The Quebec branch of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS-Q), a student lobby group, cannot fulfill its mandate to campaign for the tuition freeze – or accomplish anything else for that matter – until a Superior Court judge rules who legitimately has control over the organization’s funds and office. The summer dispute also involves four illegal lock changes, a 24-hour sit-in and a bag of Subway sandwiches.
Judge Mark Peacock was to have returned a judgment last Thursday, but said he was unable to come to a decision and deferred it to September 20. The events set in motion by the June 19th election of a new CFS-Q executive board have become so convoluted, the summer dispute has dragged into autumn and shows no sign of a quick resolution.
The CFS-Q involves five student unions from three anglophone schools: Concordia and McGill universities and Dawson College. Currently the Concordia Student Union (CSU), the Post-Graduate’s Student Society of McGill (PGSS) and the Graduate Student Association of Concordia (GSA) are full members, which means they pay fees in order to be represented in campaigns directed at the provincial government for accessible education.
The other two groups, the Dawson Student Union (DSU) and the Student’s Society of McGill (SSMU), as prospective members, pay only five per cent of the annual fee to the CFS and no fees to CFS-Q.
Concordia’s Arts, Science, Fine Arts and Independent full-time undergraduate students pay around $12 per year to the CFS. Graduate and international students pay about $14 per year. And while tuition costs rise this year by three dollars per credit, that money, approximately $300,000, is lying idle at the bank.
“It’s really disappointing that we’re missing one of our strongest provincial lobbying partners,” said VP Communications for the CSU, Noah Stewart. “Having a dysfunctional [CFS-Q] office right now is a horrible thing for students.”
The legal battle
No one disputes that two candidates, Nina Amrov, representing McGill’s undergraduates, and Mahdi Altilibi, from Dawson, were elected by a majority vote as Chair and Deputy Chair, respectively, (two of the three at-large positions) at the CFS-Q special general meeting on June 19, 2007. But because their groups are only prospective members in the CFS-Q, the legal battle is over whether or not they were ever eligible to sit for the positions in the first place.
Another complication in the dispute is that two related court proceedings are happening simultaneously.
The first case was brought to court August 10 when Nina Amrov and Mahdi Altilibi filed an interlocutory injunction (a request for an emergency and temporary ruling) against the CFS-Q, specifically to regain authorization over the organization’s funds and be lawfully recognized as CFS-Q Executives. La Caisse Desjardins, the organization’s bank, refused to release funds until it received a court order naming the account’s signing officers.
The second case is nearly identical, but in reverse: those members of the CFS-Q that maintain Amrov and Altalibi are not a part of CFS-Q and have no right to signing authority in the organization are taking them to court in a second proceeding.
So why is the CSU involved again?
After looking more closely at the CFS-Q bylaws days after the June 19 elections, CSU President Angelica Novoa emailed the other member associations of CFS-Q with the CSU executive’s concern: “As we are seriously concerned with the legitimacy of the election we feel that no transfer of power can or should take place.”
Novoa called for a special general meeting to be held for CFS-Q members to discuss the election. Another CFS-Q Executive, VP Roland Nassim from the PGSS, also called for a meeting at that time. Although the CFS-Q bylaws mandate that a meeting must be called within three weeks of a member local calling for one, the special general meeting didn’t take place until August 8.
Amrov said that when she received Novoa’s email questioning her legitimacy, she called the CSU to find out what was going on. “I didn’t speak to anybody, [but] left a message on the answering machine. [Later] Altalibi spoke to Angelica and asked her why she didn’t come speak to them when it was first going on and see what was going on and basically she didn’t want to give any detail whatsoever.”
Amrov said she didn’t call the special general meeting because she didn’t know exactly what the rules were. “I was panicking basically, being a beginner in all this, not sure what was going on. Roland Nassim was also saying I had to take [calling a meeting] into consideration. Some people told me to wait. Everyone was telling me that a resolution had to be passed by the board of directors before a special general meeting could be called. Then when I didn’t receive a resolution, I though I had done the right thing because there was now consensus between the board.”
Nassim said that although he had no problem supporting Amrov and Altalibi initially, and in fact had tried to help Amrov with her questions as she settled into her new position as Chair, he realized the logistical problem of having prospective members as members of the executive-at-large. “When we were presented with the idea of the requirement of having a fee-paying member as an eligibility requirement, it made sense to us,” said Nassim.
“We’re not siding with the CSU, we’re siding with the principle here: that prospective members should not be eligible for the at-large executive,” said Nassim. “A board of directors has a big legal and financial responsibility over student’s money. That’s what the CFS-Q is going to be doing this year: spending student’s money. The people that are paying for them are the full members.”
Novoa said they took the stand they did because the CFS-Q as a whole organization was in “legal jeopardy.” She said no one had talked about impeaching the two executives – that was to come later – but they wanted to meet to discuss things. Novoa said the CSU is “fighting to defend the $300,000 that Concordia students give to CFS. This is the reason why it’s a big fight, otherwise maybe we wouldn’t care so much about it. With such a large amount of money it’s sort of a no-brainer that we have to protest that.”
