More than 70 per cent of University of Guelph undergraduates who responded to an unusual survey last week from their administration said they were opposed to paying student fees to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). That’s not surprising considering 73 per cent of voters were opposed when asked in a 2010 referendum.
Still, don’t expect the CFS, a student lobbying organization, to accept either poll anytime soon. Despite what appeared to be a strong mandate to stop funding the CFS in the 2010 referendum, the group has never accepted the result, arguing that there was something fishy about the vote.
And the CFS has support. Guelph’s Central Student Association (CSA)—the very student union that ran the referendum and vigorously defended it to the tune of $407,000 in legal bills as of August 2012—has switched sides and says it would rather stick with the CFS than fight on. That could mean paying roughly $250,000 per year retroactively plus $250,000 annually going forward.
That’s a lot for the CSA to find considering it relies mostly on an annual student fee of $31 and was rebuffed in March when 55 per cent of students voted against increasing that fee to $36.
It’s the university administration that actually bills students, so collecting CFS fees once again can’t happen without them. After the CSA decided at a closed meeting on March 27th that it would try to legally compel collection of fees, the university stepped in and took that unusual poll.
That online vote last week, a “canvas” as the university calls it, wasn’t close. Students were asked “are you in favour of the University resuming the collection of CFS membership fees commencing fall of 2013?” Just 29 per cent said “yes,” while 71 per cent said “no.” Turnout was 20 per cent.
For many undergraduates, the debate over whether they should remain members of the CFS first surfaced when they got that email last Friday from their administration. Many students likely didn’t even know what the CFS does. In case you don’t, CFS and CFS-Ontario facilitate government lobbying for student unions. In the past, they’ve fought against rising tuition and student debt.
Recent attempts to leave the CFS aren’t limited to Guelph, and Guelph isn’t the only campus to end up in court. So too have student unions from Simon Fraser University to McGill University.
At Guelph, the 2010 referendum almost didn’t happen. The CSA didn’t follow all of the corporation’s bylaws. They had enough signatures: 10 per cent of students (it’s 20 per cent now), but their petition was delivered through a process server (an agent of the court who physically delivers it) instead of registered mail. The CFS claimed to have not received the petition and said it may have been discarded by janitors. There were also issues verifying student signatures, said the CFS.
CFS refused to hold the referendum, but the CSA sought—and won—a court order. The vote went ahead online in April 2010. After vigorous campaigning, 73.51 per cent voted to ditch the CFS.
The CFS didn’t accept that result, for reasons Adam Awad, current CFS National Chairperson, outlined in an interview. “In this particular case there were some questionable things happening with the vote itself,” he said. “It was a vote online and when we looked at the actual voting information there were very interesting spikes in when people were voting, like overnight,” he adds. Awad says he has a duty to make sure the corporation’s democratically determined bylaws are followed.
The dispute dragged on. At the request of the CFS, the referendum order was set aside by a Court of Appeals judge in 2011, sending it back to the lower court to consider.
But the court didn’t get a chance to consider the case. Last fall, the newly-elected CSA board started talking about a settlement. Brenda Whiteside, Guelph’s Associate Vice-President of Student Affairs, says that the administration then made a suggestion. “We think you should be canvassing the student opinion to see if that’s where the students want you to go,” she says she told the CSA.
In winter it became clear that they were planning to settle, says Whiteside. “For us to resume collecting,” she reiterated, “we’d like to get a sense that you consulted with the students.”
Whiteside says she stressed that the administration would remain neutral in the debate and cover the cost of surveying students. “It didn’t even have to be a survey,” she says, “It could have been discussed at the annual general meeting,” she adds, “but that didn’t happen.”
The bottom line for the administration was consultation. In their view, consultation did not occur.
Instead, at that March 27th in camera meeting, the CSA Board opted to join the CFS and seek court orders for the university to “remit the CFS membership fees collected in trust to the CSA, resume the collection of CFS membership fees immediately, and remit the equivalent of any uncollected CFS membership fees to the CSA.” They resolved to share that information within a week.
But the information was leaked. Matthew Rae, a fourth-year student and former president of the Guelph Campus Conservatives, was outraged. He started the Facebook event “CSA: Don’t Sue Us!” on April 1st, imploring students to, “tell the CSA, enough is enough,” and “that it has a duty to uphold the democratic mandate provided to them by students.” More than 100 people joined.
The CSA released a statement. “The Board of Directors is confident that its decision to pursue a settlement out of court with the CFS is the best way to reach a resolution to this 3 year-old issue without incurring further significant expenses or liabilities for the CSA and its members,” it read.
That’s when the university decided that, since the CSA had moved ahead without consultation, they would consult. They released a Statement of Facts that read, in part, “without any perceived movement on this matter, [the university] could not continue to collect a membership fee that students had by way of a referendum overwhelmingly rejected.” On April 5th they sent the survey.
Rae was pleased. When he started the Facebook group, he says he did so because he believed “the general population wouldn’t agree with what the CFS and CSA were doing together.”
Awad, the CFS Chairperson, wasn’t pleased. He says the university was paternalistic. “As a fundamental principle we believe in the autonomy of student unions,” he says. “If students at a particular school have an issue with what their student union is doing, it’s their responsibility to take it up with [their student union].” He says the university definitely overstepped their bounds.
The CSA also says the survey wasn’t helpful, outlining a number problems with the poll. Drew Garvie, the CSA’s Communications Commissioner and a former candidate for the Communist Party of Canada (Ontario), explained the board’s current position in a written statement to Maclean’s.
Yes, there would be more legal bills to sue the university and force them to collect fees, but those would be “minimal” compared to the costs of defending the referendum through a court trial, reads the statement. It also details what the CSA sees as multiple problems with the survey. “There was no information provided that explains what the CFS is or does. Recently, there has been no opportunity for the CFS to interact with members at the University of Guelph,” it reads. It goes on to say that the poll was taken on the weekend before exams when, “studying is a priority instead of researching a complex legal matter.” The statement also says that the survey presented a false dichotomy. “Students were forced to say yes or no when they may not have felt that they did not have enough information on the situation and would have preferred to refuse both options.”
And so the CSA maintains that rejoining the CFS is in students best interests: “The CSA recognizes the need to work with students across the province and country in order to advocate for student interests. Lengthy legal battles within or between student organizations do not solve bigger problems facing students or our membership, which require the collective action of students.”
A statement like that suggests a dispute that’s far from over.