In 2017, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) released a statement that called the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) “beyond reform” and said the union would no longer support continuing their relationship. However, despite almost three years of attempting to leave the federation, the UTSU has not yet been able to do so.

UTSU executives have pointed to the complex decertification process and the lack of online voting as reasons the union has been unable to leave the CFS. Decertification requires a petition signed by 15 per cent of students, with strict guidelines. 

The Varsity broke down the UTSU’s recent efforts to leave the CFS. 

Why leave? 

The contentious history between the CFS and the UTSU goes back several years. In 2016, the UTSU sent an open letter, along with nine other member locals, to the CFS, criticizing its decertification process as “overly burdensome” and stating that it would seek reform. Furthermore, the CFS has been involved in several controversies — such as having a hidden bank account — that have contributed to its contentious relationship with some unions.

The UTSU has been attempting to amend CFS voting bylaws to make decertification easier as part of its effort but has yet to succeed. However, according to Tyler Riches, UTSU Vice-President Public & University Affairs, the UTSU’s efforts to make decertification easier, such as by implementing online voting, have since faced “procedural tactics to limit debate” and usually did not even reach the point to be defeated.

The UTSU contributes a significant amount to CFS’ overall revenue. The CFS made $3,087,921 in revenue in 2020. U of T students pay a mandatory fee to the CFS of $8.39 per student per semester. Last year, when students were able to opt out of certain fees due to the Student Choice Initiative, the CFS had a higher than average opt-out rate of 26.6 per cent, signalling that at least one-fourth of the UTSU’s membership did not want to pay fees to the CFS. 

Commenting on the future of the UTSU’s relationship with the CFS, Riches wrote that the UTSU has seen significant changes since 2016 and experienced significant changes in its relationship with the CFS. This past September, the UTSU’s Board of Directors struck an ad hoc committee to evaluate this relationship and publish a report on it by the conclusion of the board’s term. A 2016 report found the CFS to be outdated and “too large and bureaucratic” to be effective.

“Both in my own experience, and as many UTSU executives have found in the past few years, the CFS is not willing to make significant reforms to the way that member locals relate to it,” wrote Riches. “I’m not sure what the UTSU’s future with the CFS will look like… But if a vote were held today, I’d vote to leave in a heartbeat.”

When asked about the same topic, Communication Coordinator of the CFS Taylan McRae-Yu did not comment specifically regarding the CFS’ relationship with the UTSU, but insisted that individual students hold memberships with the CFS. “[The CFS is] inspired by the united efforts of our more than 530,000 students across the country,” McRae-Yu wrote in an email to The Varsity.

“[We] hope all of our 62 member locals will continue to fight in solidarity for the betterment of student health, wellbeing, and securing an accessible post-secondary education for all,” he continued.

The push to allow online voting 

Online voting has yet to be adopted, although member locals, including the UTSU, have called for it multiple times over the years. “Voting must be conducted by paper ballot and cannot be conducted in any other manner,” reads the CFS bylaw on voting. 

When asked why the CFS has not modified its decertification policy despite criticisms from members, McRae-Yu wrote that the bylaws can only be changed by members. “Members have the opportunity to submit and discuss motions at our National General Meetings, and full power for the direction of the organization remains with students.”

Yet, as a current member of the CFS, the UTSU has faced challenges in getting its motions passed. 

In the 2020 general meeting last summer, the UTSU submitted five motions to make the decertification process easier. The motions included allowing online voting and petitioning, decreasing the number of signatures required, seeking new pathways to start a petition, and amending requirements on names that appear as signatures. 

The online voting motion reasoned that, while voting by paper ballot is mandated in CFS bylaws, this might decrease accessibility for students who are commuters, exchange students, or who study online, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The motion asserted that online voting options would decrease costs and the environmental impact of voting procedures, and also increase accessibility and election security.

None of the motions got the chance to be debated since the meeting deemed these motions as not urgent and forwarded them to the Ontario Executive Committee (OEC). In the OEC discussion this past October, all these motions were either tabled or recommended for defeat. 

A complex decertification process

Riches suggested that, compared with joining the federation, the process to decertify is much more difficult. The former requires the union’s board of directors to pass a motion seeking membership. When accepted by the CFS, the motion would trigger a referendum vote similar to that of decertification to make the decision final.

Under the current CFS bylaws, decertifying from the federation would be a two-part process: the petition and the referendum. The petition part requires the signatures of 15 per cent of the union’s total membership and should be sent to CFS’ head office by mail. 

“If you can imagine, organizing such a massive petition drive at U of T is extremely difficult, especially for our members, who are enrolled in full-time studies (with some exceptions),” wrote Riches. The UTSU has never been able to submit a valid decertification petition.

The referendum process must be overseen by a CFS-appointed chief returning officer to set the referendum guidelines based on CFS bylaws. Guidelines include the number and location of polling stations, hours of voting, and approval of campaign materials. Personnel from the CFS and other member locals are also allowed to participate in the referendum.

“The balance of power in a referendum like this is clearly tipped in favour of the Federation; students face an impossible campaign on their own campus,” wrote Riches. However, there is precedent for student unions leaving the federation, as BC student unions did in 2018.