It’s not personal — it’s just student money

Why UMSU should leave the Canadian Federation of Students

More than $344,211.

That number would pay a year’s tuition for 73 domestic students, would buy 62,000 discounted Rise n Shine Breakfasts at Degrees or a bungalow in Fort Richmond.

That’s also the amount UMSU members paid to the Canadian Federation of Students last year. Yet for years UMSU has felt that it doesn’t receive value for that money.

Last week, our executive team recommended UMSU begin collecting signatures for a petition demanding a referendum to leave the Canadian Federation of Students, and several reasons were thrown out as to why. The most frequently cited reason on social media has been the longstanding allegation that the Canadian Federation of Students meetings prove to be a hostile environment, particularly against UMSU and other locals which speak against the majority.

Many countered these claims, saying they are embellished, that UMSU is often responsible for much of this hostility or that executives should suck it up.

I am fully aware how little students care about this airing of grievances and want to speak instead to an issue all students can relate to — their money.

Specifically, I want to talk about why we aren’t getting proper value for money from the Canadian Federation of Students and why we would be better served looking elsewhere for our provincial and federal advocacy.


Not for large institutions

UMSU is one of the Canadian Federation of Students’ largest contributors. Among the largest members, both UMSU and the University of Toronto Student Union are engaged in active decertification campaigns.

The Canadian Federation of Students does not make sense for these schools.

Compared to the other two national student organizations — Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) and Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities (UCRU) — the Canadian Federation of Students costs considerably more. The federation’s annual fees, upward of $340,000 ($15.22 per student), dwarf CASA’s $55,000 price tag, while UCRU — which UMSU is also a member of — has no membership cost.

The federation supposedly separates itself from the pack by providing services in addition to advocacy. Member locals have access to a health and dental provider, a purchasing network for promotional material and an array of smaller perks, including the international student identity card. While these services can be of value for small institutions with less negotiating capacity, UMSU members only use some of these services, with the two largest — the purchasing network and the health plan — being unused due to UMSU working with less expensive and higher quality providers. Even without opting in to the federation’s major services, our students pay over $50,000 to federation services.

Despite our large fee, about 60 per cent of the Manitoba chapter’s total budget, we get just one vote in both the provincial and national components.

Other organizations have remedied this issue by either charging less per student for larger organizations (CASA) or by having members’ voting power in proportion to their student population (Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance).

But the Canadian Federation of Students has retained one vote per local and a universal fee per student. We pay much more, while our voting power per student represented is smaller than most CFS member locals.


Not the only option

As I became more involved in student governance, I asked to attend the 2017 national general meeting and I saw firsthand the aforementioned hostile environment as well as much more concerning trends of financial mismanagement and fraud and a concerning resistance to fiscal transparency.

At the June federation meeting, my first as an executive, I saw the federation expel 15 member locals and watched a plethora of motions be voted down by overwhelming majorities that aimed to improve the federation’s fiscal and democratic practices, such as implementing online voting, full disclosure of the fraud investigation and allowing member locals to review and vote on affirming their membership whenever their board wishes to.

I grew incredibly frustrated with the federation, as it seemed intent on retaining membership through undemocratic bylaws rather than consultation and self-reflection.

Still, I felt compelled to support a unified student movement above all.

In the last six months, I’ve had the opportunity to work with UCRU and observe CASA at their policy and strategy conference. The differences compared to the Canadian Federation of Students were stark.

In each of these organizations, lobby weeks include all member locals (UMSU has not been asked to participate by the federation in the past six years) and advocacy documents are voted on and prepared by any willing member local with all being consulted.

As well, the mandate of each is to focus on issues directly relating to student priorities, while CFS has spent student money on a number of campaigns, such as pipeline protests, Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions of Israel and support for labour unions, that may be in the interest of social justice, but are not an appropriate use of student funds.

As well, university administrators and political officials have made it clear to me that the Canadian Federation of Students is not well-respected, as CASA and UCRU’s proposals are more heavily researched and more attainable.

With no increase in student fees UMSU could retain its membership in UCRU, allowing us to represent students in an organization prioritizing issues exclusive to U15 students, join CASA to give UMSU a place in a national student organization representing all demographics of students, instigate a new provincial lobbying coalition with CASA member Red River College and any CFS-affiliated school interested in joining, hire two full-time staff focused directly on advocacy issues and still have money left over to improve services for students and creating more spaces, resources and programming for black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) students.

It’s up to you.

If we collect signatures from 15 per cent of the student body, there will be a referendum on membership with the Canadian Federation of Students.

I look forward to the federation presenting its case as to why UMSU  can’t get any better value elsewhere and my team looks forward to presenting the reasons we think you could get better value elsewhere.

It’s my job to inform students of where their money is going and to represent them based on what I believe is in their best interests. Whatever students choose to do, I will fully support, but if you think students deserve a chance to vote, in a binding referendum when presented with both sides of the argument, I have a petition for you to sign.

You know where to find me.