Thursday, February 22, 2018

A provincial divide: inside the national student movement

June 15, 2016 by Greg Pratt, Managing Editor

From January 14 to 17 of this year, the British Columbia Federation of Students (BCFS, then known as the Canadian Federation of Students-British Columbia [CFS-BC]) held their 34th annual general meeting. The meeting was significant, as the provincial student group finally made official what people behind the scenes had been talking about for a long time: they wanted to begin the process of separating from the national Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) organization.

CFS is no stranger to controversy. The organization—which all Camosun students pay into as part of their student fees—has been battling complaints of corruption for years.

Over at UVic, students fought and won a legal battle to leave the CFS in 2013. Their fight to get out of CFS took two years.

In January 2016, BCFS decided they had had enough. The group—which, despite the similarities with its old name, is a separate legal entity from CFS—got the wheels in motion to change its name to BC Federation of Students; to end duality of membership between CFS and BCFS (allowing an institution’s members to only belong to one group); and to develop a strategy to separate BCFS from CFS.

For BC students, this is a huge step. It’s the dawn of a post-national-student-movement era, and it’s a big sigh of relief for many behind the scenes. But will government still hear the student voice without a unified national movement?


The national student movement era isn’t quite over yet. Camosun students are still paying their CFS membership fees. BCFS chairperson Simka Marshall says that some of the services that students are paying for with their CFS membership are not being provided by the national organization; instead, BCFS is providing them.

“A reason why people would want to have all student unions come together nationally is to run national services, like bulk buying orientation materials, printing handbooks or agendas across the country. That really does make things more affordable for the student unions and the students,” she says. “All those services with the national organization have failed spectacularly. The BC office here has picked up the ball on those services and has been running them. Student unions in BC don’t want to be using services that aren’t working that we’re putting money toward. So that’s another reason why it’s important that we’re doing that work here in BC instead.”

(The CFS did not agree to interview requests for this story by press time.)

The CFS has been accused of circumventing their election procedures, contracting out unionized work, not delivering on services promised to member locals, and other allegations of internal corruption (in previous stories, CFS has denied these claims to Nexus). Marshall says that the split between BCFS and CFS was a result of the CFS’ behaviour and the fact that, she says, CFS hasn’t addressed these issues sufficiently to their members.

This story originally appeared in our June 15, 2016 issue.

This story originally appeared in our June 15, 2016 issue.

“We have a national organization that has complete disregard for their own bylaws; they have a disregard for the rights of the workers working in their own office,” says Marshall. “There hasn’t been any transparency or accountability on the side of the current elected leadership in the national office. The students in BC have raised those issues and wanted to open that conversation to talk about and have those really serious allegations be addressed, but they never have been. And that is the reason why we’re moving away from that and focusing on the positive campaign work and the positive services that we’re running here in BC.”

Marshall says that despite BCFS’ recent decisions, they’re not opposed to the idea of being part of a national student movement. But it needs to be one that’s accountable, she says.

“Students in BC simply aren’t going to stand for union busting and fiscal mismanagement of a large organization,” she says, bringing up some of the allegations that the CFS has faced in the recent past. “It’s students’ money, and it’s really important that’s being used with accountability and transparency.”

Camosun College Student Society (CCSS) External Executive Rachael Grant says that Camosun students are being impacted by the conflict between CFS and its BC members because they are paying fees to an organization “that isn’t reciprocating the services and campaign work that we’re used to expecting.” Grant says that it’s not acceptable.

“A lot of our services that we traditionally got, nationally, have not been of the same quality and not at the same level of collaboration with folks who are elected in BC to work nationally,” she says. “We aren’t receiving what we used to from belonging to the Canadian Federation of Students.”

CFS isn’t the only national student organization. There’s also the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), which Camosun students are not members of. CCSS Executive Director Michel Turcotte says that CFS and CASA generally agree on a number of important points but sometimes differ on how to get the desired results; he says that the very fact that there is more than one group is negative.

“Much like the province, the national student movement in Canada is somewhat fractured,” says Turcotte. “Neither [CFS nor CASA] tends to argue for tuition increases, and both tend to argue for better terms for grants and loans and things of that nature. But there are some very big differences in structure and style between those organizations. I think the fact that they’re not unified does do a disservice to students, because it allows the government to listen to whatever voice better serves their interests. That’s the same problem we have provincially.”

Turcotte, who has been working at the CCSS for 17 years, says that there have been issues with transparency, openness, and accountability with the CFS, but he also says that the group has had its share of unjust criticism.

“There have been other times, and I’d argue most times, where it’s just easier to criticize the organization in that there have been other groups that have made it their mission to try to destroy the organization for purely ideological reasons. Often, the Canadian Federation of Students would be tarred by guilt by association for things its member locals or people that weren’t even officers of the organization had done.”

Turcotte says that there is still a genuine need for some sort of national voice for Canadian post-secondary students.

“As long as the federal government remains engaged on post-secondary issues, providing money toward post-secondary institutions and student loans and grants and those sorts of things, that voice is necessary,” he says. “We do want to encourage the federal government to be actually doing those things.”

He points out that the history of the Canadian student movement has gone through several cycles and movements, with different groups leading the way.

“The first student movement was created to help get discounts on athletic equipment,” he says with a chuckle. “Years and years ago, at the Ivy League schools, that was what people cared about. Then we had the predecessor to the Canadian Federation of Students destroyed because of conflicts over the Vietnam War. If the Canadian Federation of Students fractures, one would think that at some point another organization will come up and take its place.”

Grant says that as things currently stand, there is no point in continuing to organize at the national level with the CFS. Actually defederating is another thing altogether—referendums to defederate haven’t, historically, been met with open arms by CFS—but Grant feels that trying to talk to the CFS about the relationship is pointless.

