Canadian Federation of Students head talks transparency
The Canadian Federation of Students is a national network of student unions known best for its lobbying to make post-secondary education more affordable. The group is funded mostly through mandatory fees tacked on to students’ tuition bills whether they like it or not. The CFS is sometimes accused of not being transparent or worth the cost. Although it’s possible to leave the group through a petition and referendum, the CFS won’t let members go without a fight. In a 2010 referendum at the University of Guelph, 73 per cent of students voted to leave but the CFS never recognized the vote, resulting in at least $407,000 in legal bills for Guelph students. This month when it became clear the local student union was planning to give up and settle, the university stepped in and surveyed students, who once again indicated—70 per cent to 29 per cent—that they want to stop paying the fees. Carleton University Students’ Association may be the next student union to attempt to leave. Adam Awad, whose term as CFS National Chairperson ends in June, sat down for a chat during a recent trip to Toronto.
What were your goals as chairperson and how have those have worked out so far?
One of my big things that I was really excited about was continuing the Education is a Right campaign and really pushing, particularly on a the federal level. I was able to work on things like the alternative federal budget submission and the lobbying side but also with students across the country to organize the National Day of Action, which looked different in each province.
I was reading in a student newspaper from Lakehead today that they didn’t have a ‘Day of Action’ this year. Does that reflect a change in how the CFS is approaching the anti-tuition movement?
No. We had a National Day of Action in 2012 and in 2007. Some provinces have chosen to have days of action in between, but I don’t know where people got the idea there is an annual Day of Action.
Is that something left up to the provincial branches of the CFS?
Twice a year on the national level and twice a year on the provincial level we come together and talk about whatever is impacting students. And it’s at those moments that we talk about whatever our campaign strategy for the coming months and the coming years [will be]. We say, okay, these are the issues: tuition fees, funding, copyright, equity issues, No Means No… and then we determine what our ultimate goal is, how we think we’re going to get there and what our actual tactics are going to be. Depending on what’s happening politically, sometimes that’s a Day of Action, or a protest, or a petition or a letter writing campaign or a lobby document.
At the last meeting, there was a motion that passed that said the CFS would put documents like general meeting minutes, audits etc. on the website. Has that happened yet?
If you’ve been to our website, then you know how retro it looks, circa 2002. We’re in the process of overhauling our website entirely, including updating all the content, making sure all the documents are up-to-date, as well as changing the look and making it way more user-friendly. As part of that we’ll be putting up our meeting summaries and our audit summaries.
If I was curious to know the budget of the entire CFS, I would go online and wouldn’t be able to find it now, but that will be there in the future?
We don’t put our budgets online. The thing that people have a hard time wrapping their heads around is that our documents aren’t necessarily public. We’re not a government. We’re a membership-based organization so it’s our members who have a right to see our documents, and so as part of that, every single delegate that comes to a meeting gets a binder with all the documents—all of the bylaws, all the policies, all of the audits, the budget, everything for that year. That’s supposed to stay at each student union. Every student union who doesn’t send a delegate gets a copy mailed to them that they’re supposed to add to their archives. The idea behind the federation is that it’s a network of student unions across the country, so the responsibility of connecting with students lies with each student union.
If students wanted to know what budget was, they would probably just go online, so why not, in the interest of transparency, just put it on there?
I think the most important thing is about context. We don’t exist in a vacuum. If you look at anything that the federal government is doing right now in relation to back-to-work legislation or right-to-work legislation and the changes they’re trying to pass with union finances… We don’t exist in a political vacuum where the federal government or political parties don’t care about organizations like ours. And as an organization we’re not accountable to political parties, we’re not accountable to governments, we’re accountable to our members. The ultimate question remains—and I think that’s something we’re going to have to deal with on an ongoing basis—how do we make sure our members have easy access to documents and have access to the context behind them?
What is the overall budget number, a ballpark figure of how big the CFS is in terms of revenue?
I wish you’d sent me that before. I haven’t looked at our budget in a while. There’s CFS and CFS-Services, the campaign side and the services side, I think all together is about $2 million. [Editor's Note: Awad later e-mailed that the combined budget of the two is about $3.3 million.]
What’s the idea behind the [federal] post-secondary act that the CFS is lobbying for?
The same way that health care exists in Canada, technically it’s a provincial jurisdiction [but] the federal government is a huge funder of it. There was a recognition that people across the country, regardless of where they live, need to have access to health care. So, in the same way, it’s important to have some kind of national standard for education, because right now there’s no strings tied to the funding the federal government gives to the provinces for education. So what we’re asking for is for the federal government to say, we’re going to give you money for post-secondary education, you actually have use it for post-secondary education. And it would say, across the board, you must meet these standards. No matter where you go to school in the country, you should have access to post-secondary.
