In bed with the CFS

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As Ryerson Students’ Union president Toby Whitfield prepares to head to his new job for the Canadian Federation of Students, his successor is another darling of the advocacy giant. For the past five years, RSU executive seats have been filled by CFS-friendly candidates. Vidya Kauri and Features editor Mariana Ionova investigate the intimate relationship between the RSU and CFS

When Toby Whitfield’s term as Ryerson Students’ Union president is up in May, he will head to Ottawa to work for the lobby group that has been influencing Ryerson student politics for the last ten years. As the new treasurer for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), Whitfield will be managing the bank account of the most powerful student advocates in Canada.

When it comes to student politics, the CFS calls the shots on more than 80 campuses across Canada. It has the power to help elect candidates into executive positions in student unions. Whether the average student knows it or not, the CFS has played a role behind the scenes at Ryerson for over a decade.

The CFS is the largest student advocacy organization in Canada and was established in 1981 to lobby the government for policies that protect students and address their concerns. The federation has separately-run, regional branches like CFS-Ontario that put pressure on provincial governments for such initiatives like tuition freezes, elimination of poverty and the phase-out of bottled water on campuses. It boasts a membership of nearly half a million students and operates on fees from students’ unions like the RSU, which paid the federation approximately $300, 000 last year.

The relationship between the RSU (formerly RyeSAC) and the CFS intensified in 1999, when president Erin George began aligning Ryerson’s campaigns with those advocated by the CFS. George was the Ontario chairperson of the CFS during her term as president. Since then, there has been only one candidate who has won the presidential seat without supporting the federation. Dave MacLean, who ran and lost in 2003, beat CFS-friendly presidential candidate Carlos Flores in 2004.

Over the last 10 years, The RSU board of directors has squashed all real attempts to separate from the CFS. When MacLean took office, his motion to hold a defederation referendum was shot down by the RSU board of directors.

More recently, 2007-2008 president Nora Loreto spoke out against fellow executive, VP student life and events, Abe Snobar, who put forward a motion proposing a defederation referendum in 2007. After a five-hour board of directors meeting, the motion was defeated by a 12-12 tie vote with one abstention. Later that term, Snobar ran for president but faced opposition from Loreto and lost the election to Muhammad Ali Jabbar, who supported CFS campaigns.

Three years later, Snobar says he thinks he lost the election because he made enemies by speaking out against the CFS.

“If you do not have the support from any CFS-affiliated individual, the chance of you winning, especially in an executive seat, is highly unlikely,” Snobar says.

Like Whitfield, when CFS-friendly executives leave Ryerson student politics they often remain intertwined with the federation. Rebecca Rose, RSU president in 2005-2006, went on to work as a Maritimes Organizer for CFS-Nova Scotia, while Loreto now works as CFS-Ontario Communications and Government Relations Coordinator.

Despite CFS links to Ryerson, David Molenhuis, national chairperson of the CFS, says there is no truth to allegations that the organization influences local political agenda and outcomes. He said the statement is “patently false and a rather dubious accusation” made in “an attempt to scandalize where there is no scandal.”

Molenhuis says there is no political solidarity within the federation. “There is no role of the federation in student unions. It doesn’t have any role in local elections nor should it, frankly.”

Two-time RSU president Jabbar (2006-2007, 2008-2009), also rejected the idea of a CFS-driven RSU agenda, saying group membership in fact helps students’ unions achieve their goals.

“You have to look at what are the goals that you want to achieve, what it is that you represent, what do you stand for. If you stand for equity, if you stand for social justice and student rights, you need a strong voice to represent you,” Jabbar says.

“A student union by itself is just a student administrative council.”

In his opinion, organizing together allows students’ unions to represent student interests because, “you do advocacy when you have strength in numbers.”

Joey Coleman, a writer for the Globe and Mail’s globecampus.ca blog, has been covering post-secondary education issues for five years and has seen how difficult it can be for independent candidates to run a campaign against a CFS-friendly opponent. In his opinion, “it has become very rare for student union presidents across the country to actually be ‘students’. “

In the Feb. 9 RSU election, the CFS-friendly Students United slate and their supporters cheered in the nearly empty Ram in the Rye as the final numbers rolled in around 1 a.m., — revealing their overwhelming win. Current VP operations Caitlin Smith won nearly 79 per cent of the votes for the presidential seat. No member of the opposing executive slate, RU Change, received enough votes to even stand a chance at being elected. Almost no one from RU Change appeared to watch the results roll in.

A week before the election, Mark Single, who was disqualified from running for the VP operations position, said his slate had little hope of a victory.

“There is a zero per cent chance we are going to win and we know that. Their posters are totally professional. They have a polished campaign and the time to do it.”

But, in Jabbar’s view, the reason why students with less experience and fewer connections don’t get elected is because they have not made an effort to get involved in campus initiatives and political action in the Ryerson community.

