Loose Cannon: Proroguing Democracy, CFS-style

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

  • For over a week,
the CFS-National has been in violation of its own bylaws by refusing to
coordinate with the Central Student A

    For over a week, the CFS-National has been in violation of its own bylaws by refusing to coordinate with the Central Student A

Written by Greg Beneteau

This Monday marked the first official day of the proroguing of Parliament. It was the day the House of Commons, Senate and its various committees and sub-committees were supposed to get back to work after the winter break, had Prime Minister Stephen Harper (through Governor General Michelle Jean) not intervened.

A number of rallies were held over the weekend to mark the date, including one in Guelph. People were understandably upset at having Parliament shuttered for the second time in a little over a year. Critics called the decision “anti-democratic” and accused the government of using its powers to silence dissent.

Backtrack to the week before, when another important deadline came and went, with little fanfare.

Monday, January 18 marked the 90th day since a group of University of Guelph students submitted a petition to the Canadian Federation of Students’ National Executive, requesting a referendum on continued membership.

They collected 1854 signatures, or 10 per cent of the undergraduate population; the names were later verified by the University’s Office of Registrarial Services. The petition was sent by process server to the CFS National Executive on October 19, 2009.

That means that for over a week, the CFS-National has been in violation of its own bylaws by refusing to coordinate with the Central Student Association on the timing of a referendum.

Let’s make one thing very clear: the CFS is very strict about its rules, and its rules regarding membership votes most of all. The Federation has repeatedly shown that it’s willing to quash referendum results, or even go to court, when student unions don’t follow the letter of their law.

The U of G students who organized the drive had to use these exact words in their petition: “We, the undersigned, petition the National Executive of the Canadian Federation of Students to conduct a referendum on the issue of continued membership in the Canadian Federation of Students.” That’s section 6.a of CFS Bylaws, if you’d care to look it up.

The U of G petitioners also had to collect those 1854 signatures on a deadline, so that a referendum could be held during the window period mandated by the CFS (Sections 6.b.i and 6.b.ii).

Having jumped through all the necessary hoops, the ball went to the Federation’s court. Now, it’s refusing to play.

Section 6.b.i of CFS Bylaws states: “Within 90 days of receipt of the petition described in Bylaw I, Section 6.a, the National Executive will review the petition to determine if it is in order and, if it is, in consultation with the member local, will schedule a referendum that is not less than 60 days and not more than 90 days following…”

According to CSA Communication Commissioner Gavin Armstrong, that hasn’t happened. There has been no word on the validity of the petition. No communication about possible referendum dates. Nothing.

In their latest attempt to coral some kind of answer out of the CFS, Armstrong sent a memo to the National Executive last week “reminding it that it is past due and requesting a response to our inquiries.” So far, there has been no response.

Proroguing might be an arcane constitutional power that is frequently abused, but at least it has a legal basis. What happens when the rule-maker refuses to follow its own rules?

As a result of the CFS-N’s inaction, the entire referendum process has ground to a halt. At its January 13 meeting, the CSA Board chose Armstrong and Local Affairs Commissioner Galen Fick as their representatives on the Referendum Oversight Committee (ROC).

As per CFS Bylaws, the ROC is empowered to set campaign rules and resolve disputes during a membership referendum. But without two appointees from the CFS, no decisions can be made.

The CSA could attempt to organize a referendum without CFS input. But if history is any indication, the Federation would likely invalidate those results, and possibly go to court to keep the University of Guelph from leaving the fold.

On the other hand, the CSA could go to court (at students’ expense) to force the CFS to run the referendum - to allow students the opportunity to practice their basic democratic rights.

I’ve followed the CFS for nearly three years as a student journalist. I’m heard a lot about the shenanigans that occur when a member union tries to leave, but this is a whole new ballgame. It makes me sick.

I encourage everyone to mark Friday, February 12 on their calendars. According to Armstrong, if the CSA hasn’t received confirmation from the CFS by then, it will be too late to organize a referendum in accordance with Federation bylaws. On that day, student democracy on this campus will have been dealt a serious blow.

Greg Beneteau is Editor-in-Chief of thecannon. Loose Cannon publishes every Thursday in The Ontarion Student Newspaper at the University of Guelph.

The opinions posted on thecannon.ca reflect those of their author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Central Student Association and the Guelph Campus Co-op. We encourage all students to submit opinion pieces, including ones that run contrary to the opinion piece in question.

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