The Canadian Federation of Students has made it harder for member unions to leave. At the CFS annual general meeting from Nov. 25 to 28, representatives voted to double the number of signatures required to hold a defederation referendum, cap the number of referenda that can occur simultaneously, and increase the mandatory waiting period between successive referenda.
The CFS also rejected the majority of a reform package aimed to make the organization more transparent and accountable to its members.
The CFS is a national lobby group, made up of over 80 student unions and representing roughly 500,000 students, according to its website. Thirteen members have defederation campaigns underway.
Unable to go, unwilling to stay
The controversial Motion 6 passed last week, requiring future defederation campaigns to collect signatures from 20 per cent of the student body, up from 10 per cent.
It stipulates that only two unions can hold defederation referenda in any three-month period. If a defederation referendum does not succeed, universities will have to wait five years to hold another, and colleges will have to wait three years. The motion was raised by Carleton University’s Graduate Students’ Association. Defederation campaigners already complain of a too-small window for referenda: no vote can take place between April and Sept. 15 or between Dec. and Jan. 15, and at least two weeks of campaigning must precede voting.
The changes will go into effect when CFS’s national executive meets in early January, but will not affect petitions that have already been submitted, said CFS national treasurer Dave Molenhuis, the designated spokesperson for defederation matters. The meeting date has not been set.
In August, defederation petitions were circulated at 13 colleges and universities across Canada, including all four CFS member unions in Quebec. Eleven student unions have already formally submitted petitions to the CFS.
Molenhuis confirmed that 11 petitions were delivered but could not provide the names of student unions who submitted them. He said the petitions will be reviewed and verified by the national executive in early January.
“In some cases we need to review the authenticity of the petition,” he said. This process entails checking whether signatories are students of the school in question, whether they belong to the union, and whether there are duplicate signatures. CFS often works closely with school registrars to check student IDs when verifying petitions.
If the petitions are verified and passed by the national executive, the process for referenda outlined in CFS bylaws requires that the CFS and the student union each delegate two representatives to coordinate the logistics of defederation.
An agenda for the AGM, leaked prior to the meeting, lists all motions and the reasons behind them. Among the arguments for Motion 6 is that 10 per cent is too small a number and that 12,000 signatures (or 10 per cent from each of the federation’s smallest unions) could result in 10 referenda; that petitioning underway is “a coordinated plan to destabilize our Federation by a small group of individuals;” that it is “fundamentally anti-democratic” to hold multiple referenda in a small period of time because “the Federation and its members would have no reasonable opportunity to present a case for continued membership.”
Molenhuis said that multiple referenda would not provide any serious financial implications for the CFS. “Our budget reflects our current situation and there is allocation for that,” he said. Asked what the CFS expenditures on referenda would be—the unions are responsible for running referenda—Molenhuis said he would have to ask CFS national chairperson Katherine Giroux-Bougard.
For the most part, student union presidents whose campuses have defederation campaigns have not taken an official stance.
While Rick Telfer, president of Western’s Society of Graduate Students, said that the union has no position on the matter, he made disparaging remarks about defederation campaigners. Telfer was formerly general manager for the U of T Students’ Union.
“Those who are seeking to defederate here at Western are closely aligned with Conservative Party activists,” Telfer wrote in an email to The Varsity. “SOGS is a non-partisan organization and I expect that graduate students at Western will continue to support student unity, instead of an orchestrated and partisan attack on our Federation.”
Western petition organizer Dan Dechene said that his personal reason for dissenting arose from a lack of transparency and accountability to member organizations from CFS, and not due to party politics.
The 43 motions that make up the CFS reform package were put forward by the graduate student unions at McGill, Concordia, and the University of Calgary, as well as the University of Regina Students’ Union and the Alberta College of Art and Design Students’ Association. CFS-Quebec endorsed the package and helped draft the proposals after it was given a mandate to do so by members.
Proposed reforms included allowing individual students to opt out of paying CFS fees (Motion 74), disclosing executives’ salaries (Motion 48), allowing the media access to meetings and supporting their right to report without fear of legal reprisal (Motion 20), publishing a list of all legal action taken by CFS-Services (Motion 47), and launching a judicial board to study the implications of CFS legal action, which totaled $225,000 between 2006 and 2008 (Motion 62).
“About 90 per cent of the motions were shot down and none were accepted straight-out for what they were,” said Erik Chevrier, an exec on Concordia’s Graduate Students’ Association and a petition organizer. (Concordia submitted their petition on Nov. 6, with 711 valid signatures recognized by the dean of students.)
Chevrier said two amended motions were passed: to list boycotts online, and to record meetings. The latter was amended to include only the opening and closing plenary, where a designated minute-taker would type up minutes from recordings and make the minutes available to members.
Reform advocates say the proposals would make the CFS more transparent and accountable to members, and could resolve unions’ reasons for wanting to defederate. According to the McGill Daily, proposal authors charge the CFS of being ligitious, authoritarian, bureaucratic, and run by “out-of-touch ex-student politicos,” in the first page of the omnibus motion.
Opponents say the reforms are an attempt to undermine the organization. In a letter to CFS members, Giroux-Bougard called the package “a thinly veiled attempt, by a member, to undermine the progressive work that the Federation undertakes, through a campaign aimed at discrediting the elected national leadership, humiliating the unionized staff, and undermining the organisation and its work.”
For more coverage, see “A little bird told me,” also in this issue.