Last year the big story was the Quebec student movement and they were successful in some ways. What have you learned from that?
That wasn’t the first time that Quebec students took to the streets. They’ve had hundreds of thousands of people on the streets before. It was great to see. The thing that it helped other people across the country see is that it is possible to do that. When you’re talking to people on the ground they say, ‘that will never have an impact, we can’t effect change through protest, the government’s going to do whatever they want anyway,’ and that was a good moment for saying, ‘actually it is possible to organize something like that if you put the work in, put the effort in and organize and actually talk to people.’ It can have an impact on provincial elections, federal elections. There was nobody in the Quebec election who wasn’t talking about post-secondary education.
To your knowledge has CFS ever paid for buses to bring students from one campus to another to campaign for particular candidates in local student union elections?
So I’m assuming they just go because they believe in supporting one candidate over another?
I can talk about my own experience over three years working with other activists at U of T and around Toronto. If you have friends who are running in an election and you think they would be great, you think they have solid politics, and they ask you to help, you say, ‘well, I have my evenings and my weekends, sure, what do you need help with? I can put some posters up on campus.’ If I’m helping out one of my friends, I’m helping out one of my friends. If other people happen to be upset that they have progressive politics, there’s nothing that I can do about that.
In 2010, Guelph students voted 73 per cent in favour of leaving the CFS. Why wasn’t that recognized then and why isn’t it recognized a few years later?
I guess I’ll start with the fundamental part of it, which is that, as a director of a corporation I have a legal responsibility to the board to uphold the bylaws of the organization. It’s not like I just sat in a room and said, ‘I’m going to make these bylaws.’ They’re determined by the membership, approved by the membership… So in cases where the bylaws weren’t met in terms of actual process, there’s an ultimate responsibility to make sure that they are upheld. In this particular case, there were some interesting questionable things happening with the vote itself. It was a vote online and when we looked at the actual voting information there were very interesting spikes in when people were voting, like, overnight, which didn’t really match up with other votes on other campuses. And there were a couple other questionable things about the actual process and that’s why there was hesitation around wholesale approving the results and why a process was initiated to actually review them.
Guelph has taken the step of canvassing students on whether they want the university to start collecting CFS fees in the fall. What do you think of that?
It seems pretty paternalistic for the administration to come in and say, ‘this is how we’re going to determine things for you.’ As a fundamental principle we believe in the autonomy of student unions. If students at a particular school have an issue with what their student’s union is doing, it’s their organization and their responsibility to take it up with [their student union]. It definitely oversteps their bounds, which we’ve noticed they’ve been doing more and more in recent years.
Guelph involves a lawsuit. Another thing that comes up once in a while, especially in student newspapers, is this idea that the CFS sues its student unions often. Could you respond to that?
It would be great if people called us for fact-checking on articles like that. It’s one of those things that someone published once and people keep referring to and like to keep that idea alive even though it has no basis. We certainly have no practice of suing student unions. It’s not in anyone’s best interest to be in a position like that and in the vast majority of cases where we’re involved in some kind legal situation we’re actually responding to it, so we don’t really have a choice.
At the last annual general meeting, I believe it was Dawson Student Union that put forward a motion to make the number of lawsuits and details about the lawsuits more public and that was voted down. I want to get your sense as to why the student union representatives voted that down?
I think people forget that… we actually have to follow the law, which includes the Corporations Act, which sets out [that] this information is board responsibility and this information is for the AGM [Annual General Meeting]. I think people forget that there are some things that are really operations of the organization that are really for the board to deal with, which include litigation details, staffing issues, HR, billing, operations… We provide updates throughout the year at our general meetings, but not specific details because they’re not public details.
The CFS advises the federal government on its budget so you’d almost expect to have public access to your own budget, to have that under scrutiny…
The federal government is public. Ultimately the federal government has a responsibility to every Canadian and every person who lives in Canada. We have an ultimate responsibility to our members and that’s why all member student unions get copies of the budget.
If a member emailed the CFS and asked for the budget would you e-mail them a copy?
We would tell them the easiest thing to do is to go and see their student’s union.
I’m always confused about whether student unions are student governments, more similar to labour unions or are something in between.
I’m fond of saying, if you give us a central bank and an ability to make passports and recognize citizenship and maybe a student central army, then we could probably start using the word governments. But we don’t govern anything, we are governed by the law and we are governed by our members’ direction and we’re accountable to our members. So I mean if you wanted to start saying a Lion’s Club is a government or Girl Guides is also a government… well, it’s not.
