Though the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) has long been seen as a hallmark of campus politics at Ryerson, elsewhere, some schools have chosen a different path.
The national student federation, which represents more than 60 unions Canada-wide, has often been criticized for its management style and its far-reaching policy ideals. The Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) has been an active member of the CFS for years, with many former RSU members going on to work at the national union.
And though Unite Ryerson, part of the long-standing slate dynasty with close ties to the CFS, will remain part of the federation if the election goes its way, rival slate Transform RU candidates have announced they would consider defederation if elected.
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Ryerson would not be the first university to withdraw from the CFS. In September 2013, 16 unions across Canada left in a co-ordinated campaign amidst allegations of corruption, and several other schools have left or attempted to leave over the years.
“In my opinion and in the opinion of some of the people I’ve spoken with, (the CFS) is unresponsive to its members,” said Brandon Clim, a recent University of Ottawa graduate who runs StudentUnion.ca, a blog dedicated to following campus politics in Canada. “(They employ) just general intimidation tactics that are unbecoming of a supposedly democratic organization.”
At Western University, the University Student Council (USC) has not been affiliated with the CFS for more than a decade. And though the USC ostensibly represents its undergraduate students in the same manner as the RSU, there are some notable differences in how the union carries out these responsibilities.
Some observers say the way USC conducts its business illustrates how being freed from CFS influence can be beneficial.
This academic year, USC president Matt Helfand appointed a presidential commissioner to examine the structure and size of the union, due to problems with an inflated number of representatives. The commissioner has placed a hard cap of 50 on the size of the council and is proposing to make the number of representatives proportional to the size of each department.
And while the USC appears willing to acknowledge the struggles their organization is facing, the RSU has been criticized for its lack of transparency. For instance, students had almost no access to the union’s budget until it was posted online this year.
According to Clim, without national policies from the CFS trickling down to unions that are not federated, groups like the USC have more opportunities to concentrate on their community.
“I think that the student unions at non-CFS affiliated organizations are much freer to focus on local issues,” Clim said.
Hirad Zafari, a second-year student at Western university who has spent the last year on the USC’s board of directors, agrees.
“A lot of the things that (the USC representatives) tackle are very much Western specific,” Zafari said. Homecoming, for example, is a major event.
Zafari said that Western has always co-operated with the City of London in planning the event, but that the USC was able to help smooth over relations with some councillors who did not approve of the deployment of police force required to monitor the event.
All this focus on local initiatives contrasts the RSU, which often adopts national policies based on CFS motions – such as the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign, which lobbies the university administration to not invest in organizations supporting Israel. But the administration has always maintained that the BDS campaign has never pressured them to change the way they do business.
And though the RSU doesn’t entirely ignore local initiatives. (it successfully campaigned for the closure of Gould Street) the pressure to adopt national motions from the CFS has certainly shaped policy choices.
While Transform RU promises a potential shift away from the CFS, Clim said that changing the way the union functions would be a lengthy process since the policies and culture of the current slate would be so ingrained in the union.
“If the people of Transform are elected, they’re going to have a lot of work (to do),” Clim said.
“Do I think it’s going to happen in one year? Absolutely not. They’re going to need years.”
This story also appeared in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Feb. 11, 2015.