By Robyn Doolittle and Dominique Blain
Come September, Ryerson students will send nearly $400,000 to a national lobby organization designed to advocate for them in government. But political leaders say students’ money is going to an organization, the Canadian Federation of Students, whose campaign tactics have rendered it ineffective. From British Columbia — where documents filed in a lawsuit allege that the CFS loaned $200,000 to the Douglas Students’ Union without proper authorization — to the Maritimes — where the organization is locked in a decade-long battle with two universities — the CFS and its independent provincial affiliates are the subject of mounting criticism across the country. Now, an Eyeopener investigation reveals a growing discontent among Ontario students about the group’s political success and alleged interference in campus elections — something the CFS staunchly denies.
One week after announcing his candidacy for Toronto Centre, Liberal heavyweight Bob Rae agrees to meet with The Eyeopener. Rae is mid-sentence into a polished speech about the need for more student grants when Nora Loreto briskly walks into the room, slightly out of breath. The president-elect and current vice president education of Ryerson Students’ Union casually hands the former premier a reduce tuition fees button.
“Oh. Nice to see you again,” Rae tells Loreto in a restrained tone.
Loreto, who is also the CFS-Ontario treasurer-elect, got to know Rae during his notable review of postsecondary education in 2005. The CFS, which charged Rae with ignoring its demands, denounced the report.
“It’d be excellent to hear if you’re in favour of lower tuition fees, considering how hard it is to live in Toronto Centre,” Loreto says. She hastily moves to her next issue: “And actually the elimination of the Millennium Scholarship Fund …”
“…The elimination—?” Rae asks, confused.
“Yeah. It’s a bit of a Liberal boondoggle from a couple years ago.”
Rae stammers. Loreto talks. The two speak over one another, their messages becoming inaudible. A growing number of students have gravitated towards the commotion, and Loreto seems to take this as her cue to leave. She retreats politely, professing, “You want to get elected in this riding? We can make it happen. We can make it not happen.
“We’re pretty powerful people.”
Indeed, as the representative of more than 85 university and college students’ unions, the CFS is the largest student lobby group in the country. It was created in 1981 out of student lobby groups clamouring for a united, national student voice. By 1982, the group incorporated a separate organization, CFS-Services, to manage its business entities, such as Travel Cuts. There are also provincial branches that are independent of the national body but work closely with it on local issues.
The CFS takes credit for Ontario’s two-year tuition freeze in 2003, as well as for being a major player in negotiating a discounted TTC pass for students. The CFS also produces research on various issues and recently released a taskforce report on the needs of Muslim students in Canada. But to CFS-Ontario chairperson Jesse Greener, the ability to make bulk purchases — thereby saving thousands of dollars — with other students’ unions is one of the main advantages of membership.
That’s not to say the CFS is all about bulk deals and essay-writing. In politics sometimes you need bullhorns, pickets and pounding boots to be heard — at the risk of annoying some high-placed politicians. This year, about 25,000 people took to the streets across the country for the National Day of Action and a National Day of Anger.
Rosario Marchese, the Ontario NDP education critic, says that after 16 years in politics, he can appreciate the different styles of approaching an issue, including militancy. “Because sometimes, people who are very nice don’t get listened to,” Marchese says, adding, “(but) we have to make sure we are building alliances and building support in so-doing.”
Still, an alliance between the CFS and Bob Rae remains dubious. Rae has openly criticized the Federation for its blanket denunciations and its inability to generate dialogue. “Either the student union has been captured by the CFS or it’s got its own point of view,” he says.
And now, for the first time, student politicians in Ontario who have worked closely with the CFS, at all levels, are now openly discussing this very topic.
“We’re not the Ryerson Students’ Union anymore, we’re Local 24 of the Canadian Federation of Students. That’s all I hear. That’s what everything says,” says newly-elected vice president student life and events Abe Snobar.
The CFS and its many campaigns — most notably the reduce tuition fees initiative — is alienating the average Ryerson student, he says. Snobar considered running for president against Loreto, but was convinced otherwise after several strangers approached him at a CFS general meeting, warning him not to run against a CFS-friendly slate. (“CFS-friendly” is a media term that refers to individuals or groups that align themselves closely with the ideologies of the CFS and spend free time working on CFS initiatives.)
“You got to get in somehow. The ends justify the means, you know. I did not want to (run with them), but I did it for a reason,” Snobar says. But ever since election day, and even in the days leading up, Snobar has been speaking out — and he’s not alone.
In 2004, Sam Rahimi was elected to the University of Toronto’s student association on the CFS-friendly Unity slate. Rahimi says his brief time working with the advocacy group was enough to convince him that major problems exist within the organization. Today, Rahimi is one of a half-dozen individuals involved in Students Against the Canadian Federation of Students, a taskforce out of York University. Although still in its infancy, more than 700 students have joined its online forum at StudentsAgainstCFS.com.
“Before, it was impossible to do too much, because there was not a well organized movement of students who wanted to change the CFS — especially in Ontario,” Rahimi says. “I’m speaking out now because there’s a critical mass, and we can actually change things.”
