Debate continues within McGill’s Post Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) on the question of leaving the national student federation that has represented it for 17 years.
The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) is the largest student lobby group in Canada. It is meant to be an effective advocacy group for student interests nationwide, while its parallel organization, CFS-Services, provides many student unions with health plans and student handbooks.
CFS has also been charged by its detractors with a lack of transparency, antidemocratic internal proceedings, and the use of legal threats to intimidate its critics. For many of these reasons, PGSS filed a petition to defederate from CFS in late October. CFS national treasurer Dave Molenhuis, who was recently elected 2010-2011 national chairperson, says he has received the petition. PGSS is still waiting for the organization to reply to their request and set a date for a referendum.
What is at stake in defederation?
CFS received $68,000 in membership dues from McGill University graduate students and post-doctorates in 2009.
Its supporters stress that the federation allows the Canadian student movement to present a united front in lobbying government. “If we were not united under one federation, we would lose unity in articulating our vision for postsecondary education,” said Molenhuis. “If we aren’t working together, I can guarantee you we will be defeated. We will be carved up, we will be divided, and we will fall.”
PGSS executives, along with undergraduate and graduate student leaders at Concordia, have publicly expressed frustration with what they see as CFS’s lack of transparency and increasingly undemocratic operations, as well as the amount of money spent on legal action against critics of CFS.
According to budgetary documents, the CFS spent $246,646.29 on legal costs in 2008-2009, and between $83,285.70 and $368,657.64 each year over the last decade.
Documents compiled primarily by students at Simon Fraser Univesity and posted on studentunion.ca suggest significant federation involvement in litigation and legal threats against student unions as recently as 2006 and 2008.
Molenhuis denied that the majority of CFS’s legal fees are incurred in suits against students, and told The Daily they can be attributed to producing things like legal language on student ID cards.
Separate from the petition to move members of the PGSS to a defederation referendum, six student unions put together a package of motions to reform the CFS through official channels at the organization’s annual general meeting (AGM) in late November.
PGSS president Daniel Simeone called the reform package “the first draft for what could be a truly effective organization.”
Many of the motions put forward in the package concerned the ability of student unions to leave the federation, as well as to increase transparency with reforms such as putting minutes and financial records online.
The majority of the package’s reforms presented at the AGM were not passed.
“There was this systematic blockage of the motions that had been put forward by Quebec,” said PGSS VP External Ladan Mahabadi. “Instead of focusing on the reforms and discussing the motions based on their merits, they were brought down because they were coming from Quebec and PGSS.”
Molenhuis said that the PGSS was not singled out at the AGM and maintained in an interview with The Daily that the outcome was the result of standard democratic procedure. “It’s the delegates who are deciding what amendments to make and how to vote on each of the motions,” Molenhuis said.
A timeline on the PGSS External Affairs Committee web site’s federal representation page documents times when significant concerns with CFS have been raised, dating back to the late nineties.
More difficult to leave
A reform passed at the AGM, known as Motion 6, doubled the number of student votes required on a petition to leave CFS.
Simeone criticized the reform as compromising the primary right guaranteed to individual student members of CFS: the ability to start a petition to defederate.
Simeone and Mahabadi expressed concerns that CFS bylaws were violated by this reform. CFS bylaws require a two-thirds majority of all voting members present to pass reform to the constitution. Mahabadi stated that during the AGM vote, of 68 present voting members, 44 voted for the reform, 19 against, and 5 abstained – which she thought fell short of the 46 votes required for a 2/3 majority.
Molenhuis added that he has not received any communication or further questions on process and bylaws from members of the PGSS. “They can certainly communicate those concerns to the national executive, but that hasn’t happened at this time,” he said.
Molenhuis said that the reform will not retroactively affect the 13 schools who have already filed petitions to leave CFS.
Mahabadi said she expected the reform to have lasting implications. “Regardless of what happens to the PGSS, [this change] is not going to go away…. Even if it doesn’t apply retroactively it’s very problematic; it contradicts their own bylaws.”
Recent developments in council and the referendum committee
Eric Pollanen, PGSS VP Finance for the past two years, was recommended to chair CFS referendum committee with nearly unanimous approval at Council on Tuesday night.
History representative James Wallace was among three members who opposed Pollanen’s recommendation on the grounds that the role he played in drafting the reform package would not allow him to be impartial. “I don’t believe the wording of the reform package was presented in the spirit of reform. I believe it was presented in very negative language as an ultimatum,” Wallace said.
“I am against it considering the extremely progressive policies that CFS promotes,” Wallace added. “To place someone who I strongly believe has a conflict of interest in this issue and is against CFS National in a position where they are adjudicating the referendum question is abominable…. The good work that the CFS is doing needs to be made known to graduate students here before they make up their minds in a referendum.”
PGSS Council member and former VP External Adrian Kaats, who is also a board member of CFS-Quebec, voiced concern that the council members defending CFS were being swayed by personal affiliations rather than trends supported by documentation. “They’re a very small number of people who are getting information from their friends who are employees of the CFS and who are not doing due diligence. These councillors are not looking at the abundance of information about the Canadian Federation of Students and its very serious problems with transparency, democracy, and accountability”
Members of CFS National Executive have been invited to attend the next PGSS Council meeting in February, along with CFS-Quebec staff.
—with files from Michael Lee-Murphy