In Quebec students felt they had the right to strike and asserted that quite vigorously. Other people were saying, you’re not a real union, you don’t have the right to strike. Do you have a belief about whether that right exists or whether you’d have to pass new legislation for that right to exist?
I believe certain rights exist regardless of what legislation might say. I put right to organize in that.
In student union elections, turnout is usually low. But a lot of students who have online voting have experienced better turnout. Why aren’t we seeing all student unions go online?
I think it’s a false idea that everyone who has online voting has higher turnout rates. There’s a bunch of student’s unions at U of T, the college student unions, who have online voting and they’ve had voter turnout as low as 100 people. Whether voting is online doesn’t have a fundamental impact on whether voters are engaged. In years where people put in the effort to engage people on the ground and people feel there’s a need to actually participate in the election, then they come out and they participate. The other thing is that, as it currently stands, it’s impossible to have an online vote that’s both secure and anonymous.
What else are you working on right now?
Our biggest thing right now is student debt. We’re at record levels across the country. Economists are saying it’s a major issue, the think tanks are saying it’s a major issue, the banks are saying it’s a major issue. When the major banks in the country are starting to say that student debt is a problem, we’re not radicals. And so we’re trying to get the federal government to actually listen to all these people and organizations who are saying it’s getting out of hand and that they should actually do something about it. So we’re calling on the federal government to have direct investment in wiping out student debt and have put forward a couple ways for that to happen, but it would basically wipe existing student debt as well as wipe out the need for further student debt.
Do you think there’s any likelihood that would happen under the current federal government?
We will work with whoever wants to implement good policy. The [Conservative] federal government in 2009 created the Canada Student Grants program. That was excellent and it was the first national needs-based public grants program for post-secondary. So we celebrated that decision, disagreed with other ones. The last several Conservative governments have actually been good at investing in post-secondary education, particularly research and innovation. They put in some new money, cut some again later on—we disagree with that. And we meet with them every year and it seems like there’s a recognition on their part that education is important, so it’s a matter of getting them to see that our proposal is the better one.
Getting back to the annual meetings… It’s almost like there’s no way for the average student to know what went on in those. There’s no live streaming, no recording or anything like that, is there?
We’re not a political party, we don’t operate in that same way. It’s an AGM. Most of it’s pretty operational business stuff and then we have workshops and things. We invite CUP [the Canadian University Press, a student newspaper newswire] to have a representative every year and they routinely refuse to participate in most of the meeting, which is frustrating.
Did that happen this year?
It did. [The reporter] expressed an interest in coming to all the workshops and opening and closing plenary, but failed to show up for anything except closing plenary. It’s frustrating for us. We invite CUP to be there because of their relationship with student unions across the country and because they have an Ottawa bureau chief. As a fundamental principle we don’t believe in privileging students who are closer. There’s no reason why a student who happens to go to Ottawa U. has any more right to go to meetings than someone who’s in Prince George, B.C. and that’s why we have the structure that we do. And it’s the same thing with the press.
What about live-streaming?
Live-streaming is tough logistically to do. But again, [with] live-streaming it becomes a public thing and we’re not a government.
But why not be more public?
Well when you’re determining your campaign strategy of how to get the government to do something, or how to respond to Access Copyright’s decision to sue a university… we don’t really want Access Copyright knowing how we’re going to try and get them to change that or how we’re going to position ourselves in relation to a particular government. That’s not wise planning I would say. I don’t think any organizing structure is perfect but our model is about everybody pulling their weight to make sure they’re doing outreach on the ground before the meeting, because everybody gets copies of the motions in advance.
Just to be clear, when the new website comes out, you’re not going to put budgets up there?
We’ll have auditor’s summaries. We’ll basically put up the annual report that gets sent to people at the general meeting that says, this is all the work that’s been done, this is the state of the finances, that kind of stuff. But not a line by line.
So you won’t be able to tell how much is staffing cost and how much is for lawsuits…
I’m very happy that you mention that. That’s a question that I get more often that I would expect. People see the legal line item and automatically think that means lawsuits, but we were involved in a case at the Supreme Court around interpreting copyright legislation; it costs money to be at the Supreme Court. The copyright file is a legal file so we were at the Copyright Board of Canada and that required engaging lawyers. We sign contracts with service providers for the services we run and need lawyers to vet those. There’s a new not-for-profit act and that’s going to change our bylaws. We need to engage with our legal counsel to make sure we’re in accordance with the law. There’s a lot of different reasons why we use lawyers in the different ways.
This interview has been edited and condensed.