Rahimi says he was asked to campaign for a CFS-friendly slate at Ryerson and was later asked to campaign for the Unity slate at York. Rahimi says it was arranged that a van would shuttle him, some of his U of T colleagues and CFS-friendly Ryerson and Ontario College of Arts and Design students up to York. Upon arrival, the team was given campaign materials and instructed to canvas, he says.
“They said, ‘just say you’re friends of so-and-so’s,’ ” Rahimi says.
Two student politicians at U of T, who Rahimi said participated in these events, denied they occurred. Alex Kerner, who was Rahimi’s campaign manager and currently works at the RSU as the equity and campaigns organizer, suspects this is a conspiracy theory. Still, it wouldn’t be the first time CFS-friendly executives from a student union campaigned to get friends and colleagues elected on other campuses.
Members of the RSU have campaigned for CFS-friendly slates at both the U of T and York in the last three months.
Similar murmurs of discontent have spread outside the GTA and the latest point of origin is at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. Isabelle Poniatowski, president of the students’ union, says when she first started, she had no understanding of the CFS. But after participating in provincial and national CFS conferences, she has become critical of the Federation.
The conferences themselves are a main reason she cannot support the CFS, she says. The day delegates arrive, they are separated into groups based on self-identification in terms of gender, sexual preference and ethnicity, among others, she says. Ian Boyko, CFS’s campaigns coordinator, says the grouping is done so women can discuss women’s issues, and so on.
But Poniatowski argues this is not reflective of a united students’ movement.
“It disgusts me. I expect everybody to be treated equally and if we’re going to unite on an issue, unite on lowering tuition fees, then the only thing that should matter is that we’re students.”
But Poniatowski says the most disturbing part about the conferences is that they don’t foster debate. Unelected staff members select many of the guest speakers, and make up half the speakers’ list. Poniatowski says her questions were met with hostility. Finally, she points to the fact that at her last conference, three elected positions were acclaimed. This, she says, is a sign of democratic stagnation, a sign that new ideas are not welcomed.
The story of Jenn Watt, a second-year student in Ryerson’s graduate journalism program, echoes this. Watt was an executive at Guelph University’s students’ union when she encountered firsthand where asking questions at a CFS conference can lead.
Watt says she arrived at her first — and last — CFS national conference, in the spring of 2004 at Carleton University in Ottawa, with an open mind. It wasn’t long before she found out that a CFS-Services staffer had been charged with a number of criminal offences in the ’80s and ’90s. Curious about details — and why she hadn’t heard of this before — Watt approached the individual, CFS-Services executive director Philip Link. As Watt finished formulating her question, individuals at the conference crowded around the longtime CFS employee, pointedly asking Watt to walk away.
Later, in the ladies’ room, Watt says she was cornered by another person who accused her of harassing the man — who has not been a student since the ’80s — and warned her to stay away. For the rest of the conference, she says she felt unsafe.
Watt says she would have considered beginning the defederation process at Guelph, but that the protocol is too demanding of executives’ time. Because the mandate that got her elected made no mention of leaving the CFS, she says, she felt it would be unfair to her students to neglect her other promises.
Last week, Lakehead’s students’ union heard a motion calling for the beginning of a defederation process. Poniatowski wants to see the CFS off her campus. “I’ll never be going back there and one of the main reasons that I want them off our campus is that I don’t want them indoctrinating our student leaders to follow their way of doing things,” she says. The motion was defeated nine to seven, but the member of next year’s executive who moved the motion says he has no intention of letting the defederation idea die.
There have been numerous attempts by the CFS to prevent its members from leaving the united front. From the Simon Fraser University Student Society in British Columbia, across to the University of Prince Edward Island Students’ Union, groups that have attempted to leave the Federation have been caught up in one detail after another.
CFS bylaws require that written notice of intent to defederate be received at the national head office no less than six months prior to the referendum. The notice must include exact dates and times of voting (subject to other bylaws), as well as a minimum of either five per cent voter turnout or the quorum prescribed by the students’ union’s own bylaws, whichever is higher.
In early 2005, when Ryerson students’ union president Dave MacLean discussed defederation, he was voted down at a semi-annual general meeting. The following election, slates appeared on campus advertising a much clearer division between the political left and right. Since MacLean, a CFS-friendly slate has been elected to the RSU executive office every year. Throughout this period, Ryerson students have become some of the most active in the Federation. Just last October, the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson became a member of the CFS. About seven per cent of the student body cast a vote, 94 per cent of which voted in favour of federating. Based on this year’s enrollment, an additional $128,000 in continuing education levies will be sent to the CFS and CFS-Ontario coffers next fall, CESAR president Jeremy Salter estimates. This is in addition to the nearly quarter-million dollars RSU members are already sending to both levels of the CFS.
A final draft of the 2004-5 CFS budget shows that it was expecting more than $2.1-million in membership fees.
