The CFS is its own worst enemy

The CFS could benefit from an “easy in, easy out” membership policy


Which student organization hurts the Canadian Federation of Students* the most? The answer to the question is (drum roll) the Canadian Federation of Students.* Let me explain.

The CFS/CFS-S/CFS-NFLD/CFS-NS/CFS-NB/CFS-QC/CFS-ON/CFS-MB/CFS-SK/CFS-AB/CFS-BC* will consider reforms to their membership bylaws at their upcoming semi-annual national general meeting. I believe this is a direct response to the departure of three member unions from the CFS/CFS-S/CFS-BC/CFS-NS* this past school year.

Read the full news story “If you can’t win, change the rules”

The Simon Fraser Students’ Society, Cape Breton University Students’ Union and University of Victoria Graduate Students’ Society all voted resoundingly to leave the CFS* this spring. All three expressed concerns with the centralization of power and a lack of accountability within the Federation.

Students at Kwantlen University College (now Kwantlen Polytechnic University) voted to remain members of the CFS*.

The CFS* has responded to these results differently at each university. The CFS* said from the beginning that it will not recognize the vote at Cape Breton University because, according to them, proper notice was not served. It’s not entirely clear if they will accept the Simon Fraser vote and they’re expected to be in court over that soon. (The SFSS is presently petitioning the courts to force the CFS* to recognize the results of its vote.) The CFS* will accept the results from the University of Victoria.

Moving forward, what is the CFS* planning to do to prevent more unions from leaving its fold and potentially costing the CFS* hundreds of thousands of dollars a year?

They are:
A) implementing reforms to address the concerns about transparency
B) considering changing their bylaws to make it harder to students unions to leave the CFS*
C) None of the above
D) All of the above

If you chose A, I’m afraid you don’t know the Federation. The correct answer is B: if the proposed motion is adopted, it will be harder for student unions to leave.

Local 1 of the CFS*, the Carleton University Students’ Association, is moving a package of bylaw amendments to CFS* referendum rules which will make it more difficult for local unions to campaign to leave the CFS*. The changes are smart. And here’s why I think they are a direct response to the issues that arose in the four recent votes.

The four students unions’ coordinated their referendum times to split the resources of the CFS*. This splitting of resources made it more difficult for the CFS* to overwhelm local campaigners by flying in staff and executives from across Canada, primarily Ontario. Instead of, for example, 40 full-time CFS* campaigners at one school, they were split between two or three schools. The proposed changes would empower the CFS* to set the referendum dates. By setting the dates itself, the CFS* can make sure the date is such that they are able to fly out the maximum number of CFS* loyalists to drown out local dissenters.

The proposed Local 1 amendments also strengthen the mandate of the Referendum Oversight Committee. The committee is comprised of two representatives from each the students’ union and the CFS*. That means that any issue that the committee is split on becomes deadlocked, two votes against two.

The KSA cited problems with the structure of the committee in appointing an independent third-party to administer their referendum, a decision that later gained the stamp of approval of the Supreme Court of B.C. Clearly, Carleton’s amendment could prevent future incidents of independent oversight.

The Local 1 amendment will prevent local unions from distributing materials prior to a campaign. It also exempts general CFS* materials that promote their services and campaigns but are not specific to the referendum from being considered campaign materials and therefore factored into CFS* campaign expenses. This will give the CFS* a substantive advantage over dissenters.

The Local 1 amendment also doubles the quorum requirement to leave the CFS* from the current 5 per cent of student union membership to 10 per cent.

Here’s the hook. Although this amendment appears to make it less likely that students unions will be able to leave the CFS*, it will result in more students unions leaving.

Some CFS* loyalists have said to me that they believe there is some kind of conspiracy against them, that some groups actively organize to oppose them. I’ve never seen this organization, but I’ve always envisioned it being a ragtag bunch of idealists along the lines of the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars.

