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.

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