If you can’t win, change the rules. That seems to be the strategy that at least one students’ union thinks Canada’s largest student lobby group should take.
The Carleton University Students’ Association has proposed a change to the Canadian Federations of Students’ bylaws that would make it more difficult for student unions to sever ties with the organization. Representatives from CFS members unions will vote on the change at their semi-annual general meeting next weekend.
The move comes in the wake of four membership referendums, in which students at Simon Fraser University, Cape Breton University and in graduate studies at the University of Victoria voted to leave the CFS. SFU students paid $400,000 in fees to the CFS in 2005. Students at Kwantlen University College voted to remain members in the CFS.
Currently, student unions that wish to leave the CFS must give the group six months notice before holding a student vote on the issue. There are usually weeks long, aggressive campaigns on either side leading up to the vote.
The proposed changes brought forward by the Carleton students would give the CFS national staff power to set the dates of the referendum. It also expands the responsibilities of the referendum oversight committee, which is a body comprised of two representatives from each the CFS and the students’ union. The changes also raise quorum from five per cent of the student body to 10 per cent.
J.J. McCullough, who was the 2008 chief electoral officer of the SFU referendum and student elections, says that the proposed changes are problematic. He points out that most student elections only attract around five per cent voter turnout. “I see this as an attempt to make the process of leaving more difficult,” he said.
He also argues that the power to set the dates of a referendum is best left with the students’ union. “The students’ union understands the needs of their own campus – when exams are, for instance – and knows when an appropriate time to schedule the referendum is,” he said.
Amanda Aziz, national chairperson of the CFS, said that she was unable to comment on proposed motions before they had been voted on by CFS membership. The Carleton University Students’ Association did not respond to requests for an interview.
McCullough was charged with the duty of overseeing the spring referendum by the Simon Fraser Students’ Society (SFSS) after the referendum oversight committee was unable to resolve a number of disputes, including the dates of the referendum and wording of the question. He said that the composition of the committee (two representatives from either side of the campaign) was the root of the problem. “The [committee] broke down,” he said. “The process is designed to fail, designed to be difficult for members to use.”
Although McCullough is critical of the proposed changes, he is adamant that he went into the referendum campaign without favouring either party and says that he has voiced strong criticism about the SFSS as well in the past.
SFU students voted 67 per cent in favour of withdrawing from the CFS. The SFSS has since filed a petition in court to have the referendum results recognized. The CFS is expected to oppose the petition, likely in part because of McCullough’s appointment as CRO.
Carleton’s proposed changes would also ban campaigning outside of the designated campaign period, which was an issue that came up during the Kwantlen University College referendum.
The CFS complained to the committee that the Kwantlen Students’ Association (KSA) began campaigning against the CFS months before the official campaign period, in part by publishing anti-CFS material in their newsletter. After the committee was unable to resolve the complaint and a number of other issues, the CFS went to the B.C. Supreme Court to obtain an injunction that would delay the referendum until the fall.
The judge – who delayed the vote until the beginning of April and appointed a chief electoral officer – ruled that campaigning was allowed outside of the campaign period. “There are people conducting campaigns fulltime in Quebec for certain outcomes. And then you have referendum campaigns where certain rules apply. I mean, Kwantlen is your Quebec isn’t it?” the judge asked the CFS, according to transcripts.
Derek Robertson, KSA executive of external affairs, explained his impression of the judge’s ruling. “It is a free country. We have freedom of speech. So we have the right to campaign outside of the campaign period.”