There is no mass conspiracy. The resistance to the CFS* is not organized beyond occasional conversations between a few pockets of students scattered across the country. There is no full-time, non-student staff. The resistance consists, for the most part, entirely of students.

Most dissenters I’ve met believe strongly in the need for a national student lobbying organization and the overwhelming majority of them can be classified as “left-wing” students. Their main concern with the Federation is its bureaucratic, top-down, corporate structure and bylaws. They are not “conservative anti-worker/anti-student elements”; they are regular students who believe in local autonomy. These dissenters agree with CFS* positions on most student issues.

The problem they have with the CFS* is not politics, rather structure. Moves like the Local 1 amendments do much more harm to the CFS*’ image and reputation than anything that political opponents of the CFS* say. The reality is that the CFS* is its own worse enemy.

One of the arguments for needing bylaws to prevent members leaving is that, if given the option to leave, students’ unions would constantly be leaving and this would destabilize the student movement.

Looking at two other national student organizations, one can see this is false. Both the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations and the Canadian University Press are experiencing strong growth. In the last two years, under the direction of former CUP presidents Erin Millar (full disclosure: Millar is now the editor of Maclean’s On Campus) and Amanda McCuaig, the Canadian University Press gained over 20 new member papers. With over 80 papers, CUP is bigger than ever. The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations has gained four new full members in the past two years and the University of Alberta Students Union has also recently voted to join.

Both of these organizations have an “easy in, easy out” membership policy. They often face the withdrawals of members, especially when members become concerned with the direction of their respective national offices. When members withdraw, these organizations are forced to take notice and implement reforms.

As Millar put it, all you have to do to get out of CUP is not pay your fees for a year or throw a temper tantrum. And you can’t say that CUP is destabilized by the constant ins and outs since it is the oldest student organization in North America at the ripe old age of 71, much older than the CFS*.

The McMaster Students’ Union will soon vote on whether to join CASA. I am neither in favour nor opposed to joining CASA. If CASA doesn’t work for the McMaster union, they can always leave. It is this open membership model that makes joining viable.

The CFS* membership has a choice next weekend. They can continue to chase dissenters and pursue tactics that aren’t working or they can consider how an open membership model can enable them to grow stronger.

* CFS refers to both the national and provincial chapters of the organization and its service wing.


The CFS is its own worst enemy

  1. Just for clarification, there is not provincial chapter of the CFS in NB. The only member of the CFS in NB is the University of New Brunswick Graduate Student Association. Historically the NBSA/AÉNB was CFS-NB until 1996 when it became a fully independent organization.

  2. Joey Coleman goes on the record for being against the Clarity Act. (http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/showdoc/cs/C-31.8///en?page=1)

    All kidding aside, I would have to see the text of the motions in question. Raising the quorum for a vote to be valid, to me, seems to add much more legitimacy to a vote more than anything else. In fact, that quorum should also be instituted for the “joining” process.

    As to setting the dates, it does seem arbitrary but again, I would have see the text of the motion.

    I am not so sure how I feel about a “easy in, easy out” system. Why would a handful of students (members of an executive) be allowed to join (or leave) a National union without the consent of their members?

    The idea that you need a referendum to join a national union seems much more legitimate than the alternative. Of course, if you need a referendum to join, then you should also need a referendum to leave. And if you need a referendum to leave, then you should, ideally, have clear rules established before the process of defederation begins, as to avoid litigation.

    That being said, I agree that these rules should be as clear and fair as possible and if they are passed next week, it will at least have the benefit of allowing student unions thinking of joining CFS (University of Ottawa) to have a more complete picture of the defederation process.

  3. I fully agree with the need to have a symmetrical method of entering and leaving the organization and raising quorum requirements would not bother me as long as it only applied to new schools (i.e. you can’t be required to get 10% when you only need 5% to enter).

