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"The fact that there are 13 organizations across the country looking at leaving should raise alarm bells with everyone else involved with this organization," said Matt Musson, a PhD student who is circulating a petition at the U of C to hold a referendum to leave the national student lobby group CFS.
the Gauntlet

The great Canadian Federation of Students exodus

Graduate Students' Association one of 13 organizations petitioning to leave national lobby group

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Students from 13 post-secondary institutions across Canada -- including the University of Calgary -- are in the process of circulating petitions asking their peers if they wish to evaluate membership with Canada's largest student lobby group, the Canadian Federation of Students.

Students organizing petitions allege a variety of problems with the CFS, including questionable finances, ineffectiveness and vicious litigation.

The CFS was formed in 1981 to provide students with an effective and united voice and today more than 80 university and college students' unions across Canada belong to the federation.

"The CFS is quite simply not an effective lobby group for a variety of reasons," said Mike Horn, a petition organizer at Trent University.

"Canadian universities host a diverse group of students, and the CFS is far too political to stand for every student."

University of Guelph petition organizer Curtis Batuszkin said there are a number of reasons behind his school's petition.

"The CFS has been lobbying for almost 30 years and in that time, tuition has tripled," said Batuszkin.

Batuszkin said most Guelph students were infants when the school decided to join the CFS and now they deserve the right to choose if they want to remain a part of what he calls a "failed business."

"Students have the right to choose who they think will best accomplish the goals of lowering tuition. . . . We have the right to choose who we want to represent us and what causes we want to support without having CFS lawyers and multi-year untendered contracts forcing us what to think and how to accomplish our goals."

Closer to home

The Graduate Students Association at the U of C is circulating a petition which states, "We, the undersigned, petition the National Executive of the Canadian Federation of Students to conduct a referendum on the issue of continued membership in the Canadian Federation of Students."

President Veronique Dorais said the GSA is circulating the petition because they want an opportunity to re-evaluate their membership within the CFS.

"We have been mandated by our council to go forth with the petition because students want more information on the pros and cons of the CFS," she said.

If U of C graduate students do want to leave CFS, the petition is the first step in what could be a potentially long road -- and a road the GSA has been on before.

According to Dorais, the relationship with CFS is an issue dating back to 1999.

"Our relationship with CFS has come up in the past," said Dorais.

The GSA started the petition process in 2008 and it ultimately proved to be unsuccessful. A petition was sent to CFS last year and no response was received until March or April, said Dorais.

When the CFS did respond they stated the GSA owed them money before CFS could acknowledge the petition.

The GSA decided to start the entire process again this year, following the CFS bylaws exactly.

"Instead of continuing on with [last year's] petition where there could have been a possibility to invalidate some of the signatures because of graduating students, we decided to restart the petition this year," said Matt Musson, the PhD student spearheading the petition at the U of C.

"The first step is circulating a petition, it will then go to the CFS office, they will determine the validity of the petition, and whether or not they want to accept it, and then proceed with the referendum," said Musson.

In a 105-page bilingual constitution and bylaw booklet, which was amended November 2008, the CFS states that "a petition calling for a referendum shall be signed by no less than ten percent (10%) of the individual members of the member local association." In the case of the GSA, that means approximately 600 signatures.

According to Musson, the GSA has already reached the 10 per cent mark, but he is continuing to circulate the petition.

"We're aiming for a lot more than 10 per cent," said Musson.

At both Guelph and Trent, petitions have been signed and already delivered to the CFS office.

CFS bylaws state that within 90 days of receiving the petition, CFS will review it to determine if it is in order and then, if it is, they will schedule a referendum that is not less than 60 days and not more than 90 days following. As well, voting is not allowed to take place between April 15 and Sept. 15 or Dec. 15 and Jan. 15.

"[The CFS'] bylaws are incredibly tight and incredibly strict, but it's the only way to actually hear from them," said Dorais.

Dorais said that despite being a long process, the road to re-evaluate membership with the CFS is worth the time and effort and is an issue that is on students' minds.

"A lot of students come to talk to us about it, so it's worth the time and effort," she said.

Legal hot water

Musson is prepared to follow the CFS' rules exactly. In the past student groups that have tried to de-federate from CFS have found themselves in legal trouble.

According to a March 11, 2008, press release by the Kwantlen University College Student Association, the CFS applied to the Supreme Court of B.C. for an injunction to stop the KSA referendum to leave CFS. Ultimately the CFS failed in court and the KSA went ahead with a referendum. An April 15, 2008, news release stated that 56 per cent of Kwantlen students voted to remain a member of the CFS.

According to an article in The Peak, Simon Fraser University's independent newspaper, the CFS sued the Students' Union at Acadia University following the union's departure from the national lobby group in 1996.

An April 5, 2007, story on Macleans.ca stated that Robyn Doolittle, editor-in-chief at Ryerson University's student newspaper The Eyeopener, received a letter from CFS-Ontario warning the paper not to include certain statements in an article or face legal action.

"We're trying to follow their rules to the letter. Cross your Ts and dot your Is. Every single thing that is in their rules we are trying to adhere to. We don't want to be sued, if we can avoid that at all costs that would be great," said Musson.

Horn, from Trent, said he will welcome it if the CFS takes the student association to court.

If they do take legal action it will confirm the allegations against them, said Horn.

Guelph's Batuszkin said he finds the CFS' track record in regards to suing student associations worrisome.

"There is nothing more disgusting than having the very same group that is trying to protect students, sue students and do it with our own money," said Batuszkin.

"There are hundreds of student articles talking about the disgusting track record of the CFS' ligation efforts against students or the media," he said.

"If the CFS was as vicious and Machiavellian with their lobbying as they are with suing their own constituents, we'd be paying $100 a year to go to school."

Student Association Support

At the U of C, the GSA is behind the petition; however, it's a different story at campuses across Canada.

At Trent, the Trent Central Student Association has not yet taken an official stance on the issue of de-federation with the CFS and the petition remains strictly a student initiative.

At the University of Western Ontario, a few students have begun circulating a petition, although the Society of Graduate Students is not involved.

Rick Telfer, the president of SOGS, said the society has been a proud member of the CFS and knows it is an effective organization.

"SOGS has been a proud member association of the Canadian Federation of Students for well over two decades. We are active participants in the Federation. We do not just believe that the Federation is effective -- we know that the Federation is effective," said Telfer.

"Among countless other victories, the Federation won a national system of grants for students, stopped tuition fee increases in numerous provinces, won greater government funding for post-secondary education and secured more scholarship monies for graduate students."

What's next?

If the U of C GSA petition is deemed valid by the CFS the next step will be setting a referendum date.

While student associations have in the past tried to leave the CFS, this appears to be the first time so many have been circulating petitions at the same time.

Both Musson and Dorais from the U of C said the number of students' associations currently circulating petitions regarding membership with the CFS speaks volumes.

"The fact that there are 13 organizations across the country looking at leaving should raise alarm bells with everyone else involved with this organization," said Musson.

"There must be something that's not working for enough student unions right now to feel that they are not being heard and this is their way of making a statement," said Dorais.

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