Breaking up is hard to do

Thursday, October 22, 2009

  • UoG student Diganta Rafael collects signatures in the University Centre as part of the Canadian Federation of Students' Drop Fee

    UoG student Diganta Rafael collects signatures in the University Centre as part of the Canadian Federation of Students' Drop Fee

Written by Greg Beneteau

A vote on the University’s of Guelph status in the Canadian Federation of Students is still months away – if it happens at all.

But already there are allegations of deception and foul play on both sides, focusing on duelling petitions circulated on campus.

U of G petition organizer Curtis Batuszkin said both the provincial and national branches of the CFS have refused to acknowledge the receipt of documents - required by federation rules - to organize a membership referendum for Guelph's undergraduate body (CFS local 54.)

Because the national student union has specific deadlines on when a valid referendum can be held, the entire process is being jeopardized by the delay, Batuszkin argued.

“I think they’re trying to force students to go through legal means in order to go ahead with the referendum,” he said. “By then, the window of opportunity might have passed."

Batuszkin said a petition intended for CFS-Ontario containing more than 2000 signatures was delivered on September 29 by proxy server.

After spokespersons with the CFS-O told both The Ontarion and thecannon no petition had been submitted, Batuszkin produced a sworn affidavit from Robert James Sutton, Process Server of the City of Toronto, saying the petition had been delivered through the mail slot at the CFS-O’s headquarters.

At least two other universities, Trent and Carleton, produced similar affidavits after the CFS-O denied they had received their petitions.

A pro-de-federation website claimed that as many as ten petitions from various institutions had been delivered as of Tuesday. 13 student unions, representing approxiomately 200,000  of the CFS's 500,000 members, are currently holding petition drives, according to media reports.

U of G’s national petition, along with a letter sent by U of G Associate Vice-President Brenda Whiteside confirming the petitions were screened against the Office of Registrarial Services database, was delivered Tuesday in Toronto, Batuszkin claimed.

In order to avoid any ambiguity this time around, Batuszkin said the documents were served to the entire national executive of the CFS while they were at a meeting.

“I’d like to see them deny they received [the petition]… they were all sitting around a table at a hotel conference room in Toronto when they received it,” Batuskin said.

As of Thursday, the CFS had not issued a reply, he said.

According to CFS rules, at least ten per cent of the student body must sign a petition at least six months prior to a vote in order to hold a referendum. Referendums must be held during the same school year as the petition drive, and can't be held between July 15 and August 31 or between January 1 and February 15. Batuszkin has chosen March 29 through 30 as prospective voting days.

In her letter, Whiteside said the ORS counted 1,854 valid signatures out of 18,137 enrolled students. She noted that  "a number of additional students" on the petitions could not be verified due to poorly written names, ID numbers or duplications on the petitions.

Neither the CFS National or the CFS-Ontario responded to requests for comment.

Batuszkin, External Commission trade barbs

Questions remained about the tactics used to solicit signatures following back-and-forth allegations from the CSA Executive and other students.

Last Wednesday, Batuszkin provided an update to the CSA Board of Directors on the status of the petition drive.

Immediately following the presentation, CSA External Commissioner Momina Mir, who represents CFA local 54 as part of her job portfolio, asked if Batuszkin or his petitioners were "deceiving" people who had signed the petition.

"I've been told people were deceived," she said.

When Batuszkin asked for specific details, Mir declined to respond.

“I was just asking a question,” she said.

Batuszkin himself went on to accuse CFS staffers, who were on campus for the last four weeks conducting a petition drive over high tuition fees, of circulating a "misleading" counter petition against his group.

CSA Communications Commissioner Armstrong, who was on leave, contacted thecannon by email clarifying the substance of the complaints.

Armstrong said "some students" had expressed concern about the de-federation petitions and the CFS's counter-petitions.

Both were circulated at the same time CFS was promoting activities related to their campaigns - Drop Fees and the Campaign for a Poverty Free Ontario - leading to allegations of misrepresentation, he claimed.

“A handful of students claim they were under the impression that [Batuszkin’s] petition was for the ‘drop fees campaign,’ as it does relate to fees (the CFS fee),” Armstrong explained. 

“Some students have also complained that the pro-CFS petition was promoted as the ‘drop fees campaign’ and the ‘campaign for a poverty free Ontario’ petition."

Thecannon has submitted a request for specific documentation of the alleged infractions.

So far, no one has managed to obtain a copy of the CFS’s counter-petition, and Armstrong appealed for students with any information to step forward.

“The CSA is looking into both allegations and will be posting a bulletin on our website describing both petitions and asking for any information regarding the actions of both possible groups of campaigners,” he explained.

Yesterday afternoon, Armstrong consulted the CSA's lawyer about possible next steps.

In the meantime, he has requested that all media inquiries about the CFS referendum go through his office, despite the fact Mir is the executive’s representative on the CFS. The CSA Executive has officially adopted a neutral stance on the referendum.

Batuszkin denied his petitioners deceived anyone.

"The petitioners were given explicit and specific instructions on what to say to people," he claimed.

He also criticized Mir for making the allegation at a board meeting without giving any details.

"I think it's pretty low that she's charging us with deceiving people without any evidence to back it up."

The CFS, which represents more than 80 student unions across Canada and has roughly 500,000 members, has been under fire to reform itself ahead of its annual general meeting in November.

The CFS-Quebec provincial branch, led by the Post Graduates’ Society of McGill University, recently released an omnibus reform package (pdf) with more than 45 pages of amendments.

The package called for the overhaul of the organization’s financial disclosure system, the sale of the CFS’ service component and the disclosure of the federation’s past and present legal proceedings against student unions.

In response, the CFS’ legal counsel issued a letter declaring that the entire Quebec branch was no longer part of the CFS due to being “engaged in activities which have caused and continue to cause damages to the CFS.” It further ordered the CFS-Q to cease collecting fees on behalf of the CFS and to stop using the organization’s name, according to the Concordian Student Newspaper.

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