The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) is a national organization that lobbies on behalf of students and which every student at the University of Manitoba is a member of, like it or not. The CFS proudly boasts that it is a “united voice” for students. This is true, if only for one reason: unity is practically shoved down throats, with the CFS often rejecting referendums and avoiding granting member unions the option to leave the organization.
For example, just last month the CFS bureaucratically denied the University of Guelph from holding a referendum on CFS membership. Guelph student organizers had sent their referendum package by process server, but CFS bylaws stipulate that petitions be delivered via registered mail. The package was eventually sent by registered mail, but arrived after the deadline of six months prior to the referendum. CFS has also recently demanded just over $1 million in unpaid fees from the Concordia Students’ Union (CSU) before they are able to hold a referendum. CSU’s president has denied that they owe the fees.
So what would it take to have a simple referendum to decide democratically that we, the students, wish to be a part of this national organization, which supposedly provides a “united and effective voice” for students? A step-by-step manual follows for anyone silly — err — brave enough to challenge the CFS for students’ democratic rights.
Disclaimer: UMSU President Sid Rashid and president-elect Heather Laube have stated their support for CFS, citing a belief in a “strong united student movement.” Grassroots students interested in a democratic decision on CFS membership can safely count out our democratic leaders.
Warning: “united” and all related words are subject to one’s own definition, and may change after reading this article.
Step one: decide if you oppose an organization that has been involved in lawsuits with its own member unions (currently they are suing the students’ union at the University of P.E.I. for nearly $100,000 in unpaid dues), and has been criticized by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association for denying the most crucial freedom of all: freedom of expression.
Step two: prepare yourself to deal with accusations from CFS proponents of being “Conservative Party activists,” regardless of your political affiliation, and dismissed as “a small group of individuals,” even if you are potentially greater in numbers than students who voted in your student representatives. See step three for more details.
Step three: petition time! Get out and talk to the student population. You only need five per cent of students, as of 2007, to sign for a democratic referendum on whether students actually want to be in the CFS.
Update: need 10 per cent of students as of 2008.
This just in: now require a full 20 per cent of students as of 2009!
Stay tuned: hope to high heaven you don’t need 40 per cent by the end of 2010 . . .
Warning: avoid discovering that annual student elections at the University of Manitoba have a turnout as low as 7.46 per cent and only as high, in recent history, as 19 per cent. Avoid discovering that a record-high voter turnout does not make the cut for petitions. This may lead to disheartenment, discouragement, despair and/or depression. Proceed with caution.
Step four: submit your petition to the CFS executive. Allow time for them to verify that petitioners are full-time students and that the petition meets CFS bylaws, as Concordia University knows all too well. After recently having to verify 5,500 signatures, only 269 were found to be ineligible.
Warning: bylaws subject to change at annual general meetings.
Step five: grab popcorn, and maybe a second degree — this next bit may take a long time.
Step six: be prepared for as many as 10 years of legal mumbo jumbo, called “litigation,” as experienced by the students’ union of Acadia University. Students provide the vast majority of CFS’ revenues — so don’t worry about the legal fees.
Step seven: wait until the CFS executive approves your petition and goes ahead with a campaign. Don’t hold your breath, though! There are 13 — wait — 11 schools (after two recent disqualifications) already lined up, and a maximum of four referendums per year, so go to the back of the line until CFS approves your effort.
Step eight: campaign time. Prepare for a nice, peaceful democratic campaign on the simple question of whether to be in a self-described democratic organization or not.
Warning: may involve student leaders and CFS staff traveling in from different CFS member schools to give CFS a “reasonable opportunity” to campaign. Avoid realizing that the CFS has far greater resources than a grassroots group of students can hope to compete with.
Step nine: hope you receive more than 50 per cent of the vote in the referendum and that CFS recognizes grassroots democracy. If not, go back to step six and repeat ad nauseum.
Blake Hamm is examining CFS-free universities for his graduate degree.