The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), a national organization composed of campus student unions, purports to organize students on a “democratic, co-operative basis.” When Guelph students wanted to hold a referendum to exit the CFS, they served the CFS with a petition asking for a referendum to be held to decertify. However, the CFS refused to schedule a referendum. Guelph’s Central Student Association (CSA) took the CFS to court, and an Ontario lower court trial judgegranted the referendum. Then 73.5 per cent of Guelph students voted to exit the CFS.The CFS alleges the results were not reliable.
Even after Guelph students overwhelmingly expressed a desire to leave, the CFS continued to challenge the democratic vote in court. They argued that signatures were not verified for the initial referendum request. The Ontario Court of Appeal judge granted the request, and remitted the matter to another trial court judge on a technicality. The appeal was granted because the original judge did not provide written reasoning for his decision.
The trial court judge, during the hearing on awarding costs, stated that “many people were to be financially and otherwise affected by the outcome.”
The judge is correct about financial motivation. According to the University of Guelph, the CFS made over $230,000 per year from Guelph student fees alone. Guelph’s CSA, has, up until this point, been fighting the decision in court. The legal proceedings have cost Guelph students over $400,000.
The CFS has a long history of legal disputes. In 2011, the CFS-BC Executive refused to allow a member from Kwantlen University’s student union to serve as a representative on the CFS-BC, which is a provincial “affiliate” of the national CFS organization, because he had taken part in a campaign to withdraw Kwantlen from the CFS. The B.C. Court of Appeal found that the CFS-BC “was not entitled to go further and determine whether it considered him to be a worthy member of the Executive Committee” and that “the Executive Committee took on a role that it did not have.”
In a case similar to the one at Guelph, the CFS refused to recognize a petition by the University of Victoria’s Student Society, saying that it had not reached the 10 per cent threshold required and was thus invalid. The B.C. trial court judge declared the petition valid and in order pursuant to CFS bylaws, and that a referendum be “held as quickly as possible.”
After the University of Saskatchewan’s student union held a referendum to join the CFS, the school’s Elections Board found serious flaws in the process and refused to ratify the results. The student union, however, upheld the results, because it was afraid of being taken to court by the CFS. Specifically, in a subsequent student legal challenge to the results, the court stated that there was “significant concern that legal proceedings would be initiated by the Federation.” The same court overturned the results because of irregularities and ruled them to be of no force or effect. As the student union predicted, the CFS challenged the result but ultimately lost.
The CFS has taken legal proceedings against the student unions of: Ottawa, Kwantlen University College, Cariboo College, Acadia, UPEI, and Simon Fraser. It has been the respondent in numerous cases (see here). Millions of dollars have been wasted on litigation, money which comes directly from the pockets of Canadian students who pay mandatory fees to the CFS.
The Response of the University of Guelph’s Central Student Association
The response of the current Guelph CSA administration is also worrying. While being duty-bound to students to abide by the results of the referendum passed by students, the CSA nonetheless keeps a very low profile on the issue.
The CSA was supposed to get feedback from its members on the issue. Yet at the Annual General Meeting on the agenda, the CFS Dispute was conveniently left off the agenda and was only mentioned when a concerned student rose to address the issue.
Most worrying, however, is that the CSA Board struck down the following motion on November 7, 2012: “that the CSA Board of Directors uphold the democratic results of the CFS referendum on continued membership.” A member brought forth a motion to “uphold the democratic results of the referendum until the CSA reaches a settlement,” but this was ruled out of order.
At the July 18, 2012 board meeting, the CSA voted to strike a committee detailing the pros and cons of remaining a member of the CFS and a brief history of the CSA’s relationship with the CFS.
These motions all indicate that the CSA is disregarding its members’ clear response to a clear question, which was to exit the CFS. The press release sent out to students states that “the referendum ought not to be considered as binding upon anyone” because the appeal was granted.
However, since the referendum occurred and it has not been thrown out in court, it should continue to be recognized, unless a judge rules otherwise. This would be the fairest option democratically. Yet the CSA states that students must remain members of the CFS and are required to continue to pay its dues. The CFS also still lists Guelph as a member on its website.
The press release was suspiciously non-activist in tone. CSA bulletins usually involved outraged calls to action, while this release is passive in nature and defensive of the CFS. The CSA is always vocal in defending what it sees as student priorities; why is this case any different?
The CSA is discussing a potential settlement with CFS. The CSA must recognize that it has a duty to enforce the mandate requested by its members. The only settlement that the CSA should sign is one in which the CFS recognizes the democratic validity of the vote and ends its insistence that Guelph students should continue to pay its dues.
The CFS would be wise to heed the words of BC Supreme Court Justice Blair in considering future litigation:
The cost of this litigation, no matter which party or parties are successful, will be borne by post-secondary students enrolled at SFU, as well as by students at those institutions which are members of the CFS. Tuition, books, accommodation and meals already impose a significant burden on post-secondary students without requiring them to contribute further to the costs of resolving the parties’ dispute. I would anticipate that the student fees paid to the SFSS and the CFS can be used more productively for programs directly benefiting those students rather than being consumed in more litigation.