CFS Politics. What fun!

Posted by: | February 25, 2008 | 7 Comments

You’ve probably noticed them: ads on the 99 B-line with smiling, ethnically diverse young people with “I am CFS” drawn on their outstreached hands in marker. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), which is one of the two main federal student lobbies, is gearing up for a huge publicity campaign in the next month to try and prevent SFU students from withdrawing as a member student association of CFS. Numerous other member student societies, including the Kwantlen Students Association, and UVic Graduate Students’ Society, which have also submitted notices of referenda for defederation from CFS. Our student society, the AMS, is a founding member of CFS’s rival federal lobby student lobby, CASA, which formed in 1995 as a breakaway group from CFS of five Candian student unions. The two networks have distinctly different approaches to lobbying, and have differently leaning politics on higher education issues. Also, CFS has much higher membership fees than does CASA by about an order of magnitude (compare 430 000 in dues that SFSS pays to CFS to 47 000 that AMS pays to CASA).

But this story is about the CFS. The Simon Fraser Students Society (SFSS) has been a member student society of CFS since its founding in 1981. In return for about half a million dollars a year of membership fees paid to CFS, they get some student services (like a discount card, rental listings, student phones, and some other stuff) and more importantly, a federal lobbying office and participation in national campaigns, including the national “day of action” which you may have heard of.

Last March, the SFSS included a question about leaving the CFS in their yearly referendum. While only about 5% of students voted in the referendum, 78% of those who did vote wanted out. Proponents of SFSS leaving the CFS cite the high membership fees, redundant services and ineffectual lobbying of the CFS, as well as corruption associated with CFS-friendly student association executives. (SFU, Douglas College, and Kwantlen College all have had tragically good examples of this in hte last fe years). Anyway, despite the clear majority in favour of leaving, last March’s referendum was “non-binding”, since CFS has its own detailed rules about how a member organization may leave the Federation. last March’s vote was intended to get a feel for how students felt about the CFS. This March, the next step is being taken with the official referendum (in accordance with CFS rules) which will determine whether the SFSS stays leaves.

This month I got a couple media releases from the KSA detailing how the CFS’s “secret war-plans” for the “no” campaign had been revealed. These plans included more than a hundred thousand dollars to fund the campaign, plans to fly in pro-CFS campaigners from all over the country (both students from CFS schools, and CFS staffers), and even plans to try and hire CFS-loyal individuals into the staff of member’s student unions. CFS national chair Amanda Aziz rebutted that the “war plan” document was authored by Summer McFadyen of the CFS-BC office alone, with no collaboration from the national office. CFS lawyers have demanded an apology from the KSA, which deliberately leaked the document. More details and opinion in the Maclean’s on Campus blogosphere HERE, HERE, and HERE. While from the CFS’s perspective, it makes sense to invest a lot of resources to prevent the loss of member schools (and with them, member school’s yearly dues), these campaign plans would probably overwhelm any effort the “yes” side could possibly hope to match. While the “yes” side is subject to campaign spending limits according to SFSS referendum rules, expenses paid by the CFS wouldn’t be included in these regulations. Moreover, from the leaked documents, it’s obvious that many prospective campaigners aren’t even students, and are employees of NDP and Union affiliated groups.

In any case, this is just a prelude to the actual campaign. Is the CFS a self-aggrandizing parasite, or real advocate for students on a national level? How effective are they? Of what value are services they offer? Is support for the CFS based in its value as student-issues lobby, or because it’s a leftist organization? All questions that will come up. The war of words has already started in SFU’s student newspaper, The Peak. Have a taste of the debate: “Why we should leave”, and “Why we should stay”. More opinion here, here.

This business with CFS actually does bring up more general questions about high-level student advocacy, lobbying, government relations, and the role of the student movement generally. Should they be larger, and deal with issues outside of higher education, have partisan affiliations, and campaign through protests? (like CFS), or be more narrowly focused, not spend money on publicity, and engage on policy with government in closed-door meetings? (like CASA). Or are these national groups necessary at all? The VP external position in the AMS is purportedly the least busy of the portfolios. There’s no saying what a motivated VPX could do individually if they spent enough time in Ottawa and Victoria.


7 Comments so far

  1. Anonymous on February 25, 2008 7:10 pm

    Well that’s an easy choice. Self-aggrandizing parasite all the way!

  2. Matthew Naylor on February 26, 2008 3:55 pm

    The VP external position in the AMS is purportedly the least busy of the portfolios.

    Yeah… No. I think this perception comes from the fact that what I do is externally focused, and nobody really sees what I’m doing, and the results of what I do don’t come for months or even years.

    To suggest that the VPX act as a full time lobbyist belies an incredible misunderstanding of the External Affairs portfolio. We need lobby groups because the VPX typically has classes, responsibilities with the U-Pass, committee work at the AMS, inter-student-association relations, particularly around the Lower Mainland, and 3 levels of government to deal with. It would be unfeasible for any student to act full time as a lobbyist to either of the governments you’ve suggested, and to do so would neglect a large part of the portfolio, which would probably lead to censure or impeachment.

  3. Reka on February 26, 2008 7:08 pm

    One of the nice things about the system we have though is that XCom has a commissioner for each of the VPX portfolio aspects that Matt mentioned. Don’t know if the structure actually works, but the idea is good.

    I think that the VPX definitely has an important (and potentially larger) role to play in provincial lobbying. Provincial Lobby Day is a great example of a relatively simple way of increasing the AMS’ presence (en masse) in Victoria. As an aside, though… when did it ever include a hotel party? (thanks, Facebook)

  4. Mike Thicke on February 29, 2008 2:48 am

    Having recently relocated to a CFS school, I can see that the CFS appears to play a much more active role than CASA. Our graduate external coordinator is often at CFS meetings discussing issues relevant to students beyond their immediate surroundings (commercialization of research, government funding, student loans, etc.).

    The CFS certainly seems to have a deserved reputation for corruption though. I think they very much have a sort of vanguard mentality which I find troubling.

    Yes, I know that must sound odd coming from a Knolligarch ;-).

  5. Anonymous on March 2, 2008 12:43 am

    I moved to Vancouver from the Okanagan and must say that the CFS actually does great things, unlike the CASA (the what?). UBC O’s students union is an active member of the CFS and the campus itself is generally progressive and political.

  6. maayan kreitzman on March 2, 2008 8:28 am

    Anon 4:43 –
    I’m cuious, in your experience at UBC-O what are the great things CFS does? Is the more political and progressive atmosphere your mentioned the main thing? I myself wouldn’t want a national lobby forming the fabric of UBC’s political… garment. Sorry about the dubious metaphor.

  7. Anonymous on March 26, 2008 8:20 pm

    I’m a student at kwantlen. Truth be told the whole thing seems kind of ridiculous, what do i stand to gain from leaving the CFS: $7.61.
    What do i gain from staying: better national representation?. I couldn’t care less about a planner, i don’t use it anyways, and i haven’t even seen a CFS supplied discount card, But whoever can shorten my two and a half hour bus commute that usually takes 50 minutes by car, will win my eternal adoration. I believe the combined forces of the KSA and the CFS might be able to do it alot faster.

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