The CFS is its own worst enemy

Which student organization hurts the Canadian Federation of Students* the most? The answer to the question is (drum roll) the Canadian Federation of Students.* Let me explain.

The CFS/CFS-S/CFS-NFLD/CFS-NS/CFS-NB/CFS-QC/CFS-ON/CFS-MB/CFS-SK/CFS-AB/CFS-BC* will consider reforms to their membership bylaws at their upcoming semi-annual national general meeting. I believe this is a direct response to the departure of three member unions from the CFS/CFS-S/CFS-BC/CFS-NS* this past school year.

Read the full news story “If you can’t win, change the rules”

The Simon Fraser Students’ Society, Cape Breton University Students’ Union and University of Victoria Graduate Students’ Society all voted resoundingly to leave the CFS* this spring. All three expressed concerns with the centralization of power and a lack of accountability within the Federation.

Students at Kwantlen University College (now Kwantlen Polytechnic University) voted to remain members of the CFS*.

The CFS* has responded to these results differently at each university. The CFS* said from the beginning that it will not recognize the vote at Cape Breton University because, according to them, proper notice was not served. It’s not entirely clear if they will accept the Simon Fraser vote and they’re expected to be in court over that soon. (The SFSS is presently petitioning the courts to force the CFS* to recognize the results of its vote.) The CFS* will accept the results from the University of Victoria.

Moving forward, what is the CFS* planning to do to prevent more unions from leaving its fold and potentially costing the CFS* hundreds of thousands of dollars a year?

They are:
A) implementing reforms to address the concerns about transparency
B) considering changing their bylaws to make it harder to students unions to leave the CFS*
C) None of the above
D) All of the above

If you chose A, I’m afraid you don’t know the Federation. The correct answer is B: if the proposed motion is adopted, it will be harder for student unions to leave.

Local 1 of the CFS*, the Carleton University Students’ Association, is moving a package of bylaw amendments to CFS* referendum rules which will make it more difficult for local unions to campaign to leave the CFS*. The changes are smart. And here’s why I think they are a direct response to the issues that arose in the four recent votes.

The four students unions’ coordinated their referendum times to split the resources of the CFS*. This splitting of resources made it more difficult for the CFS* to overwhelm local campaigners by flying in staff and executives from across Canada, primarily Ontario. Instead of, for example, 40 full-time CFS* campaigners at one school, they were split between two or three schools. The proposed changes would empower the CFS* to set the referendum dates. By setting the dates itself, the CFS* can make sure the date is such that they are able to fly out the maximum number of CFS* loyalists to drown out local dissenters.

The proposed Local 1 amendments also strengthen the mandate of the Referendum Oversight Committee. The committee is comprised of two representatives from each the students’ union and the CFS*. That means that any issue that the committee is split on becomes deadlocked, two votes against two.

The KSA cited problems with the structure of the committee in appointing an independent third-party to administer their referendum, a decision that later gained the stamp of approval of the Supreme Court of B.C. Clearly, Carleton’s amendment could prevent future incidents of independent oversight.

The Local 1 amendment will prevent local unions from distributing materials prior to a campaign. It also exempts general CFS* materials that promote their services and campaigns but are not specific to the referendum from being considered campaign materials and therefore factored into CFS* campaign expenses. This will give the CFS* a substantive advantage over dissenters.

The Local 1 amendment also doubles the quorum requirement to leave the CFS* from the current 5 per cent of student union membership to 10 per cent.

Here’s the hook. Although this amendment appears to make it less likely that students unions will be able to leave the CFS*, it will result in more students unions leaving.

Some CFS* loyalists have said to me that they believe there is some kind of conspiracy against them, that some groups actively organize to oppose them. I’ve never seen this organization, but I’ve always envisioned it being a ragtag bunch of idealists along the lines of the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars.

There is no mass conspiracy. The resistance to the CFS* is not organized beyond occasional conversations between a few pockets of students scattered across the country. There is no full-time, non-student staff. The resistance consists, for the most part, entirely of students.

Most dissenters I’ve met believe strongly in the need for a national student lobbying organization and the overwhelming majority of them can be classified as “left-wing” students. Their main concern with the Federation is its bureaucratic, top-down, corporate structure and bylaws. They are not “conservative anti-worker/anti-student elements”; they are regular students who believe in local autonomy. These dissenters agree with CFS* positions on most student issues.

The problem they have with the CFS* is not politics, rather structure. Moves like the Local 1 amendments do much more harm to the CFS*’ image and reputation than anything that political opponents of the CFS* say. The reality is that the CFS* is its own worse enemy.

One of the arguments for needing bylaws to prevent members leaving is that, if given the option to leave, students’ unions would constantly be leaving and this would destabilize the student movement.

Looking at two other national student organizations, one can see this is false. Both the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations and the Canadian University Press are experiencing strong growth. In the last two years, under the direction of former CUP presidents Erin Millar (full disclosure: Millar is now the editor of Maclean’s On Campus) and Amanda McCuaig, the Canadian University Press gained over 20 new member papers. With over 80 papers, CUP is bigger than ever. The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations has gained four new full members in the past two years and the University of Alberta Students Union has also recently voted to join.

Both of these organizations have an “easy in, easy out” membership policy. They often face the withdrawals of members, especially when members become concerned with the direction of their respective national offices. When members withdraw, these organizations are forced to take notice and implement reforms.

As Millar put it, all you have to do to get out of CUP is not pay your fees for a year or throw a temper tantrum. And you can’t say that CUP is destabilized by the constant ins and outs since it is the oldest student organization in North America at the ripe old age of 71, much older than the CFS*.

The McMaster Students’ Union will soon vote on whether to join CASA. I am neither in favour nor opposed to joining CASA. If CASA doesn’t work for the McMaster union, they can always leave. It is this open membership model that makes joining viable.

The CFS* membership has a choice next weekend. They can continue to chase dissenters and pursue tactics that aren’t working or they can consider how an open membership model can enable them to grow stronger.

  • CFS refers to both the national and provincial chapters of the organization and its service wing.