On June 3, The Varsity published my article that summarized the major achievements and failings of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) during the 2015–2016 school year. In my examination of the union’s accountability, I wrote of their relationship to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), and how it has been frustrating to see a lack of commitment to secession from the Federation.
Since then, I’ve realized that it was unfair of me to place blame for this on the UTSU. The recent report released by the union’s ad-hoc CFS committee makes this clear, and it was negligent on my part to not examine why there has been an absence of explicit endorsement of defederation.
The committee’s draft report is about 10 pages long. It provides background information on what the CFS does — or perhaps more accurately, what it does not do — including its provisions of services, and lobbying and activist efforts.
It also summarizes the relationship between the UTSU and CFS. The authors go out of their way to state, “[this report] is specifically not intended to take a position on whether the UTSU should leave the CFS because the CFS by-laws require that any attempt to leave be initiated by UTSU members and not by the UTSU itself.”
The report shows the complexity of the relationship between the CFS and its member locals. For one thing, in order to join the federation, a union must gather the signatures of 10 per cent of its membership for a petition. Following this, a referendum is held.
With respect to the procedure for secession, the number of signatures needed for a petition inexplicably doubles to 20 per cent of the membership. At a school like the University of Toronto — with extremely high enrolment but low political participation — the prospect of gathering thousands of signatures for a petition is rightfully daunting.
[pullquote-features]Any efforts to secede from the federation are grassroots, while the CFS continues to prevent anyone from leaving.[/pullquote-features]
If that wasn’t enough, CFS by-laws prohibit the use of online voting in a referendum. As a point of reference, voter turnout in the UTSU elections this March was only 9.7 per cent including online voting.
This arduous process is compounded by the fact that union executives are simply not allowed to endorse any anti-CFS campaigns. By necessity, any efforts to secede from the federation are grassroots, while the CFS continues to prevent anyone from leaving.
If a union ever reaches the point of referendum, they incur the full wrath of the federation. The report names over 10 member locals that have been sued by the CFS in their attempts to secede, in the last decade alone. Unions such as the Cape Breton Students’ Union have contemplated bankruptcy after having their resources exhausted by year-long legal battles.
[pullquote-features]If students at the University of Toronto continue to pay the CFS nearly one million dollars in fees each year, we are complicit in their behaviour.[/pullquote-features]
The CFS makes a big to-do out of its lobbying efforts; its goal is the complete abolition of student fees. Aside from this being a political non-starter, presumably the goal of these lobbying efforts is to benefit students. If this is the case, how can the CFS justify suing its member locals to the point of bankruptcy? Further, if students at the University of Toronto continue to pay the CFS nearly one million dollars in fees each year, we are complicit in their behaviour.
Here is my personal favourite part of the report: when the UTSU moved that the number of signatures required for joining and leaving the CFS be changed to 15 per cent, it was argued by supporters of the CFS that this would be “oppressive.” This is because lowering the number of signatures needed to leave the federation would mean that less support from marginalized students would be required. The motion failed.
Almost as questionable, when a different union put forward a motion that would make documents electronically available at meetings, the CFS responded by saying that “digital delivery would be wrong, because the CFS has a responsibility to support printers’ unions.”
Does anyone at the Canadian Federation of Students believe a word of what they’re saying? This absurd reasoning should be offensive to anyone actually working to counter oppression. Personally, I think that an organization that serves as an opportunity to siphon money from hard-working students is all the more oppressive.
So, what is to be done? Here’s the first step: get informed and read the report in full. Understand that, in the case of the CFS, we’re dealing with an organization that claims to care about us, but isn’t interested in anything beyond taking our money and keeping it.
Reut Cohen is a second-year student at Trinity College studying International Relations.