CUP â€” Almost a year after holding referendums to leave Canada’s largest student lobby group, two Quebec student unions are asking the courts to order the Canadian Federation of Students to recognize the results and let them leave.
On March 17, the Concordia Student Union filed a lawsuit against the CFS asking the Quebec Superior Court to declare the results of last March’s referendum “valid and binding on the CFS,” said CSU lawyer Philippe-AndrÃ© Tessier.
The referendum resulted in an overwhelming 2,348 students voting to leave the organization while only 931 voted to remain members.
The student union is also seeking to have the court declare rule changes from November 2009, which made leaving the CFS more difficult, to be null and void. The CSU claims the rules were never properly passed, according to CFS bylaws, and that they were applied retroactively.
The CSU is also asking the court to throw out an agreement signed by the union’s former president Keyana Kashfi which claims the CSU owes the CFS over $1 million. According to the CSU’s statement of claim, Kashfi’s action “was done in bad faith and constitutes gross negligence â€¦ towards her legal obligations.”
The CSU claims Kashfi didn’t have the right to sign the document and that even though it was allegedly signed in April 2009, the CSU was not aware of it until February 2010. They also claim that communications from the CFS in September and November 2009, as well as in January 2010, did not reference any debt owed by the CSU.
According to Tessier, the CSU waited so long to file because they hoped to resolve the situation without going to court.
“When [student unions] call me, I say don’t go to court. This is politics, solve it,” he said.
While the CSU has waited to take action, the McGill Post Graduate Students’ Society has been in court with the CFS for over a year. The PGSS first took legal action in effort to force the CFS to set a date for the referendum. While the CFS initially agreed to participate in the PGSS referendum, they later pulled out. PGSS went ahead with the referendum and 86 per cent of voters were in favour of leaving the organization.
Like the CSU, PGSS is currently asking the court to enforce the results of the referendum.
In filings with the Quebec Superior Court, the CFS claims the conduct of PGSS appointees on a committee set up to oversee the referendum “clearly hampered the [referendum oversight committee’s] work, which resulted in deadlock.”
They also claim that the PGSS refused to “respect the contractual terms of the CFS bylaws” and attempted to create their own rules for the referendum.
However, the PGSS claims the CFS applied “referendum rules abusively and in bad faith to attempt to deny the rights of [the PGSS] and its members.”
One of the sticking points between the two organizations was the timing of the referendum. The PGSS wanted four days of voting while the CFS wanted two.
While CFS bylaws require that referendum dates be set by the organization’s national executive “in consultation” with the local students’ union, according to a deposition by CFS national chairperson Dave Molenhuis, and entered into evidence by PGSS lawyers, the consultation process isn’t a negotiation.
He said the consultation process requires the national executive to “solicit from the member local any information about events or date that may conflict with a referendum.”
On Jan. 14, 2010, the CFS sent a letter to the PGSS setting the referendum for March 31 and April 1, 2010. On Jan. 21, PGSS responded by asking for the referendum to be held from March 29 to April 2. The CFS then decided to go ahead with a two-day vote on the days they had suggested.
According to Molenhuis, the letter did “not provide any information that would lead members of the national executive to believe that the dates it set for the referendum were problematic.”
On Feb. 25, the CFS filed a motion with the court to have the case dismissed, which was rejected. In the motion CFS lawyers reiterated the federation’s position that the CSU, PGSS and Concordia Graduate Students’ Association, which held a similar referendum, are still members of the organization.
Throughout their filings and cross-examinations of CFS officials, as part of pre-trial discovery, PGSS lawyers have raised questions about CFS spending practices.
According to an audit of CFS and CFS-Services, a legally distinct organization, which shares the same board of directors, for the year 2009 and included in evidence, that year the CFS spent over $2.1 million on a new office building.
“What business is [the CFS] in and why does a student lobby organization require a $2-million building?” PGSS lawyers wrote in a motion to videotape the CFS offices in order to gather evidence.
CFS has filed a motion to keep the video confidential and not have it entered into publicly available evidence.
The audit also reveals that, as of 2009, the CSU also owned a restored heritage building worth over $600,000 and owns over $875,000 worth of land. That year the organization also spent over $100,000 on rent.
In a deposition, CFS director of organizing Lucy Watson said that CFS-Services owns a piece of property in Ontario’s Algonquin Park.
Additionally, the audit reveals that Travel CUTS, a travel agency that was owned by CFS, recorded a loss of over $5 million that year. It was sold in November 2009 for $1 plus a small share of future revenue.
According to the audit, as of 2009, CFS-Services owes CFS $1.2 million. In deposition interviews, when PGSS lawyers asked whether CFS-Service is insolvent, CFS lawyers objected to the question and it was not answered.
In 2009, CFS received just over $2.7 million in student fees, while CFS-Services received over $935,000.
That year, the organization spent less than $500,000 on campaigns.
According to Watson’s deposition, employee salaries are drawn from multiple budget lines including “campaigns,” “communications” and “research” depending on what they are working on. Watson said all CFS employees and most CFS-Services employees are paid by both organizations and the three CFS-Services employees who are not also employees of CFS are not unionized.
Both the PGSS and the CSU are seeking $100,000 in damages. The CSU claims that CFS actions have violated students’ association rights under the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
The PGSS and CFS have until June 1 to finalize their cases in that suit.
The CSU also expects their suit to take a long time.
“It’s not going to be an easy case,” Tessier acknowledged.
While the CSU is currently in the midst of an election campaign, the presidential candidates from both slates have vowed to continue legal action if elected.
“Students voted and the CFS has to recognize our right to leave the organization,” said presidential candidate Lex Gill, who was one of the organizers of the petition that led to Concordia’s referendum. She added that despite the high cost of litigation, it would still be “significantly less” than what the CFS claims Concordia students owe the organization.
Her opponent, Khalil Haddad had similar sentiments.
“Any litigation taken by the CSU, will be continued in my mandate until CFS recognizes our referendum that passed with a substantial majority,” he said.
A lawsuit between the CFS and its former Quebec branch is also ongoing, as is a suit by the Quebec branch’s former landlord for unpaid rent. Both CFS and the former Quebec branch claim the other is responsible for the rent.
The Concordia GSA, who has not taken legal action, did not respond to a request for comment from the Canadian University Press.
Molenhuis, who generally does not comment on ongoing litigation, also did not respond to a request for comment.