The story made headlines everywhere: it was Feb. 11, 2009, and Daniel Ferman was a member of Drop YFS, a group dedicated to overthrowing the York Federation of Students. Drop YFS was presenting a petition with 5,000 signatures—enough to stage a coup of sorts. They were protesting the student union’s support for a teachers’ strike, which would potentially leave students on the hook for missed class time. They were also against the union backing the Israeli Apartheid Week, which many pro-Israel students despised. As the press conference began, Ferman and his fellow Drop YFS members were faced with a crush of student union members who came in to denounce the petition rally. After a volley of shouting, the crowd moved to the Hillel student lounge where some of the Drop YFS members took refuge. “Students were barricaded in the lounge,” says Ferman, who was Hillel @ York’s president at the time and helped organize the Drop YFS effort. “It got very nasty. Police were called. There were racist slurs.”
Students like Ferman don’t think it’s the student government’s role to take sides on political issues. “I think students have every right to speak up when they feel student dollars are promoting hate and a toxic atmosphere on campus,” says Ferman. Since the 1980s, student unions have been growing in power. They take money from undergraduates every year, which is charged separate from but alongside tuition, and they’re supposed to work for students. Some of that cash funds services, such as health and dental coverage, and student athletics. But much of it goes to advocacy and clubs students may find offensive. “They’d taken very controversial stances on what to fund in pro-life versus pro-choice issues, on Tamil issues going on in Sri Lanka. On every worldwide issue, they’d taken a position,” Ferman says of the YFS, which operates with a $2-million budget. They rarely take the position he would take.
The Canadian Federation of Students—an umbrella organization for student unions—has been heavily criticized for rash advocacy using student funds. The national organization, with its provincial subsidiaries, lobbies on behalf of 600,000 student members across Canada. These “members,” who automatically gain that status if their student union is a member organization, each pay $4.01 per semester to the CFS. In 2010, that came to $3.7 million in membership fee revenue—money used to fund the not-for-profit’s advocacy work. Students also pay an average of $4 per semester to be members of their provincial CFS. That’s before student union fees, which average out at around $30 per student, depending on the school. CFS national chairperson David Molenhuis acknowledges that some of the national campaigns, such as its current effort to fight the Canadian Blood Services’ decision to ban gay men from donating blood, are hot issues—but he doesn’t think they’re controversial. “They attempt to address head-on issues that perhaps college and university administrators don’t feel comfortable addressing,” he says. Some students also feel uncomfortable with their fees going to such politically sensitive issues.
For example, last June, the CFS wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty joining the cry for a public inquiry into the “unprecedented curtailment of civil liberties” that took place at the G20. “The federation stands up for the rights of students to participate and to assemble publicly and to participate in demonstrations,” said the letter. “We defend the rights of students to mobilize in public, and the G20 is no exception.”
Some students at the University of Ottawa were upset to learn that not only does the CFS take a political stand on the G20, their own student union spent at least $1,000 to rent a coach bus to shuttle about 50 protesters to Toronto during the G20. Student Peter Flynn, who also heads up the University of Ottawa Campus Conservatives, blasted the expenditure as a “blatant misuse” of student fees. “I highly doubt that every single student who has to pay those fees would be happy to know their money was being spent to send a few individuals to protest for the weekend,” Flynn told the Ottawa Citizen.
York student Gregory Kay was also irked by his student union’s support for G20 protests. The YFS and the student union at the University of Toronto co-sponsored “Toronto vs. the G20: a teach-in.” Class included Black Bloc tactics, which ended up seeing storefronts and public property smashed during the summit in downtown Toronto. “That’s something most students don’t believe in at all,” says Kay, who is the business representative for the YFS board of directors. “Most students aren’t anti-capitalist. They’re not interested in civil disobedience.”
Of course, if students are unhappy with their student government, they aren’t doing much to change it. While voter turnout tends to be higher when contentious issues can be resolved with a ballot, the average voter turnout sits at between 25 and 30 per cent. Many students see student government as too divisive—or too inflexible—to even bother running. Ferman, for one, considered running for a seat on the executive in 2009, but couldn’t put his academic career on hold for a year as the bylaws dictate. He ran for—and won—a seat on the board of directors instead.
“It’s an interesting dichotomy—that the student president isn’t even a student,” he says. “There are lots of inherent problems with the organization, but the lack of flexibility is a major one.” In late August 2010, the university’s ombudsman released a report saying the student union’s electoral process needed a massive makeover, making recommendations Ferman believes might one day legitimize the organization. “Now the onus is on the student federation to take some of these recommendations to heart.”