The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) was formed in 1981 to pool the collective resources of students’ unions across Canada and provide a platform to “effectively influence the post-secondary policies of the provincial and federal governments.”

Currently, the CFS represents about 500,000 students from over 80 students’ unions. The CFS-Ontario sector represents over 300,000 students from 37 students’ unions, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), and the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS).

Meanwhile, the student-launched You Decide UofT is campaigning to spark a referendum on the UTSU’s membership within the CFS. Requiring signatures from 15 per cent of the UTSU’s members, this campaign provides a platform for students to evaluate if they want their students’ union to continue to be a part of the federation.

In order to take advantage of opportunities that influence its operations, it is essential for students to remain informed about the CFS’ current efforts, which is why The Varsity has compiled the following information to outline the stakes of the matter.

A significant amount of money pours into the CFS each year. For the 2016 fiscal year, the CFS-Ontario collected $1,565,809 in membership fees, with their total revenue amounting to $1,974,258.

With student members paying between $7.68 to $16.06 per year depending on their local, the UTSU, the SCSU, the UTGSU, and the APUS cumulatively contributed $598,678 in membership fees — roughly 38 per cent of the CFS-Ontario’s total budget. The UTSU collects membership fees for the UTSMU and remits the fees to the CFS.

Since their money directly funds the CFS, students should be able to hold the federation accountable, and with the rising costs of tuition and living expenses, many students are understandably reluctant to hand over more money — this was made evident from the UTSU’s and the ASSU’s failed fee increase referenda earlier this year.

Services provided by the CFS are intended “to offset the high cost of education,” yet its solutions do not always responsibly manage the students’ money. For example, the UTSU utilized the CFS’ recommended health and dental care insurer, Green Shield Canada, for six years until the end of the 2015–2016 school year — before discovering that the contract had resulted in a $1.6 million loss.

Throughout the year, the CFS-Ontario’s top two areas of expense were Campaigns & Government Relations and Membership Development. Campaigns & Government Relations included $221,432 spent on vague classifications, such as “Strategy” and “Fieldworking.” Membership Development included $127,459 towards the cost of accommodations, meeting rooms, travel, meals, materials, translation, speakers, and per diems incurred by the federation’s annual Skills Development Symposium. However, it is difficult to evaluate the direct benefits of this event on the overall success of the CFS.

A sum of $895,616 — approximately 45 per cent of the total revenue — went towards covering the CFS-Ontario’s employees’ wages, benefits, Employment Insurance, and Canadian Pension Plans.

The CFS also aims to represent students through campaigning, including tuition fees; equity for part-time, international, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ students; violence on campus; food security; and public transit. Past victories that the CFS credits itself with include the implementation of post-secondary discounted Toronto Transit Commission Metropasses, the creation of a $500 grant for part-time students, and the development of the Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer to oversee province-wide credit transfer.

Because the CFS is such a large organization that purports to speak for all the members under its bureaucratic wing — and because the issues it lobbies for are politically-charged — students must have a say in the causes that it fights for, and they must feel it properly represents their voice.

The CFS relies heavily on “pressure” to achieve its broad, overarching goals, such as “the progressive reduction and elimination of tuition fees for all.” Proclaiming that “no individual students’ union, no matter how big or active, has the resources or the political clout on their own,” the CFS strongly believes in the force of numbers.

The federation’s current campaign, Fight the Fees, exemplifies some of its go-to strategies: rallies, marches, and protests. The effectiveness of such methods continues to be up for debate, which is why other coalitions, such as the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, and ADVOCAN, have opted for a more direct approach to government lobbying and communication. This is not to say that the CFS’ tactics are not working, but that there are other ways to apply action and invoke change.

Historically, the CFS and the UTSU have had a complicated relationship, which has included mixed opinions from past UTSU executives on CFS membership. As of now, the current UTSU executive has not explicitly provided a stance on defederation, but it has repeatedly demonstrated the ways in which it does not approve of the CFS’ operations.

For example, UTSU was one of 10 signatories on an open letter criticizing the federation’s structure and calling for reform. Additionally, it submitted another letter criticizing the CFS’ National ‘Day’ of Action — part of the Fight the Fees campaign — and retaliated by prioritizing its own ‘Week’ of Action. The UTSU is also one of the seven participating unions in ADVOCAN.

The UTSU’s actions speak loudly, but it is purposely not overriding student discourse on the issue of defederation. According to UTSU President Jasmine Wong Denike, “The bylaws of the CFS state that any petition must be initiated by students, not by the students’ union.” Essentially, the primary contributors to defederation debates need to be students themselves.

With this in mind, the You Decide campaign provides students with the ideal opportunity to express their opinions on the possibility of a defederation referendum. Whether for or against leaving the CFS, it is imperative that students take advantage of the power of choice. Sign the petition, stay informed, and get ready to engage in the conversation.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that the UTMSU did not pay membership fees to the CFS last year. This article has been updated to clarify that, though the UTMSU does not pay fees directly to the CFS, the union does pay CFS membership fees via the UTSU.