    Wassim uses a very reasonable explanation of why the referendum method makes sense but the faulty premise upon which it rests is the idea that a student union council should not be able to make decisions without the consent of its members. They were elected to make decisions so it is not illegitimate for them to decide whether to join or leave an organization. If it was a mistake the next council can reverse it. It’s a false assumption that a national student union is so important that each student represented by it should be given an opportunity for explicit consent. Most don’t care that much. Many do not see the CFS as a movement but a tool – a centralized body to which student unions outsource advocacy work and services. If one looks at CFS messaging around referenda *that* is the vision of the CFS that is being put forth. The romantic notion of “movement” has fallen to the side; probably because students didn’t respond to it. And if it isn’t a movement and largely a means to achieving goals for a given student’s university experience, then it’s an operational decision that students tend to let their elected leaders make anyway.

    The above argument is not meant to say “easy-in/easy-out” is necessarily better, but that it is completely reasonable. I’m partial to the CASA model where you need two student council votes, a year apart, to leave because it balances the needs for stability of the national organization and does not reasonably infringe on the member school. Again, I’m just saying it’s reasonable.

    But allowing for the moment that the core assumption of a referenda is true – that a national student union is so important that only the individual student can be trusted to decide its fate – how does the CFS justify bylaw changes that do not go to a student referendum? These are the most fundamental operating principles of the organization. One could change the entire nature of the organization without a regular student ever getting to vote. Moreover it is those student union executives (not their entire council, mind you, but just the people that attend the semi-annual general meeting) that get to make these decisions even though they are not legitimate enough to decide whether or not to be in the organization in the first place.

    Does that seem peculiar to anyone else?

  4. Raising the quorum may be argued from the perspective of legitimacy, but by far and away the best argument against it is that it’s simply unrealistic. And where it comes with no move to increase the vote required to federate in the first place, it’s obviously intended as a barrier against departure.

    I just hope someone has the nerve to stand up at the meeting where this is proposed and ask all of the “elected” representatives present how many of them can state, with confidence, that they were elected by a quorum of 10% of their respective constituencies. If a vote to defederate with less than 10% has no legitimacy, then neither do any of the elections either. Hell, I’d be satisfied with a quick scan of the last elections at Carleton, where these motions have emerged from.

  5. There were 3108 valid votes in the CUSA President election, out of about 21,000 valid voters, or about 15% of the eligible voters.

    So consider yourself satisfied! :)

  6. Fair enough Sean, and valid answer. I know from experience that 10% is a very high threshold to meet. And in fact it was probably unfair of me to deploy elections as an example. In elections, even if only 1% of voters actually vote, it’s better to recognize the result that emerges rather than have no result at all and no board. A referendum is different.

    That said, I think the Local 1 motion is directed towards a fair concern. There’s always the worry, when quorum requirements are low, that a vocal minority might shove through some result that the majority doesn’t agree with. But the CFS both lives and dies by this sword. The truth is the large majority of students on campus probably can’t even follow what’s going on with the CFS. It’s a minority that votes to join and a minority that votes to leave. I’d wish otherwise (I’d wish everyone were well informed) but that’s just the way it works.

    Passionate voices will probably declare that members are voting to leave the CFS, bouyed by the votes of a vocal minority, against the interests of their fellow students. But I desperately hope that reason prevails and people are able to see that everyone always imagines, when they are on the losing side of some result, that the silent majority is with them. That’s just human nature.

    But yeah, lest I get distracted, allow me to bow for a moment and acknowledge 15% turn-out. That’s something to be proud of.

  7. No, there is no quorum for CUSA elections.

  8. Most student unions have quorum for referenda but not elections. It makes sense that the requirements to create a new levy, for example, are higher than normal elections, because you should not ask all students to pay more money into their services if most of them don’t care enough to go vote.


    I agree partly with what Spencer says, in the sense that it’s not because the national federation doesn’t impose strong rules that the local student unions will be irresponsible about it. In fact, if there is a membership fee, most student unions already have rules that require a referendum with quorum for any student levy.

