As part of his election platform, Premier Dalton McGuinty promised a grant of $1,600 to students from families with income of less than $160,000. Unsatisfied with the grant proposal, the Canadian Federation of Students, a lobby group that advocates on behalf of its members for affordable and accessible education, is demanding a reduction in fees.
All undergraduate students at U of T are paying members of the CFS. Last year, the U of T Students’ Union sent over $600,000 of student money to the CFS to fund projects such as Drop Fees, Bottled Water Free, and Take It Over elections. The lobby group represents more than 500,000 students across Canada.
The debate over membership at U of T was tumultuous. In 2002, the Student Administrative Council (now UTSU) and the Erindale College Student Union (now UTMSU) discussed the possibility of joining the CFS. SAC governed student life on all three campuses from St. George, while ECSU represented students solely in Mississauga. After a council vote of 28 to 23 in favour of holding a student referendum to join with the CFS, the two groups divided and took opposing stances. Mississauga students belonged to both organizations and would become members of CFS through SAC, regardless of ECSU’s position.
“There was a bit of a turf war,” says Aubrey Iwaniw, former environment coordinator and student governor. SAC argued that CFS would provide the largest forum in Canada for student collaboration and pose as a united front against tuition hikes. ECSU said that CFS was the priciest, most left-wing option. They argued that since students subscribe to different political orientations, other lobby groups, such as the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, should be considered before rushing into membership with CFS.
Various student unions across Canada, including Queen’s University, opted to join the OUSA over the CFS. OUSA is policy-focussed and charges just over $2 per student. In contrast, the CFS is activism-focussed and employs tactics such as protests and rallies.
Iwaniw and other students from SAC plastered walls with posters, handed out information pamphlets, and canvassed at residence buildings to cultivate support for CFS. Executives from the federation came to the Erindale campus to assist SAC. The Varsity criticized SAC for using student money to fund their “Yes” campaign.
The only material about ECSU’s “No” campaign was an advertisement in The Medium.
“Well, that’s typically the way it goes… right?” Iwaniw says. “I don’t think the ‘No’ campaign was organized. CFS was giving us ‘Yes’ campaign material. It’s very rare that you get a ‘No’ campaign that’s as funded as the ‘Yes’ campaign with CFS backing it.”
At UTM, 79% of the students that turned out to the referendum voted in favour of the CFS. At St. George, where there was a more visible “No” campaign, only 54% voted in favour of the CFS.
The following semester, Jim Delaney, U of T’s assistant director of student affairs, raised questions concerning the referendum, stating that he could not verify the results because of bylaw violations and unfair campaigning. Since tuition levy fees are transferred from the university to the student union, the administration has the authority to intervene when they suspect student money is abused.
The matter came before the University Affairs Board at the Governing Council, U of T’s largest decision-making body. After SAC and CFS claimed that the referendum was held democratically, the UAB certified the results.
Over the past 10 years, CFS has come under the scrutiny of student unions across Canada. Students at U of T have raised questions about the value of membership—over half a million dollars of student money each year.
At universities across the country, unions have had second thoughts about their membership in the lobby group considering the high fees, interference with student union elections, allegedly undemocratic procedures, and referendum regulations that make it difficult for unions to defederate.
Over the last five years, the CFS has taken the Simon Fraser Student Society, University of Victoria Students’ Society, and the Central Student Association at the University of Guelph to court over referendum disputes after the unions attempted to disband. Meanwhile, 10 more student unions circulated petitions to leave the lobby group.
The CFS constitution includes referendum regulations that critics claim hinder accountability and transparency. When holding referendums to disband from the CFS, the “No” campaign run by a group in opposition of the CFS is limited in the amount it can spend, whereas the “Yes” campaign in favour of continued membership is not given a spending limit.
At the 2009 Annual General Meeting, the CFS passed bylaw amendments stipulating that no more than two membership referendums can be held in a three-month period, limiting the number of unions that can file for defederation.
UTSU put forth a motion to reallocate the responsibility to oversee referendum procedures to the Chief Returning Officer, a position appointed by CFS executives. Previously, the Referendum Oversight Committee adjudicated referendums and comprised two national CFS executives and two student union representatives. CFS stated that the amendments were made to ensure that students remain united against the provincial government in opposition of high tuition fees.
In recent history, with the exception of the tuition freeze in 2002 as part of McGuinty’s election campaign when he was first elected into office—a move the CFS attributes to their own lobby efforts—fees have annually increased.
The last Drop Fees campaign was held two years ago; in it, UTMSU spent nearly $11,000 on transportation to Queen’s Park, t-shirts, food, posters, and buttons.
“Do I think that we’re getting our money’s worth? I don’t know,” Iwaniw says. “I do believe in what they’re doing. I think having a structured debate is really important for students.”