“Of course you’re not going to get elected because you don’t have a track record. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t have a fair chance. It means that you were not passionate, you never did [the] legwork,” he says.

Students who run as part of a CFS-friendly slate have one big advantage: there is a federation on their side that knows what it takes to get a candidate elected. Coleman says in the past CFS-friendly executives from locals have campaigned on behalf of other CFS-friendly slates at different schools.

Last year, RSU and York Federation of Students (YFS) executives were reportedly distributing election material at the University of Toronto. The Varsity, U of T’s student newspaper, reported that Smith, Whitfield and other executives were seen campaigning for U of T’s CFS-friendly slate March 2010.

Sam Rahimi, a former VP of U of T’s students’ union, wrote a letter to the Varsity after he graduated in 2006. In it, he detailed a similar experience while in office as a part of the CFS-friendly Unity slate in 2004. From the letter: “My trip to York especially stands out in my mind: I had received an urgent briefing from Alexandra Dodger, then a CFS-Ontario executive, about a bunch of ‘right wing extremists’ running for re-election to YFS, and asking for my help to defeat them. I was picked up in a white van driven by CFS staffer Ashkon Hashemi and taken to York, stopping at Ryerson, OCAD, and George Brown along the way to pick up additional campaigners. We were sent on our mission with strict instructions to pretend we were each there as a ‘friend’ of one of the candidates and plastered the campus with posters.”

Whitfield denies the CFS plays any role at all in local elections, and says each candidate has access to the same funds and that fair procedures are followed at all times during campaigning. When he was asked why RSU executives would campaign to elect similar slates at other universities, he said it had nothing to do with political solidarity. “If you are asking if I have friends on other campuses, yes — I do have friends on other campuses.”

CFS-friendly slates often have seasoned, media-savvy, former student politicians helping manage their campaigns. According to Whitfield, Smith lead the CFS-friendly Students United slate this year. (Smith interned at CFS-Ontario as an executive assistant-services in the summer of 2009.) Whitfield also helped with their campaign. Similarly, in 2008 Loreto helped manage the campaign for the Renew RSU slate headed by Jabbar.

Other students running for positions alone don’t have that kind of advantage, says Coleman. “A ‘regular’ student can run in theory. However, the student has a very small chance of ever winning.”

Talk of too much CFS involvement in Ryerson politics goes as far back as 2002, when bitter internal fighting culminated in VP finance and services Sajjad Wasti’s resignation from the RSU. Wasti wrote an open letter to the Ryerson community accusing union executives of corruption, saying that their handling of business dealings was allegedly tainted by their connection to the CFS. The letter said the union gave priority to an “external agenda”, which resulted in students’ interests being “sidelined.”

The RSU board of directors motioned and failed to impeach Wasti, but he resigned in November of 2002, after five weeks of conflicts within the union.

The long streak of CFS-friendly executives has prompted criticism that the RSU is surrendering its autonomy to the federation. But dissenting voices like MacLean, Wasti and Snobar have slowly disappeared from Ryerson’s political landscape. The 2007 motion for a defederation referendum was the last organized effort to bring up the question of Ryerson’s link with the CFS.

Snobar says he wasn’t surprised that his defederation movement failed.

“It’s a movement that you have to build from scratch against a movement that’s been around for 25 years,” he says.

But there are campuses where defederation isn’t dead yet. Over the last year, 13 colleges and universities tried to defederate. In March, the Concordia Students’ Union (CSU) won a referendum to cut ties with the CFS.

CSU had been Local 91 of the CFS since 1998. But Katherine Giroux-Bougard, CFS chairperson at the time, rejected the results, saying the union had no right to hold a membership vote because it owed the CFS $1,033,278.76 in unpaid fees.

In 2006, Robin Mowat also struggled to raise concerns about the CFS on the University of Saskatchewan campus. Mowat, a former president of the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union (USSU) won a lawsuit against the union and CFS regarding improper procedures during a referendum. Allegedly, the students’ union held the referendum asking students to join the CFS and the results narrowly called for federation. Despite concerns that referendum bylaws were not properly followed, USSU deemed the results valid and gained CFS membership. Mowat decided to sue shortly after and won the lawsuit in October 2006, causing USSU to lose their CFS member status.

Snobar says the CFS is not a bad way to advance student initiatives, in theory.

“If they took their constitution and their bylaws and they followed [them] strictly, then it would be a good organization.”

But, in Snobar’s opinion, their aptitude in organizing is most often used to exclude dissenting voices and not to further student campaigns.

Still, supporters of the CFS and CFS-

Ontario maintain that the organization stands for important initiatives like the Drop Fees Campaign and the Poverty-Free Ontario campaign, which would not be effective if they were spearheaded by local, individual students’ unions.

