By Izabella Balcerzak
I type my next tweet and nervously glance at my notes, feeling the eyes of the communications officer on me. I’m told to stay in the “observer area” in the far left corner in the front of the giant conference room. I’m instructed on what I can tweet, who I can photograph and told that I can only interview people at the end of this four-day conference. My tweets are monitored and corrected—at times, I’m even asked to delete them altogether—if, at any time, I let out too much information.
Two weeks ago, I trekked to Gatineau, Qué. to report on the 37th annual Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) general meeting for The Eyeopener. I was there from Nov. 16-19. The Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU), however, was nowhere to be found.
Maybe they felt the eyes too.
The CFS is the largest and oldest student movement in Canada. It currently represents more than 650,000 college, undergraduate, graduate, part-time and international students in nine provinces.
A member since 1982, the RSU pays more than $500,000 to the CFS every year to support its campaigns, movements and resources all geared towards a “United Student Front.” Knowing that, I went into the weekend thinking the RSU would want to have their voice heard on how RSU money—or, how money from Ryerson student fees—is spent.
But they decided not to attend since travel and accommodation fees were too expensive for the union to go, said RSU president Ram Ganesh.
A CFS spokesperson, however, told The Eye the organization subsidizes the cost of travel for one delegate per local to ensure at least one representative from each local is able to attend.
The RSU also chose not to have their vote represented by another local.
“From my understanding, we tried to proxy our vote to [University of Toronto Students’ Union] but we had troubles getting in touch with the right people,” Ganesh said.
Local 105, Ryerson’s Continuing Education Students’ Association was there. They were pretty clear about their positive views of being a CFS member. They voted on motions, gave their thoughts and attended workshops and meetings.
Being with a member of the media meant I didn’t have access to the whole conference. I had to sign a media contract before arriving. It outlined what I could and couldn’t attend and what the consequences would be if I didn’t follow the rules.
The rules include media cannot enter closed sessions—plenary subcommittees, constituency group meetings, caucus meetings, provincial and regional meetings and social events— and should seek clarification from a member of the National Executive if unsure about the application of the rules.
The media protocol document states the rules are intended to respect the rights of delegates and guests to participate freely in the general meeting.
CFS policy does not allow the publication of how a local votes or the identification of speakers in summarizing debates—this isn’t even recorded in meeting minutes. Since an Eye reporter did this last year, I figured I could too. Turns out, I was wrong and things had changed.
My first day at the conference wasn’t too overwhelming. In fact, I felt welcomed. People were talking to me, asking what local I was from and were then pleasantly surprised to hear I was with media. After all, I was the only reporter that showed up, except for The Charlatan—Carleton University’s independent weekly— who sent a journalist on the last day.
The Charlatan reporter told me she was told by the event’s communications officer that she couldn’t record and that she only could take notes, which tends to be the general rule at CFS meetings.
On the second day, I accidentally walked in and sat through the elections forum part of the day. Speeches and a question period were expected from all the candidates running for the following positions: CFS national chairperson, deputy chairperson and treasurer.
I live tweeted, took notes about what the candidates said in their speeches and the overall impression from the crowd. No one doubted why I was there; I even had a local member come up to me and say she enjoyed the live coverage.
The next morning, I received a call from the communications officer telling me to delete all the tweets or I would be banned from the closing plenary, the final event on the last day of the conference. (I did end up being allowed in!)
I was told to delete my tweets because I didn’t follow the conference’s media protocol. It turns out the elections forum wasn’t open to the media–but the elections workshop was. The media protocol document I signed never specified members of the media couldn’t attend forums.
If the weekend taught me anything, it’s that you have to play by the CFS’ rules—sign and follow a strict media protocol document—in order to be allowed into the conference.
It also taught me that the crowd mentality is as strong as ever when you fill a room full of passionate student leaders wanting to make change. It’s convincing: the chants, the group photos and the social events are all designed in an inclusive environment that’s actually inclusive.
But for change to happen and benefit students back in Toronto, we need to hold our student union accountable in showing up and echoing our voices—it’s their job, and frankly, I’m tired of paying the price.
This story has been updated to clarify the CFS subsidizes the travel cost for one delegate per local and that the reporter’s tweets were deleted since they did not follow the CFS’ media protocol. It has also been edited from the original version to clarify censorship experienced at the conference was specific to a detailed media contract.