By Keith Capstick
Recently departed Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) president Rajean Hoilett stands in front of a projector filled with the history of Canada’s premier student advocacy group. It’s late August 2016 and he’s presenting to the RSU Board of Directors on behalf of the Canadian Federation of Students—Ontario (CFS-O), where he currently serves as spokesperson. During the discussion, it’s the questions left unasked and unanswered that seem to be on everyone’s minds.
The board wants to know what the process of leaving the CFS entails and Hoilett wants to know if they plan to leave. Off to the side, representatives from the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) eagerly await their chance to present—hoping to land another major students’ union to bolster their ability to challenge the CFS-O and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).
Nobody in the room is quite sure whether a twenty-year-partnership, one that sees about 500,000 student dollars go to the CFS each year, will exist two years from now.
The RSU released a report on Sept. 1, as requested by their board and membership at last spring’s semi-annual general meeting, which outlines their relationship with the CFS. This includes the resources they provide, a section on “controversy with the CFS” and an explanation of costs and context. The “controversy” section describes several concerns: supposed CFS involvement in student elections, a “litigation culture” that deters unions from trying to leave and the frequency of which RSU executives end up employed by the federation.
These characteristics are what led to one of the largest political swings in Ryerson’s history during the 2014/2015 election season. The Transform slate—the first full-opposition slate to run in an election since 2011—championed a platform that promoted an RSU focused on campus-wide programming, rather than CFS’ aligned campaigns. This was the amalgamation of a pro-CFS versus anti-CFS culture within Rye’s political landscape that led to a smack-down outside a Board of Governors meeting.
Rise for Ryerson—a group featuring many leading names associated with the eventual Transform slate—showed up to the top floor of Jorgenson Hall to protest a protest. They were fed up with how the CFS’ Freeze the Fees campaign was the primary source of the RSU’s on-campus action and they were calling for reform.
What transpired was two groups of student leaders, separated by political ideology, yelling at each other outside of a room filled with the school’s most decorated decision makers.
Transform won that year’s election and for the first time in almost a decade, Ryerson’s student union was led by students whose political thoughts didn’t align with the CFS’.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the students want change, they want something different,” last year’s RSU president Andrea Bartlett told The Eyeopener prior to the 2014/2015 election.
However, according to Bartlett, her difficulty with the CFS didn’t end with her team’s victory. In a previous interview, Bartlett described the ways she believes her team was passive aggressively leaned on by the CFS. Specifically, she spoke about what she felt was a consistent attempt to ignore her executive team at national and provincial meetings, and when trying to bring agenda items to their provincial general meetings.
Abe Snobar, vice-president student life in 2007, spoke critically of similar passive aggression from the CFS. Snobar said he was asked to reconsider running for president during his campaign year, due to what he believes was the CFS dictating the executive candidates.
“Where it gets tainted is that I know they were involved in my election.”
“That’s how I got introduced to the real CFS. Not the one that you see on paper. The one that you see on paper it’s very beautiful, it’s lovey dovey, it’s fighting for a good cause,” Snobar said. “Where it gets tainted is that I know they were involved in my election.”
When asked about involvement in elections, the CFS said “no employee of the federation organizes slates in local student union elections.”
The CFS was founded in 1981 as a way to combine existing national advocacy groups into one united voice. Ryerson joined in 1982. By 2007, an additional 20 unions had joined the CFS. In its origins, the group looked to allow access to services that weren’t available on individual campuses.
As recently as last year, when the Ontario government announced their new tuition framework—which provides additional support to low-income students—the CFS was celebrated as a driving force behind the change.
The CFS has been responsible for bringing numerous country-wide campaigns uniting students under issues that all campuses face. They participate in annual lobbying with the provincial and national government and are often the first place policy makers go to when looking to incorporate students.
The federation has also blazed the trail for a number of equity-based campaigns. They’ve fought to increase conversations about racialized experiences on campus, create a culture of consent and push schools to stop any partner- ships with inequitable corporations.
“These victories never could have been achieved without working together.”
More broadly, the CFS is recognized as a way to create a national and provincial identity for students trying to make substantive change beyond policy—a sentiment that Hoilett said was essential in past successes.
“Students working collaboratively across the province and the country is vital to bringing tangible change,” Hoilett said. “These victories never could have been achieved without working together.”
Recent mainstream conversations about the CFS have been about student unions trying to leave, and the ensuing legal action. This hasn’t excluded Rye, either. In 2004,* RSU president Dave MacLean tried to begin the process of removing the RSU from the federation, but was halted due to a policy mix-up. Then, in 2007, RSU executives Snobar and Nora Loreto (Loreto went on to become a CFS-O staff member) argued in a Board of Directors meeting about Snobar’s attempt to submit a motion to let students vote on whether or not to defederate. The motion did not pass.
Some of Snobar’s biggest concerns centre around the requirements for leaving the CFS. He says the CFS required nine months notice of referendum in order for the process to be ratified—a small window for executives on 12-month contracts to collect the 20 per cent of required student signatures. In more recent cases, the CFS has required six months notice.
As recently as 2008, Cape Breton University attempted to leave the CFS after a 92 per cent in-favour vote, but their claim wasn’t recognized because they failed to notify the CFS in a timely manner, according to bylaws. Cape Breton then responded by ceasing to collect CFS membership fees from their students, which led to legal action. In 2015, the Ontario Superior Court ordered the school’s student union to pay the CFS $293,000, plus legal fees. Similar legal action has occurred after referenda at universities across the country, including Simon Fraser University in 2008, the University of Victoria in 2010 and Concordia University in 2011. In all of these cases, the legitimacy of the process of referenda was challenged by the CFS, and each request for referendum wasn’t formally accepted.
According to the RSU’s report, these legal suits are the result of a “litigation and governance culture” that disrupts student unions from efficiently starting referenda. Current RSU vice-president education Victoria Morton says those associated with the students’ union, be it board members or executives, are not allowed to start a petition for referendum.
“The ability to leave has to be made simpler if we’re going to demand that the leaving process has to be begun by regular students not affiliated with the student union,” Morton said. “It can’t be so difficult that you almost have to sue your way out.”
Hoilett says the CFS does not restrict its members in this way.
“The Federation does not have any such restrictions. In some cases, local students’ unions may have access to resources that the Federation does not during a referendum, such as email lists of members on campus, that can provide an unfair advantage,” Hoilett said. “But these considerations do not affect the principle that all members have a right to form and discuss their opinions about membership with the Federation.”
The RSU report, drafted by Morton, also provides an analysis of other student advocacy alternatives. In particular, CASA at the national level and the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) at the provincial level. Both of these organizations provide political advocacy and lobbying similar to the CFS and only take in between $50,000 and $100,000 in annual membership fees. But neither of them boast a resume of campaigning, protesting and student action like the CFS does. In their presentation to the RSU Board of Directors, CASA explained that they don’t provide any equity focused campaigns, unlike the CFS who publically aligns themselves with groups like Black Lives Matter – Toronto.
“While we engage in lobbying, we also believe that it is only effective when we have the support of students and the public,” Hoilett said. “This is why we compliment formal lobbying efforts with membership empowerment and engagement through petitions, mobilizations and other creative actions.”
After a summer of developing this document, Morton has come to a conclusion.
“Based off the report … I don’t think students are seeing value for their membership.”
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dave MacLean was RSU president in 2003. The Eyeopener regrets this error.