To Jabbar, affiliation with the CFS is the only way to make your voice heard.

“You know that, when you’re together, your issues are heard better and more effectively. You have a stronger voice.”

Photo by: Antoine Trepainer (CUP)

Comments

  1. I hang my head in shame at the fact that I supported the CFS for a short time. Little did I know what i know now, ( oh the joys of hind sight ) about how little they actually do for students, and even less for those students who oppose them. The SNOBAR brothers were RIGHT in doing what they could FOT students, this university and to try and rid us of this parasite we call the CFS.

  2. I love the way in which Ms. Loretto resorts to name calling every time someone points out a chink in the CFS & RSU armour. Really, I think what students need to do is look very closely at the Student Unions that claim to represent them, while only lining their pockets with more dollars.

    As to the election, I have it on good authority that the ballot boxes were not sealed as they were supposed to be, there were no initials over the seal (which didn’t exist) and the ballot boxes were held somewhere in the RSU offices. Can we say, “Rigged”?

    1. conspiracy. conspiracy. conspiracy.
      really people, is this useful?

      All this article did for me was say that past RSU execs have gone on to work for the CFS. and? what’s your point? I’m going to make an assumption and say that all who work for the CFS are past students union execs? Shouldnt this how it’s done?

      Everyone who goes and works for the National Post are past journalism students….should we write an article about how you are just doing all this just to go work for a national newspaper?

      I’ve been very dissapointed in the eyeopener lately, if you don’t have news, id rather you print an empty page.

      1. Dawyne,

        Here’s a more complete list of all RSU execs going back a while. It would have been proper to have actually examined where former execs go rather than insinuating that there’s some huge conspiracy.

        “Friendly” ex-executives not in bed with CFS:
        Lise de Montbrun (student, will be an architect some day) (2009-10)
        Jermaine Bagnall (documentary film maker) (2009-10)
        Ali Jabbar (works for Toronto Hydro) (2008-09) (2006-07)
        Chris Drew (works for Glen Murray, Liberal Cabinet Minister) (2006-07) (2007-08)
        Alam Ashraful (left Canada to finish studies, worked in Bangladesh) (2005-06) (2006-07)
        Ram Sivapalan (works for Public Service Alliance of Canada) (2005-06)
        Ken Marciniec (works for Ontario Nurses Association) (2001-02) (2002-03) (2003-04)
        Alex Lisman (independent film maker) (2002-03)
        Mike Verticchio (works for RSU) (2002-03) (2003-04)
        Daren Cooney (works for government) (2001-02) (2002-03)

        “Friendly” ex-executives currently in bed with the CFS
        Nora Loreto (2005-06) (2006-07) (2007-08)
        Rebecca Rose (2004-05) (2005-06) (2008-09)

        “Unfriendly” executives not in bed with the CFS
        Sid Naidu (Works for Ryerson University) (2008-09)
        Heather Kere (Last I heard TDSB, could be wrong) (2007-08)
        Abe Snobar (No idea where he’s working) (2007-08)

  3. Actually, students at Ryerson have been strongly supportive of the work of the Canadian Federation of Students. After losing in 2003 when they campaigned against the work of the CFS, Dave Maclean’s team was only able to win in 2004 by lying and stating that they supported the work of the CFS(1).

    The fact is that students who are elected to the Ryerson Students’ Union work closely with the CFS because these students are representing the will of their members and working on important student issues. There is no conspiracy … other than the one orchestrated by Dave Maclean when his team purposefully lied to Ryerson students in order to get elected. It is no wonder that his team lost the following year.

    (1) SOURCE: The Eyeopener: NOT MUCH TO DEBATE (2004-02-04) http://www.theeyeopener.com/really-old-archives/index.php?page=378

  4. dave maclean failed to defederate from the CFS in 2004/2005 because students overwhelmingly rescinded his motion at an Annual General Meeting — it was not the board that defeated it, it was the general membership.

  5. there should be expose on former Eyeopener reporters working for the Toronto Star. looks like the cozy relationship between the Star and the Eyeopener is a determinant to the campus paper.

    lets hold a referendum on student fees going into the Eyeopener, students pay close to $400,000 for inaccurate journalism.

    1. Congrats Wilson, You want to kill independent media.

      Than we can just totally bend over for the CFS.

      I on the other hand LOVE! the Eyeopener even though i often disagree with it.

      KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK!

  6. Nora, how about you respond to the article’s core allegation – that of centrally organized election interference. I, for one, swear under penalty of perjury that my recounting of events is 100% truthful. What say you?

    And I feel that your criticisms of Snobar are ad-hominem attacks. Instead of calling him names, maybe you could say what he actually DID to deserve that name calling – that is, if he actually did anything wrong to begin with.

    Looking forward to your answers!

    1. hey there Sam, please bring your allegations to the Supreme Court of Canada and the United Nations, and swear there.

