The Concordia Student Union voted to leave the Canadian Federation of Students in March 2010. Despite the overwhelming number of students in favour of defederating, the CFS has not recognized the results to this day.
The CFS claims the CSU owes $1.8 million in membership fees, dating back to 1998.
The CSU’s options put forth by the CFS were slim pickings: repay the amount six weeks before a defederation referendum, get stuck in a 10-year payment plan or head to court.
The legal battles surrounding the CFS and its members are part of a systemic issue: the CFS’ inability to recognize the democratic will of a student population, as evidenced in a referendum.
The University of Calgary Graduate Students’ Association, Simon Fraser Student Society, University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union and University of Victoria Students’ Society also experienced messy break-ups with the CFS. It took three years and more than $450,000 in legal fees for the SFSS to officially leave.
The CFS stands to lose a substantial amount of money if a member defederates; it was reported that it would lose approximately $300,000 in annual membership fees if it recognized the legitimacy of the SFSS’ vote. The more associations that withdraw, the less money the CFS has and the fewer students they can claim to represent.
These legal actions only serve to alienate prospective members and students across the country, who see all the negative press associated with the CFS in student newspapers.
The CFS is losing credibility, fast. Their image is not only damaged by past and ongoing disputes, but by student union leaders who rightfully disparage the federation for their lack of respect to their members. The CFS also faces allegations of improper spending and failure to lobby the federal government on increased funding for universities.
Is a federation like the CFS really necessary? The answer is yes, according to Robert Sonin, president of the Graduate Students’ Association at Concordia University: “There is a place for a federal level lobbying organization. That said, such an association needs to be truly representative, democratic and voluntary if it is to bring any benefit to its members.”
Sonin is right. Student federations on a national level are important. They represent a powerful voice for students and they work on issues that are common to students nationwide.
In an ideal world, the CFS would tolerate the desire of a member to leave, and would seek various ways to end that relationship amicably, instead of winding up in court.
“Tuition fee levels, student financial assistance programs and funding for research are all set directly or indirectly by both levels of government. Thus, it is vital that students collectively organize at the provincial and national levels to ensure that students’ rights and concerns are fully represented,” according to the CFS’ mandate.
While this may be true, Quebec students are extremely well-represented, with several powerful unions protecting thousands of student interests. Quebec may not need the CFS as much as other provinces do, so the desire for Concordia’s CSU to leave should not come as a surprise to the CFS.
The CFS needs to re-think its course of action when dealing with members, according to CSU President Lex Gill.
“Historically, the CFS has used mechanisms of ‘unpaid fees’ to prevent members from leaving the organization,” Gill told The Concordian. “There is something wrong with an organization that won’t let its members leave without court intervention.”
Ultimately, it’s equally important for student unions and national student federations to realize that they are holding someone else’s money. The disputes may not stop any time soon but the CFS may want to start digging itself out of its expensive hole.