    Also Joey is probably right that the more lax requirements of CASA can give them a “comparative advantage” to attract local student unions. That and the lower memberships cost. It makes sense for CASA to do so as a “competitor” to CFS, because if CASA was the same as CFS on those two points (rules and cost of membership), most students would favor joining the largest student federation, which is currently CFS. I’m not saying that is why they are doing it, but considering that CASA essentially split from CFS in 1995 it’s not surprising they would want to emphasize differences with CFS to attract members.

    At the same time, as I said on the other article, the most important thing is not whether we choose lax rules or more stringent rules, but that the end result is fair. On that point I agree with Wassim, and I think facing a proposal like the one by Carleton, it would be the priority route of argumentation.

    Did anyone outside Local 1 propose amendments to the by-laws?

  9. Spencer, I fail to see how joining an organization and amending certain aspects of its every day operations are one and the same. Without the former, the latter is inapplicable.

    Joining the Canadian Federation of Students is much more than “an operational decision that students tend to let their elected leaders make anyway.” Firstly, students pay a levy to the CFS and in some cases, that levy is more important than what is collected by the local union itself. Imagine if a handful of student leaders were able to raise the student levies by 100% unilaterally… The potential for abuse would be unsustainable.

    Second, I would argue that CFS general assemblies should be open to every single member student. I never claimed that their general assemblies were any more legitimate than CASA’s “joining” process. The only difference is the fact that students vote to join the CFS with the knowledge that after the vote, their elected leaders will be the ones making the day-to-day decisions, whereas CASA students have to assume that before voting, their leaders have the ability to join a national union, where those very same people will be running the day-to-day affairs.

    You claim “it is those student union executives… that get to make these decisions even though they are not legitimate enough to decide whether or not to be in the organization in the first place.” In fact, if they are students (which is a big “IF” in most unions), then they would be legitimate to decide whether or not to be in that organization, as they would be entitled to vote in the “joining” referendum.

    If we are debating legitimacy, we should be arguing for more, not less.

    In my mind, the 10% threshold should be applied to all campus elections across the country. CFS should lead by example and apply it to all unions wishing to join (or exit) the Federation.

    There is a serious problem when certain individuals feel that 10% is too high of a threshold or “unrealistic”. If it were up to me, student unions would need a much higher number for their elections to be valid. But people like Jeff Rybak will tell me 10% is “unrealistic”. I disagree with Jeff that 15% is “something to be proud of.” I think it is slightly less pathetic – and just barely more legitimate – than most other student unions across the country.

    Just for the record, students have seen voter turnouts over 50% this year and over 40% in the last few. It is not impossible nor is it “unrealistic”.

    P.S. At the University of Ottawa, the last three elections collected 19%, 15%, 12% respectively and the recent by-elections only received 3%. There are quorum rules at both unions (SFUO and GSAÉD) stating that a referendum can only be valid if 5% of members vote – there is unfortunately no such rule for the candidates themselves.

  10. H. Elliott:

    Thanks for the information. Do you know if their is a incorporated body known as CFS-NB?

    Wassim Garzouzi:

    I went looking for the agenda on the CFS website, I couldn’t find it in what I will term the “fully-public realm.” Uploading the entire document may be a violation of copyright.

  11. Hi Wassim. If you want to offer examples where there have actually been turn-outs in the 40-50% range within student populations of any size I’ll give due and considerable praise. I’m sorry if you feel my nod to what really happens out there is defeatist, but in an environment where turn-out for municipal elections (using Toronto as an example) hovers around 40%, I feel one has to be realistic. Here’s a source for that, btw:


    There are the usual questions in that article above, as in provincial elections (recently just above 50%) as there are in any election. Of course I would always advocate aiming for the highest turn-out possible. Please don’t confuse my respect for results that are above average with absolute satisfaction, or the opinion that it’s pointless to strive for better. I share your views, from an idealistic perspective. We want more, and we should work towards more.

