University student unions across Canada are under the umbrella of a federal union called the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). The CFS is made up over 80 member unions, including the York Federation of Students, the University of Toronto Student Union and the Ryerson Student Union in Toronto, Carleton University Students’ Association in Ottawa, and many more. Established in 1981, the union’s stated aim is to lobby the government for policies that protect students. However, throughout the years questions have arisen regarding the democratic process, or lack thereof, within CFS. Furthermore, many have begun questioning whether or not the CFS actually helps the students it is supposed to represent. The CFS collects millions in membership fees, and its constituents are increasingly asking about how their money is being spent.
So why are CFS politics particularly relevant to the pro-Israel community?
As we enter the month of December, most university students across Canada are scrambling to fit hours of studying into their schedules to prepare for their finals. Next semester however, some brave souls, including members of campus pro-Israel groups, will enter the vicious and stressful world of Canadian student politics, hoping to make a positive change. They will have a difficult task in front of them.
In the summer of 2014, the Ontario branch of the CFS (Canadian Federation of Students) endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Furthermore, last month the York Federation of Students passed a motion endorsing YUDIVEST, a campaign run by the pro-BDS group Students Against Israel Apartheid. The motion invoked “a progressive commitment to social justice,” despite the fact that the ultimate goal of BDS is the elimination of Israel and the violation of Jewish rights to self-determination. This is part of a pattern in which CFS abuses the language of social justice to promote unjust policies that hurt minorities, and ignores the pressing needs of the student body at large.
This takeover of the CFS by narrow political interests is only the tip of the iceberg, and students of all backgrounds are paying the price. Recently it came to light that CFS-affiliated leaders from the University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU) lost over $1.5 million in student funds on an inefficient healthcare plan, with some of this money going to the CFS itself. The CFS, which is paid to represent students in healthcare negotiations, were hiding important information about the healthcare plan (Read more here: http://thevarsity.ca/2015/12/07/utsu-loses-1-6-million-on-health-and-dental-plan/). Now that the UTSU is no longer fully controlled by the CFS, a decision has been made to switch to a more cost-effective healthcare system. and the UTSU may choose to terminate the relationship with the arm of the CFS that deals with health plans. This is just one example of CFS corruption, incompetence, or both.
There have been a number of attempts by student leaders who oppose corruption to put an end to the reign of the CFS. The problem is that elections are run by CFS staff who make it exceedingly difficult for the opposition to win, thereby creating a vicious cycle where their own members continue to be re-elected. Incumbent CFS members tend to be closely involved with the Chief Returning Officer who is in charge of the election process. Thus it is no surprise that a disproportionate number of election ballots in favor of opposition candidates are spoiled, and discounted as a result. Furthermore, former executive members from the York Federation of Students and the Ryerson Student Union have been caught campaigning at the University of Toronto, pretending to be UofT students.
The CFS’s election tactics violate the union’s own bylaws, which prohibit helping one slate at the expense of the other, but there is no accountability for this. Instead, student executive positions are filled with CFS-friendly staff who influence campus politics for years, and numerous student directors who engage in unethical practices end up getting jobs at the CFS after graduation.
Predictably, efforts at reforming the election process by working within the CFS system have failed. This past weekend, the York Federation of Students voted down a proposed motion at their Annual General Meeting to implement online voting, a method that would make the election process more fair and increase voter turnout. This change would have reduced the advantage of incumbents bringing in their friends from other CFS-affiliated student unions to campaign on their behalf and increased democratic engagement with the many students who prefer the ease of voting online. The previous union leadership at the University of Toronto also rejected online voting, and only implemented it after being directed to by the university administration.
Only a deeply unethical political machine suppresses attempts to equalize the democratic process and increase voter turnout. And yet, the CFS has been calling the shots on over 80 campuses across Canada with relatively limited opposition. While this is an undeniably frustrating situation, there are Canadian students who are brave enough to campaign against this powerful union, as evidenced by the fact that some university student unions have initiated legal actions to disengage from the CFS. As a recent graduate from a university where student politics were dominated by the CFS, I believe it is past time for a broad movement by Canadian students to take their universities back from a corrupt, negligent union that is failing to fulfill its mandate.