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)