dissent and the canadian federation of students

by erinohsays

quebec at cfs

The Quebec contingent of the Canadian Federation of Students (most Quebec locals have defederated) at the CFS AGM in Ottawa, November 2012. photo by Morgan Crockett.

Last week I participated in the Canadian Federation of Students’ Semi-Annual General Meeting in Ottawa on behalf of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union. The GSU brought forward a package of 15 motions to the meeting, most of which aimed to reform the structure and policies of the CFS. Of these 15 motions, two passed. One of the motions to pass was arguably the least contentious of all, as it called for strengthening the CFS’ existing “Education is a Right” campaign by including in it research on the elimination of education fees. The other motion, ironically, established policy against the criminalization of dissent.

Among the remaining 13 motions, 4 were tabled for consideration at the next General Meeting, while the remaining 9 failed. Discussions around most of the failed motions largely reflected a hostility toward challenging the status quo of how CFS operates and framed those with dissenting views as right-wingers who want to divide the student movement.

Rather than being a productive space for rank and file students to come together and collectively strategize on how to mobilize our campuses, the CFS General Meeting felt more like a nationalist assembly of CFS loyalists, dedicated to the structure of the CFS itself. Instead of having broader discussions on effective organizing methods and how to value local union autonomy while maintaining communication and a common purpose among student unions, the space was used to defend the existing structure of the CFS and alienate locals that expressed concern with this structure.

Each time a motion aimed at reform was raised at the meeting, we saw the following response:
1. Discussion on how this motion threatens the unity of the CFS
2. Characterization of those who support the motion as being divisive
3. Motion fails and status quo of CFS operations is maintained

A few examples:

A motion was brought forward calling for the CFS to publish on its website motions that pass and fail at its General Meetings. Because the CFS currently does not publish any information about its meetings online, the justification of the motion is that institutionalizing transparency of CFS will allow for greater engagement among students and better knowledge of what the CFS does. However, the discussion focused on how this would allow government and anti-CFS groups to “know too much” about the organization and that this knowledge would be used to break down the student movement. The logic is that students unfamiliar with the CFS will not understand the context in which the motions either passed or failed, and that it is better to not publish anything rather than to publish the motions along with relevant context.

cfs national chairperson election 2012

(from left to right) CFS National Deputy Chairperson Jessica McCormick, CFS Internal Coordinator Ashkon Hashemi, Dawson Union representative Nicholas Di Penna, University of Toronto GSU repsentative Ashleigh Ingle

Another motion was brought forward calling for the CFS to respect the 2010 defederation votes of student unions at Concordia and McGill and for the CFS to drop its current lawsuits with these unions. The justification for this motion is that these locals overwhelmingly voted in favour of defederating and that the CFS should respect local autonomy and recognize these votes. However the chair of the meeting ruled the motion out of order because “it goes against CFS bylaws”. When asked what bylaw the motion contradicts, the chair responded with, “a few of them” and failed to name a single bylaw. When the ruling of the chair was challenged, member unions voted overwhelmingly in favour of upholding the ruling and the discussion ended. Rather than reaching a decision that would allow for the Concordia and McGill student unions to defederate, the prevailing logic was that doing so would open up the flood gates for student unions to defederate and that it is better to leave the decision up to CFS’ lawyers (CFS has spent upwards of $100,000 in suing student unions in the last year alone).

Another motion was brought forward for the CFS Women’s Constituency Group to be renamed the Women and Trans People Constituency Group. Because there is currently no constituent space for trans people at the CFS, our local argued that the Women’s Constituency Group should be a place for all marginalized genders, including trans men, and that all trans people be welcomed in this space. The response to this motion was that this was a form of “t-tacking” in which a group superficially claims to represent trans people while actually representing mainly cis-gendered people. Overwhelmingly, the rationale was that the Women’s Constituency Group is already mandated to represent all women-identified people, and that renaming it the Women and Trans People Constituency Group would create a divide between cis-women and trans-women. While the intent of the motion was to first rename the constituency group for all marginalized genders and then *do the work* of making the space more inclusive, discussion around the motion stalled on how the Women’s Constituency Group cannot purport to represent all trans people and should therefore remain as is.

Finally, a motion was brought forward for non-student staff to not be allowed to vote at CFS General Meetings. The justification is that decisions about students should ultimately be made by students themselves. While staff are an integral part of operating student unions and have an important role in maintaining consistency and institutional memory, when it comes to making decisions in such spaces as the CFS General Meeting, it is students who are best positioned to do so. In response to this motion, some students argued that staff are more eloquent, confident, and articulate and that it is therefore better to allow them to speak for students. Other students argued that staff often have to replace student representatives at these meetings when no student representatives are available to attend. Rather than address the problem or perception that students cannot adequately express themselves, it was suggested that staff should speak for them. Rather than ask literally *any other student* on campus to attend when an elected student representative is unavailable to attend a meeting, it was suggested that it was more desirable for a staff person to attend. A staff person from the GSU passionately spoke *in favour* of this motion, expressed the importance of students making decisions for themselves and emphasized that staff should provide resources but *not* direction. The motion was overwhelmingly voted down.

Throughout discussion on these motions, staff people from a few different unions expressed anger and annoyance with the motions, calling them frivolous and a waste of time. At one point, discussion was even called to question by a staff person (shutting down debate if the majority votes in favour of doing so). The majority voted in favour of calling the question and discussion ended.

Twitter played an interesting role throughout the meeting while people informally debated whether or not the formal debate was democratic. While most argued that majority rule is democratic, others instead argued that majority rule is not democratic and that it is by allowing and responding to dissenting views that spaces can become more democratic.

I do not feel that the meeting was an anti-democratic space simply because most of the motions brought forward by the GSU failed. Rather, I feel that the meeting was an anti-democratic space because of the similar ways in which these motions failed. In each case, discussion was reactionary, aggressive, and focused on the need to maintain the current way that the CFS operates. Publishing minutes online would force us to be transparent in our discussions, respecting defederation votes would break down the facade of national student unity, including all marginalized genders in Women’s Constituency Group would mean that we actually have to do the work of including marginalized genders other than cis-women and trans-women, and disallowing staff to vote would force executives to do their research, consult membership, and come to general meetings with a mandate from students on how to vote.

Instead of having honest discussions about the current limitations of CFS and how it can actually represent rank and file students, the meeting felt more like an experiment in group-think, retaliatory attacks, and pledging allegiance to the nationalist cause. Rather than engaging in productive conversations about how we can reform the CFS for the better and move forward as a collective body, I learned that too many member unions value their loyalty to the CFS more than local autonomy and self determined actions. My hope moving forward is that we can have these difficult but necessary conversations at the next General Meeting and continue efforts to reform our student federation in a way that allows for productive conversations, increased transparency, and respectful engagement with dissent.

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