Defederation process complicated, has led to legal issues

The Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) is taking steps to defederate from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), a national union comprised of individual student unions across Canada, of which the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) and Graduate Students Association (GSAED) are also members.

At the start of the school year, CUSA announced a campaign called “CU Later CFS,” aiming to leave the union. CUSA is already trying to get signatures of students who want to defederate. If they get enough support, the union will trigger a referendum to leave.

Even though U of O students, through the SFUO, are also part of the CFS, there hasn’t been much talk of the CFS, let alone leaving it, on the U of O campus. With that in mind, here’s what you need to know, and how you could end up getting affected:

What is the CFS?

The CFS is a collective of student unions across Canadian post-secondary campuses. According to physical documents provided to the Fulcrum at its June 4 meeting in Ottawa, the CFS has 76 member student unions, both graduate and undergraduate, across nine provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador. The vast majority of student unions are from Ontario and British Columbia.

The CFS is designed to serve as a united voice for students, and manages numerous campaigns across schools, like the Fight the Fees protest organized last year, providing promotional materials for these campaigns. The CFS also lobbies federal and provincial governments on student issues such as tuition.

In addition to this, the CFS has a provincial offshoot called CFS Ontario, of which both CUSA and the SFUO are members. CUSA currently wants to defederate from both arms of the CFS.

Membership to the CFS national arm runs $4.43 per semester per student.

The bank account

In 2014, the CFS announced the existence of a previously undiscovered bank account. According to an independent forensic review by Grant Thornton LLP given to the Fulcrum at the CFS’ June 4 meeting, five unauthorized parties had taken out $263,052.80 in CFS funds, which remain unaccounted for. The recipients included two former employees of the CFS, a law firm, a consulting company, and a “further individual.”

The report found that neither the chairperson nor the treasurer of the board knew about or authorized these transactions.

At the CFS’ June 4 meeting, treasurer Peyton Veitch included a statement with the report, which stated, “there has been a concerted effort to change our federation over the past two years.”

Veitch also wrote that the report “will no doubt continue to elicit attacks from those who have been interested in dismantling the federation.” He continued that such “these types of attacks will likely include various forms of blackmail, intimidation and character assassination.”

Other issues

In recent years, some universities have begun to weigh the pros and cons of CFS membership. Last year, the University of Toronto Students’ Union released a report critical of the CFS, though it did not directly recommend leaving.

The report flagged problems including an “unnecessarily burdensome” defederation process, noting that other student unions, including the U of T’s graduate student union, have had to take the CFS to court to attempt to leave.

A similar report by the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) took issue with the fact that the CFS doesn’t make meeting notes available to the general public. It also cited a lack of progress in lowering tuition fees.

The report was also critical of legal action initiated by the CFS.

In 2015, the CFS sued the Cape Breton University student’s union after it attempted to defederate. A judge found in favour of the CFS, ordering the CBU students’ union to pay damages of around $300,000 as well as six years of unpaid union dues, at a rate of $40,000 per year, as well as the CFS’ legal costs. There has since been an appeal and an out of court legal settlement.

How do you leave?

First, a student union that wishes to defederate must circulate a petition among its members to show that they want to leave, with separate petitions to leave the CFS and CFS Ontario. This petition must be signed by 15 per cent of students to leave the national branch (recently lowered from 20), and 20 per cent to leave CFS Ontario.

CUSA, however, is aiming to hit above the threshold, since if enough signatures are determined invalid they will need to restart the process.

If the petition is in order, the CFS and the student union will schedule a referendum. Once the referendum is scheduled, there will be a campaigning period, where the student union tries to convince students to leave the CFS, and the CFS tries to convince them to stay.

Next comes the referendum vote. Online voting is not allowed, and the vote must meet a quorum of 10 per cent of the student population. If quorum is not met, the vote is invalid regardless of the result.

If the referendum passes, the CFS will determine if it’s in order, and will vote to ratify the results at their next meeting.

If that passes, then the parties involved will start the decertification process. Any student union that has not repaid all debt to the CFS will not be allowed to defederate.

The CFS and the SFUO

Rather than considering leaving the CFS, the SFUO is becoming more involved with the organization than ever.

SFUO president Hadi Wess now sits on the CFS national executive as the Francophone Students’ Representative, succeeding 2016-17 SFUO vice-president of services and communications Francesco Caruso. SFUO vice-president equity Leila Moumouni-Tchouassi also sits on the national executive as the Racialized Students’ Representative.

The new chair of the SFUO’s Board of Administration, Bilan Arte, just stepped down this past summer from her role as National Chairperson of the CFS.

As of now, there is no discussion of leaving the CFS on the U of O campus.

If CUSA ends up defederating, it will mean that they won’t have access to CFS material or training, and won’t be able to participate in conferences with other CFS members.