Meanwhile, the McGill undergraduates Student’s Society was baffled as to why the CSU was opposing the election after they had voted the two executives in. Max Silverman, VP External for SSMU said, “[It] was totally out of the blue. [The CSU] didn’t raise this during the election.”
“We didn’t join without reading the bylaws,” said Silverman. “We asked the national director [Amanda Aziz], who said we were eligible. We were guaranteed we had all rights of full members.”
National Director of the CFS, Amanda Aziz, was Chief Returning Officer for the election. “The way I interpreted the by-laws,” said Aziz, “which may or not be correct, is that there is no prospective membership fee for CFS-Q. So I interpreted it . that those being assessed at a prospective membership fee, which is zero, would be eligible [to sit].”
She said the issue hasn’t come up before with any other provincial groups because each component has different eligibility qualifications for elections. “I can see how someone could interpret the bylaws either way,” said Aziz. “The matter is in court and we just have to wait and see.”
In response to Novoa’s email about electing new executives, Silverman said SSMU “wrote back very politely saying . it was unacceptable to demand that we withdraw the elected candidates.”
According to Silverman, members of the SSMU executive felt the CSU’s call for Altalibi and Amrov to step down was “a case of ‘sore loserism’- [the CSU] were bullying to get their way,” he said. Silverman said the CSU were upset they didn’t get the executives they wanted in elected for those positions.
The second email Silverman wrote had a nasty tone, he admitted. He quoted his own words: “‘Maybe in your world, the CSU is always right, but in our world there are such things as facts. Being a grown up sucks.'” He also mentioned in the email that the SSMU had a motion before council to “sever all ties with [the CSU] until they cease their childish antics, when all our energy should be going into campaigning against the tuition increase.” But the motion didn’t pass.
Novoa replied that the CSU would “cut ties with Max Silverman if he was going to make threats like that.” Ever since, the two groups have not spoken.
“From the beginning they tried to bully and push us to back down from what we think is right, and we want to work with every member of the student movement. But from what we’ve seen, they’ve failed to be productive members, and so we haven’t contacted them,” said Stewart.
Back at CFS-Q headquarters, another back-and-forth battle was playing out. The CFS-Q office is located just across the street from Concordia’s Hall building on de Maisonneuve St. Over the course of the summer, the lock on the door was changed four times: twice at the instigation of Altalibi and Amrov and twice by the opposing members of the CFS-Q who wanted to secure the property.
The first lock change was on June 19. According to court documents, newly-elected Chair Amrov and Deputy Chair Altalibi changed the lock when they couldn’t get into their office because the outgoing executives hadn’t returned the keys.
On July 26, Altalibi changed the lock again. On August 4, the locks were changed again, this time by CFS-Q employee George Soule. CSU VP Communications, Noah Stewart, said Soule changed it “with the consent of the building manager. [He] went with the authorized locksmith and changed the locks.”
Amrov admitted she and Altalibi then changed the locks again at that point because “it was my office. I wasn’t told that the locks would be changed by the other parties, so I took that as if [they were] breaking into the office and I took the steps needed to re-access my office,” said Amrov in an interview last Saturday.
Soule, Stewart and CSU VP External, Erica Jabouin went to the office on August 8 to find not only that the locks had been changed, but that Altalibi and Amrov’s supporters (among them SSMU President Aaron Donny-Clark and a Dawson student Fahr Marouf) had arrived, planning to spend the night. DSU VP External Malamo Beaumont appeared with Subway sandwiches in hand.
Stewart called the police who said they wouldn’t intervene because it was a civil matter. The two CSU executives and Soule left. Two days later, Amrov and Altalibi filed the injunction against the CFS-Q to regain control of the office space. The CFS-Q filed its injunction against Altalibi and Amrov on Aug. 19.
That Infamous August Third General Meeting
In which Executives Are Impeached, Executive Are Elected and Motions are Made for Locks to be Changed -Again
At the special general meeting of the CFS-Q on Aug. 3, conspicuously missing from the agenda was a motion to impeach Amrov and Altalibi. Novoa had notified them both of them, as well as the other members local, a week earlier that the CSU would be submitting the matter of the removal of the pair from their positions.
The DSU arrived at the meeting already split into two different delegations, one supporting VP Finance Shanice Rose as the chosen representative to the CFS-Q board, and the other supporting VP External Malamo Beaumont.
Before the meeting, Rose had been elected by the DSU executives and the president as their chosen representative. But Amrov, who as Chair of the meeting was supposed to ratify the chosen delegate, chose to ratify Beaumont instead.
Stewart said this was completely contrary to proper procedure. “The VP External, this rogue External, comes with her own delegation and the Chair chooses to recognize her. It’s not up to the Chair to choose who represents the organization, it’s about the organization choosing who represents them.
