“Shameful,” “posturing,” and “trying to find unity” — attendees of the Canadian Federation of Students’ (CFS) 2023 National General Meeting (NGM) used many phrases to describe the federation’s current and future course. The meeting, which included representatives from more than 30 student unions across the country, saw heated debates over the federation’s claims to represent the more than 530,000 postsecondary students numbered among its membership.
Over six days in 2023 and 2024, student union representatives — including representatives from U of T’s three campuses — tasked the federation with undertaking a decolonization audit, creating a strategic plan, and electing new national executives. The federation also committed to new advocacy priorities relevant to U of T students, including opposing deferred exam fees, supporting a ceasefire in Gaza, and criticizing the Blue-Ribbon Panel’s report — which called for increasing domestic tuition rates in Ontario.
What is the CFS?
The Canadian Federation of Students was formed in 1981 with the aim of uniting students across Canada. Its initial goals included advocating against funding cuts and organizing for government funding for “free and accessible post-secondary education.”
Today, the CFS includes 63 student unions, or ‘locals,’ across nine provinces. The CFS advertises that these unions collectively represent more than 530,000 students — including almost every student at U of T.
All five of U of T’s major student unions — the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), and the Association of Part-time University Students (APUS) — belong to the CFS. If you look at your invoice, you likely can find a budget line corresponding to your CFS fee: full-time graduate students pay the most this academic year, at $19.33, and APUS members pay the least, at $9.40.
The CFS lobbies the provincial and federal governments and offers services such as the International Student Identity Card — which full-time students belonging to CFS locals can receive for free, and which qualifies students for discounts — and the Ethical Purchasing Network, through which students unions can order sustainably-sourced supplies.
In a statement to The Varsity, SCSU Vice-President (VP) Khadidja Roble noted that she sees value in the CFS uniting students. APUS President Jaime Kearns wrote to The Varsity that the association does try to involve students in CFS campaigns, noting the many CFS services that benefit part-time students at U of T.
On the other hand, UTSU VP Public and University Affairs Aidan Thompson told The Varsity that the UTSU will continue to avoid involving itself in CFS campaigns. The union has historically criticized the CFS for a lack of transparency, accountability, and effectiveness.
Along with other student unions, the UTSU has floated the idea of leaving the federation, although CFS bylaws — criticized by the UTSU as “overly burdensome” — have hindered this process. Multiple student unions have attempted to leave the CFS but failed to meet the CFS bylaws’ requirements for secession. In multiple cases, the CFS has sued these unions for not paying fees after their attempted secessions.
Four days in Toronto
November 24, 2023 marked the first day of the NGM. Executives from all five of U of T’s student unions attended, excluding the UTGSU, which proxied its vote to the UTSU. The four-day-long meeting included workshops; meetings geared toward specific constituencies such as women members, or Two-Spirit and trans students; and subcommittee meetings to amend and recommend motions for the entire membership to vote on during plenary sessions.
Preparing and carrying out annual elections for CFS executives is one of the NGM’s primary functions, which became all the more important given that former UTMSU President Maëlis Barre resigned in September from her role as CFS national chairperson — the federation’s chief spokesperson and representative. In her absence, interim Lakehead University Student Union Vice-President Brandon Rhéal Amyot has taken on the role.
During the opening plenary — a decision-making session that includes all attendees — the gathered student union execs elected CFS staff member Alice Wu as the federation’s Chief Returning Officer (CRO) for its upcoming elections, which were scheduled to take place during the closing plenary session on November 27.
The agenda for the closing plenary scheduled for November 27 included discussion and voting on motions recommended by various CFS committees — including motions related to the federation’s budget, policies, and services. These motions included accepting the federation’s financial audit and appointing a new auditor, a process required under the federation’s bylaws.
The closing plenary, which the federation scheduled to begin at 1:00 pm, remained on hold while the Circle of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Students and the Black Students’ Caucus — two decision-making bodies within the federation — held an unscheduled meeting for upward of four hours. They emerged with two motions: tasking the federation with calling for solidarity with Palestine and undertaking a “decolonization audit.”
“Enough is enough”
At 7:57 pm, the closing plenary began.
After delegates verified that the meeting met quorum — essentially, that it had enough delegates to begin under the CFS’ bylaws — more than 20 people approached the microphones planted in the conference room to discuss proposed motions on the agenda.
Adaeze Mbalaja — the former president of the York Federation of Students and the Ontario representative to the CFS National Executive committee — first spoke on the motion for solidarity with Palestine. She criticized the CFS’ procedures for its meetings, which she said prevented the federation from taking “purposeful stances.”
“We did introductions for 15 minutes out of [a] one hour [meeting]. That is shameful. We are posturing,” she said.
Mbalaja called on the federation to “[recognize that] what is happening right now to the Palestinian people, what has been happening for 75 years, is a genocide.” She told the crowd that the federation must support students who have been harassed or criminally charged for demonstrating pro-Palestinian views.
The solidarity motion, which delegates passed unanimously, reaffirmed the CFS’ “support for the Palestinian people and their ongoing fight against settler-colonialism, apartheid, occupation and genocide on Gaza,” resolved that the CFS advocate for a ceasefire in Gaza, that it create a campaign advocating for postsecondary institutions to divest from weapons manufacturers, and that it donate $5,000 each to the Community Defense Fund and Palestinian Youth Movement.
Deanna Garand — a University of Manitoba student and co-chair of the Circle — then spoke on the motion for a decolonization audit.
The motion calling for the audit noted that attendees of the 2022 NGM experienced “colonial violence.” In an apology released in early 2023, the national executive noted that individuals made “harmful comments” during the 2022 NGM elections forum impacting both Indigenous students and international students that “unfairly pitted [groups] against each other.” The organization agreed to conduct a decolonization audit before the 2023 NGM.
