Where's the opposition? It doesn't exist... - Macleans.ca

Where’s the opposition? It doesn’t exist…

CFS still lacks transparency, accountability


The Canadian Federation of Students wrapped up their semi-annual general meeting about a week ago, while last year’s meeting generated a great deal of controversy, as my colleague Danielle Webb has pointed out, this year’s meeting was rather tame.

But as a court battle in Saskatchewan shows, the CFS still hasn’t moved passed the issues that gripped last year’s meeting.

The majority of controversy in 2009 was fomented by several student unions that wished to leave the group. At a time when federation supporters were intent on making it harder to leave, several student unions introduced a series of reforms whose main thrust was to make it easier to defederate. The hope, according to backers of the reforms, was that by introducing a large number of motions, at least some would get through. Instead the “reform package” was defeated omnibus.

While these issues may not have come up at the meeting this year, the main reason is that the majority of student unions, including the three university members from Quebec, who pushed for “reform,” and who wish to leave the organization, didn’t show up.

The reason? At least for the Concordia Student Union, it’s that they no longer see themselves as CFS members. Instead of waiting for the CFS national office to set referendum dates, a process that can take years, several student unions went ahead and held their own referendums, likely counting on the courts to be more receptive than CFS leadership. As well several unions that requested referendums were denied on the grounds that they owed the CFS significant amounts of money for unpaid membership fees, in one case over $1 million.

These unions aren’t the first to be in a situation where their membership has voted to leave the organization but the CFS has refused to recognize the vote. In 2008 students at Simon Fraser and Cape Breton University voted to leave the organization. Despite the fact that the CFS participated in the referendums, at least initially, the CFS chose not to recognize the results. Both unions are still listed as members on the CFS website.

Leaving the organization without its permission can be a long road. Acadia, one of several schools where students voted to leave the CFS in 1996, was still facing legal action 10 years later.

But there’s something more unsettling about the picture of unity that came out of this year’s meeting.

All of the candidates for the three at-large positions on the organization’s national executive (chair, deputy chair and treasurer) ran unopposed. A similar thing happened last year, with only one serious candidate running for each position, the other candidates being from student unions who backed the “reform package.”

That’s not a sign of democracy. I’m sure we can all think of many countries that hold elections where only one name appears on the ballot, would you call any of those nations democratic?

Rather, it’s a sign that decisions are being made in back rooms, not on the plenary floor.

I cannot think of any reason why, two years in a row, in any large organization – especially one whose voting membership is made up of student politicians – we would not see multiple serious candidates standing for the organization’s top positions. A unified organization with a healthy culture of democracy should see multiple candidates with similar vision but different experience and priorities standing for those positions.

But even if the CFS did have more candidates seeking election to its highest positions there are still issues with transparency. While this year saw the CFS allow two journalists into parts of the meeting, one English and one French, a step up from last year when only an English journalist was accredited, no media was allowed in to the candidates’ speeches. It is incomprehensible why an organization that claims to represent such a large number of students, and to do so in a democratic manner would bar journalists – especially student journalists – from campaign speeches by candidates for the organization’s top positions.

The policy of only allowing one or two reporters is also concerning. The majority of student newspapers in the country are members of the Canadian University Press and share content through the CUP Newswire, in exactly the same way as the content generated by the two individuals approved by CFS was shared. More student journalists, wherever they are from, would mean more stories for all CUP papers. The CFS’ media policy also cuts non-CUP papers out from their meetings entirely.

Moreover, CFS requires reporters to sign an incredibly restrictive agreement in order to get access. The majority of real debate takes place in closed sessions. By the time most motions reach the plenary, where reporters are allowed, they have essentially been decided.  They are also forbidden to conduct interviews with any delegates until after the meeting is over.

I have never heard of any organization in Canada forcing journalists to hogtie themselves like this to gain any level of access, let alone such meager access.

While I recognize that the CFS, like all organizations, does have a need to conduct some of its affairs behind closed doors, given that the delegates at these meetings supposedly represent students, don’t they owe those students at least some degree of accountability?

Last year, due to these extremely restrictive policies several student journalists, including myself, attended the meeting as student union delegates. When CFS executives found out about this they threatened to revoke the credentials of the one reporter they were planning to allow in unless these stories were not published on the CUP wire. During the course of that meeting, a McGill Daily reporter and I were informed that if we did not stop posting to Twitter from our newspaper’s accounts even the limited media access might be denied in the future.

So while the CFS’ new executives may have enjoyed “near unanimous” support at this meeting let’s not forget that the organization is facing student initiated legal actions across the country and their presence in Quebec has been effectively reduced to a single English-language CEGEP.


Where’s the opposition? It doesn’t exist…

  1. This just in: amateur Maclean’s journo dislikes CFS.

  2. glaring factual issue: the so-called reform package wasn’t rejected omnibus. Had it, I wouldn’t have sat in a committee room until 6:45 AM.

  3. Nora, the far, far majority of the “reform package” was defeated omnibus at the closing plenary. Yes, some motions were ruled out of order at opening plenary and two were heavily amended and passed. For all intents and purposes however the package was indeed defeated omnibus.

    Thanks for proving my point that the majority of substantive debate takes place in committees and not plenary though.