    2. Hey Sam. Name calling and identifying the oppressive characteristics of a person are different. If you’re a dick and then someone calls you out for being a dick, that seems fair to me.

      I have no responsibility to correct the record for this article. That is the responsibility of its authors and editors. I can say, though, that I ran in 4 elections at Ryerson. I had the help of my friends like all candidates do (and in one year, the help of my family) and the things you allege in your random, ancient letter to the editor I can only say are fantasy as far as my own experience goes.

      By the way, since when was a letter to the editor a credible source? I’m interested in the journalistic ethics that surround that question.

  7. Nora, I guess we all call it how we see it. Because you are apart of the CFS you may not see things the way I and many others see it. I respect your commitment to your cause. I passionate disagree with the position of the CFS and the ways in which go about their business. The hard earned money that we sweat for and toil over in order to pay for university is common feeling everyone has felt. The CFS has singular, one sided and a far left stance on issues that aren’t important or resonate to today’s students. We aren’t all in love with the NDP or Liberals.

    1. I’m absolutely not in love with the NDP or the LIberals. Or the conservatives, which I see you’ve left out.

  8. I think it was Bob Rae,who said it best a few years agao when he went over to the Liberal Party, when he said, the the NDP is nothing but a fringe protest party that will never get anywhere … or words to that effect. So too with the CFS . they are just a fringe group who alien themselves with any left wing group and accomplish nothing. Who takes the CFS seriously anyway ? What reputable organization would even want to alien themselves with the CFS ?

  9. The Snobar brothers are one of the smartest and most intelligent people one will EVER meet. They are well informed, they do thier homework before they make comments and lastly,they are honorable and credible.

  10. I’ve been asked to re-post my argument. Completely unsure as to what it is that so offends Eyeopener staff, I’ll annoyingly post each argument separately and see what gets deleted.

    “Actually, Snobar made enemies because he was an oppressive, aggressive man who tried to destroy any person who got in his way including RSU board members, staff and me. He was hell-bent to destroy RSU and I’m proud to say I helped to stop that. The CFS was hardly the main issue that year, although simpler minds used it as the scapegoat.”

    [Moderator: Please note that this comment has been edited.]

  11. 2/3 “But hey, your article is clear: the women (and Toby) are too stupid to realize that their being manipulated (me, Rebecca Rose, Caitlin Smith, Erin George) and the men are credible, independent thinkers (Ali Jabbar, Abe Snobar, Joey Coleman, Sam Rahimi).”

    1. I don’t know if you are who you write you are, but really, at this point you are just embarrassing yourself.

  12. 3/3 “You should have done more research. These sentences for example, are hilariously incorrect: “In June, the Concordia University Students’ Union (CUSA) won a referendum to cut ties with the CFS.” “CUSA was one of the founding members of the CFS and had been Local 91 of the federation since 1981.”

  13. The fact that there are polarizing comments both in support of , and opposed to the CFS should on its own suggest just how big a farce they are. The only people who are supporting them are the one who have , or had a vested interest in them / with them. Nora , you recently sent me a message from your spacebook site saying something along the lines that you are not cfs ( as well as other groups ) yet, simple research that can be done by a two year old clearly shows you to be VERY MUCH part of the CFS.

    This makes me , and I suspect others as well wonder , who’s interests exactly are you looking after and when you where on the executive, who’s interests where you looking after then ?

  14. Nora, did you finish the Journalism degree at Rye? I can’t believe you have no idea how libelous and defamatory some of your comments are, esp about Snowbar! The Eye isn’t bowing they are just being responsible as they are the publishers and ultimately liable for what is posted here.
    Save ur comments for your own paper- Ryerson Free Press- so you can be on the hook for them.
    Good on your Liane!

  15. Ryerson should considering joining CASA instead. At least it advocates just for student issues and not on irrelevant foreign issues. At my University (Laurier) I’ve never seen the kind of abuse of power being discussed about in this article regarding the CFS. Frankly CASA or OUSA are options you should consider alternatively.

  16. Too much unnecessary fees at Ryerson. I’d be much more happy to save the union due from my fee. Also whatever that Okeefe Fee. I have no idea what that is… yet I pay. too bad. I should be able to opt out from anything I want.

    1. Almost 400K of YOUR student money goes to the CFS , and for what ?

  17. Let the RSU do what they want.
    Let the CFS do what they want.

    But give students the choice to opt out of both organizations and get their membership dues back! Most students are at school to focus on their studies, not to engage in social activism.

  18. What is going on here? Why is a student newspaper allegedly exposing the student union for having ties to the Canadian Federation of Students??? Isn’t it a good thing that our students union is highly regarded by the Canadian Federation of Students, its parent organization?

    I think the author of this article needs to seriously re-assess what they wanted to DO with this article.

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