More than 50 people gathered in Gatineau, Que. at noon on Saturday to protest the Canadian Federation of Students, a group hundreds of thousands of university students automatically pay money to each year to lobby on their behalf. They’re most famous for opposing tuition fees.
The protesters sang, danced and chanted outside the hotel hosting CFS’s Annual General Meeting to draw attention to the fact that unsatisfied student unions find it difficult to exit the organization and stop sending money to Ottawa each year, a process known as “defederation.”
It’s a perennial issue. At this spring’s national meeting, Brad Evoy of the University of Toronto was defeated after he tried to reform the organization by bringing the number student signatures required on a petition to start defederation back down to 10 per cent of the student body. The threshold had been raised to 20 per cent in 2009.
Even when signatures are collected, it’s difficult to exit without a fight. Jonathan Mooney, McGill’s Post Graduate Students’ Society secretary-general, said that when students from PGSS recently mailed their petition in two envelopes (due to of its large size), CFS only retrieved it from the post office after a special letter was hand-delivered by bailiff asking that they pick up the petition before it would be returned to sender. Despite that, McGill received one of their two envelopes back.
A placard at the protest showed a photo of one of the petitions mailed to Ottawa and a note from Canada Post saying the parcel was not initially picked up from the post office. A photo of the package that was “returned to sender” circulated on Twitter last week.
— Gesa (@GesaMcGill) November 22, 2013
Melissa Kate Wheeler, president of the Concordia Student Union, which represents students at Montreal’s Concordia University, was at the protest. The CSU has tried to leave the CFS since 2009 but the CFS didn’t recognize their petition. In a 2010 referendum, 72 per cent of students who voted opted to defederate. The CFS later said that Concordia students owed them $1.8 million.
“We are very unsatisfied with the way that they operate,” she said. “We followed their own process to defederate and they don’t have a choice but to listen because we have a right to choose who to associate with.” She said their petition “was ignored and deemed to not comply with the bylaws.”
Other petitions, including one from the University of Guelph’s Central Student Association, was similarly dismissed. The CFS said it did not receive that petition and that it may have been discarded by janitors. The CFS continued to insist that Guelph students were members despite a referendum where 73.51 per cent voted to exit. The CFS questioned the quality of the vote.
Saturday’s protest came after students on at least 15 campuses said they planned to try to leave.
Evoy and some other delegates left the hotel on Saturday to join the protest. He said the doors were locked behind them to ensure no one could come in or out during the demonstration.
A common complaint from students is that the CFS collects millions of dollars and doesn’t show in detail how it’s spent. Michael Krause, a student from McGill, made that point at the protest.
“We don’t want to be part of a federation where we don’t have access to the budget, where we are not really welcome at the moment and where they are locking their own students inside the hotel because they don’t want them to join a student protest,” he said. “We feel we’re already out.”
Not everyone was in agreement with the protesters. Yasmeen Enadi, from University of Toronto Students’ Union, said she was in a seminar on challenging rape culture when the demonstration began. She said she found the timing of the protest disrespectful and added the CFS is a democratic organization and protesters should have voiced their concerns through other channels.
Sinka Marshall, a delegate from Camosun College Student Society in Victoria, B.C. and a member of the CFS Aboriginal Caucus, said she wasn’t sure why the protesters were outside but thought the protest undermined the good work the CFS does and misrepresented the organization.
The Canadian Federation of Students did not reply to multiple requests for an interview. Last year, in an interview with Maclean’s On Campus, then National Chairperson Adam Award addressed concerns about lawsuits and explained why they don’t put financial details online.
Brendan Lehman of Laurentian University Graduate Students’ Association, which had its defederation petition served to this year’s National Chairperson Jessica McCormick during the AGM, said he was happy with the protest but unsure the organization would “get the message.”
Lytvynenko is a University of Ottawa student and Ottawa bureau chief of Canadian University Press.