Loose Cannon: Leaving the CFS a $200,000 question

Thursday, November 4, 2010

  • The Central Student Association has spent
$203,000 so far fending off various legal motion launched by the Canadian Federation

    The Central Student Association has spent $203,000 so far fending off various legal motion launched by the Canadian Federation

Written by Greg Beneteau

What could you buy with $200,000? A couple of things spring immediately to mind.

I could pay off my student loans, put some money away for my first home, maybe take a lavish trip. The money wouldn’t last me forever, but I can guarantee you I’d have some fun while it lasted.

Over the past year, I’ve learned what $200,000 can’t buy you: freedom from the Canadian Federation of Students, an organization that loves its members so much, it’s wilking to take them to the cleaners in order to keep them.

According to a report released by Gavin Armstrong, a former Communications Commissioner who is acting as a liaison on CFS-related litigation, the Central Student Association has spent $203,000 so far fending off various legal motion launched by the Federation, challenging the validity of a referendum held last April. (Technically, this amount will decrease to $192,000 once the CSA, a non-profit, receives its GST rebate.)

During that referendum, nearly 40 per cent of eligible Guelph undergraduates cast ballots on whether to stay part of the CFS-National and its prvincial wing. Nearly three quarters (73.5 per cent) decided to call it quits.

From day one, the CFS has mounted repeated legal challenges attempting to derail the vote, each of which has been slapped down by the presiding judge. The original decision hasn’t yet been released, but the Federation has already indicated it plans to appeal, opening the door for more expensive litigation.

That amount spent on legal fees (which far exceeded the $70,000 originally set aside by the CSA) had been kept secret under advice from the CSA’s lawyers, who worried that the CFS was attempting to bury the student union under a pile of legal bills.

“In my view, an element of the CFS/CFS-O strategy has been to attempt to spend the CSA into submission and, thus, make it impossible for the CSA to continue to fight,” noted Heenan Blaikie, council for the CSA, in a memo dated last April.

The figure was finally released as part of the CSA's budget package for its Annual General Meeting, which was held yesterday.

The Federation, which collects millions of dollars in dues annually from students on dozens of member campuses, has repeatedly shown it is not afraid to go to court when things don’t go their way. The CFS has fought at least five court battles with student unions in the past year, including Guelph, Concordia University, McGill University, the University of Prince Edward Island and Kwantlen University College.

Additionally, it has sued one of its own provincial wings, the CFS-Quebec, over a membership dispute. The CFS-Q has countersued in order to recover membership fees it says should have been earmarked for Quebec initiatives over the past three years.

What’s so galling about all this legal wrangling is that, whether it’s a student union or the CFS dolling out cash, money that ought to be going toward improving the lives of students is instead being wasted on infighting.

This is indicative of a larger problem within the CFS’s structure – the need for control. In particular, the rules requiring students to vote in Federation-approved referenda in order to join and leave the organization have caused nothing but trouble.

Having given itself the power to decide whether referenda are valid, the CFS has shown time and time again that it’s unable to accept negative outcomes. It needs to give up this power.

Organizations like the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, two alternative student advocacy groups, only require a vote at the board level to change a union’s membership status. Both groups have had far fewer legal problems than the CFS, and can thus focus their time and money on more productive pursuits.

Such a change would require the Federation to have faith that unions are capable of making informed decisions about the benefits of membership. Judging from the tumultuous relationship that the Federation has with some of its members – and the lengths it’s willing to go to keep them – such trust doesn’t exist.

Greg Beneteau is Editor-in-Chief of thecannon. Loose Cannon publishes every Thursday in The Ontarion Student Newspaper at the University of Guelph.

The opinions posted on thecannon.ca reflect those of their author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Central Student Association and the Guelph Campus Co-op. We encourage all students to submit opinion pieces, including ones that run contrary to the opinion piece in question.

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