. Supreme Court to obtain an injunction that would delay the referendum until the fall.

The judge – who delayed the vote until the beginning of April and appointed a chief electoral officer – ruled that campaigning was allowed outside of the campaign period. “There are people conducting campaigns fulltime in Quebec for certain outcomes. And then you have referendum campaigns where certain rules apply. I mean, Kwantlen is your Quebec isn’t it?” the judge asked the CFS, according to transcripts.

Derek Robertson, KSA executive of external affairs, explained his impression of the judge’s ruling. “It is a free country. We have freedom of speech. So we have the right to campaign outside of the campaign period.”

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If you can’t win, change the rules

  1. As a member of CUSA council (local 1) it shocks me that we are proposing these changes with out consulting our members and as far as I could tell there was no push by our membership for policy changes in this direction. I thought the CFS was supposed to be membership driven guess this isn’t the case.

  2. As another member of CUSA Council, I can also confirm that no motion to put forward this proposal at the CFS semi-annual meeting was debated or approved by our student association.

  3. Oh jeez. Obviously someone hasn’t learned the basic lesson about how if you love something you let it go. Any relationship where one side feels a need to hold the other hostage is obviously an unhealthy one.

    It should be acknowledged that this is only a motion from one member local at this time. So Aziz’s statement to that point is correct. But it also needs to be acknowledged that it’s a motion from a member local at the heart of the CFS establishment where “acceptable” motions usually emerge – as opposed to one of the marginal motions sometimes advanced by the peripheral membership. This motion absolutely needs a lot of attention so that the membership shows up prepared to challenge it and vote against it. Otherwise, a certain air of neglect tends to pervade and motions from “acceptable” sources go unchallenged. Note this isn’t just a CFS problem. Even the legislature occasionally passes something that leaves everyone wondering what happened after the fact.

    But seriously, this is ugly ugly ugly. I strongly encourage members of the CUSA Council to challenge this development while they can, if it doesn’t reflect the will of their members. In the short term, this move might stop members from leaving the CFS, but only at the cost of yet more credibility. You can’t keep your membership at gunpoint. The surest way to prove you really care about member locals and respect their views is to allow them to leave sometimes. And then, if they come back, you know you’ve got a movement worth believing in.

  4. “But seriously, this is ugly ugly ugly. I strongly encourage members of the CUSA Council to challenge this development while they can, if it doesn’t reflect the will of their members.”

    Some practical points:

    1) All I’ve said is that no motion was brought forward to CUSA Council. My suspicion is that, had it been brought forward, it would in fact pass.

    2) There are no scheduled CUSA Council meetings between now and the CFS semi-annual meeting. We’ve had our May meeting, and the CFS semi-annual meeting is later in May, I believe. Typically, the June CUSA Council meeting is later in June to allow for the preparation of the annual budget….

  5. One wonders why they feel this necessary. Surely, if the CFS does provide so many wonderful benefits to its members, they wouldn’t need to make it difficult to leave.

  6. My opinion on this is that if there is a 10% quorum for defederating, there should be a 10% quorum for joining as well. Also I would disagree with only one of the two sides having the power to set the dates. If anything this should also be decided by consensus, with the possibility of external arbitration if the referendum oversight committee fails.

    I disagree that joining and leaving a student federation should be “easy” if “easy” means only a few people (like a Board) make the decision. The rules can be stringent as long as they are fair, and they work equally on both sides of the contract.

  7. If an student union joined under ruleset A it should be able to leave under the same ruleset.

    If a cell phone company wants to change the rules and pricing on it’s contracts – it has to let people out with no early termination fee.

    It’s simply unethnical to lock people in. If there is that much wrong w/ the CFS that people want to leave maybe it’s time to address those concerns rather than trap people.

    Interesting seeing how the CFS has now abandoned Kwantlen now that it unethnically “won” the majority of students. They were refusing to recognize Kwantlen’s representative – I don’t know if they’re doing it now but even doing it in the first place is a pretty slimeball tactic.

  8. We should note also that the Kwantlen turnout for CFS defederation was 13%, while the SFU turnout was over 15%. I wonder if it ever happened that something as contentious as a CFS referendum, with 6 month notice and heavy campaigning on both sides, will get anything under 10%. For all the attention the quorum rule is getting, I don’t think it is, at all, the main reason why anyone would say it’s “hard” to leave CFS. You should look at other sections of the rules to make efficient reforms.

    That is one more reason to put a 10% quorum (and maybe a petition) on federating as well, rather than lowering the standards for the defederation referendum.

  9. Yeah, Philippe does have a point there. I think people are focusing on the quorum issue because it points most to the intention of the motion (to make it harder to leave) and also because it suggests far more concern with the process of defederation than with the process of federation.

    To my mind, however, giving CFS staff the power to set dates for the referendum is far more problematic than a 10% quorum. I don’t want to turn this into a CFS bashfest, but the rules are already designed to give the CFS multiple opportunities to stop a defederation referendum in its tracks. The six-month notice requirement is far more than is required to organize. What it means, in practice, is that the board of any member local with an intention to defederate during its mandate, must declare it almost immediately in September, since no referendum can be held over the summer. If a board isn’t very quick with the process, they won’t be able to do it until next year. And then, the referendum inevitably becomes the biggest issue in the next election. So CFS influence sweeps in (either officially or unofficially) and attempts to elect a pro-CFS board to replace the board that filed notice of referendum. If that election succeeds, the referendum stops dead in its tracks. So already there are two kicks at the can to stop it. If the CFS gains the power to set referendum dates, it will only magnify this problem.

