Frustrations with the Canadian Federation of Students Remain Following Annual Meeting

The KSA remains dissatisfied, but will continue to attend meetings in good faith

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Alex McGowan unites with other students who are disappointed with the CFS. This photo was taken during the CFS National General Meeting back in November 2016. (Victoria Morton/ Facebook)

The Canadian Federation of Students has partially addressed a list of concerns put forward by a coalition of their members, including the Kwantlen Student Association, at their national general meeting last month. Some members feel dissatisfied with the outcome of the meeting and claim that several important propositions for reform were not adequately discussed.

While the CFS has stated that those concerns raised in the coalition’s letter to the Federation that were not covered will be brought up at the next meeting in June, the KSA remains generally dissatisfied with the response they received and plans to keep seeking reform within the Federation in the future.

“The KSA has been expressing frustrations with the way the CFS operates for a couple of years now. The recommendation that I came into my office with was ‘don’t go and don’t interact, it’s not worth our time,’ says KSA President Alex McGowan. “I followed that recommendation in my first year but this past year I decided to check in for myself and see how it’s going,”

McGowan went to the Federation’s semi-annual general meeting in June and “experienced some of the same stuff that was described” to him in his orientation, such as alleged social exclusion and restrictive dialogue. There, he found other student union delegates who shared his discontent with the CFS.

“Over the last six months or so I’ve been coordinating with them and we’ve been talking about how we can improve [the CFS] to make it an organization that is worth participating in,” he says.

About the coalition and its requests, McGowan feels that the Federation did not ignore them, but silenced them. This is a complaint he has previously expressed towards the Federation, and though the dissatisfaction has been addressed, he believes the issue remain unresolved.

“They never reached out to me or the KSA, but my understanding is that the national executive did reach out to some members of the group that got together to try and propose the changes. I wouldn’t say we were ignored,” he says. “At the meeting it was very clear and acknowledged that there was a very large group of student members that were frustrated.”

However, McGowan notes that “the vast majority of our concerns and suggestions weren’t taken into account—they weren’t even discussed. There just wasn’t enough time allocated to discuss them.”

“For the KSA, our position is always and always has to be attending the meetings in good faith and striving to represent our students’ interests, and so while it’s frustrating that most of the suggested changes to the CFS were not even discussed, my goal [as a part of the KSA] is to make sure that the next generation of KSA executives are up to speed with where we’re at and which changes we tried to propose this year, so that they’re in a good position to move forward with them next year.”

McGowan also notes that the coalition of dissatisfied member associations is still in contact, even after the meeting.

“The next step is to keep the conversations going and make sure that we can continue to push for changes in the CFS,” he says.

Bilan Arte, national chairperson for the CFS, says that the meeting was a success, as over 30 of 40 resolutions were covered.

“From my perspective, it was a very productive consultation amongst members about how they wanted to shape the student movement over the next six months,” she says. “I think it’s unfortunate that we didn’t have an opportunity to discuss all of the resolutions, but for the remaining 12, it’s also an opportunity from getting even more feedback and opportunity to consult with members on the ground before having a full consultation around them at our upcoming meeting in June.”

Arte claims that each resolution proposed was the subject of about 72 hours of discussion, “not only during primary sessions but also at regional meetings, constituency meetings, conference meetings that happened before the general meeting.” She partially attributes the 10 undiscussed resolutions to a fire alarm that went off unexpectedly.

She recommends that students interested in seeing the CFS’ minutes, agendas, and financial documents contact their student union’s delegate for their notes taken at the meetings.

There were 16 campaign motions, 2 policy motions, and 5 budget motions taken into account at the meeting. Some of those included topics on mental health, student housing, and bylaw amendments.

One particularly important motion that was raised by the coalition was to make essential information—such as financial statements, minutes from meetings, and constating documents—easily accessible. It was agreed that “the Federation shall take the necessary measures to ensure that the relevant information is readily available, either publicly or upon reasonable request. The Federation shall endeavour to, at all times, be able and willing to grant reasonable requests for information without undue delay,” as written in the NGM opening plenary agenda.

It was also resolved that “all CFS budgets, including the previous year’s projections, be available online no more than one week after each General Meeting, updated with the most recent year-to-date expenses; and…that CFS, and CFS- Services be required to produce their own independent budget, both to be adopted by the membership at General Meetings.”

Transparent finances are a well-established concern about the Federation, as an undeclared bank account containing $600,000, with $500,000 withdrawn over the past five years, was discovered in 2014. Considering that it is currently running an approximate $700,000 deficit—as well as the enormous amount of funding they receive from student fees—many members were not happy to hear of the secret account.

“We’ve been having a conversation around this account for close to a year now. We’ve brought it up at about three different national general meetings, so I think it’s great that the Federation ensured that they were able to actually post it and distribute it in our financial statements,” says Arte.

“In essence, because of this discovery, we had to go back and check all of our books and we also had to do our due diligence in terms of engaging with an external auditing firm to undertake that process, to make sure that we were getting a full amount of what happened. Because we were able to complete that process in time for this general meeting, we had a full discussion about those too, and were able to actually pass them.”

She adds that the auditors were able to fully reconcile the money in the undeclared account within their financial statements for 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Still, the concern about financial transparency was reflected in the plenary minutes, according to a resolution that promises unions dissatisfied with the accessibility of the Federation’s financial information a full refund for the membership fees paid between 2015 and 2017.

Another reform from the meeting was that the perceived impractical number of students that need to sign a petition in order for their student union to go to referenda to leave the CFS has been reduced from 20 per cent to 15 per cent, and they can now vote online as well as on a paper ballot at referenda.

Finally, several responses to social issues were confirmed, including fostering a pro-choice environment, writing letters to families of those hurt or killed by hate crimes, and supporting protesters at Standing Rock.

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