The other side of the divide: talking tensions with Bilan Arte, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students
July 13, 2016 by Greg Pratt, Managing Editor
Our June 15, 2016 issue featured the cover story “A provincial divide,” which looked in detail at the state of the national student movement in Canada. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) did not agree to interview requests by the time we went to print. We have since talked with CFS national chairperson Bilan Arte about the issues discussed in the story, which include the conflict between BC member locals of the CFS and the national organization. Here is that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
Camosun College students are all paying members of the CFS.
Nexus: Why is it important to have a national student movement?
Arte: The importance of a national student movement is incredibly profound. When we think about some of the largest victories that students have had in Canada when it comes to issues like access to post-secondary education, when we talk about issues that are part of the student experience, where we see victories at a local level and a provincial level, and even federally with the introduction of a national student grants system, we’ve seen that because of direct student lobbying and student organizing from coast to coast and a unified voice where politicians here in Ottawa were able to hear very loudly and clearly that Canada’s students have demands and those demands need to be met. Meaningful change happens when young people and students are able to unite on the basis of their collective and common experience as students and make these recommendations on what needs to change at universities and colleges from coast to coast.
Everyone I talked to for the story in BC talked about how the national student movement has a split; it’s fractured, it’s stressed, and the provincial movement in BC is really taking off right now. What’s your opinion on that?
I have experience working at the local level at the University of Manitoba and provincially with the Canadian Federation of Students-Manitoba, and I have experience seeing what the effects are of a united national student movement. One thing I can say is that when we think about the importance of national student unity, when students are making recommendations and demands of their governments at a federal level, oftentimes we see some of these issues brought back up at the local and a provincial level. If you look at what’s happening around student debt, we’ve had some very great traction not only federally but also provincially because of the conversations we’ve been having at a federal level. One of the best examples that’s happening right now is that we’ve had a conversation over the last two years around sexual violence on campus. It’s been propelled to the forefront because of the work of a national student movement, and there’s been some victory at the local level: we’ve seen an action plan on violence against women that’s specifically talking about violence on campus in Ontario; we’ve seen legislation in Nova Scotia, legislation being tabled in Manitoba, and Bill 23 in British Columbia. These are a direct result of these important conversations that students have been propelling to the forefront of the Canadian Federation of Students at a federal level that we’re seeing trickling down and having some very real effects locally and provincially.
There’s been an obvious divide between BC member locals of the CFS and national, coming to a head this January with CFS-BC at their AGM starting to take steps to move in a different direction from national. We’ve talked to plenty of BC people about this, their decisions, and why they did that, but we haven’t heard from you. I’d like to know how you feel about what happened there.
What’s incredibly important to recognize is that, even at a basic level, a name change for the provincial component doesn’t invalidate the thousands of students who voted to work with Canada’s national student movement, so the Federation continues to represent students across British Columbia, we continue to deliver and develop campaigns and services in conjunction with these students. We’re doing lobby work here in Ottawa and continue to represent the best interests of those members, which includes advocating around issues that we know are very important to students in British Columbia. So it’s an unfortunate new direction that has been taken, but at the end of the day, a name change doesn’t change the fact that members in British Columbia continue to be valued and important members of the Canadian Federation of Students, and we continue to do advocacy campaign services work in their best interests, as well.
You say they continue to be valued, but what I hear time and time again is that this is a relationship breaking down, and people here saying they’ve emailed you and called you and you won’t even call them back. They don’t feel valued. Explain to me what has happened between the relationship between the BC member locals and your office.
I think that, at a base level, we’ve continued to interact with members from the British Columbia component as we would with any other member local across the country. We’ve also done quite a bit of work for member locals in actions they’ve taken locally and provincially. So I think that sentiment is, perhaps, misplaced. It’s certainly the intention and the view of the Federation that members in British Columbia continue to be very valued. I think there’s an opportunity in the very near future with the provincial election coming up to continue to engage with members, and to be a little bit more active and present so that members engage in a campaign very similar with what we were able to do in the federal election.
The British Columbia Federation of Students, formerly CFS-BC, has said to us they’re providing services that you’re not at this point in the national office, even though Camosun students are paying for them, as Camosun students are members of the CFS. What do you say to that?
