Solidarity in the Student Movement?

Danielle George / The Runner

A (recent) history of the Canadian Federation of Students

Danielle George / The Runner

When you attend a rally for the Canadian Federation of Students, the first thing you’ll likely see are large orange and blue flags with the organization’s logo emblazoned upon them. The second thing you’ll see are hundreds of students, and you’ll hear them chanting one of the group’s many choruses. Something along the lines of, “So, so, so, solidarité,” or “Students, united, will never be defeated!” Standing there, it’s very possible that you’ll feel like you truly are part of the Student Movement.

I remember the first time I heard about the Canadian Federation of Students. I had been working at the Capilano Courier, Capilano University’s student newspaper, for only a few months before my editor decided it was time for me to tackle student politics. So I began slowly delving into the history of what was, at the time, the largest student lobbying organization in the country.

What quickly became clear was that the CFS had several strong campaigns running on behalf of its members pertaining to access to education, as well as a number of social justice and environmental initiatives. It also became clear that there were multiple student unions who were deeply critical of the organization, and they all wanted out of the CFS at the same time.

The thing about the CFS is it can be hard to understand its inner-workings unless you dedicate hours of reading and detective work to try to figure out exactly what has happened. I’m not going to go into the whole history of the organization here, but what is of particular interest to you as a student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, with the Kwantlen Student Association as a member of the Canadian Federation of Students, are the events that have happened since 2009, when my interactions with the CFS first began.

At the annual general meeting in November of 2009, a series of motions were put forward that created some heated debate among those in attendance. Membership of the CFS at that time consisted of individual student members of student associations, and the executive (or equivalent) of the associations would select delegates to attend the general meetings to represent the members back home.

This AGM made headlines because 13 of the federation’s 80 member associations had expressed their desire to leave, and released a reform package that included 43 motions that needed to be passed in order to resolve some of the dissatisfaction with the CFS.

The motions were moved by the Post-Graduate Students’ Society of McGill University, and seconded by our own Kwantlen Student Association, among several others who were all part of a group unofficially known as the “defederation movement.” The package’s goal was to “apply basic democratic tenets and organizing principles to the CFS.”

“Our movement reflects the priorities of students on campuses across the country. Like any membership-based organization, sometimes there are groups of students who may not support the aims and goals of our movement and organize to have a referendum,” explains Bilan Arte, the current national chairperson for the CFS. “Despite that, my goal is to focus on working with students across the country to build awareness of our work, find common issues that unite us, and strengthen our movement.”

There were motions already on the agenda ahead of the reform package that had caused controversy, perhaps most infamously Motion 6. Prior to Motion 6, if a student association wanted to defederate (now called decertifying), they had to submit a petition to the CFS that was signed by 10 per cent of the school’s population, which in turn would lead to a referendum where students would vote on whether or not they want to remain members of the CFS. The referendum had to have 50 per cent of the votes in favour of leaving in order to pass. Motion 6 (which passed), increased the petition amount to 20 per cent, and made it so that only two referenda on continued membership could be held across Canada in a three-month period. If a referendum failed, that student association could not submit a petition for another one until five years had passed.

The motion’s text alleged that the defederation movement was a “coordinated plan to destabilize our Federation by a small group of individuals, including some non-members.”

“The spirit of the motion was to ensure stability within our movement and to ensure that our bylaws had no loopholes that could be abused in the future,” Kimalee Phillip, then-present of the Carleton Graduate Student Association, told the Canadian University Press. The motion narrowly passed, and it was also reported that the fire alarm was pulled during the debate of Motion 6.

The 2009 AGM stands out because, just as 13 student associations had expressed a desire to leave the CFS, the CFS’s bylaws were changed to make that process more difficult

When Students Consider the Exit

Since 2009, a number of student associations have held referendums and their members have voted to end the membership in the CFS. Also since 2009, a number of these referendums have resulted in court cases where the CFS and a student association are relying on the legal system to determine if membership has successfully been terminated.

“Schools would want to leave generally because they are big enough or organized enough within their own institutions that they do not require the services that the CFS offers,” says Teresa Grant, who led the “No” side during Capilano University’s referendum in 2014. “The CFS can offer some services to small schools that are valuable, however many schools find that they max out in the institution.”

“Our federation is where students across the country work together for change, learning from one another to better our campuses and raising our voices together to better our country. Students, united, are significant agents for change,” says Arte. “We work to reduce tuition fees and student debt, address gender-based violence, and so much more.”

“I think it’s important to remember that our membership is dynamic and changes from year to year and along with changes to membership are differences in priorities,” he says. “I can tell you that this year my focus is strengthening our movement in all parts of the country.”

Students at Capilano University voted 75 per cent in favour of ending their membership in the CFS. The CFS accepted the results of the referendum, and the CSU is no longer a member. In this province, the CFS currently has 15 member associations, including the KSA.