    All the same, I feel there’s an important distinction here. We strive for improvements to the status quo that reflect our ideals and our goals, but we write policy that takes into account our actual experiences and the reality we observe. I don’t think it’s pathetic to interact with the real world as it exists. That’s where change has to start. Now, once the movement to produce turn-out consistently in excess of 10% has really succeeded, we can write policy that depends on that. But not, in my opinion, beforehand.

  12. Jeff, it’s not uncommon for UWO to get 40-45% turnout, though they are usually more likely to get something in the 25-30% range.

    The issue that you’re speaking to is called salience, which is the idea that the less likely a vote is going to affect a person’s life, the less likely they are to vote at all. Switzerland, which has a highly decentralized system of government with proportional representation and a tendency to put all big decisions to referendum anyway, has very low voter turnout (54% in national elections); the Swiss know that they will have the opportunity to vote directly on any big issues so who actually sits in government doesn’t matter much, and neither does voting. Malta, which has a single legislative body that makes all the decisions and a two-party system where a change of only a few votes can affect who wins the government, has very high turnout (94%); for the Maltese, that vote is their only opportunity to influence government and every vote counts.

    It’s obvious that there are numerous other reasons that turnout is low, but salience is probably one of the most applicable to student elections. UWO gets very high turnout but their board of directors also have massive discretionary spending powers and ten years ago the student union was able to set fees as whatever they wanted for the year – there is probably still some residual effect as a culture of respect for student government was built up over the years. Alberta’s student council has complete control over their bylaws and operations and only go to referendum on issues that they choose to go to referendum on – their turnout is 20-25%. Dalhousie is functionally in the same position as Alberta and gets the same. UBC’s student government has to go to referendum for all major decisions and manages to get 8-10%. 50% if it involves a UPass. There are other examples out there but there is generally a proportional relationship between authority of those being elected and voter turnout.

  13. Wassim – I confess that I must not understand your first argument, or it just doesn’t make sense.

    “I fail to see how joining an organization and amending certain aspects of its every day operations are one and the same. Without the former, the latter is inapplicable”

    Maybe it’s that you’re not giving fair value to what the bylaws of an organization mean. They are the legal definition of what an organization is and the framework under which it operates. How can a person agree to be part of an organization when the definition of what it is can be changed by the other party?

    Let’s think in less abstract terms. The courts have generally been squeamish about supporting contracts that are unbreakable. There either needs to be an agreed upon method for one party to break the contract, or a clear end-date. When the CFS AGM changes the de/federation rules without the consent of the individual members that agreed to be part of the CFS in the first place, it’s tantamount to one party being able to unilaterally change a contract without the consent of the other.

    So you don’t see how bylaws and the decision to join are of the same importance, but they are because the organization as defined by those bylaws are what students are agreeing to.

    Not exactly a pithy comment, but hopefully clear.

  14. Spencer,

    Simply put, I already expressed many reserves about the amending process at the CFS. I think their general assemblies should be open to all of their members, not just the executive members of the local unions.

    That being said, this is the choice that is presented to students when they go vote to join the CFS. By voting “YES”, members are implicitly acknowledging their support – or their reluctant acceptance – of the current amendment formula, where their decisions are delegated to their elected leaders.

    Your legal framework is faulty. There is no “unilateral change” of contract. It is multilateral. Students simply delegate their vote to their elected leaders. (Again, I disagree with this, but to claim it is unilateral is ignoring each union’s representation at these meetings.)

    You also say “How can a person agree to be part of an organization when the definition of what it is can be changed by the other party?” Again, there is no “other party”. This is not a CFS-Student relationship. This is a Union-Union-Union relationship. Members of CFS voted in full knowledge of this system, where decisions are taken between different student unions across the country. It is not “unilateral”, as the local unions still have a vote and can oppose this.

    None of that changes the fact that raising the threshold to join/leave would add more legitimacy to the decision, as it would at least guarantee that a higher number of students are aware of the structure they are joining/leaving. It would also force both sides to campaign harder and to innovate as to reach out to a larger number of students.