Moreover, The Eyeopener has learned that on top of the regular student levy, further RSU monies are being spent on CFS campaigns. For example, RSU purchased ReduceTuitionFees.ca toques for the Day of Action. RSU President Muhammad Ali Jabbar says that since his slate campaigned, and was elected, on a promise to fight tuition increases, this is not only justified, but expected. Snobar disagrees.
“I don’t think we should be (spending more money on) fighting tuition fees as the RSU. We’ve already paid the CFS to do that for us,” he says.
Presumably, Ryerson students wore the CFS toques when they demonstrated at Queen’s Park last February. Ontario Conservative colleges and universities critic Jim Wilson says that, sitting in his office on the Day of Action, he thought, “Wow, they didn’t invite me.” He says that he doesn’t have anything against the CFS, but that since taking on the education portfolio he has mainly worked with another student advocacy group, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.
On the national level, 18 students’ unions have selected the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations to represent them. CASA has had meetings with the last three prime ministers; in contrast, the CFS met with Paul Martin when he was finance minister. Phillippe Ouellette, the national director of CASA, credits CASA’s tendency to suggest solutions, not just highlight problems, for its lobbying success.
“I think that approach has gained so much respect throughout Parliament Hill and throughout Canada,” Ouellette says. “They’re calling us and asking us what we think. Because we’re not just focusing on the negatives, we’re focusing on what the actual outcome ought to be.”
On the whole, politicians respect the fact that students are organized on a provincial and national basis, says the CFS’s Boyko. He says specific relationships the CFS has with politicians depend on the party and its position in government, and that as such “we’re strictly non-partisan, always have been and, I predict, always will be.” Still, ideologically, the NDP’s Marchese says his party and the CFS relate to each other well and exchange information. The CFS was an important lobby when they called for a tuition freeze during the last elections, Marchese adds.
Ideologically or otherwise, the Liberals and Conservatives aren’t the only ones who are cold about tuition freezes — and the CFS’s research.
Alex Usher, vice president of the Education Policy Institute, a non-partisan research and consultation organization, is skeptical of demands for a tuition freeze, saying it favours wealthier families. “And yeah, I guess the CFS sees that as a victory,” he says. “It’s not obvious to me that it is.” Usher, formerly the national director of CASA, says the CFS is not a traditional lobby group, because it doesn’t work to achieve incremental change. He says it simplifies the issues and chooses specific research snippets to provoke students into stunts that will make the news.
But galvanizing public opinion is precisely the point, says the RSU’s Kerner. He says that CFS aims to sway public opinion, not to waste time with jaded politicians. “I think you better believe that the Liberal Party and the Liberal government, they may be saying one thing, but I’m sure they’re worried about their own electability if this issue becomes a major issue come October,” he says.
Boyko takes a more philosophical approach: The CFS, while registered as a lobby group, is, quite simply, a social movement.
In the end, students may find a beneficial middle ground between the placard-swinging, chant-singing, button-pinning movements of the CFS, and the hand-shaking, report-writing, number-crunching lobbying of other student advocacy groups, Usher says.
“Arguably, students actually win with that kind of good-cop, bad-cop thing,” he says. “It’s not coordinated. It’s not what either side wants. But I suspect that it actually ends up working in the students’ favour.”
The CFS response to our story: (NOTE FROM EDITOR: We did clarify Mr. Boyko’s 13th point the next week in the paper, and edited the pargraph to start with ‘On the whole, politicians respect the fact that students are organized.’ We believe everything else is backed up in the story, particularly anything referring to CFS, CFS-O)
Here is a non-exclusive list of things I came across as incorrect in “Breaking Rank”:
1. Annual membership fees for CFS for 2007-08 are not $400,000, they are expected to be approx. $153,000.
2. The Canadian Federation of Students did not loan or advance money to the Douglas SU.
3. I don’t know what “decade-long battles” to which you are referring.
4. The statement about our “group’s…interference in campus elections” doesn’t make sense (see 9.).
5. Travel CUTS was never a “business entity” of CFS.
6. The tuition fee freeze in Ontario was the work of CFS-Ontario.
7. The TTC discount was the work of CFS-Ontario.
8. The Task Force on the Needs of Muslim Students was the work of CFS- Ontario.
9. The use of “CFS-Friendly” leads readers to infer a formal connection between certain candidates and the board of the CFS.
10. No one is “seperated into groups” at congresses based on characteristics. Participation is voluntary, and as was explained to the reporter, only a fraction of the meeting time at the congresses.
11. The CFS is not “on” or “off” of any campus.
12. The students’ unions that comprise the CFS do not prevent students unions from joining or leaving. The process for doing so is clearly articulated in its by-laws like any other membership-driven organisation. All by-laws have been adopted by a 2/3 vote of members as represented by their students’ union.
13. The paragraph starting with “While governments aren’t using…” assigns statements to me that I didn’t say (namely the first part).
14. It is false to say that Liberals and Conservatives in general are “cold” to tuition fee freezes. (ex. Conservative NL Premier Danny Williams).
Ian Boyko Government Relations Coordinator Canadian Federation of Students