According to the motion proposed at this year’s NGM, the CFS had not yet completed the audit or “provided adequate information to the Circle as to why this work has not been completed.”
Garand also commented on the CFS’ procedures, arguing that the use of Robert’s Rules of Order — a parliamentary procedure system used to run most boards of directors meetings — hindered the organization from moving forward. Other speakers alleged that staff members lacked basic information on Indigenous history and noted years of CFS brushing conversations and necessary changes “under the rug.”
“Our Indigenous students, our Black students, all of our other racialized students have come to another NGM again and experienced microaggressions, experienced racism, experienced harms,” Garand told the delegates. “We cannot wait any longer, and we absolutely cannot push back a decolonization audit and the reform of whatever this CFS organization is. Enough is enough.”
Members passed the decolonization audit motion, which tasked CFS with immediately founding a Decolonization Audit Working Group (DAWG), led in partnership with Hummingbirds Rising, an Indigenous consulting firm recommended by the Circle. The DAWG will collaborate with the Circle to create an action plan for the audit, with the aim to report on its work before the 2024 NGM. The motion also determined that the chair of the Circle will receive a seat on the CFS’ National Executive Committee as an at-large member alongside the organization’s chairperson, deputy chairperson, and treasurer.
Wu then took the floor to speak on her experience as CRO, arguing that she didn’t receive the support or information needed to carry out the elections. She also alleged that delegates and a member of the national executive committee had blamed her for consistent delays in the schedule, “dragging [her] name through the mud.” At the end of her speech, she walked out and encouraged other delegates to walk out with her.
After Wu spoke, members began playing drums, and delegates trickled out of the space. The meeting adjourned at 8:30 pm due to a lack of quorum.
Closing Plenary Part 2: Electric Boogaloo
Having not completed the election or passed the financial and operational motions discussed in committees in November, the CFS scheduled a second closing plenary to take place over Zoom from January 26–27.
The federation originally scheduled the meeting to begin at 12:00 pm. The bylaws, however, require that at least one-half plus one of the federation’s locals be in attendance or proxy their votes for a plenary to begin, and the federation did not meet this threshold until around 3:00 pm, delaying the meeting until then.
The gathered delegates then moved on to discuss motions referred to the plenary by the committees that met in November during the NGM.
Delegates approved the federation’s audited financial statements, which showed that, from July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023, the CFS and CFS Services — an entity that manages services offered by the CFS — collectively brought in $4,127,535 in membership fees and spent $4,292,023. The members also approved the union’s budget for the year lasting from July 1, 2024, to June 30, 2025, with an expected income and spending of $4,642,551. The budget showed that the federation spent $408,500 to hold the 2023 NGM.
Members passed a motion opposing fees imposed by universities for deferred exams, referring to a survey conducted by the UTSU in October 2023 that showed a majority of students “would consider” going to class or taking an exam while sick if they had already used the one absence declaration allotted to them each semester. The motion tasked the CFS with compiling a database or spreadsheet of postsecondary institutions that charge exam deferral fees and creating advocacy materials student unions can use.
The members also committed the CFS to partner with disability advocacy groups to lobby for a quick implementation of the Canada Disability Benefit Act. The benefit, which passed parliament in June 2023, would provide federal benefits to supplement inadequate provincial benefits, which left almost 980,000 Canadians with disabilities 16 years and older below the poverty line in 2021. The 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability conducted by Statistics Canada found that almost one in five postsecondary students with disabilities lived in households with incomes below the federal low-income cutoff.
Members also passed a motion opposing the recent Blue Ribbon Panel report on Ontario university funding and committing the CFS to advocating for “fair, free, and sustainable education policies.” The Ontario government commissioned the report to determine how to keep postsecondary institutions financially stable amid mounting debt and high-profile financial woes at some universities.
The report recommended that the provincial government end its four-year-long domestic tuition freeze. The panel’s chair wrote that Ontario should stop regulating U of T’s tuition altogether, which would allow it to raise domestic tuition fees beyond the standard three to five per cent per year at which the province has previously capped increases.
A new chairperson, and a change in direction
On January 26, Amyot explained that the CFS decided to begin elections again, given “concerns raised” around the original process started in November. The delegates appointed CFS staffer Ashlinn Pennell as the new CRO.
During the following day, the members elected Association Étudiante de l’Université de Saint-Boniface Chair Michelle Kambire as the new interim chairperson. Memorial University of Newfoundland student Holly Star Tait — the current Newfoundland and Labrador representative for the Circle — won the 2024–2025 chairperson election.
Members also adopted a motion to create a strategic plan “to address issues highlighted during the 2023 National General Meeting.”
Sara MacCallum, president of the University of King’s College Students’ Union, discussed the motion, noting disorganization, scheduling delays, and a lack of updates on the CFS’ campaigns, despite mandates to update them for “deadlines of NGMs even before .”
The motion obligates the national executive team to write a strategic plan, to be presented at the next NGM, that will guide the federation’s work and include strategies for “achieving free education,” deadlines for projects, proposals for any necessary restructuring, and increased transparency measures.
Aymot gave closing remarks to the delegates, finishing off their term as interim chairperson. They noted the accomplishments the CFS had made over the past year, including organizing the National Day of Action, a Canada-wide series of protests calling for provinces to fully fund universities. They also noted the challenges faced by both individual student unions and the CFS as a whole.
“I really hope that in the coming few months of the remainder of this term to the year ahead, we will really think about why we exist as a federation, and [try] to find unity in our purpose and our direction,” they told the delegates.