    To simplify. CFS raising the threshold to join/leave only adds legitimacy to both those decisions. Though I agree with this amendment, the CFS General Assembly itself lacks transparency and should be opened up to every single individual member of CFS, though they have no real legal requirement to do so.

    And to counter my own argument (before someone else does), some from CFS might even say that the current system is the most democratic, as smaller unions have as much say as larger unions, thus putting everyone on a level field, whereas if it were to be opened up to every student, there would be a disproportionate voice given to larger unions. Again, I do not agree with this argument but there is (some) merit to the current system as it is now.

  15. Here’s a compromise between the current system and what Wassim is proposing.

    I think the student union delegates system should be kept for general assemblies, first to keep the one member one vote system, second just out of practicality (you can only pay for so many people to attend, and if people paid for themselves it would create all sorts of inequalities of access).

    HOWEVER, any change of by-law that impacts the rights of individual members in a direct manner (i.e. changing the federation of defedration process, in which all individual members vote) should be conducted through a national referendum (maybe with mail-in ballots or electronic voting, if audited by an independent firm), rather than at the general assemblies.

    This way, the student union delegates can make day-to-day decisions and change SOME policies and by-laws at the general assemblies, but the aspect of the contract that involves individual students (especially their levy, for example) could not be changed so easily.


  16. Oh, by the way, I think every member of CFS (if they can afford it) should be allowed to attend any part of the general meeting, although they wouldn’t get a vote if they are not a delegate. That is logical on a transparency basis.

    However, the delegate system and the one-union one-vote system guarantees that parts of the constituency don’t gain advantage due to demographic considerations (i.e. larger concentrations of students in one place have more power, and policies revolve around Toronto).

    In fact, some people already think CFS revolves too much around Ontario in the current system, what if Ontario members would get 60% of the votes (their weight in CFS) rather than 35 out of 90 (their weight in terms of member unions)?

  17. UofC to go too?

    The CFS is in deep trouble, especially in Western Canada.

    It’s about time people realized that the cabal of radicals running the CFS in Toronto and Ottawa is not going to change. The only way to change the student movement at this point is to destroy it and start again!

  18. You dont mean the *gasp* Ottawa CFS do you?!

    I hear they’re out of touch with the issues of British Columbians, or so thats what the radio ads I’m being bombarded with are telling me about a certain other ‘Ottawa’ organization.

  19. Greg:

    Of course everything goes well when you start fresh with a small group of people and some ideals. But unless you can somehow show that the “student movement” will be different from the current organization 25 years down and 500,000 members down the road, you risk spending a lot of resource just to repeat history.

    Moreover, the idea to massively pull out of the CFS and create another organization was thought of by people before. CASA was created in 1994, 14 years ago, and it doesn’t even have as many members as the CFS did in 1994 (after 13 years of existence). So how would your plan practically take place?

    And frankly, if you really don’t like the student movement in Canada right now, you’d have to dismantle most of the local students’ unions, too. In fact most of the things blamed on “the CFS” happen in local students’ unions who are members locals of the CFS. Even if you fired everyone in the CFS national and provincial offices and started a new national students’ associations with the same members schools, the policies would still likely be similar to the current CFS.

    I would argue that your vision of things is quite naive and irrealistic, way more than anyone who wants to reform the CFS is naive and irrealisic.

  20. There are some real issues with the CFS. This is basically a money making machine. With all of these campuses leaving the CFS they are getting upset over how much money they are losing when they leave. I completely agree with the author of this article, they would benefit much more from an easy in, easy out membership policy. However, that will never happen with the CFS. My daughter is a member of the CFS because she is a representative for the students association at an Ontario university and most Ontario universities are a part of CFS. If there is any disagreement with a founding policy of CFS they do all sorts of underhanded things to get a union to kick out their own representative. Its a sad day when a so called “student organization” doesn’t allow free speech among its own members.

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