CUP Story on USSU Situation

I got this story from the CUP wire about 10 days ago.  I have not seen it online in any papers yet.  (The Sheaf seems to be ignoring what is happening right on their campus for some reason).  I am posting it in its entirety:

Lawsuit against students’ union sets precedent for CFS dealings: blogger (CUP, Nov. 1)

Decision sheds light on problems with referendum policies, student says

By Jeanette Stewart

Those following the case have hailed the success of a recent lawsuit against the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union and the Canadian Federation of Students as a precedent-setting decision.

The lawsuit has shed light on the conflict between the Canadian Federation of Students’ (CFS) referendum policies and those of the Student Unions they represent, says Joey Coleman, a blogger and student politics devotee at McMaster University who has been following the case from the start.

The case centred on the validity of a referendum held by the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union on joining the CFS.

In his Oct. 13 judgment, Judge R.S. Smith found “the referendum held by the USSU on the issue of whether it should join the CFS is of absolutely no force or effect.” No damages or costs were awarded.

Coleman believes the case highlights a problem with CFS policies, which require students’ union holding a referendum on CFS membership to follow CFS rules. For students’ unions with their own policy — such as the USSU — this can create a conflict.

However, Alice Collins, a vice-president of the USSU and CFS Saskatchewan representative, says the issue lies more with the USSU than the CFS.

“I think a lot of the reason why people were opposed to the CFS afterwards is because they complained about the process of the referendum,” she said.

In an attempt to meld the USSU and CFS policies, the USSU created an independent elections board to oversee the referendum.

After the vote, the elections board declared the referendum invalid, but the USSU decided to overlook this decision and ratify the results, declaring the USSU full CFS members.

“When faced with a result which was not consistent with its wishes, the University Students’ Council simply ignored its own rules and imposed its own preordained outcome,” wrote Smith in his ruling.

Smith also found the fact that the referendum question made no mention of the $9-per-student annual fee associated with membership in the CFS “anomalous” given that USSU policy requires a referendum to establish new fees.

CFS policy reads: “Unless mutually agreed otherwise by the prospective member association and the Federation, the referendum question shall be: ‘Are you in favour of membership in the Canadian Federation of Students?’”

The lack of mention about the fee, Coleman says, violates USSU policy and highlights the conflict between student union and CFS rules.

“As such, the CFS rules are brought into question as to why they fail to comply with USSU rules,” Coleman wrote in an e-mail.

Although the USSU is planning to appeal the decision should the CFS decide to do so, Coleman says it still sends a clear message about the way CFS runs its referendums.

“I believe it’s very much a landmark,” he said of the case. “This has put the CFS on notice that they can’t just overrule and override to have their way.”

It is indicated in the March 30, 2006, board meeting minutes that the USSU felt legal pressure from the CFS to override the independent election board’s rejection of the referendum.

Amanda Aziz, CFS national chairperson, says the CFS is “not in the practice” of suing students’ unions.

But Gavin Gardiner, the CFS Saskatchewan representative at the time, clearly asked the council to consider how a lawsuit from the CFS would impact the USSU.

He asked if it was better to challenge the CFS, who had a “financial stake” in the referendum, or to challenge the no side.

The elections board had received a letter from CFS solicitors stating that the CFS bylaws are “binding upon its prospective members,” and that “failure to adhere to those bylaws constitutes a breach of contract and may result in the initiation of legal action.”

These bylaws include the CFS’s referendum rules.

Mowat, a former U of S student and USSU president, says he brought the suit against the students’ union because as a member of the union, he felt that the rules that were in place to “protect and empower” the members were breached at this time.

“At certain times . . . they will be inconvenient. That doesn’t mean you can just ignore them because they are inconvenient,” said Mowat.

Students at the U of S aren’t alone in taking issue with this policy, but Mowat is one of the first students to take his protests to the courts.

The University of Manitoba students’ union also held a referendum to join the CFS in November 2005, and it passed without much question by students.

An editorial appeared in the Manitoban newspaper questioning the policies, and an article ran after the vote in which a student questioned the referendum and the ability of the four members of the oversight committee to count 30,000 ballots in a single night.

Little came of the criticisms.

At the University of Toronto, a referendum was held in 2003 to determine whether the Students’ Administrative Council would join the CFS.

There a referendum took place according to CFS rules, and a majority vote was attained.

U of T administration later took issue with the vote, stating that a “significant number of violations of bylaw requirements” led to an inability to verify the referendum.

Students at the U of T had concerns, and wrote several letters to campus paper the Varsity.

While students may question the policies for a short time after a referendum, it’s often difficult to have enough time and resources to take on their own students’ union, let alone the CFS, says Coleman.

“To oppose the CFS at that level is difficult,” said Coleman.

Usually those students who are in a position to do so are near graduation and it really isn’t worth it for them.

“You really have to weigh the personal sacrifice,” he said.

Kathleen Wilson, a vice-president with the University of Regina students’ union and a CFS provincial representative, says nothing like this has ever happened before.

If the USSU does not become members, the CFS stands to lose approximately $160,000 in membership fees annually, approximately 19,500 students, and the support of the largest university in Saskatchewan.

“It’s definitely a setback,” said Wilson. “It’s really beneficial, especially for students at U of R, to have U of S at the table too. United under CFS the last few years they’ve accomplished a lot and we really want to see that go forward.”