The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) claims to support democracy, voters’ rights, freedom of association, and freedom of expression. But its practices indicate that it will not support these principles when they do not work to CFS’ own benefit.
In its constitution, CFS claims that its aim is “to organize students on a democratic, cooperative basis.” It opposes the use of student codes of conduct to “oppress and/or suppress […] freedom of association.” It has even launched a campaign called “Let People Vote” criticizing the federal Fair Elections Act because it “suppresses voters” and arguing that “the government should support, not discourage us from participating in our democracy.”
But what approach does CFS take to democracy and voters’ rights when its own members wish to vote to no longer be affiliated with it? In several cases, CFS has refused to let its members vote to leave CFS until students or student unions sought court intervention. This was the case in 2010 for the University of Guelph Central Student Association, in 2011 for the University of Victoria Students’ Society, and in 2014 for both the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union and the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) of McGill University.
In several cases, CFS has refused to let its members vote to leave CFS until students or student unions sought court intervention.
The referendum for postgraduate students at McGill to take place on January 15 and 16 was only scheduled after a McGill student sought intervention from the Quebec Superior Court when CFS refused to let McGill students vote. The court ordered CFS to hold the referendum, writing, “The applicant has shown that he has a clear legal and quasi-constitutional right to the holding of a referendum in accordance with Bylaw I of the CFS. Any delay in holding the referendum will clearly cause irreparable injury to the applicant’s right to no longer be associated with the CFS.”
Students should not have to seek court intervention to exercise their democratic rights and their right to freedom of association with respect to CFS. That CFS has refused to let students vote for reasons deemed invalid by Canadian courts seriously weakens its legitimacy as an advocate in favour of democracy and against voter suppression. Moreover, it damages CFS’ credibility and shows that its alleged commitment to democracy is not borne out in practice.
CFS also claims to support freedom of expression. In 2013, it has taken a position against student codes of conduct that “limit, block, or hinder a students’ [sic] right to free expression.” Additionally, in 2009, CFS-British Columbia successfully argued before the Supreme Court of Canada that policies prohibiting political advertising on the sides of buses are an unjustifiable limit on freedom of expression.
Students should not have to seek court intervention to exercise their democratic rights and their right to freedom of association with respect to CFS.
Yet in the upcoming PGSS referendum, the CFS-appointed Chief Returning Officer (CRO), whose duty is to oversee the referendum, adopted the following rules: “There shall be no campaigning at any time in a business or service owned or operated by the Students’ Union,” and “The Chief Returning Officer or his designate will not approve materials that […] refer to legal or quasi legal actions before the courts that relate to the Referendum, or to other legal or quasi legal actions.” Although challenged, these rules were nonetheless upheld by the CFS-appointed Appeals Committee.
When the rules were challenged before the Quebec Superior Court, CFS’ legal counsel defended them. The court eventually ruled (in French) that “the prohibition to refer to litigation or legal or quasi legal actions and the limit on the places where campaigning can be done violate in an unjustified manner freedom of expression in the sense of articles 3, 9.1, and 49 of the [Quebec] Charter [of Human Rights and Freedoms].”
The court further ruled that “the restrictions imposed by the CRO via the referendum rules harm freedom of expression, and this, in an unreasonable and unjustified manner […] these bans have no rational link with the objective the referendum campaign, which is about the question of continued membership of members of PGSS as individual member of CFS.”
Allowing the freedom of expression to one’s critics is the very heart of freedom of expression.
CFS will stand up for freedom of expression with regard to its own speech but will seek to limit freedom of expression when its members are seeking to leave. This approach once again demonstrates the contradiction between CFS’ principles and its practices. Allowing the freedom of expression to one’s critics is the very heart of freedom of expression, and an organization can only improve and deal with its shortcomings when it welcomes rather than limits criticism.
CFS believes there should be only “one national student organization” – CFS – rather than a plurality of organizations that students can choose from. But history has shown time and time again that pluralism, whether in expression or in association, is preferable to a single, imposed will. The notion of unity breaks down when it is not founded on voluntary choice. The strength of the student movement comes not from membership in a single organization, but from rather from the ability to debate and make choices about our interests and affiliations freely.
Jonathan Mooney is a Law student. To reach him, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.