OTTAWA (CUP) – After more than seven hours of heated debate, closing plenary at the semi-annual general meeting of Canada’s largest student lobby group wrapped up late in the evening of May 20.
Nearly 300 delegates representing the hundreds of thousands of members of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) met at Carleton University in Ottawa to deliberate and discuss campaign launches and internal changes to the federation.
After three days of subcommittee and caucus meetings, a long list of motions–complete with recommendations for whether the motions should pass or fail–was presented to all attending member locals to vote on.
Several motions involving support of First Nations students were passed unanimously. The CFS voted in favour of launching a Campaign for Aboriginal Education that will include a National Week of Action in fall 2009. The group also officially endorsed the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s “Sisters in Spirit” vigils that will be held across the country this October in remembrance of missing Aboriginal women.
The York Federation of Students (YFS), local 68 of the CFS, brought forward a more hotly debated motion that sought to condemn the reported genocide against the Tamil population of Sri Lanka.
The motion urged the CFS to call upon the federal government to demand that the Sri Lankan government “re-enter into an immediate and permanent internationally monitored cease-fire and peace negotiations to avert further bloodshed and recognize the Tamil minority’s right to self-determination.”
The motion also stated that the student group should encourage member locals to “inform and educate students, labour and community members about the genocide against Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka, work with peace, anti-war, and community groups to build solidarity though peaceful demonstrations and actions, and write to the foreign affairs department and to the Prime Minister of Canada to condemn the Sri Lankan Armed Forces genocide of Tamil civilians.”
“The reason we brought it forward is because there was an escalation in military activity in the northeast of Sri Lanka where close to over 250,000 civilians were trapped in an area that was being indiscriminately bombed by the Sri Lankan armed forces,” explained YFS President Krisna Saravanamuttu. “In addition to that, we were concerned by the reports of children who were being denied access to medicine, food, water . . . [and] the ability to go to school.
“As a member local of the federation, we adamantly believe in the right to an education for students, regardless of where those students live, and that’s why we decided to bring this proposal forward.”
The speaker’s list was extended to facilitate the extensive debate principally surrounding the motion’s wording and the Sri Lankan conflict itself.
The University of Windsor Students’ Alliance (UWSA) recommended the CFS wait until the United Nations officially declared the Sri Lankan violence to be genocide, while the Brandon University Students’ Union attempted to remove “Sri Lankan Armed Forces” from the motion.
Ultimately, the motion passed without any amendments.
A second contentious motion was presented by the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO, Local 41 of the CFS). This motion aimed to amend the federation’s bylaws to enforce equal spending limits on groups campaigning in federation or defederation referendums.
The SFUO, who held a successful referendum to join the CFS in November 2008, abstained from voting on their own motion due to disagreement within their own delegation.
“Although this motion is brought to plenary by our local, our delegation is divided on this motion just as our campus was and remains divided on CFS membership,” said SFUO VP Student Affairs Michele Lamarche, speaking first on the motion.
“Our locals and the students we represent are all members of the CFS, but we cannot forget that a fair amount of our students do not want to be members or simply do not care,” continued Lamarche, who co-chaired the ‘No’ committee on the U of O campus during the referendum to join CFS last November.
“This motion will hold our federation to a higher standard of fairness, and make us a stronger, more democratic student movement.”
The motion, whose defeat was recommended by the CFS subcommittee, was met with great opposition from several other member locals.
“As far as we’re concerned, in any referendum situation the ‘No’ side has an inherited advantage because they can break the rules as much as they want without any type of consequence,” said Saravanamuttu, who voted against the motion with the rest of the YFS delegation.
“The ‘No’ side . . . can use any undemocratic process it wants to overturn an election, yet the ‘Yes’ side is bound by the democratic principles of any type of referendum,” he continued.
“It’s the responsibility of the Canadian Federation of Students to ensure that existing and potential members have access to as much information as possible in order to make an educated [decision], and that’s part of the reason [why] we voted against that motion.”
While one member local-the Concordia Graduate Students’ Association, who left the CFS for a period of time in the 1990s-voted in favour of the motion, it was ultimately defeated.
Apart from the SFUO, three other member locals abstained from the vote, including the Trent Central Student Association, the University of Windsor Students’ Alliance (UWSA), and the Kwantlen Student Association, who recently held an unsuccessful defederation referendum in April 2008.