Student unions critique finance ministry’s potential amendments

Danielle George / The Runner

Understanding opposition to proposed changes to Society Act.

Danielle George / The Runner
Danielle George / The Runner

By Kier-Christer Junos
[coordinating editor]

B.C.’s ministry of finance drafted annotated revisions to the province’s Society Act this past August—and as it’s the legislation which effectively determines student union governance and composition, it’s created quite the stir amongst student groups.

In an effort spearheaded in-part by the Kwantlen Student Association and the Alliance of B.C. Students, student unions representing over 190,000 B.C. students responded to the finance ministry’s open forum on the draft before the forum closed on Oct.15, 2014.

Though the conglomerated student unions maintain that the proposed act, “Enhances accountability, is more flexible, includes a wider range of judicial remedies and modernizes the current legislation,” the unions offered six primary concerns to the ministry. Amongst those are the worry that the changes may impact the collection of approved student fees, prevent those under the age of 18 from serving in a society, and allow a society to have more non-voting members than voting members, disrupting democratic process.

The KSA and ABCS have raised the following concerns about the proposed changes to the Society Act:

1. The changes may inadvertently impact universal collection of approved student fees
2. Modifies members’ rights to determining the society’s directors;
3. Allows for changes to provisions that ensure a society’s fundamental nature;
4. Bars those below age 18 from serving in a society;
5. Permits a society to have more non-voting members than voting members, which disrupts
democratic process.
6. Permits the general public to file lawsuits against a society on the grounds of detriment to public interest—the unions suggest this could prompt “frivolous” or “politically-motivated lawsuits.”

Concerning details

The first concern is that the changes may inadvertently impact universal collection of approved student fees. It’s is based on language ambiguity in the B.C. University Act and College and Institute Act. These acts don’t indicate if student society fees are collected from either exclusively student society members or all students, regardless of membership.

The proposed change to the Society Act considers the grounds on which a society member—in a student union’s case, a student—can cease membership: and that’s done through death or resignation. By example of a significant number of students exercising a possible right to resign any time, student union commentary suggests this could disrupt project and service funding.

Proposed legislation would prevent student unions from collecting fees from resigned members, which could skew budget projections among other things. In their commentary, unions concede the quality of the right to resign. However, unions essentially want to ensure all students, regardless of membership status, are required to fund democratically student-approved projects. They suggest amending the post-secondary institution acts to clarify that all must pay.

The sixth concern is that the changes will permit the general public to file lawsuits against a society on the grounds of detriment to public interest, and the unions suggest this could prompt “frivolous” or “politically-motivated lawsuits.” Called Section 99, it is contentious in the sense that dozens of B.C. societies appealed for its removal. West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), a B.C. society that participates in environmental protection through different political capacities since 1974, also directed commentary to the finance ministry on behalf of 55 other societies. The main concern in their “October paper” was section 99. The proposed clause opens societies to litigation from anyone “the [Supreme] court considers to be an appropriate person,” again, on the grounds that a society is acting unlawfully or against public interest.

“The risk that the provision could be used improperly (e.g. for minor matters or to pursue personal grievances) is limited because the court effectively controls the process,” comments the finance ministry, in their annotated draft.

The WCEL suggests the clause intimidates societies, as well as wastes resources and court time.

“A great many—probably the majority—of British Columbia’s societies are run by volunteers, on very limited budgets, without experience with the law or the resources to hire lawyers,” says the WCEL in their October paper. “Even larger and more sophisticated societies do not generally have funds set aside to hire lawyers or justify their view of the ‘public interest’ in court,” WCEL adds, though they provide no example.

The WCEL goes on to criticize the public-interest grounds on which plaintiffs could sue. The student unions’ commentary echoes the same criticism, which is that societies should be accountable to members—not the general public, though societies technically can be publically funded to some degree. Many societies exist solely to serve members, and their exclusive agendas can even be discerned from the mere specificity of their natures, like the Canadian Federation of Students or the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. Widened litigation, the discussed parties suggest, would likely hinder efficiency in B.C. societies.