If you went on any sort of social media between October and January of last year, you most likely saw—and promptly became annoyed by—the constant posts and messages asking you to vote to amend the board structure of the University of Toronto Students’ Union. The campaign to bring the UTSU back in compliance with new government legislation was long and drawn out, and caused a great deal of bickering between active student politicians. When the new board structure was finally passed last January, the University took a collective deep breath.
However, with every new year comes new issues. This year’s is one of equal, if not greater importance—one that seems like a much larger headache. The recently launched You Decide campaign seeks to provide UofT students the chance to vote in a referendum to decide whether or not we remain members of the Canadian Federation of Students, better known as the CFS. There are several important reasons why our relationship with the CFS is being called into question, all of which are of concern to students at UofT.
The CFS basically functions as a union for our union. The UTSU, along with 39 other student unions in Ontario alone, provide funding to the organization to represent student interests across the country. This can take the form of political lobbying and nation-wide campaigns, such as the Fight the Fees campaign to eliminate tuition fees in Ontario.
Each full-time student at the St. George campus indirectly provides the CFS with $15 per year through their fees paid to the UTSU. With over 3,000 full-time students at Victoria College, this means that we alone provide the organization with over $45,000 per year.
In order to understand why this is an issue, it’s useful to take a look at the history of conflict within the CFS. In the mid to late 1990s, several disaffected student unions left the CFS to form the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), mostly due to a strong leftward shift in the political leanings of the CFS. The student unions of McMaster, Western, Waterloo, and the University of Alberta all defected from the CFS in favour of membership in the more moderate CASA. As a result, we have seen increasing hostility towards reform and disaffiliation from the CFS.
On September 19th, a letter drafted by ten student unions across the country was sent to the CFS leadership and made available to the public. The letter covered various points of contention with the CFS. These include: improper minute taking at meetings (with minutes that are actually taken not being posted online); the lack of space for dissent and criticism of the Federation; difficulty accessing information relating to bylaws, policies, and financial information; the extremely difficult disaffiliation process; and the closed and inaccessible nature of general meetings.
Former UTSU Director and current VUSAC Vice-President, External Steve Warner told The Strand, “irrespective of any difference in opinion one might have on the actual work the CFS does, it’s easy to see that its structure and operating practices make it difficult for anyone—even those who have time to keep up with student politics—to find out about the organization or to make meaningful change within it.”
While all of the above are reason enough to reconsider our membership with the Federation, the most pressing concern now is the difficulty that comes with disaffiliating. CFS rules dictate that member unions must hold referenda to disaffiliate; in addition to this requirement, the CFS requires a petition signed by no less than 20% of a union’s membership to sanction the referendum in the first place.
While this procedural requirement seems excessive in itself, the history of the CFS in the way it handles petitions and referenda of this sort is even more shocking.
In 2014, the CFS sued the University of Toronto Graduate Students Union (UTGSU) following a referendum in which 66% of grad students who voted casted their ballots in favour of leaving the Federation. The referendum, however, was seven votes short of achieving the quorum threshold of 10% of the student body. The UTGSU argued that the CRO appointed by the CFS acted in bad faith due to a lack of online voting, and an inaccessibility of polling stations for students not studying at the St. George campus. Even before this bureaucratic nightmare, the referendum nearly didn’t happen in the first place—the CFS initially rejected the UTGSU’s petition because 75 students signed using their Anglicized names instead of their legal ones.
In a separate case, the CFS initiated legal proceedings against the Cape Breton University Students Union (CBUSU) following a 2008 referendum in which 92% of students who voted did so in favour of leaving the Federation. The CFS refused to recognize the results of the referendum based on procedural issues, the merits of which are still a hot-button issue to this day. The CBUSU was forced to remain a member of the CFS, responsible for paying over $300,000 in legal fees and $240,000 in unpaid union dues from the six years that the case spanned. Having nearly entered bankruptcy, the CBUSU and the CFS have since reached an undisclosed settlement.
A total of 18 legal cases regarding disaffiliation petitions and referendums have taken place in the past 25 years between the CFS and various student unions across the country. What good is a Union that sues its own constituents for trying to leave? The CFS is supposed to be working with its membership, with the end goal of helping and supporting the students they represent. Suing its constituents into bankruptcy is clearly counterproductive in the most blatant sense possible.
This lack of transparency and the Federation’s less-than-stellar track record in the way it works with its constituent organizations has motivated many student leaders across campus to push for a reconsideration of the UTSU’s membership in the CFS. Warner added, “There is clearly a culture of secrecy and groupthink among leadership at the CFS, and I’m glad that You Decide is bringing this to students’ attention and consideration.”
Former Victoria College UTSU Director Auni Ahsan noted “it’s important for students to be engaged in their democratic structures, which is difficult considering how many levels of government we’re subject to. Organizations need to be held accountable by their constituents, and we can do this by following democratic processes like this petition process.” The You Decide campaign needs to gain 9,000 signatures, which would represent 25% of the full-time undergraduate student body it represents at the St. George campus. While the CFS only requires that 20% of the student body of a constituent union sign petitions of this sort, getting 25% of the student body to sign would prevent issues such as those that the UTGSU and CBUSU were confronted with.
It is clear that the CFS has some significant problems, many of which are not being adequately addressed due to the Federation’s profound lack of transparency in the way it conducts its business. Its lack of willingness to reform, and hostile action against constituent organizations that try to initiate change or leave the Federation entirely, is reason enough to reconsider our place within it.
I urge you to participate in this campaign by signing the petition. At the very least, UofT students deserve the right to re-evaluate our place in the CFS. Whether or not we want to continue to fund an organization that treats its membership so poorly is a question worth asking.
You can sign the petition in person at both the UCLit Office on weekdays from 10am until 4pm, and at the CSSU Office in room 2250 of the Bahen Centre on Saturdays from Noon until 4pm. Visit youdecide.ca for more information.