Loose Cannon: No rules? No Problem
Wednesday, March 31, 20101 Comment
One of the most common causes of legal woes during CFS membership votes is the very body empowered to set referendum rules and a
As features editor for The Ontarion two years ago, I had the great misfortune of covering a story about three student unions in British Columbia: the Simon Fraser Students’ Society, the University of Victoria Graduate Students’ Society and the Kwantlen University-College Students Association.
All three unions decided to hold referendums on continued membership in the Canadian Federation of Students. Their reasons varied, but generally the groups were unsatisfied with what they were getting in return for their student dues.
Anyone paying attention to the ongoing referendum saga at Guelph knows what happened next: a series of court battles that pitted student unions against the very organization that was supposed to represent them.
The most recent ruling for the Kwantlen Students Association vs. CFS was handed down in January of this year. Think about that: long after many of the students involved in the Kwantlen campaign graduated, the two sides are still fighting it out in court.
One of the most common causes of these legal woes is the very body empowered to set referendum rules and arbitrate disputes, the Referendum Oversight Committee.
On the ROC, two representatives from the CFS and two from the student union meet and determine how a referendum campaign is going to run.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. More often than not, the two sides are hopelessly deadlocked, which works out perfectly for the CFS.
On the one hand, if the ROC can’t decide on details like the length of the campaign or the number of voting days, no referendum can take place. By default, the student union stays part of the federation, or must go to court to force a resolution.
In Guelph’s case, the CFS dragged its feet and refused to form a ROC, claiming that the petition requesting a referendum was invalid. After the CSA went to court, a judge laid out some basic rules and asked the ROC to do the rest. But even that is proving difficult.
As of Wednesday, there is little information about what is considered acceptable behaviour for campaigning. By default, that means the various volunteer canvassers from Toronto, Ottawa, Carleton and York that have sprung up on campus to shill for the YES-to-CFS side aren’t breaking the rules, because there are no rules. (Clarification: this has been amended in the ROC guidlines).
What about spending limits? None are required, nor is either side required to submit expense reports unless they want reimbusements. This automatically benefits the CFS, which has more money to spend.
Even the approval of campaign materials appears lopsided. The NO side has complained that the ROC is holding up its campaign materials while approving YES posters and fliers.
No one knows exactly what is happening, since all proceedings at the ROC are confidential. Further, the members representing the Central Student Association, Gavin Armstrong and Galen Fick, are officially neutral, which means the NO side has no representation on the committee.
The ROC could ask a neutral judge to rule on every little dispute, but that simply eats up more time. More time without rules.
Notably, the CSA already has rules for its elections, including campaign spending limits. However, the CFS claims their bylaws overrule those of local members, and it’s willing to fight for that interpretation.
After their ROC processes stalled, the student unions at Simon Fraser and Kwantlen tried handing over control to third parties. They naively believed that the officials who oversee their elections were perfectly qualified to referee a vote on CFS membership. That’s when the lawsuits started.
The folks at Simon Fraser and Kwantlen would surely recognize the name Lucy Watson, then National Director of the CFS. She was on the ROC at the three campuses in B.C., and more recently at the Post Graduate Students’ Society of McGill. In the past two years, three of the four committees she’s sat on (that we know of) have fallen apart from infighting.
The PGSS is going ahead with the vote anyways, which likely means another battle with the CFS legal machine.
The federation spent $246,646 in legal fees in 2008-2009. That’s more than undergraduate Guelph students pay in student dues to the CFS.
Now, Watson is one of the ROC members at Guelph (the other is Ashkon Hashemi, Internal Coordinator for CFS-Ontario).
Despite her abysmal track record, the CFS continues to rely on her to help run membership referenda. Run them into the ground, that is.
In the Loose Cannon column written in the Ontarion, it’s stated that a decision regarding the Simon Fraser Students’ Society vs. CFS was handed down in January. This should say the Kwantlen Students’ Society vs. CFS. Thecannon regrets the error.
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.