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McGill graduate students launch individual suit against student federation

Graduate student asks court for approval of referendum to leave CFS

Ge Sa, a graduate student at McGill, appeared before a Quebec Superior Court judge on March 18 to ask the court to schedule a vote on decertification from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) following claims that his petition to hold a referendum has been ignored by the organization.

Sa’s actions come after the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) filed a case against the CFS after the CFS refused to recognize the results of a referendum to leave in 2010. The lawsuit is currently in progress.

Sa’s action, on behalf of individual graduate students instead of PGSS, is meant to stop CFS from collecting fees while the suit with PGSS is being decided over the next few years.

“CFS is known to try every trick in the book to not have a disaffiliation referendum,” Sa said. “They try to keep people in their federation, so they have to keep paying them. It’s like a lobster trap. It’s easy to get in and difficult to get out.”

According to Sa, over 20 per cent of graduate students and postdocs at McGill signed a petition asking CFS for an opportunity to vote to leave the organization. The petition was sent by registered mail, as is required by CFS bylaws.

Sa claims that after a failed delivery attempt at CFS’ headquarters in Ottawa, the CFS failed for two weeks to pick up the petition from the post office, and ignored subsequent emails and written reminders from Sa urging them to collect the petition. Sa then sought legal counsel and served a demand letter by bailiff to CFS Chairperson Jessica McCormick, compelling her to retrieve the petition.

Despite these efforts, Sa claims that the petition was still not retrieved. Sa delivered a second demand letter to McCormick during CFS’ annual general meeting in Gatineau on November 23, 2013. According to Sa, the CFS is required to reply to the petition within 90 days of receiving it, but they ignored this obligation and refused to schedule the vote.

In an interview with The Daily, Brent Farrington, Internal Coordinator of the CFS, denied that the CFS had neglected its responsibilities in replying to the petition.

“To validate a petition, we work with the association and [the] University to ensure that the names that are submitted are, in fact, valid members of the CFS and that the petition meets the required threshold. Our request to get that information was never fulfilled,” said Farrington.

“We have not ignored the petition. That is completely false,” Farrington continued. “We had to reach out to [PGSS] to validate it. They were unhelpful and failed to do so as per the bylaws.”

Farrington also questioned the effect the students’ petition would have on PGSS’ separate case.

“It’s clear why they wouldn’t cooperate,” Farrington said. “It would undermine their case if they were to admit they are members of the CFS.”

Farrington continued, “It’s weird that the PGSS is suing the CFS with the argument that they are not members. But at the same time, they tried to get an injunction to hold a vote on whether or not they are members. […] We are confused as to what their logic is.”

However, according to PGSS Secretary-General Jonathan Mooney,  PGSS’ legal counsel has assured them that the injunction will not undermine their proceeding lawsuit.

“This petition is by an independent student and is separate from the ongoing litigation,” Mooney said.

“There’s a tactic that [the CFS] commonly use,” Sa said.

“They say we’ve received your petition so we’ll schedule a referendum a year from now. By that time, a significant portion of the signatories has graduated, so it’s not valid, and you don’t get a referendum.”

“The petition was signed last semester, which means many of those who signed the petition will graduate in April and will no longer be part of McGill,” Sa said.

“We think that it’s very important that their freedom of association is respected.”

The court set the trial date on August 28, 2014. Sa’s case will be heard again then, and the court will decide whether there will be an immediate referendum to leave the CFS.