Well, the Federation offers a wide array of services. I’m not certain which ones you’re talking about, but we do continue to provide services. When we talk about some of our bulk-purchasing programs, it has been disappointing to see some members have chosen to do away with those programs, and I would argue that that’s maybe not in the best interest of students overall, because we know that our bulk-purchasing network this year had a lot of their prices go down, and when we’re working with a program like our handbook program it is significantly more affordable for British Columbia to be bulk-purchasing with students from coast to coast. We absolutely do continue to provide some of those national services to members in British Columbia.
The examples I’ve been given were bulk-buying and the handbooks and agendas.
Like I said, those are both programs where we’ve seen prices go down over the past couple of years, and that’s because of our purchasing power as a collective. It’s disappointing to see that that’s a decision maybe not actually being made in the best interest of students, because if member locals were able to continue to participate in the program, they’d likely be saving quite a bit of money.
Another complaint that we hear is that people in the national office just aren’t trying to fix relations with the BC member locals, and the BC member locals reach out and it’s just silence.
We absolutely value and continue to reach out to and hope to work with members in British Columbia as best we can. We have continued to support the efforts around student issues provincially and at the local level, and we’re always working to get better at this work as well, you know? We understand that our organization is changing, we’re working within a different political climate here in Ottawa, we have a new federal government, and from coast to coast interesting new changes are happening in different regions and provinces. There are certainly new challenges, and we’re hoping to step up to the plate to continue to provide some solidarity and support to our members in British Columbia going into the election.
What about complaints about lack of transparency and accountability within the national organization? BC member locals saying they’re not provided with financial records despite asking repeatedly; what do you have to say to that?
All member locals in the federation have access to the same level of financial information. I don’t think that that is an accurate portrayal of what’s actually going on.
I have been told that several times over the past 10 months or so that those financial records were not provided.
There’s ample opportunity to discuss the financial information of the Federation, both at national executive meetings—through which there is representation for the British Columbia component—and also during our national general meetings, where we have ample discussion around the Federation’s financial position, during plenary sessions and the budget committee. So there’s been equal level of information and conversation around these issues for all of our members, and members from British Columbia had the opportunity to be a part of that. And whenever we’re talking about these issues, members who have further questions, we’re always very available to continue to have these conversations.
Are those financial records public? Could I see those?
Information that is distributed at national meetings is available to members. If you were a student, you’d be able to visit your student union and have access to their binder, which would have information from the previous general meeting, including some of the financial statements.
[Note: after this interview, Nexus went to the Camosun College Student Society office to ask to see these records. They do have financial records to date, but not the information about the last two audits, which is what the member locals have been specifically asking about. We followed up with Arte to ask about the information for the audits. Here is what she said:]
The Federation’s regularly scheduled audit was delayed as a result of an additional audit undertaken to strengthen financial transparency and accountability. Both processes are now nearly completed and full financial information will be presented to members as soon as it is available.
What about if a school has a referendum and chooses to leave the CFS? How do you accept that?
For questions around the membership, there’s a process that is outlined in our bylaws, which are democratically decided upon by our members through general meetings, so that process is very clear. We’ve had member locals express interest in joining the Federation and go through that process; we’ve also had member locals express interest in not being part of the Federation, unfortunately, and go through that process as well. I think it’s quite straightforward.
In the story, someone says that unless CFS national has a sudden and complete change of heart, the conflict is going to continue between BC and national. That’s how severe it seems to people out here. From people I’ve talked to, it seems like the onus is on national to fix something at this point. They’re waiting on you. What are you going to do?
I think that we have done everything that we can to continue to try to represent and provide services and campaign for our members. We’ve also taken a responsibility where possible to ensure that our members do feel like their concerns are being adequately addressed. We’re open to discussion; maybe it’s a bit optimistic, but I think there are opportunities for the situation to get better. At the end of day, if you think about some of the fundamentals of our beliefs and our mandates, the student organizations at the local level and provincially and nationally, we’re all working together—I hope we’re all trying to work together—to try to improve the overall student experience.