The annual Concordia Student Union elections used to be a lot more interesting, with articles in real newspapers and everything.
But this week, even though the drama on campus seemed to be just as big as every year (The Link this week was filled with election stories – PDF), nobody really cared off-campus.
Part of it is that the left-right divide that polarized student politics 5-10 years ago doesn’t exist anymore. Looking at the two parties that ran this year, I couldn’t figure out which party was on which side.
In the end, the party that was expected to win did so handily, with 73% of the student vote, 26 of 29 seats on the Council of Representatives, all four elected seats on the university’s senate and both elected seats on the Board of Governors.
But that wasn’t the big story of this election.
Instead, the big issue was on the referendum ballot, and questions about fees.
It’s a perennial thing at Concordia that various groups will pester the CSU council to put a referendum question on the ballot demanding to institute or increase an independent fee levy on students. While student unions complain of non-tuition fees that have been steadily increasing over the past decade and a half, the CSU seems more than happy to add to those fees, usually by putting on the ballot misleading questions that sell an organization and then demand some small-looking per-credit fee (nowadays with a promise to refund students if they ask).
Two groups got questions on the ballot:
- Le Frigo Vert, the vegan food store that wanted to increase its levy by 50% – it says it wants to expand its hours and offer better discounts on food, but critics say it just wants to increase salaries of the people who work there. The vote failed 1,576-1,754.
- Cinema Politica, an activist movie screening group, wanted to increase its fee by 250%, for reasons that I’m sure it thought were justified. The measure passed by only 15 votes, 1,674-1,659.
A third question about fees also failed. The student union has been collecting massive fees for years to build a new student-owned building that would house extra-curricular activities. In order to speed up the process, the union asked to have the fee more than double, to a point where it would end up costing a full-time student $135 a year, and rake in more than $2 million a year total from Concordia undergrads. That question was soundly defeated, 931-2,348.
You can’t leave me!
The big question on the ballot, though, was about whether Concordia undergraduate students wanted to maintain their membership in the Canadian Federation of Students.
In the past two years there has been a wave of student associations who have gone through the process of disaffiliating with CFS. Not because they disagree with the CFS’s stand on tuition or social or economic issues, but because they feel the CFS is undemocratic, and their repeated attempts to reform the CFS’s structure have failed.
In fact, the situation has gotten so bad that the CFS is now at war with its own Quebec chapter (tensions had been simmering for quite a while for years previously), and has banished CFS-Q from its organization (now demanding that it change its name).
As if proving their point about the lack of democracy, the CFS is refusing to allow student unions to leave, even after referendums are held with students voting overwhelmingly to disaffiliate from the CFS and stop paying fees.
How can they ignore the democratic will of students so brazenly? Well, it’s in the CFS by-laws.
In a document poetically called Solidarity For Their Own Good, and posted to Stephen Taylor’s blog, Titus Gregory spends 339 heavily-footnoted pages talking about the structure of CFS and the increasingly convoluted procedure put in place to disaffiliate from the organization.
The procedures put an insane amount of power in CFS’s hands considering the obvious stake they have in the result.
Among the rules the CFS forces student unions to go through:
- A requirement that 20% of students sign a petition demanding to leave CFS (this is just to put the matter to a vote). For the CSU, this would mean more than 5,000 students, and about 10 times the number it would take to force any other matter onto a referendum ballot
- The CFS, not the student union, sets the date for the referendum
- A standardized question that makes no reference to what fees students pay to CFS
- Votes for disaffiliation by any one student association must be a minimum of five years apart
- Votes for disaffiliation cannot take place between April 15 and Sept. 15, or between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15
- No three student associations can hold disaffiliation referendums within the same three-month period. As a result of this (and the previous rule), the CFS refused to allow a referendum at Concordia until almost a year after the petition was delivered in October.
- A special body, with half its members appointed by CFS, decides on what campaign materials are allowed (and can unilaterally tear down posters it feels are not compliant). During a referendum at Dawson College in 2008 (this one to join CFS), posters arguing against CFS affiliation were declared illegal for incredibly dubious reasons (most alleging defamation against CFS), including the argument that one had “out of date” citations from student newspapers.
- The CFS has the right to appoint poll clerks, scrutineers, and one of two members of an appeals committee to deal with any disputes over these rules
- Campaigning of any kind is prohibited outside of the campaign period, but an exception is made for any material that describes or advertises CFS services so long as it doesn’t reference the referendum directly
- All outstanding fees must be paid to CFS before choosing to disaffiliate. The CSU was shocked when the CFS calculated their outstanding fees to be more than $1 million, and outright deny that any such deficit exists.
Imagine any other organization imposing these kinds of rules for someone wanting to leave that organization, and one word comes to mind: undemocratic.
It’s easier to leave a cellphone contract from hell than it is to leave CFS.
Which brings us back to the entire reason these student associations want to leave.
But they can’t leave. Instead, the CFS is suing or threatening to sue any student union that dares try, finding some violation of the CFS-imposed rules to argue that the union is violating CFS by-laws and hence a contract between the two organizations.
Other battles are going on with the McGill graduate association, as well as Concordia’s Graduate Student Association, which CFS also argues owes it a lot of money. If all the disaffiliation campaigns are successful, the CFS will be left with virtually no presence in Quebec, Canada’s second-largest province.
At Concordia, even though the question was simply whether they wanted to remain part of CFS, the students voted 72% against. Not only did members of both parties running for the executive support leaving CFS (one made it a primary platform point), but the issue seemed to unite (what’s left of) both sides of the political divide, proving once again that corruption is not a partisan issue.
And so, like that psycho ex-girlfriend who insists your relationship isn’t over until she agrees to end it, the CFS will be using its lawyers to convince student associations to stay (Heck, I expect a lawyer’s letter threatening me for this post any day now). And all the money being sunk into this battle (from both sides) is money that won’t be used to advocate for student causes and provide services to students at universities.
The CFS might even win some of these court challenges, successfully finding some loophole that invalidates months of work on the part of a student association that just wants to leave.
But just because the CFS might win doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be ashamed of itself.