The Canadian Federation of Students, an organization that works to represent post-secondary students across Canada, has filed a lawsuit against the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU).
The federation — established in 1981 and composed of more than 65 student unions across Canada — alleges that while UMSU remains a voting member of the organization, it has not paid over $1 million in membership dues that have been owed since 2018.
The two student groups have had a rocky relationship since 2013 when UMSU, a member of the federation since 2001, held an ad hoc committee to determine if the union’s membership was worthwhile for the students.
UMSU has a history of withholding membership fees from the Canadian Federation of Students, owing the federation up to $650,000 in dues in 2015. This resulted in the payment of more than $990,000 in 2016, which settled a dispute that lasted more than three years.
In 2018, UMSU held a non-binding plebiscite that asked the student body if the union should remain a member of the federation, at a cost of $14.98 per student each academic year. The result was a resounding yes, with more than 64 per cent of votes cast in favour of membership.
Despite this, the UMSU board and executive have remained vocal about their recommendation to leave the federation, voting internally two years ago to end membership.
The 2021-22 UMSU president Brendan Scott cited the internal vote in a February 2022 interview with the Manitoban when he claimed that “according to our board, we are no longer members of [the Canadian Federation of Students], so the need to pay fees is unnecessary.”
Scott said that in addition to the federation’s refusal to permit an online membership vote while students were not on campus, a conflict with the two organizations’ by-laws prevented the union from officially leaving.
The Canadian Federation of Students’ most recently amended by-laws state that each member of the federation is responsible for abiding by all provisions of its by-laws. Each member is also responsible for ensuring that fees are collected and forwarded to the federation.
The by-laws also state that students collectively belonging to a member association may vote on the continuation of that association’s membership.
If either a quorum or the collective vote of ten per cent of the members of the student association is reached, an association can begin the withdrawal process given that all outstanding fees have been paid to the Canadian Federation of Students at least six weeks before voting.
The lawsuit asserts that despite Scott’s claim that the union is no longer a member of the federation, UMSU has not taken any of the steps needed to withdraw membership.
While the Canadian Federation of Students national chairperson Marie Dolcetti Koros was unavailable for an interview, her statement on behalf of the federation said that “the [federation] engages with member locals in good faith, and has tried to engage with UMSU cooperatively over the past four years to remit collected member dues.”
According to the lawsuit, “despite the [Canadian Federation of Students’] efforts, UMSU has refused to engage in such discussions.”
The Manitoba report for the federation’s October 2021 National Executive Meeting stated that according to the UMSU executives, the fees sat “untouched in a bank account,” but that the federation had not received any documentation to confirm the fact at the time.
Dolcetti Koros said that throughout this time, the Canadian Federation of Students has continued to support and advocate for its members at the U of M.
Current UMSU president Jaron Rykiss declined a request for an interview. In a Sept. 9 email to the Manitoban, he wrote that the union had not been provided anything from the plaintiff and had not had the chance to connect with its legal team.
“What I will say is that every two years, (as per our rules), our board votes on whether to remain in [the Canadian Federation of Students] or to attempt defederation,” he wrote.
According to Rykiss, the board voted to attempt to defederate at the end of last term.
“That is a mandate and directive that my board has been given and will continue to follow.”
— with files from Colton McKillop