Student union politics, long marred by in-fighting and litigation, has faced few issues more contentious than decertification.
Members of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) began in earnest a campaign to decertify from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) this September, after submitting petitions to the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O) and CFS, requesting a referendum of the GSU’s general membership. After months of deliberation, the referendum is tentatively scheduled for later this month.
According to CFS bylaws, referendum petitions require an audit process in order to confirm signature validity and the GSU membership of signatories.
The CFS offered to internally verify student membership through a one-way searchable list. U of T’s administration rebuffed this suggestion, citing student privacy concerns stemming from their interpretation of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA). U of T then suggested that a third party auditor verify the list for the federation.
Finding an auditing firm that satisfied the GSU, U of T administration, and the CFS/CFS-O was challenging, according to GSU external commissioner Brad Evoy.
Following a four month back-and-forth, the parties selected Deloitte Canada, a firm that provides financial advisory services.
One referendum will decide the GSU’s membership in both the CFS-O and the CFS. While the results of the Deloitte audit are still pending, the CFS and CFS-O have scheduled preliminary dates and campaign periods for the referendum this March. Voting is scheduled to take place in the last week of March.
Evoy is confident that the Deloitte audit will confirm the petition’s validity and that the referendum will proceed unimpeded. Should the GSU vote to separate, Evoy believes the parting of ways “will be on amicable terms.”
However, a smooth exit is not always easy from the CFS. For example, the decertification initiative of Dawson College, a CEGEP in downtown Montreal, is currently stalled. The CFS has “refused” to set a date for their proposed referendum, according to Dawson Student Union (DSU) chairperson Sarah Drouin.
CFS internal coordinator Brent Farrington disagreed with this characterization. He claims the CFS is waiting on the DSU: “We are now in the process of petition verification and are waiting for Dawson to provide the exam period and holiday timetables necessary to set a referendum date.”
Reflecting on the challenges faced by the DSU, former GSU external commissioner Ashleigh Ingle is adamant that the will of students is being quashed.
“The CFS is beyond being disconnected from their members; they are afraid of them. It is my opinion that the CFS would hemorrhage members if they just allowed students to hold [decertification] votes,” she noted. “They make it as expensive, as irritating and as litigious as possible. Their hope is that, buttressed by our dues, they can make themselves a force … that students won’t be bothered to fight.”
Alastair Woods, CFS-O chairperson, believes that Ingle’s comments belie the reality of the situation.
“Just this week, students at Collège Boréal in Sudbury voted 98.75 per cent in favour of joining the CFS in a referendum that saw a 33 per cent voter turnout. Ingle is entitled to her opinion, but that opinion is not shared by students across the province who have worked together to achieve tangible victories such as changes to flat fees and tuition fee billing alongside stronger protections for unpaid interns and co-op students,” he said.
Other causes of stalled decertification attempts stem from legal action.
The Concordia Student Union (CSU), the Concordia Graduate Student’s Association (GSA), and the McGill Post-Graduate Student’s Society (PGSS) have been involved in lawsuits to decertify from as early as 2010.
For former GSA president Robert Sonin, the origins of the litigation are clear: “the CFS’s continued refusal to recognize the referendum results of its constituent members.”
“Following our 2010 referendum, the GSA membership voted 75 per cent in favour of leaving the CFS and, as a result, the GSA no longer regards itself as a member of the CFS. Despite this, the CFS has refused to acknowledge the  referendum and so the matter was taken to court.”
Farrington acknowledges that the GSA petition was verified by the CFS and that referendum dates were set, but contends that under the CFS bylaws, the GSA referendum could not be considered valid — as the Association failed to remit outstanding membership dues to the CFS in advance of the vote. Using this regulatory framework, the CFS claims the GSA referendum was inappropriately held and believes that their decertification is illegitimate.
The CSU organized a referendum similar to that held by the GSA. The results were, once again, both overwhelmingly in favour of decertification and ultimately rejected by the CFS.
The students’ unions and the CFS differ in their interpretations of both cases. On the one hand, the GSA and the CSU see themselves as no longer being CFS members and have accordingly stopped paying membership fees. The CFS, who sees the decertification results as illegitimate, still expects payment of membership fees and has thus countersued the two student unions for outstanding membership fees.
Ultimately, the two legal cases involving the GSA and the CSU were combined under the same legal counsel in January 2013.
The PGSS at McGill has faced similar legal proceedings with the CFS following an April 2010 referendum that saw 86 per cent of voters in favour of decertification. While the reasons for CFS refusal to accept decertification in this are different, litigation remains the ultimate result.
Not all CFS constituent unions are dissatisfied with the federation’s leadership.
Gayle McFadden is the vice president of campaigns and advocacy at the York Federation of Student (YFS).
“The YFS is a proud local of the Canadian Federation of Students. In fact, I ran and won the most recent YFS elections on a platform of working together with students across the province and across the country through the CFS” said McFadden.
Ryerson Student Union (RSU) director of communications and outreach Gilary Massa, similarly spoke positively of the federation.
“We believe that working together with students across the province and across the country through the CFS is important and necessary.”
She continued, “the RSU has not made any attempt to decertify from the Canadian Federation of Students. Nor do we have an interest in doing so. We are active members of the organization, and believe that students at Ryerson benefit greatly from our affiliation with the CFS.”
At least two student unions have successfully decertified from the CFS. The Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) settled out-of-court in December 2011. This settlement followed a three-year legal battle after which the SFSS paid an undisclosed settlement.
The University of Victoria Students Society (UVSS) decertified from the CFS subsequent to a successful referendum in 2011. The Canadian Federation of Students’ British Columbia Chapter (CFS-BC) did not recognize these results as constituting a decertification of the UVSS from CFS-BC, however.
In response, the UVSS scheduled a March 2012 referendum on decertification from the CFS-BC. The CFS-BC rescinded the UVSS’ membership before this referendum could proceed, citing outstanding membership fees of approximately $160,000.
As of press-time, none of these funds had been remitted to the CFS-BC. The UVSS denies that fees are outstanding. Reached by phone, the CFS-BC claimed that, from their perspective, the funds remain outstanding, though they are not in a position to say whether they will litigate in the future.