The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) recently released a report on the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), where it accuses the CFS of partisanship, obstructing decertification, and interfering with the outcomes of meetings. 

The report was written by former Vice-President Public & University Affairs Tyler Riches and former Executive Assistant Research & Administration Joshua Bienstock, and was commissioned by the union’s committee on the CFS.

Though the report also acknowledges the federation’s accomplishments — such as its fossil-free fuel campaign, anti-racism workshops, and the Student Choice Initiative lawsuit — it also brings forward concerns about the sufficiency and feasibility of these efforts.

The report is part of the larger process of the UTSU leaving the CFS, which the union has been attempting to accomplish since 2017 without success. 

Decertification process

The decertification process of the UTSU leaving the CFS has proven difficult to navigate and the union has yet to succeed. The report chalked this failure up to the CFS’s partisanship and interference.

The decertification process consists of a referendum which would be voted on by the student body, and which must be initiated by a U of T student at large rather than the UTSU itself. The UTSU has proposed amendments to CFS policies to make the decertification process less burdensome, but these attempts have not been successful.

For instance, the UTSU proposed five motions last year — including the adoption of online voting for decertification — all of which were deemed non-emergency and tabled in the general meeting.

“To safely collect physical petition signatures in the pandemic circumstances of the past year would have been an impossible feat without the existence of online mechanisms,” wrote Catherine Lai, the UTSU’s newly appointed vice-president public & university affairs, in an email to The Varsity. In a previous interview with The Varsity, Lai expressed plans to continue the process of leaving the CFS. 

The report noted that other parts of the process also make it difficult to leave the CFS. These include the fact that, although pre-campaigning for decertification is not allowed before the process has begun, the CFS can still campaign on its own behalf any time as long as the referendum isn’t mentioned. 

Lai added that although the UTSU has had a stronger relationship with the CFS historically, their relationship is “beyond repair” at this point. She wrote that the UTSU would continue to explore possibilities for decertification from the CFS, including launching a new campaign to help students understand the UTSU-CFS relationship.

“Personally speaking, I would wholly support a decision to leave the Federation if our membership administered such an exit referendum,” wrote Lai. She also told The Varsity that for the time that the UTSU remains a CFS member local, it will work with other student unions directly instead of going through the federation if the latter cannot serve the campus’ needs.

Disagreements over membership and voting

The UTSU directly voiced disagreements with the CFS on multiple fronts, one of which was whether individual students hold membership in the federation. The CFS argues that individual students from member institutions — known as “member locals” — do hold membership. The CFS website claims that the federation represents “more than 500,000 members” across Canada. 

However, the UTSU explicitly rejected this statement in its report, writing that the claim is “not true” because individual students do not have voting rights according to the CFS bylaws. 

In an interview with The Varsity, Nicole Brayiannis, the CFS’s national deputy chairperson, insisted that “actual membership is with the individual students.” 

Brayiannis explained that the confusion surrounding membership is a result of the CFS interacting more directly with member locals during the decision-making process. 

“It’s just that, unfortunately, we can’t have 530,000 people within a room to conduct a meeting,” said Brayiannis, “but we’re more than happy to engage with individual students as well.”

Moreover, the issue of voting rights extends into one of disproportionate representation. Currently, the CFS allows each member local one vote regardless of the size or scope of the student population that they represent. 

The UTSU criticizes this policy in their report, writing that it gives more power to smaller locals that contribute less funding. As a larger local, the UTSU contributes a significant amount of funding to the CFS. Full-time undergraduate students pay a membership fee of $8.39 to the CFS each semester.

Brayiannis defended the policy on the basis of equity. She argued that this mechanism ensures students are able to participate in the decision-making process at the same level, no matter the size of the local they belong to.

Brayiannis explained, “It doesn’t matter how big your budgets are. It doesn’t matter how many students you have… At the end of the day, we’re all here, coming together.”

Dealing with dissent

The UTSU also accused the federation of mistreating member locals who frequently dissent at meetings. It reports that representatives from these locals are “looked down upon” and are seen as “detrimental” to the federation’s claim of leading the student movement.

“Dissent or constructive criticism is often met with allegations of conservatism or bad faith efforts to distract from the issues that it deems more important,” the report reads.

Moreover, the report alleges that the CFS uses procedural tactics to suppress dissent and interfere with meeting outcomes. It references the 2019 UTSU Semi-Annual General Meeting delegation’s findings that national executives made efforts to guide the outcome of committee meetings by actively opposing motions and discussions from UTSU members through suspicion and debate.

In response, Brayiannis noted that while the CFS is non-partisan and therefore open to constructive criticism, it’s important that the motions brought to the CFS fulfill the organization’s mandate of bringing equitable and accessible education to all, and that discussions that don’t meet this mandate might face issues.