Campaigners face off at Capilano for CFS referendum

Students head to polls to vote on continued membership in lobbying organizations.

By Samantha Thompson
[deputy editor]

(Samantha Thompson/The Runner)

“Cap Students’ Union’s Approach: ‘Go it alone,’” reads one of the many posters plastered around the North Vancouver campus of Capilano University. The words are accompanied by a stick figure falling into a faded blue mass. On the other side, the approach of the Canadian Federation of Students’ is represented by a crowd of stick figures all squished together with the words: “Strength in numbers.”

The catchphrase is the focal point of the CFS’ campaign materials as they try to win a referendum on continued membership in the CFS and CFS-BC happening at the post-secondary institution, the voting period for which runs March 24-28. They’re campaigning against Dump the CFS, a group of members from Capilano who are pushing for their fellow students to leave the organization, arguing that the Capilano Students’ Union has outgrown the CFS, and is able to provide better services and campaigning to students than the national federation.

“Capilano has been really receptive. The more educated students are getting, [the more] they’re getting really smart and asking really good questions,” says Teresa Grant, spokesperson for the Dump the CFS campaign.

Leading up to the voting period, both the “yes” and “no” sides were given two weeks to campaign. The campaign period was riddled with multiple alleged complaints of defamation and harassment. As students head to the polling stations, it would appear as though the adventure has only just begun.

THE JOURNEY

The referendum is the result of a petition submitted to the CFS and CFS-BC by students at Capilano University last fall. They were able to successfully gather signatures from at least 20 per cent of the institution’s population, and met the requirements set out in the internal bylaws of the CFS and CFS-BC. Over the past several years, there have been multiple changes voted in by CFS members that added more barriers to the circumstances under which a CFS local (member students’ association) can request a referendum and potentially defederate from the Federation. As it stands, there is a limit of two defederations per three-month period, and a petition must be submitted, by registered mail and with signatures from 20 per cent of the institution’s students, to the CFS.

The students at Capilano sent their petition to the CFS using registered mail, but according to Grant, the CFS initially denied receiving the petition even though Canada Post had confirmed delivery. The students at Capilano were about to launch an inquiry into Canada Post when the CFS then realized they had received the petition.

Students at Kwantlen also collected signatures around the same time as students at Capilano, but only collected enough to meet the requirements of CFS-BC. They have yet to be granted a referendum.

Since the referendum was granted, the CFS national executive selected Stephen Littley as the Chief Returning Officer, who is responsible for overseeing the referendum and approving campaign materials. If there is a dispute over a ruling, there is an appeals committee with three members: one from the CFS national executive or designate appointed by the executive, and two appointed by the general assembly at a CFS general meeting.

All campaign materials from both sides must be approved by the CRO, and this includes everything down to Facebook posts and tweets. Both campaigns are allowed to file complaints about the materials, and one of the most common complaints of this referendum has been of defamatory statements. Dump the CFS has filed complaints of defamation against some of the CFS posters, and Yes CFS has specifically filed complaints against the Dump the CFS website, because the team had linked to articles criticizing the CFS in mainstream newspapers like the National Post. Dump the CFS were also penalized and made to shut down their website for 48 hours, in the early days of the voting period.

“Of course both sides are really careful about what they’re saying,” says Grant, “But we haven’t even been able to talk about the history of the CFS and the CSU at some points, because it’s not a very good history.”

Dump the CFS has also reportedly filed several alleged harassment claims on behalf of students, against the CFS.

BUZZ WORDS

Throughout the campaigning period, Yes CFS and Dump the CFS have both streamlined their campaign messages. Voting is happening at all three Capilano campuses (North Vancouver, Squamish and Sechelt), and while Dump the CFS has been focusing their campaign efforts in North Vancouver, they are campaigning at the other campuses this week as well. It is uncertain where Yes CFS has focused their campaigning as they failed to respond to The Runner’s interview requests.

Both sides have been relying on tabling, flyers, and classroom talks to get their messages across. There has allegedly been some frustration expressed by students and teachers over the aggressiveness of the flyering and frequent classroom visits.

Yes CFS appears to be focusing on their “Stronger together” messaging, emphasizing their membership numbers and the value of providing “students with an effective and united voice.” According to the campaign’s website, “Since tuition fees, financial aid programs, and funding levels are set by the federal and provincial governments, it is vital that students [sic] interests are represented at both levels.” They also include some of their largest campaigns: Grants not Loans, bottled water-free campuses, and the We Ride campaign, which encouraged funding for public transit in Metro Vancouver.

Capilano has been plagued with budget shortfalls over the last year especially, which resulted in the cutting of their Studio Arts program. These cuts are something that Yes CFS campaigners have allegedly been campaigning on.

“They seem to be really active on it during this referendum which is interesting, because the cuts are pretty finalized at Cap right now,” says Grant. “I’ve heard students claim the CFS is telling them that they can save the program, so it’s just kind of confusing to me, and I’ve been trying to figure out why they’re saying these things, if they are.”

In contrast, Dump the CFS’ campaign argues that Capilano and the CSU have outgrown the CFS and the services it can provide. Many services the CFS offers, the CSU has not been using for several years: for example, the CSU designs their own handbook and website, offers localized discounts, and has their own health and dental plan outside of the CFS’ Student Health Network.

