A news release circulated late Tuesday night has ignited a confused and heated debate among followers of student politics nationwide. Petitions are being circulated by students in 15 Canadian Federation of Students’ (CFS) locals across the country to remove their unions from the federation, according to a news release. U of T’s Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) is one of the unions potentially facing a decertification vote if the campaign proves successful.
The CFS is a controversial umbrella organization that represents U of T undergraduates and graduates at the provincial and national levels. The presence of the CFS at U of T has been controversial for over a decade. Most recently, students from the Faculty of Engineering and Trinity College have cited the CFS as cause for concern in their attempts to sever financial ties from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU).
The GSU’s official stance on the petition, posted on its website echoes some of these concerns: “Given the issues the Union has had with the Federation over the last number of years, we understand the actions taken by some members and view their concerns as legitimate. However, the [GSU] has no formal position that would answer the question of whether or not the Union should remain as members of the Canadian Federation of Students, nationally or provincially.” Despite the lack of formal involvement, a number of former GSU executives led by 2012–2013 civics and environment commissioner Ashleigh Ingle have been distributing petitions across campus this week. The petition calls for a decertification referendum this year.
The release stated that “over 15 student associations are currently taking part” in decertification petitions, naming York, Ryerson, and U of T as large schools with CFS-certified unions that would see such efforts. The CFS has over 80 member unions across Canada, if all 15 schools were to leave, it would mark the largest mass exodus ever.
It remains unclear whether petitions are being circulated to decertify the UTSU and Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS), the two other major U of T-wide student unions. Under the CFS’s national bylaws, a petition to decertify a member union from the Federation requires the signatures of 20 per cent of that union’s membership.
“CFS petitions have to be run by what they refer to as ‘individual members,” Ingle said in an interview with The Varsity. According to both Ingle and representatives of the union, the GSU has played no part in the petition process to this point. Ingle confirmed that the GSU was not notified in advance of the petition campaign’s start.
“Reforms” failed at May general meeting
Ingle says the GSU petition is in part a result of the defeat of several GSU-sponsored motions at CFS general meetings last November and this May. At the November meeting she ran for CFS national chair unsuccessfully. Ingle contests that the November motions were quite “simple and straightforward,” and included posting minutes online, recording votes, and providing a more detailed budget that would include the salaries paid to CFS staff among other provisions. The GSU offered some similar motions at the May general meeting, including some specifically related to amending bylaws governing decertification.
Ingle cited what she described as the federation’s “top-down structure,” as a source of concern. Some of the proposed motions attempted to involve students on campus directly in the decision making process around which activist campaigns to support, and how to support them.
CFS-Ontario chairperson Alastair Woods emphasized that the CFS and CFS-O are democratic institutions, and that those who were dissatisfied with the federation’s policies had many opportunities to air their grievances and attempt to affect change through the groups’ regular procedures. He said he was shocked when he first learned about the mass move to leave.
Since the press release was issued an immediate and occasionally vicious online conflict has erupted on social media sites and the comment section of various news and blogging services. Students who claim to be involved on both sides have taken increasingly hostile stances, accusing each other of, among other things, not having the best interests of students in mind. Ingle alleges that the reception to the motions proposed by members of the GSU at the November general meeting was similarly aggressive and accusatory.
Brent Farrington, internal coordinator for the CFS, could not confirm whether such a reaction had indeed occurred at the November meeting. He did, however, stress that the CFS does not assume that motions or proposals come from “a place of ill-will.”
15 campaigns most ever attempted
Ingle suggests that labelling federation members who advocate for reform or decertification ‘right-wingers’ and questioning their personal motives, as has been done online and alleged to have taken place after the November and May general meetings, is a common tactic used to dismiss calls for reform. However she argues that the size of the current decertification movement — the largest ever if 15 campuses go ahead with the attempt — proves that grievances are structural not personal.
Representatives of the CFS disagreed that there had been conflict at general meetings. “Our general meetings are bringing a lot of people together to come to some consensus,” said Farrington. “And while there may be disagreements on what that means, I don’t think that you can say that it’s inherent that people are coming from a malicious point of view.” Woods echoed Farrington, describing the most recent Ontario general meeting as very productive and positive.
Kate Marocci, chair of CFS-British Columbia (CFS-BC), challenged Ingle’s claims about the importance of the size of this attempt, claiming that membership petitions and votes are not particularly unusual: “Over the last 30 years this has happened quite frequently and it’s not extraordinary.” Marocci further questioned the motives of those behind the movement: “The members listed on that news release have been in attendance to general meetings and had the ability to participate in the democratic process, and in fact ran for positions on the national executive, and lost. One is left to wonder if perhaps this is the motive behind it.”
Ingle explained that the decision to coordinate the organization of the petitions such that most were being run at the same time was partly out of the fear that the CFS would be able to successfully defeat any one attempt. “Generally the tactic is to send CFS staffers from across the country to your local, bombard people with their presence and shut down your campaign that way,” she said. “So certainly part of the reason is strategic.”
No official CFS position on petitions
Farrington said that the federation was not aware of the decertification petitions until the press release was issued, adding that the federation had received calls from member unions and associations seeking further information about the petitions, implying that those unions had not been notified of petition drives.
The CFS does not have an official response to the petitions, Farrington said, because “We’re not sure why they want to leave the organization.”
“They’ve issued some very broad statements, things like democracy and financial issues, disagreement with services,” he continued. “But those aren’t specifics, we haven’t heard the specifics, so it’s hard for us to formulate an official response.”
Marocci echoed Farrington, saying: “The news release doesn’t have a lot of information. It seems to me that it’s been created and circulated as a tactic to create a buzz, a discussion.”
Plans for the future
Alex McGowan — who is running a petition at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia — says decertification, if successful, will not necessarily mean the end of Kwantlen’s presence on a national advocacy level, and that a replacement organization could arise. “It would be a united organization of students that lobbies, comes up with policy, lobbies for lower tuition fees, that kind of thing,” he said. “Officially, on paper, the structure probably wouldn’t be that different [from the CFS]. It would be really the actions that speak.”
Ingle had a more concrete plan of action: “Any future organizing that we try to do, we would be trying to minimize the dependence on students’ money and maximize their ability to make decisions for themselves,” she says, suggesting that plans were in place to hold an organizing or founding conference for such an organization in 2014.
Farrington admits that the loss of member unions, if it were to occur, would diminish the CFS’s ability to advocate on a national level: “We’re a membership-based organization, so obviously the loss of members results in our message being not as strong as it was the day that we had more members.”
Following the bylaws
Both Ingle and McGowan are looking to surpass the 20 per cent threshold that would trigger a vote on decertification. “It is important to overshoot this number since the CFS can collect signatures on a “counter-petition” that will remove names from the original petition,” Ingle said in her initial email containing the press release.
McGowan says he is aiming for 5,000 signatures, in excess of a requirement of closer to 4,000. “In our experience the CFS has challenged petitions and written off a lot of names, so we just want to be safe and get a number that’s significantly higher than what we actually need,” he said.
The coordination between the various decertification efforts could, however, end up harming efforts to decertify. The CFS’s national bylaws governing decertification allow for no more than two decertification votes in any three month period, meaning that if multiple petitions were to be successful, the resultant votes could be delayed for some time.
Ingle hopes to have reached the threshold by September 13. “All that we can do right now is follow the CFS bylaws as strictly as possible, submit our petitions, and then we’ll do whatever we have to do to get a referendum vote, legitimately and legally after that point,” she said.