Amrov said she chose to represent Beaumont because when the DSU voted on their delegate to the CFS-Q, they hadn’t reached quorum at the meeting. “We checked the resolution and found out that the meeting hadn’t had quorum when they impeached Malamo [Beaumont] from her duties as the representative local. So we thought the precautious thing to do would be to ratify Malamo [Beaumont]. And until a meeting with quorum would be held and their administration would choose the [representative] local and then we would make the changes as required.”
A motion to adjourn the meeting was submitted by Patrice Blais, the representative from the GSA, seconded by SSMU. Those members of the DSU who supported Altalibi and Amrov walked out, along with the GSA and the SSMU.
“The basic conflict is over who is representing Dawson, because that’s the tie-breaking vote,” said Stewart.
The remaining associations, the CSU, PGSS and the rest of the DSU, maintaining that the vote to adjourn did not pass, stayed and the meeting continued under Deputy Chairperson of CFS Brent Farrington’s direction as Chair.
The three groups left then voted to impeach Amrov and Alitalibi and elected another executive: Melanee Thomas (PGSS) as National Representative and Soshima Cadet (PGSS) as Chair. The Deputy Chair position was left vacant.
A motion was also passed to change the locks on the CFS-Q office.
‘A Date with Court’
A week later, the sit-in had occurred, the Subway sandwiches had been consumed and the office locks had been changed again – twice.
On Aug. 10, Amrov and Altalibi went to court with a provisional injunction against the CFS-Q.
“[My] plaint against them is because of the illegal way that they impeached me and elected new people without [my knowledge],” said Amrov. “I went to see a lawyer and I told him everything that happened and he basically said we have a case and that we had to take care of it.
According to Stewart, the CSU got a call at 11 a.m. with the news that Amrov and Altalibi had filed an injunction and the proceedings were starting that day at 2 p.m. “We called [the lawyers] at 11, met them at 1 p.m. and [the proceedings] lasted until 5:30 p.m.,” said Stewart.
“The only reason we had representation there was because of the last minute nature,” said Stewart. “Because we were concerned that hundreds of thousands of dollars of student money could be abused and we didn’t have any time to look at the whole issue because no one informed us.”
Amrov admits she didn’t inform PGSS and the CSU that she was taking action against the CFS-Q. She said it was because she “felt intimidated, very intimidated by them. That was a mistake from my part. I admit that was a mistake. It’s not that I didn’t want them to know about it, but I was intimidated.”
At the hearing, the Judge Brian Riordan refused to grant the provisional injunction Amrov and Altalibi were seeking and deferred the case to Aug. 15. The matter is still pending.
Ironically, whether Amrov wins her case or not, the CFS-Q will likely be paying the legal bills for it’s own court battles.
“If I win the case this is going to come out of the legal budget that we voted upon. If I don’t win my case, the lawyer will have to get into business with the CFS-Q, whoever is going to be executive of the CFS-Q and will have to be dealing with them,” said Amrov.
The GSA wants out
Concordia’s Graduate students could soon be pulling out of the mess altogether. The GSA council voted on Aug. 22, to begin the process of de-federating from the CFS-Q.
“There was an overwhelming vote [from council] in favour of it, [with] only one abstention,” said lawyer Patris Blais, acting interim president for the GSA.
Blais outlined the reasons for his recommendation to de-federate and called for fellow graduates to sign a petition in an open letter in the GSA’s 2007-2008 student agenda. He also pointedly criticized the CSU in his letter, calling it “the 500 pound pet gorilla of the CFS National.”
Blais, who represents the GSA within the CFS-Q, disagrees with the CSU’s course of action and said he thought it was an issue of control. “The two people that were elected were not people that they, in my opinion, had influence on. They were not candidates [that the CSU] wanted there in the first place,” said Blais, referring to Amrov and Altalibi, although he could not say who he thought the CSU would have wanted elected.
Blais said the reason for their leaving is an accumulation of grievances, though mostly against the CFS-National. “At some point you become convinced after trying so many times that there’s nothing you can do within an organization, you’re never going to be listened to and that the best thing you can do is [consider] leaving the organization.”
He needs ten per cent of the associations’ members to sign and as of 4 p.m. last Friday, he had close to 250. “We’re going to need 550 [names] by Sept. 18,” said Blais. This cut-off date required by the organization is six months before the referendum in March.
The end is nigh?
If the CFS-Q does recover from its season of discontent and infighting, it may have to undergo some changes to regain its integrity and relevance to the Quebec student movement.
Roland Nassim, VP external for McGill’s post-graduates and a CFS-Q executive, said there are a lot of improvements that need to be made, “starting with completing new bylaws, clear, well-written, self-explanatory. Ending with [the questions] ‘Where do we see ourselves in Quebec? Have we been successful in Quebec? Are we always going to stay the ‘anglo voice’?’ ”
If the GSA does pull out, and the lobby group is left with only two members, Nassim said the CFS-Q would lose its relevancy entirely. “We need to improve the way we lobby, the way we work with other student organizations,” said Nassim, “otherwise we’re going to be fighting each other like we have the last few years.”