Kwantlen students file petition for referendum to leave the CFS-BC.
By Samantha Thompson
“In my opinion, the [Canadian Federation of Students] is just a waste of my money, which I’m forced to pay through tuition fees,” says Alex McGowan, a political science student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. “I just found it to not be worth it.”
The sentiment is what caused him to begin gathering signatures from other students at KPU who felt the same way, with the help of some loyal volunteers. They printed off the petition forms, and “started asking people to sign.” The month-long venture resulted in the collection of around 1500 signatures. This was the first step of several in order to get a referendum on membership in the CFS-BC to occur at Kwantlen. If everything goes well with the submission of the petition, the referendum could begin in the next couple of months and students could find themselves voting on whether or not they want to continue their membership as Local 26 of the Canadian Federation of Students.
The CFS is a national organization created in 1981 that claims to represent 500,000 students from more than 80 universities and colleges across Canada, and is comprised of three branches: CFS national, the CFS provincial components, and CFS-Services. The KSA was one of the founding members in the 1980s.
Kwantlen students are automatically members of both the CFS and its provincial branch, CFS-BC (which has 15 of the 80 member institutions). They pay $0.95 per credit, up to a maximum of $8.52, per semester as part of their tuition fees, and about half of the money paid to the CFS goes to CFS-BC.
Katie Marocchi, chairperson of CFS-BC, said the petition came “as a surprise. At no point previous to the receipt of the petition had there been any expressions from individual members, or from representatives of the KSA, at executive committee meetings or at any time in-between, that there is a sense of dissatisfaction or disenfranchisement, a feeling that they don’t have access or awareness of the campaigns and the benefits of being members.”
If that had been made overtly clear to CFS-BC, she adds, “I can guarantee that steps would’ve immediately been taken to rectify that and provide resources and support, and book tables, be on campus.”
The KSA currently prohibits representatives of the CFS to book tables or space on campus, a policy in effect since March 2012.
“As it stands, representatives of the KSA actively block representatives of the executive committee and the federation from getting on campus … and talking to members one-on-one about the benefits of membership,” says Marocchi. “Unfortunately we haven’t had access to space booking and table booking for quite some time.”
Richard Hosein, director of external affairs for the KSA, has said that there has been “some animosity” between the KSA and the CFS in the past, and it “seems [the KSA] is neglected on a lot of issues.”
The position for the representative of Kwantlen on the CFS-BC executive is currently vacant. The positions are filled by the member student association, who then send their representative to the executive meetings. Kwantlen has had difficulty filling the position in the past, when in 2008 CFS-BC refused to ratify the appointment of then-KSA representative Derek Robertson to their executive because he had participated in an anti-CFS campaign. The move resulted in a lengthy court case that ruled in favour of the KSA, with the court demanding CFS-BC ratify Robertson’s appointment.
McGowan and his team submitted the petition on continued membership to the KSA in September of last year, who then submitted it to CFS-BC on their behalf. The executive of CFS-BC received the petition at their December meeting, “and so as a result and as part of the process, work is being taken to verify the petition,” says Marocchi.
“It wasn’t hard [to get signatures],” says McGowan. “People were receptive to signing and we just kind of explained the situation and what we knew and people were very receptive to signing it.”
Throughout the petition process, the KSA remained hands-off and neutral.
“As far as the KSA’s concerned, we did not have involvement in the petitioning,” says Steven Button, chairperson for the KSA. “We support our students’ right to petition and to ask for a referendum, but beyond that once they had presented the KSA with the petition, as they were required to, we have since sent that information to the registrar to be verified, it has been verified and we are now in correspondence with CFS-BC to continue the process.”
Marocchi says that CFS-BC has requested further documentation that is needed to verify the petition from the registrar. “At this point work is ongoing to try to liaise with the registrar,” she says, “but that process I expect to wrap up within the next couple of weeks.”
