The executive of Canada’s largest student organization, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), approved a motion to go before its membership this summer to expel 12 member unions from British Columbia that represent over 120,000 students.

The 12 member locals that may be expelled are BC student unions that are also members of the provincial arm of the organization, the BC Federation of Students (BCFS).

Coty Zachariah, Charlotte Kiddel, and Peyton Veitch, the Chairperson, Deputy Chairperson, and Treasurer of the federation, respectively, made the announcement in an email to member locals on April 17. They announced that the National Executive, including representatives from BC, had unanimously approved the motion on Friday, April 13. The motion will go before the federation’s membership at the June National General Meeting (NGM).

The CFS represents over 650,000 college, undergraduate, and graduate students from approximately 80 student unions across the country. Expelling the 12 BC student unions would significantly reduce the federation’s membership base and sources of funding. Juhi Sohani, National Communications Coordinator for the CFS, told The Varsity that BC fees make up approximately 10 per cent of the annual budget — about $400,000.

If the motion passes, the 12 student unions that are joint members of the CFS and BCFS will remain members of only the BCFS. There are only two BC student unions in the CFS that are not members of the BCFS — the Kwantlen Student Association and the College of the Rockies Students’ Union.

“Members both within and outside BC have asked us to find a solution to the entrenched conflict between both organizations. For months, members of the BCFS have openly expressed their desire to leave the national organization,” stated the email from Zachariah, Kiddel, and Veitch. “After months of careful consideration, we’ve found a motion to expel to be the most reasonable option available to us.”

The majority of student unions that are joint members of the CFS and BCFS have submitted petitions to the CFS to hold a referendum on membership in the organization. Member student unions are able to leave the CFS if the majority of votes in a referendum among students are for decertification. A 10 per cent quorum and use of paper ballots (as opposed to online voting) are among the requirements of decertification referenda.

The leaders at joint member unions are very clear that they are in favour of decertifying from the national federation. An expulsion would effectively cause decertification without requiring a referendum held by each student union that is a joint member.

Simka Marshall, the Chairperson of the BCFS, told The Varsity that the motion “is something BC students are cautiously optimistic about seeing.”

There is an ongoing conflict over the collection and remittance of membership fees that is an integral part of this issue. As of its most recent financial audit, August 31, 2017, the BCFS held $1,141,060 in fees owed to the CFS. The amount that the CFS owes the BCFS from fees is contested: while the CFS did not release the amount, Sohani said that “once the amounts owed to the BCFS are subtracted, the net amount owed to the CFS is approximately $1 million.” Michael Olson, Executive Officer of the BCFS, estimated that the CFS owes the organization somewhere between $700,000 and $800,000.

The fees being withheld from the CFS by the BCFS are the reason the national federation is blocking joint members from holding referenda on membership. “While we support students’ right to make democratic decisions on continued membership, to proceed with referenda for member locals without receiving national membership fees would be a violation of our own Bylaws,” the email from Zachariah, Kiddel, and Veitch states.

Pending the approval of the expulsion by the federation’s membership, Sohani said that “the National Executive is not, however, interested in pursuing the fees owed to the CFS by the BCFS, in the interest of moving forward and allowing both organizations to focus their efforts on student organizing.”

The conflict over membership fees

BC students that belong to one of the 12 unions that are members of both the national CFS and provincial BCFS pay fees to both organizations. They pay equal membership fees to both the CFS and BCFS. Of the national CFS fee, a component allocation of one sixth is remitted to the BCFS.

According to the BCFS, prior to 2009 that organization collected both the national and provincial fees from joint members, remitting the national fees to the CFS and subsequently receiving the component allocation. In 2009, the CFS began collecting both the national and provincial fees from joint members, remitting both the BCFS fee and component allocation to the BCFS. This was apparently done to streamline administrative processes in both organizations.

The relationship between the CFS and BCFS broke down in 2014.

According to the BCFS, starting in fall 2014 the CFS began withholding both the BCFS fee and component allocation. As a result, in 2014 some joint members began paying both the national and provincial fees to the BCFS, which withheld all of the national fees from the CFS upon request from those members. By 2018, the majority of joint members were paying both the national and provincial fees to the BCFS, which has not remitted those monies to the CFS and says it is holding them “in trust.”

Sohani did not directly contradict or offer an alternative timeline of the fee remittance relationship, but said that “from my understanding, the CFS was only withholding provincial allocation fees due to the national fees being withheld by the BCFS.” She clarified that “there may be some provincial fees sprinkled in on our end, and some services fees on their end, in terms of withheld fees.”

“Seeing as the majority of fees being withheld are national fees on their end, and provincial allocations on ours, the minutia of this is unclear.”

Sohani was clear that the CFS’ leadership has changed since the conflict in 2014, “and we are now in a place where this is the balance and we are making every effort to reconcile.”

Olson said that the issue of the CFS allegedly withholding fees in 2014 was the impetus for joint members wishing to have national fees held in trust by the BCFS, but that the situation has since evolved.

“As time went on, it became because of the other flagrant violations of bylaws, the other really big issues that were happening like electoral fraud, that member locals in BC were not interested in having their members pay an organization that was doing that until those issues were rectified and until there was acknowledgement,” Olson said.

In response to Olson’s statement, Sohani said that “3.5 years ago, the Federation underwent a change in leadership, seeing a fully transparent, accountable, less litigious, unionized and goal-focused team of students and staff.”

Olson said that the issue of membership fees will be crucial in the discussion of the possible expulsion in the lead up to the June NGM. “There is still an ongoing dispute between our organization, certain member locals, and the national organization. As we go through this process, that is something that will be negotiated.”

The email from Zachariah, Kiddel, and Veitch stated that they “are hopeful that, if passed, the separation will allow members of the CFS and the BCFS to better focus our efforts on student organizing, without the overhead of ongoing internal dispute. This measure is not intended to be punitive but rather to be mutually beneficial.”