    Again, I don’t want to bash the CFS unreasonably here. I believe in a national student movement. But I also believe that current CFS practices are damaging the national movement by creating a culture where students spend more time fighting over who is in and who is out of the CFS (not the same thing as ‘the movement’ in any case – all students are a part of that) rather than concentrating on shared concerns of substance. I wish it would end. And this proposal moves in completely the wrong direction. Its based on the assumption that members need to be kept in. It’ll cause far more problems than it solves.

  10. UPDATE: I heard reports that the quorum was amended back to 5% at the closing plenary (which is statu quo with respect to this clause). Any other news?

  11. The quorum was amended back to 5%, but Carleton intends to bring a motion to return it to 10% in the fall.
    Other important issues:

    1. At least one school has already served notice to defederate. The new referendum bylaws are significantly different now, and it will be impossible to run any vote that satisfies both the old and the new bylaws. The CFS will require the local to follow the new rules, and the local will likely want to follow the old ones. This is similar to what happened with Acadia Student Union. CFS bylaw rules started changing for the worse in the mid 90s, and one change made the ASU vote invalid. The quorum will likely be raised in the fall, which will further muddy the validity of any other referenda to occur in the near future. And there are two or four other schools looking to leave soon. Each bylaw change gives the CFS grounds to keep the referendum tied up for years in and out of court (like Acadia’s has been, and like SFU’s will be), until a CFS-friendly board comes in and rolls over.

    2. The new bylaws do actually provide for a dispute-resolution process. If the ROC, made up of two delegates from each side, can’t agree, they can ask for a settlement from an Appeals Committee made up of one delegate from each side. Naturally this will deadlock as well, but it slows the inevitable process of the local forcing the appointment independent oversight in court. The Appeals Committee is also responsible for any dispute regarding the results of the referendum.

    3. Another unpleasant ramification of the higher quorum requirement is the possibility that the federation may simply not turn up. The recent votes had high turnout because there were dozens of passionate campaigners hotly contesting an issue. A few local student politicians may not be able to rustle up 10% of their members to vote on an issue that isn’t contested. UVic GSS got something like 18% turnout with an apparently small campaign, but grad societies are small and closely knit.

    The overriding issue to me is one of autonomy. The CFS always claims that it stays out of local student union affairs. A student union’s choice of it’s national representation seems to me to be the one issue the CFS should, rightly, have the least influence in. Besides, perhaps, elections. But let’s just not go there.

  12. This is more about the ON-BC old guard cementing itself in the back-conference rooms than anything else. Pretty sad, but not unexpected. Maybe the next generation will produce some activists bent on change (we CAN hope).


    A discouraged student activist of an ancient, more questioning age.

  13. “The quorum was amended back to 5%, but Carleton intends to bring a motion to return it to 10% in the fall.”

    Wasn’t it Carleton (CUSA) themselves who proposed the amendment to 5% at the plenary? From overheard conversations, I believe some people are thinking of amending BOTH the federation and defederation quorum to 10%, which would satisfy the equal quorum requirement (the reason why most people criticized the initial amendment expressed).

    “UVic GSS got something like 18% turnout with an apparently small campaign, but grad societies are small and closely knit.”

    I just want to comment that at U of Ottawa, the grad elections turnout is usually half of the undergrad turnout. 18% for a grad student referendum seems enormous to me, although other schools might have a different dynamic.


    Also, independent arbitration would indeed be great in the case where the process stalls. Some people would say it doesn’t solve the problem because both parties would have to agree on an arbitrator, yet it is probably an easier agreement to reach than the agreement on all the referendum rules. Arbitration would also preferable, both on speed and cost, than going before the courts.

  14. Ok, I’m happy to have found a confirmation of what I just said in the Muse article quoted in Joey’s other post:

    “Originally, the amendment would have raised quorum for leaving the Federation to 10 per cent. This was voted down. However, a notice for motion that would set both quorum requirements for joining and leaving the Federation at 10 per cent was served to be voted on at the November annual general meeting.”

  15. You’re absolutely right Phillipe. There are a dozen things about the amendment as originally proposed that are either directly counter to democratic principles (“membership awareness campaigns” like CFS-BC’s ubiquitous ‘I Am CFS’ project are explicitly exempt from oversight by the ROC) or utterly unreasonable (the ROC is explicitly responsible for “all aspects of the voting”, “establishing all other rules for the vote”, and basically every other thing that ROC’s at SFU and Kwantlen failed to determine).

    Normally, I hear, CFS conferences have a 3 v 3 speaker’s list. 3 delegates speak for, 3 against, and then they vote. In this case, three spoke in favour, and one spoke against. The question was called just before Kwantlen was about to speak against.

    Carleton took a buckshot approach here. The original amendment was almost a complete rewrite of Bylaw 1, Section 6, and took up about two pages of the agenda. There were easily a dozen points as objectionable as the quorum change, but there was simply no chance that debate would get past the first clause. I bet they were glad to defer the quorum question as a cost for cementing the power of the ROC and arming the federation to invalidate upcoming votes.

  16. I never really wanted to opt into the union at my school. But I was not givin a choice. By wishing to interact with the school as an undergraduate student I was required to join it. I am also required to pay them money every time I take a course. I don’t know anyone in the student union and have never been asked by them for my opionion on anything. I would prefer a more direct system where students vote directly on important issues. If the union were to remain it should only be as an executive role. Imporant choices should be made democratically. The actors in the union at my school have very little accountablilty to the students in my opionion. For this reason they decide what to do without the consent of the majoirty of students.

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