  4. Now there’s an understatement. Unfortunately, it’s hard to blame people for not openly criticising the CFS. Whenever anyone dares to question what the hell is going on, they immediately get labelled right-wing, conservative, trolls. I know this very well as I have been the target of many such ruthless labelling. Then again, I’d also be willing to bet that the lack of opposition is due to the fact that probably as much as 90% don’t even know that the CFS exists. Students’ money continues to be shamelessly thrown away by the CFS as it finds itself in many lengthy court battles because this so-called “democratic” organisation can’t accept it when students decide it’s time to leave. It disgusts me to see people attempt to defend the way the CFS operates. But then again, if you’re employed by it, I guess you’ve got no choice but to defend the organisation at all costs. Shame! One thing is certain: I will not be silenced and will continue to demand accountability and denounce the CFS irresponsible, arrogant (mis)management.

  5. Jacob, I’m just clarifying how you characterized the debate. “Instead the “reform package” was defeated omnibus.” is not factually correct and should be changed. You can’t claim that something happened ‘for all intents and purposes’ if it, in fact, did not happen.

    nearly, almost, just about, not quite etc. are all qualifiers that could have been used. Instead you made an absolute statement that is incorrect, and then defended it? Okay…

  6. Hello?!?! It is the UNiversity of Regina Students Union who filed the court injunction and it is because they don’t think First Nations University students members (who are full-fee-paying-members) DON’T have the right to vote in their referendum.

    So rather than having a meaningful conversation with its members (and reviewing the bylaws and partnership agreements) URSU is throwing this to the courts to decide who is a member in the URSU.
    Its ridiculous and in my opinion, a terrible plot to create legal precedent for the long term.

    FNUniv students should break away from URSU like they did in the 1990s when racism, classism and general skullduggery was also at the forefront of URSUs strategies.

    Thanks for dropping this on FNUniv students in the last days of the semester. Very little chance they can organize any resistance or rebuttal.

    Also, now that it is in the courts the FNUniv students will need legal council to guide them through any conversation about this matter … lawyer(s) they can NOT surely afford.

    What a low-blow to the membership of the URSU.

    URSU, you’ve really ostracized your members now. You really don’t care about students OR protecting the $$$/rights of your members. Get your act together.

  7. Please get your facts straight TT. FNUC are a part of CFS Local 90, completely separate from URSU’s Local 9. FNUC students pay their fees to Local 90, not Local 9. This means that FNUC students will remain a part of CFS no matter the result of the URSU referendum. Based on your logic, University of Saskatchewan students should also have been allowed to vote in the URSU referendum, even though it does not affect their own membership (or lack there of).

  8. Students pay into the CFS only to have it misused– spent on either divisive, radical campaigns that alienate and offend many students, or alternatively, on expensive, misguided campaigns that go nowhere (read: the drop fees campaign). The CFS is known for rigging elections, intimidating non-CFS contenders and generally subscribing to radical ideologies that do NOT reflect the majority of the students the purport to represent.

  9. Perhaps the most difficult part of all this is the initial stages. Starting any sort of battle with the CFS takes incredible amounts of time, energy and knowledge, and even if you win an election at a CFS affiliated university, there is no guarantee that it will change anything. Take a look at York in 2003, when progress not politics one an election there in a landslide, the outgoing board of directors refused to ratify the results! Further more, at the university I attend (University of Toronto), it was only 2 years ago that the CFS started running unopposed, and they still have something ridiculous like a 10 year victory rate.

  10. Joey,

    I appreciate your participation in this discussion, but take strong personal offense to your comments about me and my family. I understand you state that you did not attend to disrespect or offend anyone, but if that was truly the case I believe you would not have made such comments. Regardless, I do not believe that this is the type of forum to discuss personal matters, and would be happy to meet with you or discuss further on the telephone or email. Feel free to contact me by email at vpext@ursu.ca.

    Further to some of your other comments, you are correct in stating that FNUC students are full members of the University of Regina Students’ Union. The referendum at the UofR is a Local 9 referendum. First Nations University of Canada students do not pay CFS local 9 fees. Unlike the two other federated colleges at the University, FNUC fees are collected in a different manner. URSU collects only URSU fees (and then as you had stated remits some of those fees back the FNUC through PAC) and Women’s Centre and Intramural fees from FNUC students. And further only from FNUC students attending the Regina campus. URSU has invoices reflecting this which I would be happy to provide you.

    Finally, to state that my intentions in showing support for the First Nations University or the PSSSP was to segregate or cause these students to not be full UofR students I find extremely unreasonable and unfair. I personally believe strongly in both the FNUC and the PSSSP and have been an advocate for both during my time at the Students’ Union. Regardless of the result of the referendum, I will continue to do so because I believe both are an extremely important to Canada, Saskatchewan and Regina. If you would like more information about any initiatives I have been or am planning to take please feel free to contact me.

  11. Joey,

    If as you state “FNUniv students are U of R students and full members of URSU.” Then how do you explain the definitions of the CFS Bylaws (which by the way are, according to the agreement signed by the CFS and URSU, are the documents that this referendum is based on)which states:

    ” A local student association will be taken for all purposes of these By‑laws to mean an organisation of students which satisfies the following criteria:
    ‑ it is locally and democratically‑controlled;
    ‑ it is autonomous from other organizations;
    ‑ it represents students at only one post‑secondary institution”

    If First Nations University students are members of Local 9, as you claim, then Local 90 is not legitimate because it is not “autonomous from other organizations” further which post secondary institution do they represent? If First Nations University is just a part of the U of R then Local 90 represents students in two different parts of the U of R.

    Further, how do you explain that many members of the First Nations University students association, both past and present have spoken out against Local 90 members participating in a Local 9 referendum on continued membership?