“We’re currently in correspondence with [CFS-BC] in regards to the petition,” says Button. “And what exactly is required to move forward … we are currently involved in making sure everyone’s ‘T’s are crossed and ‘I’s are dotted.”
“My understanding is that there is still some discussion between us and them that needs to happen to make sure everything is happening in an appropriate way.”
In order to call a referendum, a petition must be received with signatures of 10 per cent of the student population at the institution. The registrar’s office is relied upon to confirm that the petition meets the threshold of 10 per cent, and that all the signatures are from valid students with no repeats.
The Kwantlen petition for a referendum was only submitted to CFS-BC, however, because the national branch of the CFS requires 20 per cent of students to sign, a number McGowan and team failed to reach. McGowan says that the number of signatures required was high, and “pretty unreasonable.” According to him, the norm is five to 10 per cent of membership in standard petitioning.
“I was personally, and my core volunteers, were just getting too busy with school … so we just had to stop,” he says, although they haven’t ruled out continuing the petition in the future, as students could keep building off the number of signatures they’ve already collected.
“I think that we’ve made a good start, and from what I understand legally there’s no time frame that we’re restricted to,” McGowan says. “So if the student interest comes along to continue then that can definitely happen and … they’re halfway there, so it’s positive.”
The last time Kwantlen had a referendum on continued membership was in 2008. At the time, there were different requirements for voting on continued membership then there will be if a referendum comes to campus this year. Six years ago, students voted to remain members of the CFS.
When the referendum comes to Kwantlen, the KSA will likely remain a neutral party.
“My understanding is that the KSA will not have an official position as we are required to maintain neutrality,” says Button. “We support our students’ right to petition and to hold a referendum and we will support them in that but as far as an official position is concerned we remain neutral.”
MEANWHILE, ELSEWHERE IN B.C.
Kwantlen’s petition is but one of the many activities B.C. has seen regarding student movements since September. When the fall semester began, a press release circulated stating that numerous schools across Canada, including several in B.C., had plans to initiate referendums on membership in the CFS. The statement called the effort a “mass defection” and claimed that students at more than 15 student associations had begun the petition process. It also claimed that if successful, the action could leave the CFS without representation in B.C., Manitoba and Quebec. Amongst the schools listed were Kwantlen, and Capilano University in North Vancouver.
Capilano students have also filed a petition with CFS-BC, as well as CFS national. Both branches have confirmed receipt of the petition.
“This is well within the rights of individual members to want to have a vote on the question of membership,” emphasizes Marocchi.
Last semester also saw the first annual general meeting of the Alliance of B.C. Students, a new student group that claims to represent 140,000 students, that will advocate for more accessible post-secondary education. Their membership includes Kwantlen and Capilano, as well as UBC, the University of Victoria and, as of Jan. 13, BCIT.
FROM THIS MOMENT ON
From this point forward, it will be a waiting game while the appropriate bodies make sure everything is in line with Kwantlen’s submitted petition. If everything checks out, students could see a referendum this semester.
“This is a basic right of our organization to have individual members have the ability to question its membership, so there’s nothing out of the ordinary of this process,” says Marocchi. “The executive committee is doing everything it can at this point in time to make sure the process moving forward goes as smoothly and as efficiently as possible.”
She emphasized that there are many benefits to being a part of “a formalized network that has been around for over 20 years,” including services, pooled resources, and “coming together and being a part of a democratic organization that has its campaigns set by the very individuals themselves.”
Button is reluctant to speak to the benefits or drawbacks on membership in the CFS. “I wouldn’t feel that it would be my place to offer support one way or another at this time,” he says. When the referendum is scheduled, it will primarily be up to the students on campus to advocate for or against continued membership.
“It might still be a little bit of time but we are encouraging [CFS-BC] to move swiftly with [the petition],” says Button. “The ball is rolling and at this point it’s just a matter of making sure that everything gets followed up on—and we should hopefully see a referendum soon.”