The union takes official stances on everything from bottled water to BDS.
The CSU has a radical mandate to carry out.
From September until December, the Concordia Student Union (CSU) is hosting “Get Radical! A Seminar in Community Organizing.” Among other things, the workshop series will teach participants how to fund grassroots campaigns, survive confrontations with police, and design eye-catching graphics.
Later in the semester, according to the event description, participants will attend a workshop on how to oppose the rise of the far right in the West. They will also learn from the Concordia University Netanyahu riot, in which a talk by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was cancelled following violent protests.
Camille Thompson, the CSU’s external affairs and mobilization coordinator, said the project’s $3,000 budget was approved by the union’s External Committee. It was then revised by the Finance Committee. She said the $3,000 needed to fund the workshops came from the CSU’s campaign budget, which is funded by the union’s student body fee levy.
Not everyone is happy with the way the money is being spent. Conservative Concordia President Ashley Langburt condemned what she called the “radical ideological extremism” of the workshops.
“While we admire the CSU’s goal of getting students involved in politics and helping students fight for the issues that matter to them, we believe that a respectful and civil exchange of ideas will be more productive and beneficial than teaching students to radicalize themselves,” she said.
However, Thompson said that funding the workshop series, and its associated political causes, is part of the union’s mandate, a mandate which was passed to the CSU by the student body itself.
Like many student unions in Canada, the CSU has a positions book, outlining the union’s stances on a number of political, social and student-life issues. About half of these positions were voted on by the student body through referendum, while the other half were voted on by their elected officials in council.
Some of them relate directly to student life, such as a mandate to oppose a provincial tuition fee hike of $1,625 in the fall of 2011. Others take stances on international issues. An entire section of the positions book devoted to “international affairs” has positions mandating the union to act in solidarity with refugees and support “the adoption of policies at the provincial and federal level that would increase the openness of our borders in times of crisis.” Both positions were adopted during regular council meetings without referendum.
While councilors are free to oppose the union’s positions and motion for them to be changed, the positions book mandates them to conform to the positions in their capacities as councilors. “While a position remains in force, officers must conform to them in the political representation that they engage in on behalf of the Union,” the document says.
One position comes from a 2014 referendum on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. It compels the CSU to “endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel’s occupation of Palestine until Israel complies with International Law and Universal Principles of Human Rights.” Results show 51 per cent of students voted in favor of the motion, versus about 43 per cent against (the remaining were abstentions). Seven per cent of the student body cast their ballots in the vote.
In addition, the vote was called into question because, among other reasons, a complaint was brought to the union’s Judicial Board that passing such a motion “could have prejudicially impacted groups on campus that maintain ties with Israel,” according to The Concordian.
Quebec’s Act respecting the accreditation and financing of students’ associations states that “To finance its activities, an accredited students’ association or students’ association alliance, by by-law approved by a majority of the students voting at a special meeting or referendum for that purpose, may fix an assessment payable by each student represented by the alliance.” Furthermore, “Every person, in order to be registered at an educational institution where an accredited students’ association or students’ association alliance exists, shall pay the assessment established by the association or alliance, if contemplated by the accreditation.”
This is not the case for every student union across the world. In 2005, Australia passed a “voluntary student unionism” law, effectively making it illegal for student unions to compel membership of their student bodies.
In addition, student unions in the United Kingdom have legal restrictions on the positions they can adopt. According to the National Union of Students, British student unions, which are considered charities under the law, may only take positions on issues relating directly to students and student life. For example, unions are permitted to advocate for improved transportation around their campuses, but not for the nationalisation of all public transport.
“Social and political issues are inextricably linked to students’ lives, and it is important to understand them as such,” said CSU General Coordinator Sophie Hough-Martin. “Student life is not inextricably bound to the campus it exists on.”
She also said that the union allows students to fight for their shared interests as a collective. “As an individual student, it is hard to advocate for yourself, but, when you collectively band together in a student union, taking political and social positions provides students with a platform for those in positions of power, like the provincial and federal government, to take us seriously.”
In a 2009 Maclean’s article, Jeff Rybak, a lawyer and former student union executive, argues that student unions should not engage in political activities. “You haven’t been elected to represent [students] as people or to deal with the totality of their lives or their identities,” he writes. “We all belong to many organizations and we are free to form and join new ones at need. When we want people to speak on our behalf concerning issues that have nothing to do with our identities as students, we can form and join those organizations.”
The Concordian apologizes for errors in a previous version of this article.
Graphic by Ana Bilokin.