For some students, part of the reason for wanting out had to do with the way the CFS responds to criticism. Teresa Grant led the “No” side at Capilano (those in favour of voting “no” to the CFS). “In my opinion, they attempt to squash dissent. They are extraordinarily afraid of it, and go to great lengths to squash it,” she says.

“I wasn’t on campus during the referendum, however the process exists to ensure that all students on a campus have the opportunity to vote on membership in the organization,” says Arte.

Capilano students ended their membership without going to court, which surprised Grant. “We had to fight the entire way through decertification so we anticipated the final vote [of ratification] would be as difficult,” she says. “We were definitely overwhelmed that such a small school like Capilano was able to accomplish something we thought for so long was impossible.”

The Capilano referendum was ratified at the AGM in fall 2014.

At the meeting, the results of the Capilano students’ referendum were ratified and their membership ended with the CFS.

“We were released from the Canadian Federation of Students,” says Grant. “We were surprised that we were able to leave without a fight.”

Our Relationship with the CFS

Although there were difficulties cross-country, the Kwantlen Student Association in particular has not had the best relationship with the CFS for some time now. In 2008, the CFS sued the KSA because of a disagreement over procedures for a proposed referendum on continued membership, and they won.

In 2009, the KSA sued the provincial chapter of the CFS, CFS-BC, who were refusing to allow the KSA representation on their board. Derek Robertson, then-vice-president of external affairs for the KSA, had been chosen by the KSA to represent them on the CFS-BC executive committee. However, he had removed himself as a director when he was campaigning against CFS-BC (during the 2008 referendum), but sought ratification after the referendum was over. CFS-BC was opposed to his ratification because they said he had not acted in the best interests of the CFS, but Madam Justice Brown ruled that the ratification process had no power and that they had to reinstate Robertson. By the time the results of the case were declared in 2010, the KSA had not had representation on the CFS-BC executive committee for almost two years. In 2011, the CFS-BC lost their appeal to overturn this decision.

In 2014, students at KPU submitted a petition for referendum to the CFS-BC, but they have yet to be granted a referendum. Their launch of the petition was in coordination with a movement in fall 2013 that was referred to as a “mass defection,” similar in spirit to the 2009 “defederation movement.” Fifteen student associations began the petition process simultaneously, including Capilano University, which resulted in their eventual referendum.

Richard Hosein, then-vice-president of external affairs for the KSA, told The Runner that there has been some “animosity” between the CFS and the KSA in the past, and it “seems [the KSA] is neglected on a lot of issues.” The position on the CFS-BC executive for KPU is currently vacant.

In 2015, the KSA launched another case against the CFS pertaining to their definitions of membership (this will impact the way a student association can leave the federation). The case is still ongoing.

Conforming to the Not-for-Profit Corporations Act

The annual general meeting for the CFS in the fall of 2014 also saw adjustments to the organization’s bylaws, to conform with changes in the Canada Not-for-Profit Corporations Act. The adopted amendment altered the bylaw definition of membership to read, “There is one (1) category of member of the Federation; local student associations representing individual students who have been admitted as members by the Federation.” The KSA’s 2015 lawsuit against the CFS is in relation to this change, although until a ruling is announced the ramifications are uncertain.

“Members have adopted several bylaw changes over the last couple of years to ensure compliance with the new not-for-profit corporations act. Most of the changes were technical and were created to minimize the impact on the structure of the federation,” explains Ante. “The federation represents more than 500,000 students across the country and that hasn’t changed since making changes to the bylaws. The new Act did require us to clarify that students’ unions are responsible for sending delegations of students to general meetings, amending bylaws and election directors.”

Despite fluctuations in membership, Grant says the CFS “has stayed remarkably the same. The only major change I have witnessed is that they have become increasingly paranoid about dissention and the prospect of student unions leaving. I have seen them continue to make it harder to leave with every AGM that passes.”

“Membership in the federation changes and it tends to go on, it looks quite a bit different than it did a few years ago,” Zach Crispin told The Runner when he was chairperson of CFS-BC in 2014. “I’m sure in the future it will look different again.”

Amidst litigation and bylaw changes, the CFS has continued promoting various campaigns to students.

“Right now, we are taking action to ensure that student debt, high tuition fees, and a high youth unemployment are addressed during the federal election, while making sure students are ready to vote,” says Ante.

From May 2000 to 2009, student associations with membership in the CFS increased from 60 to 85. According to their website, that number is now at 77, with a majority of member associations in Ontario and none in Quebec. There are now also a number of student lobbying organizations in addition to the CFS, be it the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations at a national level, or the Alliance of B.C. Students in our own province.

So, does the student movement still exist? Certainly—but the growth of other organizations, and departure of some from the CFS, could suggest that students no longer want to participate under a single flag.