Education News: Student unions question CFS membership

Five members expected to attempt defederation this year

WOLFVILLE (CUP) — The membership of the Canadian Federation of Students may drop significantly in the next year. Three students’ unions have initiated the defederation process and several others are examining their options.

CFS National Chairperson Amanda Aziz has confirmed that her office has received requests for membership referendums from three student societies at British Columbia universities: Simon Fraser, Kwantlen, and the University of Victoria’s Graduate Association.

Concordia University’s Graduate Students’ Union and Cape Breton University’s students’ union are also expected to file petitions this year.

The student societies who have initiated the process of defederation share similar concerns about their relationship to the CFS, including a lack of lobbying success, expensive services and internal dysfunction.

Cape Breton University Student Union (CBUSU) joined the CFS in 2001 but has since become dissatisfied with their membership.

Ian Lindsey, the union’s president, said that the CFS does not represent about 80% of Nova Scotia students. At the provincial level, he said, ?CFS does not have a voice in Nova Scotia.?

Lindsey also critiqued national services and lobby movements.

?Although the Day of Action is a significant event, it is only one day out of 365. Outside of this, we don’t see CFS winning any battles.?

Lindsey also said that many of the services offered through CFS membership can be supplied by individual unions at a lower cost to students, including student handbooks and health insurance policies.

?We researched alternatives and found that, in most cases, we can provide the services on our own, and cheaper,? said Lindsey.

Derrick Harder, President of the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS), which was among the first to file petition for defederation, expressed similar discontent with the quality and cost of services offered by CFS, although his complaints focus more on internal politics and organizational dysfunction.

The SFSS is the biggest member students’ union in British Columbia, contributing approximately $400,000 annually to the organization.

?The CFS is not an organization that takes criticism well,? said Harder. ?They seem to go into lock-down easily or, more specifically, groupthink.?

He said that he is concerned about the apparent top-down approach to running the organization. He also accused the CFS of influencing student union elections, arguing that the CFS assists candidates who are considered pro-CFS.

Aziz flatly denied the idea, noting that she is ?not sure where that rumour started from. The idea of us being involved with elections is totally false.?

In addition to these issues, Harder expresses concern over the amount of money that the CFS and its provincial chapters are willing to spend on litigation. The CFS is currently involved with legal action against Acadia University over an attempt to defederate, and acted as a defendant with the University of Saskatchewan when they were brought to court over an attempt to join the CFS.

In Saskatchewan, a former president sued the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union for allegedly not following proper referendum procedures when they voted to join the CFS in 2005. Throughout these proceedings, the CFS assumed intervener status as a defendent with the students’ union.

At Acadia University in Nova Scotia, the CFS has accused the students’ union of not following proper procedures, in accordance with CFS by-laws, when they voted to leave the CFS.

Aziz defended the CFS’s involvement in these proceedings, saying that neither situation has cost the CFS much in lawyer or court fees.

?Since we only participated through intervener status in Saskatchewan, and, at Acadia, the process has mostly just been letter-writing back and forth, with nothing going to court yet, there has been very little money spent in these two proceedings thus far.?

Aziz, however, said that it is the first time that she has been made aware of many of the concerns about cost and quality of services voiced by student societies.

?If a student society has found a way to improve services, I would hope that they would bring that forward to the CFS so that we can continue to improve services for all students. The idea of us offering services is that it is an economy of scale?when we do it in bulk, it allows us to improve services, for example, by using recycled paper,? she said.

?The CFS is what the membership decides to make it,? she continued. ?There are ways of bringing concerns forward and influencing the policies of the union.?

Further, in response to concerns expressed with the effectiveness of lobbying, Aziz emphasized that its strength is in its numbers.

?Putting our issues forward as a united front is how we will get things done. There is a record of victories when we work together and send a united message,? she said, noting that tuition freezes in several provinces are a sign that the message is being heard, including Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

While several students’ unions have opted to begin the process of leaving the federation, though, many student societies have expressed frustration over the defederation process. They claim that it is designed to make it more difficult to leave CFS.

Lindsey notes that former CBUSU presidents had been in favour of leaving CFS, but did not follow through because they were discouraged by it.

The process of de-federating from the CFS involves a petition calling for a referendum that no fewer than 10 per cent of the student body must sign. Once the referendum has been called, the Federation’s national executive must receive six months? advance notice of a vote, including exact dates and times of the vote.

Two weeks of campaigning must precede the actual referendum on de-federation and quorum for the vote is five per cent of the student body.

Following a successful vote to de-federate, an application for withdrawal must be filed with head office. Then, within three months, the national executive of the federation examine all the documents to make sure the appropriate bylaws have been followed and make a recommendation to the voting members of the federation regarding the application to withdraw.

At opening plenary of the next general meeting, the members of the federation vote on whether or not to accept the application.

Although Aziz said that a referendum result would only be overturned at a General Meeting if it were illegitimate, it remains unclear whether or not the General Meeting has the power to overturn a referendum result for any other reason.

Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, and Kwantlen University College are all planning to hold their referendums in March 2008.

The results of these referendums and the possibility of similar actions at Concordia and Cape Breton University have the potential to significantly alter the representation of the CFS across the country.

Aziz, however, remains optimistic and hopes that the member institutions will come together.

?Our membership is not static. From our perspective, it is really important that, no matter how difficult it sometimes is, we remain united. We hope that students will see the benefits of being united with other students and the benefits we have in working together cooperatively.?

Rumours surfaced in Sept. that the students’ union at Ryerson University was also seeking to defederate. But according to Nora Loreto, Ryerson’s students’ union president, a motion to that effect served to the union’s Board on Sept. 27 was defeated.

The CFS was formed in 1981 to provide students with a united voice for lobbying, both provincially and nationally. Over one-half million students from more than 80 university and college student societies across Canada belong to the CFS.

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