Several motions to reform the Canadian Federation of Students’s (CFS) bylaws were voted down this week at the Federation’s annual general meeting in Gatineau, Quebec.
The proposed reforms included giving student unions control over voting to decertify from the CFS, requiring that CFS executives disclose their salaries publicly, and prohibiting non-student members of the CFS from voting on motions.
“The perceived top-down, undemocratic nature of CFS has been a long-standing concern of local executives and members for years, and have been raised at multiple AGMs. These conversations have historically been met with hostility, aggression, and ad-hominem attacks.”
Civics and Environment Commissioner
Graduate Students Union
All three motions were brought forward by the Dawson Student Union (DSU), representing students from Dawson College, a Montreal CEGEP. All three failed to pass.
“There’s a strong sense of tradition and a strong value held on past decisions,” Geoff Graham, director of communications and mobilization for the Dawson Students’ Union, said of the CFS’s disinclination for self-reform. “In terms of different policies, there’s a sense of respect for those decisions that have been made.”
Graham also suggested the CFS’ low turnover rate might be responsible for the organization’s unwillingness to modify existing policies and bylaws.
“A lot of the staff in the higher positions have been there for a while. If they were the ones making the decisions back then and they’re still here it seems they don’t want their decisions to be changed,” said Graham.
The motions put forward by the DSU were largely in response to recent criticism over the CFS’s policy on decertification and perceived opacity about the federation’s inner workings.
In 2011, the Concordia Student Union and the Post-Graduate Student Society of McGill both filed lawsuits against the CFS, asking the courts to order the CFS to recognize the results of student referendums voting against membership in the CFS.
In February of this year the Concordia Graduate Students Association, itself seeking to leave the CFS, announced it was being sued for fees going back twenty years, included fees payable to the CFS’s provincial Quebec office, which a Quebec court had previously ruled an independent entity.
Motion 28 on the CFS’s agenda this year would have heavily modified the current decertification procedure, which gives the CFS’s executive arm final say over the decertification process. If passed, the motion would have permitted member organizations to schedule decertification votes according to their local bylaws, rather than the CFS’s bylaws.
Toby Whitfield, Ontario representative for the CFS, says that the current decertification process is simply to ensure that all member organizations are treated equally.
“It’s a process that applies to all members of the federation,” Whitfield said in an interview with The Varsity. “We have diverse members from all across the country, and there’s the same process whether you live in British Columbia or Nova Scotia for becoming a member or for leaving the federation.”
Motion 29, also put forward by the DSU, would have forbidden members of the CFS’s national executive branch from receiving compensation from the CFS or its affiliates; the preamble to the motion notes the current phrasing of the relevant bylaw “creates reason to be suspicious of the amount of remuneration distributed by the federation in the last five years.”
Motion 29 would further require the national executives to disclose salaries received from organizations employed by the CFS. Both amendments were intended to shed more light on the inner workings of the federation.
Michael Olson, national treasurer of the CFS, responded by noting the National Executive’s salaries are made public in the CFS’s annual budget. While the budget is unavailable online, Olson said copies could be found in member organizations’ offices.
Criticism of the CFS also came from closer to home: Ashleigh Ingle, civics and environment commissioner for the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union, gave an impassioned speech on the future of the CFS.
“The perceived top-down, undemocratic nature of CFS has been a long-standing concern of local executives and members for years, and have been raised at multiple AGMs,” Ingle said. “These conversations have historically been met with hostility, aggression, and ad-hominem attacks.”
“Even in this AGM, myself and others who have put forward critiques of the status quo have been called right-wingers and have been accused of trying to break down the student movement.”
Ingle said the structure of the CFS has lead to its current problems, as power has been increasingly concentrated in long-term staff, whose experience with the federation and its laws trumps that of transient student leaders.
With nothing on this year’s agenda intended to alter the perceived “top-down” structure of the CFS, change and internal reform may be slow to come.
“The primary discussion was on the expansion of the ‘Education is a Right’ campaign, to develop a strategy leading up to the next federal election,” said Adam Awad, national chairperson of the CFS.
Awad emphasized that internal criticism of the sort the DSU brought forward was necessary to ensure the CFS remained accountable to its members.
“Part of the work we do involves being able to criticize our own work and identify areas for improvement,” Awad said.