According to Grant, the CSU’s “services and campaigns actually reflect the needs [of Capilano]… and not just a national one-size fits all [model].” She also questions how a group can “be an effective lobbying organization for students in B.C. when [they] are alienating so many large schools.”

Grant emphasizes that everyone campaigning on campus for the Dump the CFS campaign is a Capilano student. Allegedly, some of the Yes CFS team is made up of CFS members or executives from other campuses in B.C. and throughout Canada.

“It really is largely executives from student unions across the country coming to our campus and campaigning,” says Grant. “If you were a student, would you want to be talking to one of your peers, someone who goes to the same school as you, talking to you about why you should leave an organization, or from someone totally external who comes to your school and tries to convince you? It just seems a little disingenuous.”

A referendum on continued membership in the CFS and CFS-BC was not the first choice for students at Capilano, but Grant says that, “I feel like we have made a real effort to try and make changes within the organization.”

“I just found it really hard to have discussions with the CFS at the [AGMs] that is supposed to be able to make these changes and make themselves a better organization.”

CSU ENDORSEMENT

Although individual Capilano students conducted the petition, since the campaigning began for the referendum the Capilano Students’ Union has officially endorsed the Dump the CFS campaign. They have been providing financial services and resources, something Grant says is necessary.

“How …  am I going to come against an organization that has a combined, between CFS-BC and [CFS-] national, $90,000 dedicated specifically towards referendums … how are you supposed to go up against them without any kind of financial support? How can you do that without a student union and being able to use their resources?”

She adds, “The CSU is really passionate about this and getting students involved in this conversation.”

There are other student organizations on campus in addition to the CSU that have also supported the Dump the CFS campaign. The Marketing Association of Capilano Students and the Capilano Frankfurters (for Communications students) both tweeted their endorsements under the hashtag #dumpthecfs on Twitter, which has multiple tweets urging students to vote no. Under the hashtag #yescfs, only the Yes CFS account has tweeted as of press time.

BIG PICTURE

Last fall, a press release was issued stating that multiple student associations across Canada would be petitioning for referendums on continued membership in the CFS. Although Capilano is the only member local to be successful in holding a referendum so far, the mass move echoes events in 2009/2010, when 13 locals expressed their desire to leave the Federation. Many of the bylaw changes that impacted the defederation process happened at this general meeting, in November 2009.

Several student associations who have submitted petitions to leave or held referendums have been involved in litigation with the CFS, and the CFS has reportedly threatened student media outlets with litigation as well. The amount of student money spent in the courts is difficult to determine, as the CFS has declined requests from its member delegates to share a dollar amount.

Most recently, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union had also planned to have a referendum on continued membership this month, however the night before campaigning was to begin they received word that their petition had been deemed invalid. The CFS had selected a third-party organization to ensure the petition was legitimate, but the auditing firm said the number of signatures did not meet bylaw requirements. The Post-Graduate Students’ Society of McGill, too, headed to court this week in an ongoing fight for recognition of a petition that they submitted in 2010.

There are currently 15 student associations that are members of CFS-BC, including at Douglas College, Emily Carr, and the University of British Columbia-Okanagan. The four largest institutions in B.C.: UBC, SFU, UVic, and BCIT are not members, as the UVic Students’ Society and Simon Fraser Student Society were recently able to settle their lawsuits with CFS-BC and end their membership.

Late last year, a new lobby student lobby group called the Alliance of B.C. Students, began to receive some publicity, although they were officially founded in 2011. They also advocate for grants, the elimination of interest on loans, and call for increased funding to post-secondary institutions in B.C. Their members include Capilano, Kwantlen, UVic and UBC.

According to their website, the Canadian Federation of Students is a lobby group that unites students across Canada, particularly in their advocacy on social justice issues and funding for post-secondary education in the form of tuition freezes and grants. Although there have been several moves for defederation, between May 2000 and 2009, the number of student associations with membership in the CFS increased from 60 to 85.

They have also been criticized by some media outlets for a lack of transparency at their general meetings, particularly when it comes to allowing media coverage. At a CFS-BC meeting in 2010, student journalists of publications from member institutions were required to pay $200 for media credentials, sign a “media protocol” document that required a publication embargo for the duration of the meeting, and were prohibited from going to official “socials” or visiting the accommodations of meeting delegates.

“There seems to be this fear within the organization for criticism,” says Grant. “There is a group of schools across the country who have been critical, who have challenged what the CFS is saying, and there’s been backlash.”

LOOKING FORWARD

If the referendum passes, and everything is in order, Capilano students will no longer be a member of the CFS or CFS-BC. However, some referendums in the past have resulted in legal battles over the legitimacy of a referendum campaign. Money spent in the courts will come from student fees paid to the organizations.

Kwantlen students are still waiting to hear the results of their petition, which they submitted to CFS-BC last fall.

If this referendum fails, Capilano will not be able to hold another referendum on continued membership for five years (60 months, in the bylaws). In order to cease membership in the CFS, they need 10 per cent of Capilano students to vote (around 800), and a majority of those votes need to be “no” votes.

The CFS failed to respond to The Runner’s multiple interview requests before press time.

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