“I don’t see value in trying to stay,” she says. “There’s been exhaustive efforts on the part of folks from BC to look at bridging the gap in communication, look at getting benefits for our members in BC, and that has consistently been shut down, so I don’t see any point in staying at this point. We need to do what’s best for the folks who are paying fees to them. It doesn’t seem fair or honest to continue to try to seek out conversation when one half isn’t listening or participating in the dialogue.”


While the national student movement in Canada fractures and stumbles, everyone we spoke with says the provincial movement in BC is seeing an upswing in enthusiasm and energy. Marshall says that BCFS is ensuring that BC students’ money is being used effectively in BC.

“We have a lot of really important provincial organizing to do right now,” she says. “We have the provincial election coming up in a year, and that’s going to be particularly important, as that’s the jurisdiction that post-secondary education is under right now, and there are a lot of things that need to be changed here in BC.”

Marshall says that the provincial student movement is growing, and is strong.

“This has been an opportunity for us to build on the BC student movement,” she says of the split with CFS, “really building that solidarity across the province; I think that’s been quite positive.”

Grant says that there is value in having a national student movement, as there is always value in collaborating with other people. But she says there are a lot of reasons to collaborate provincially, not nationally.

“What should be noted is that, because we’re a college, Camosun students actually benefit more tangibly from organizing with other people provincially, because a lot of the decisions around post-secondary for colleges come from the provincial level,” she says. “There’s always benefit in collaborating with other entities: student unions, non-profits, you name it. There are people out there who are doing really good work, and it’s always good to join forces and pool resources. But the majority of work that has tangible benefits to post-secondary students in colleges like Camosun, those decisions happen at the provincial level.”

Grant stresses that it’s the provincial government that makes decisions that impact Camosun students the most, pointing to some specific examples that have been on people’s minds around Camosun’s campuses lately.

“If you look at the changes Camosun’s seen more recently—like tuition being put on ABE [Adult Basic Education], our new trades building, the cuts to English as a Second Language training that happened a couple years back—those are all provincial decisions, and those all really impacted Camosun students, and continue to.”

Marshall adds that there are issues that CFS never campaigned around that impact many BC students.

“Trades, ABE, and skills training: the CFS has never touched those issues, ever,” she says.

But not everyone wants to turn away from the idea of a national movement entirely. Turcotte says unification is the best bet for students.

“The ideal situation for students would be to have one provincial organization and one national organization to be able to effectively lobby both those governments without having that message be watered down in some way,” he says.

Grant stresses the positive over the negative in this situation, saying that it’s comforting to see the amazing work that the provincial student movement is doing while the national movement falters.

“It is really amazing to see how everyone in the student movement in BC has taken this disappointing circumstance, this generally really disheartening situation nationally, and taken that energy and put it into something positive for students in BC. We really are harnessing all that energy and turning it into something incredibly good. Although it’s really hard to see the decline of the effectiveness of the student movement nationally, it is so positive to see how the BC student movement has been bolstered by that, and we’re doing such amazing work.”


No one knows what the future holds for the national Canadian student movement. And not just in the way that no one ever knows what the future holds—everyone we asked was genuinely stumped by the question.

“I never thought I’d be living through a period where what’s happening is happening,” admits the CCSS’ Turcotte. “If somebody had told me three years ago that I would have grave concerns about the future of the Canadian Federation of Students, I would not have believed them.”

Turcotte says “the current crisis” with the CFS is less than two years old, but says that he is doubtful that relations will be fixed between BC member locals and CFS, as he says CFS hasn’t made any sort of meaningful effort to respond to BC members’ concerns.

“It’s just unbelievable that it happened so quickly,” says Turcotte. “We didn’t know anything was up until we were almost finished a general meeting and suddenly something happened there, and everything has changed. I don’t even really know anyone that works at the national office anymore.”

Turcotte adds that whatever the fate of the national movement—if the CFS falls apart or is replaced by something else, or if nothing takes its place—the provincial student movement will start to speak more on federal issues.

“The issues of federal funding to provincial governments for education, as well as national student loan issues, are fundamental to providing education to our members,” he says.

Grant says that the national student movement in the past has done amazing things. She’s just not so sure about what’s in store looking ahead.

“If an organization comes to be that delivers what they’re mandated to, if their work is meaningful, if the communication is there, if members are paying fees and getting what they’re owed legally, then that’s amazing, and that would be great to happen,” she says. “But the current standing of what’s in place, that isn’t possible.”

As for Marshall over at BCFS, she says there should only be a national student movement if it is going to do what it says it is going to do.

“We should only have a national student movement if it’s effective and relevant, and the CFS is neither. We always hear issues of membership disputes, and there are a number of provinces that are simply not active in the CFS and the national student movement and would rather focus locally, or provincially,” she says. “That’s a snapshot of what’s happening now, and I think that’s likely to continue.”

And what about a happier ending? Can CFS and its BC member locals fix their relationship? According to Turcotte, that’s going to be difficult.

“The Canadian Federation of Students has, to date, not really attempted to reach out to British Columbia in any meaningful way,” says Turcotte. “I mean, there were a few emails that were sent out at one point, but they haven’t actually engaged to try to do that. I have concerns; I do not believe that the conflict that exists between two organizations is resolvable when there’s no desire to resolve it. Unless there was a sudden and complete change of heart that suddenly happened with our colleagues in Ottawa, this conflict is going to continue.”

Update: We have spoken to CFS National Chairperson Bilan Arte and given her the chance to respond to concerns in this story. Look for that story soon.

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