Kwantlen students petition to leave national student lobby group
Featured / September 10, 2013
‘We just want to give students the choice to decide,’ says organizer.
By Matt DiMera
Students at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) have joined a movement to leave the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), according to a press release issued early last week.
A Sept. 4 statement calls the effort a “mass defection” and claims that students at over 15 student associations across Canada have begun collecting signatures so they can hold referenda to end their membership with the CFS. The statement also claims that the action could leave the CFS without representation in British Columbia, Manitoba and Québec.
Created in 1981, the CFS is Canada’s largest student lobby group and claims to represent over 500,000 students from more than 80 students’ unions. The CFS is made up of three distinct legal entities: CFS national, the CFS provincial groups, and CFS-Services.
Other schools named in the release include Capilano University, the University of Toronto (U of T), York University and Ryerson University.
Political science student Alex McGowan who is organizing the petition drive at KPU, hopes to collect the signatures of at least 20 per cent of all students by Friday, Sept. 13.
“We just want to give the students the choice to decide if they want to be part of the CFS,” says McGowan.
KPU students currently pay $0.95 per credit, up to a maximum of $8.52 per semester, to be members of CFS-BC and CFS-national. McGowan believes that the CFS doesn’t provide enough value for the money.
“I’ve known about the CFS and not been very happy with them over the last couple of years,” he elaborates. “The lobbying that they do has been ineffective. Demanding no tuition is not going to work.”
“This is nothing extraordinary.”
The chairperson of the CFS-BC, Katie Marocchi, says she is unfazed by the press release, but won’t comment on petitions at specific schools.
“To our knowledge, we have not received any petitions. Until we receive a petition from a member local, I can’t really speak to that,” she says.
“This is nothing extraordinary. It’s well within the rights of individual members to do something like this. They’re simply exercising their rights.”
Marrochi argues that all post-secondary students benefit from the work of the CFS.
“Our ability to work together for the last 30 years has allowed us to have a unified message, a unified voice, a unified front on issues and the ability to gain momentum on issues like grants, creating free [adult basic education], and emphasizing the importance of reducing tuition fees,” she says.
“These things are only possible under a collective banner.”
She questions the intentions of the organizers behind the press release.
“It just seems like a lot of noise to make a lot of noise,” she says. “I’m not sure who they’re representing, but at the end of the day a fractured student movement will hurt everyone.”
Brent Farrington, who works as the internal coordinator for the national CFS, says that losing members hurts their cause.
“When there are members who leave the organization it does result in the remaining members having a harder time, because we don’t have quite as many voices behind us,” he explains.
“It undermines the work of all of the other members.”
The argument to leave
Like Marocchi, Farrington also has questions for the petition organizers, calling their press release “misleading” and “confusing.”
“There’s a lot of allegations in the press release [about the CFS], but there are no cited examples,” he says. “Nor are the schools that are allegedly collecting signatures being named and that is becoming quite troublesome for us.”
He says the student associations at York, Ryerson and U of T were “quite dumbfounded” when they heard about the press release.
“They had no knowledge it was happening.”
According to Ashleigh Ingle, a graduate student at the U of T and one of the spokespeople named in the press release, some of the schools involved are in the early stages of their petition drives and aren’t ready to go public.
“They were concerned that if they named themselves publicly now, that they would experience the onslaught of CFS campaigners that tends happen in situations like this,” she explains.
“They were hoping for a little bit more time in building up their campaign before they had to deal with having that many CFS staff on their campus.”
Ingle says that the decision to try to leave the CFS was cemented after she attended several of their general meetings and realized just how resistant the organization was to change.
“I was being accused of being a secret right-winger who was there to destroy the student movement,” she claims. “That is their way of discounting any criticism.”
“I’m a dedicated student organizer. I care greatly about organizing at the provincial and national level and it’s because of my dedication to those things that I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to leave the CFS.”
Farrington has a different perception of those meetings.
“[Her delegation] served a variety of motions. Some of them were adopted some of them weren’t, but that’s the nature of democracy,” he says.
He also expresses his surprise at Ingle’s involvement with the movement to leave the CFS, noting that she ran for CFS chairperson last fall and was very active during their meetings.
Ingle audibly scoffs at suggestions that she is angry about not being elected.
“It was pretty clear when I ran for national spokesperson last year I in no way expected to win that position,” she says. Ingle argues that it was her only opportunity to speak about the issues she wanted to raise without being interrupted or silenced by procedural tactics.
“If they really are that surprised that this is happening at all of these [schools’ across the country, it’s just one more piece of evidence that they’re out of touch with students – even the students at their AGMs,” she says.
The B.C. situation
With 15 member schools, B.C. is second only to Ontario for most CFS representation.
Most of B.C.’s largest schools are not affiliated with the national CFS nor the CFS-BC, including the University of British Columbia (UBC), Simon Fraser University (SFU) and the University of Victoria (UVic). KPU is currently the CFS-BC’s biggest member.
The Simon Fraser Students’ Society (SFSS) voted to leave the CFS in the spring of 2008, however the CFS disputed whether the referendum was legitimate. The SFSS and the CFS eventually reached an out-of-court settlement in 2011 allowing their membership to be ended.
The University of Victoria Students’ Society voted to withdraw their membership in March of 2011 from the national branch of the CFS, and were eventually expelled by the CFS-BC in 2013.
Several other Canadian schools are still involved in litigation with the CFS over their membership.
When asked why so many B.C. students aren’t CFS members, Marocchi replies that some some student unions don’t agree that education should be accessible and affordable or that tuition fees are a barrier to accessibility.
“They may feel that way, but generally speaking a movement is more successful when you are working with student unions all over the province,” she says.
“While CFS-BC doesn’t have some of the quote unquote larger institutions, we do have many student unions in all regions of the province.”
She also restates her concerns about the drive for a referendum.
“If students on campus are engaging in a discussion on the debate on membership rather than the real issues – which is reducing tuition fees and student debt … this will do nothing but distract our ability to organize and win successes for our members.
“I’m not sure what the intent is, for me, I feel like it will have nothing but a negative effect for students ultimately.
McGowan disagrees with Marocchi’s take.
“Asking for open dialogue and debate can’t possibly take away from the real issues,” he says. “To say that open discussion takes away from their work that can’t be right.”