The great divide

Though the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) both lobby on behalf of students across the country, the two have remained separate organizations for the past 15 years.

During this time, various students’ unions have chosen to go with one over the other while some have decided to remain unaffiliated.

Jason Syvixay, University of Winnipeg Students’ Association president, said that CFS is the right fit for students at his school, as its priorities include providing services as well as being an advocacy group.

“[The UWSA] is an advocacy group; we provide services; we’re not-for-profit. What CFS-Manitoba and CFS-national does correlates with that,” said Syvixay. “It just means that we have better support and we’re all on the same page. It’s better co-ordination. We’re not stepping on someone else’s toes.”

Other student associations, like that at Red River College in Winnipeg, have instead chosen to affiliate themselves with CASA, citing its priority of advocating strictly for post-secondary education issues.

“The reason is why we are, and are happy to be [a member] is that CASA is focused directly on post-secondary issues and those alone,” said Stephen Pratt, Red River Students’ Association president. “CFS, in our minds, strays from the goal. [ . . . ] They sidetrack and tackle a lot of things not related to post-secondary education in their mandate.”

Beginning in 1981, CFS was formed through the amalgamation of a number of student organizations into one. According to Dave Molenhuis, current CFS national treasurer, the idea was that a single cohesive student organization would be more effective in lobbying various provincial governments and the federal government.

“The principle is strength in numbers and in student unity — that all students’ unions should belong to one decision-making body and be able to sit down at a table and make decisions with all students at all levels of study, whether it be graduate, undergraduate or college, or part-time or full-time,” he said.
He said that approach was believed to be “far more effective, rather than have all of these fracture[d] groups.”

Established in 1995, CASA formed from several student associations, including some splitting off from CFS.

Arati Sharma, outgoing national director of CASA, said that member associations of the newly-formed students’ organization discussed what they wanted to do differently in terms of governance and what to focus advocacy efforts on.

“We advocate for accessible, high quality post-secondary education, but we do it with the lens of understanding all costs of education and looking at the entire system as a whole,” said Sharma.
CASA members meet three times annually; at the first meeting, members decide which issues they want to advocate for during the upcoming year.

“Our membership has been very clear that they want CASA’s advocacy and policy priorities to be focused on post-secondary education [ . . . ]. We focus on the post-secondary sector,” she said.
CFS has two general meetings per year. There is time allocated for students to meet in a number of different capacities including groups for students with disabilities, international students, students of racial minorities, LGBT* students and female students.

“The majority of our time and efforts are [spent] doing membership mobilization campaigns and producing research to inform our campaigns, and doing all of the government relations work in Ottawa and each of the provincial capitals,” said Molenhuis.

He said that CFS is involved with the co-ordination of services between students’ unions in an effort to save money and be more effective through collaboration.

“Also, [members] are free to work on such issues as sustainability, while [CASA] focuses exclusively on lobbying the government on a few things,” he said.

The two organizations have similar member-driven mandates, but with different outcomes.
“We’re very member-driven. [CASA] membership decides exactly what issues they want to focus on,” said Sharma. At the moment, she said, this includes copyright, indirect research costs and student financial aid issues.

“CASA is essentially in Ottawa to speak on behalf of our membership. That’s what are primary goal is. That’s what we do. That’s the service that we provide here in Ottawa to our members,” said Sharma.

She said she feels that CASA and CFS advocate for similar things.

In recent years, CFS has advocated for a national grants system as well as tuition freezes and reductions, said Molenhuis. CASA has recently focused on advocating for funding towards accumulated deferred maintenance in post-secondary institutions, as well as interest relief and debt repayment for student loans, said Sharma.

“There are a lot of similarities in terms of changes that we want in the post-secondary education system for students,” said Sharma.

Both Molenhuis and Sharma said that each organization is willing to work with the other, although this remains to be seen in practice.

“We have a standing invitation for [ . . . ] working with other students at all points,” said Molenhuis. “But, thus far, that invitation hasn’t been responded to.”

Sharma said that CASA members had previously voted in favour of working with CFS.

“We haven’t heard from that organization on any collaborative effort,” said Molenhuis.

Further developments have happened since Molenhuis and Sharma were interviewed, as CASA voted in March to support some of the principles behind an “Open Letter to Canada’s Student Leaders,” which has called for a “new model for student representation to the federal government.” This includes working towards a fully united student movement in Canada.

In response to these recent developments, Molenhuis said that the open letter, which he says has not been sent to him personally, makes “absurd” references to the Canadian Federation of Students.

“My understanding is that in the opening statements there are absurd references to this organization being “morally bankrupt.” I don’t think students would look kindly upon their work as being referred to as morally bankrupt, considering the breadth of social justice work that our organization is engaged in, that students [have participate in] on a day to day basis.”

Molenhuis said that there are opportunities twice annually during CFS meetings for members to propose structural changes to the Canadian student movement.
“Sending out an anonymous letter making vague accusations about moral bankruptcy is not the way to make change in the student movement in Canada,” he said.

“Having a unified student movement is the objective of students in this country, absolutely. The idea that there should be separate groupings of students is an old one, one that we’ve organized and fought against for decades quite successfully,” said Molenhuis in response to whether or not the CFS is interested in a unified, national students movement.

“There is always talk of how to outreach to students at different schools, to organize and bring more students into the Federation.”

While each organization has seen membership fluctuations over the years, currently, the Canadian Federation of Students has more than 80 members, and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations has about 25 members.