The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and its plethora of subsidiaries and components serve as common subjects in papers like this one and in the wider national press. Oftentimes, mentions of the organization are accompanied by a message of sorts from the disaffiliation movement of the time — there being countless waves of disaffiliation from the Federation since 1995 and even before.
This is not such a message, but rather, I hope it can be more than that. It is my belief and clear opinion that student organizations should leave the Federation, but “defederation”— as it is still called by some — is not enough.
Most recently, at the last Annual General Meeting of the Federation, other members took issue with the Federation’s budget — lines devoted to legal expenses and other costs remained undisclosed to member locals, an issue from the previous meeting that remains unaddressed.
This instance would be concerning on its own, but it is part of a wider pattern — in my view — of dodging curious members and deflecting due diligence from member organizations. Budgets of the Federation have come under attack for well over a decade for financial issues. Concerns voiced about the amount of legal expenses coming out of actions against student unions are often raised. Claims made around mountains of spottily accounted-for debts to the Federation by some of the larger student organizations? Noted in past issues of this very paper, in fact.
Moreover, from Joey Hanson to Haanim Nur, the Federation has found itself embedded in alleged scandals ranging from questionable loans to old-fashioned theft — scandals that include the lawsuits and millions of dollars spent on the former Federation subsidiary Travel CUTS, now operated for-profit by Merit Travel.
This narrative leaves aside matters both in Québec and the CFS’ international affiliates altogether, in spite of the various controversies found in such areas — one could write a whole other set of articles on these.
From what I have witnessed over seven years, these issues are compounded by a secretive culture that rejects change and a drive towards service-provision.
Altogether, though, all these matters point to the Federation’s largest failing: it isn’t what it claims to be. The CFS, in all its forms, is a corporate service-provider, not a student-led engine of action. The CFS and its stepchild, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, replicate the aforementioned culture and infuse weak-lobbying efforts to meet their broader educational goals.
Free education, then, can be a supposed goal of the CFS — but is it truly ever considered as the ends to be met? I would say that such claims from the Federation are lip service, a remnant of earlier days.
The first step, then, must be more than disaffiliation. We must create a new organization that explicitly rejects replicating the service-driven culture of the CFS and its lobbyist offspring.
We cannot simply retake the current ships in play; they are corrupted and driven to certain means at their core. In March, organizations like Students United to Resist the Federation and others across the province are aiming to host a conference of central, faculty, and departmental student organizations to build this manner of anti-capitalist, provincial student organization.
We will put our words to action — directly democratic, anti-capitalist action driven to free education. Unlike the complacency of current organizations, we desire a student movement that dares to struggle.
The CFS, however, will attack this organization as ‘ultra-left’ or ‘too radical’. It will claim we are a front for right-wing conquest and that we cannot be trusted. The Federation, simply put, will take up all of the political oxygen if one allows it to.
This leads to another reason why defederation is not enough. A weaker, more disparate CFS will still attempt to take up space with its muddled reformism, so long as it draws breath through funds from students like you, anywhere. Defederation is not enough, then, because it is granular and focuses on a particular campus. Instead, we must think bigger.
To paraphrase Cato of old, I say that the CFS must be destroyed and its foundations covered with salt. From root to stem to leaf, the vicious yet useless Federation has to be isolated on a macro-level and a campaign must be enacted to drive them not just from campuses, but also from the Left.
No longer can politically-minded students be lax while the CFS sleeps like an old bear in hibernation. It has grown indulgent and tired, while students suffer in an ongoing winter of political disaster and ever-rising tuition fees. With a yawn, the CFS moves to cool dissent while putting up token resistance to the state’s laxity on issues of higher education. If we are serious, then, in growing a truly effective student movement, we have to clear the field for a new movement to grow like a garden.
Defederation is not enough by itself — instead we must have a revolution within the student movement and a fundamental change in what we, as students, deem acceptable from our organizations. This task will take time, brutal honesty, and a commitment to student power, but defederation can be a start.
Brad Evoy is a Masters student in the History of Education (Social Justice Education) at OISE/UT. He is also a former member of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union’s Executive and Litigation Committees, as well as the former Students with Disabilities Constituency Commissioner for CFS-Ontario in 2012–2013. Currently, Brad is a member of Students United to Resist the Federation.