Concordia students voted to secede from the national student lobby group the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) on Friday, with 2312 members of the Concordia Student Union (CSU) voting for defederation and 855 against.
CSU president Amine Dabchy felt the vote was the right decision for Concordia undergrads. “I feel very happy. I feel like students made the right and informed decision. We’ve been working all year to inform them,” Dabchy said. “I feel it’s only normal that [students] vote this way since they’ve seen all the [CFS] assaults on Concordia.”
The CSU is the second student union, after the University of Calgary Graduate Student Association (Calgary GSA), to vote in a referendum to leave Canada’s largest student lobby group this spring. The CFS will lose around 39,065 members – or 7.8 per cent of its membership – and $340,000 if both votes are ratified.
However, both referendums contravened a new CFS by-law, known as Motion 6,that mandates only two member unions may hold referendum votes every three months. The by-law was instituted at the federation’s annual general meeting in November – several weeks after some petitions to hold referendums had already been submitted.
Though eleven student unions submitted petitions for referendums, sanctioned votes were only granted to the McGill Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) and the Alberta College of Art and Design Student Society (ACDSA).
Nine known student unions in four provinces will vote on continued membership with the CFS in the upcoming months, which will affect 20 per cent of all CFS members.
PGSS votes today
The PGSS will vote on CFS membership from March 29 until April 1, though the CFS mandated the Society to limit voting to two days, according to PGSS VP (External) Ladan Mahabadi.
PGSS decided to extend voting, because executives were concerned they could not reach quorum in such a short time. On March 23, they published an open letter to PGSS members warning them that CFS supporters might attempt to interfere in the referendum.
The current PGSS executive have been some of the loudest critics of the CFS on a national level this year, accusing the CFS of being corrupt, litigious, and anti-democratic.
At the PGSS debates on continued membership, however, the pro-CFS committee leader Ben Akih Kumgeh criticized the reform motions PGSS executives presented at November’s CFS annual general meeting.
“The list of motions all for transparency, accountability… points to fact that PGSS doesn’t seem to understand the purpose of the organization. We should question the fact our representatives seem not to take a diplomatic approach when they bring issues forward,” he said.
Unions bypass Motion 6
Five student unions holding referendums this spring will bypass the Motion 6 by-law. In addition to restricting the number of referendums held at the same time, Motion 6 also increased the number of signatures required on referendum petitions from ten per cent to twenty per cent. It also mandated that membership referendums may only be held once every five years per union, up from once every two years.
The five student unions, however, have moved to ignore Motion 6 because it was ratified after many had already applied for a referendum by petition.
University of Regina Student Union President Kyle Addison said Regina students could expect a referendum in spite of the by-law.
“Basically what happened is the CFS retro-activated part of their bylaws from November,” Addison said. “What our campus decided to do was to go ahead with a referendum without them, but also to invite them in every opportunity to take part in it.”
Matt Musson, director of campaigns for the Calgary GSA, explained the decision of his union to hold a referendum despite a request by the CFS to hold off on a referendum until 2011.
Musson said the CFS also demanded that the university verify signatures on the petition to hold a referendum, and that the Society settle an outstanding debt of $30,000 to the CFS.
Musson added that although the Calgary GSA fulfilled both requirements, they were only informed afterwards by the CFS that they would be unable to hold a referendum.
“It got to the point where we received a letter at the end of February [in which] the CFS told us we might see a vote in 2011. We sent off a letter in response that said we are voting these days. They flat out refused to do anything about it,” he said.
“[You could] probably say we broke by-laws with regards to the number of referendums allowable per year – but the exit by-laws were changed halfway through the game.”
CFS-Quebec in jeopardy?
In addition to PGSS and the CSU, CFS-Quebec’s remaining members will also vote. The Dawson Student Union’s president Carl Perks indicated that students could expect a vote in the fall. The Concordia Graduate Student Association (Concordia GSA) will also vote on April 6-8.
Like the CSU’s, the Concordia GSA vote will bypass Motion 6.
Last week, CFS demanded that both of Concordia’s student unions settle outstanding debts before they could hold a referendum.
According to Dabchy, CFS claimed the CSU owed a debt of $1,033,278.76 in back payments, though financial records at the union indicate otherwise.
“We decided to dismiss [the debt] because we have all the paper work to back our argument [that] we don’t owe them anything,” Dabchy said.
The Concordia GSA was informed this week by the CFS that they owed $200,000 in debt dating back to 1995 – which accounts for approximately 80 per cent of the GSA’s annual budget, according to VP External Erik Chevrier.
Chevrier said he was concerned with the tone of correspondence from the CFS at the time.
“[The CFS] seem to give an impression that a referendum is not about democracy or our members, but about procedure – and that they can deny our members the right to vote. It doesn’t seem that they care about our members but more about applying our rules to them,” Chevrier said.
The Dawson Student Union will also vote next year and follow CFS bylaws, according to its president Carl Perks.
Ontario and BC may have vote too
Two CFS referendums may also be held in Ontario in the coming months. According to president Brian Kombani of the Trent Central Student Association, students can expect referendums next year.
The Central Student Association at Guelph University (CSA) joined the list of unions holding spring referendums late Wednesday after the Ontario Superior Court granted them the right to hold a referendum. This decision concludes a disagreement between the CSA, the CFS, and CFS-Ontario.
The University of Victoria Students’ Society (UVSS) may also see a referendum, according to UVSS Chair-elect James Coccola. Though UVSS has been a strong supporter of CFS in the past, a pro-referendum slate won eleven of fifteen possible positions at the student union this spring.
“Our slate is very much in favour of holding a referendum because we have met the requirements to hold a referendum and within the rights of the students to hold one,” Coccola said.
As this story went to press, CFS national treasurer Dave Molenhuis and CFS-Ontario chairperson Shelley Melanson had not responded to The Daily’s multiple interview requests.