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Loose Cannon: When neutrality isn't neutral

Thursday, October 8, 2009

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  • Our student executive is the organization through which the Canadian Federation of Students makes its presence felt on
campus.

    Our student executive is the organization through which the Canadian Federation of Students makes its presence felt on campus.

Written by Greg Beneteau

During the 2007 provincial election, Ontario voters participated in a referendum on changing the way they elected members of parliament. For the first time in over 80 years, people were asked to choose between the current first-past-the-post system and mixed member proportional (MMP), a system devised by a citizens’ assembly convened by Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government.

It was the first time in recent memory that any government had seriously attempted to reform the system, yet when the push for MMP failed, many of its proponents blamed McGuinty himself.

While the Premier didn’t have a problem with people sharing new ideas, he couldn’t bring himself to endorse those same ideas. Unlike other party leaders, McGuinty refused to take sides on the MMP debate, calling the decision “up to the people of Ontario.”

The Premier’s non-commitment was a sign of non-confidence, or at least that’s how opponents of the new system were able to spin it. His silence only added to the trepidation most voters felt about change, and MMP died an orphaned cause.

Whether a single voice would have swayed the outcome or not, the lesson is that a neutral position is not truly neutral – it favours the status quo.

There are some important differences between the 2007 referendum and the process currently underway at the University of Guelph, challenging our membership in the Canadian Federation of Students.

The petition requesting a dialogue on de-federation is an independent venture not endorsed by our Central Student Association. It’s also too early in the game to tell if a referendum will actually take place.

However, that doesn’t justify the position of neutrality and disengagement taken by our student executive. If anything, they should take the lead in deciding whether CFS membership is worthwhile.

Undergraduates at the University of Guelph pay $225,000 a year for their membership in the CFS. The CSA pays that money on behalf of the students through our student fees.

Our student executive is the organization through which the CFS makes its presence felt on campus. It has an executive member, External Commissioner Momina Mir, whose job it is to represent our campus at CFS events and promote CFS campaigns.

If a referendum does take place, the CSA and the CFS will each appoint two members to a referendum committee, tasked with overseeing the vote and deciding everything from the ballot question to the number and locations of polling stations.

More than anyone on campus, our student union leadership should have a well-formed opinion on whether to keep our CFS membership. It likely has an opinion already, but refuses to share it for fear of upsetting one group or another.

While it may not be popular to take sides, it is one of the burdens of leadership. The Board of Directors of the CSA, of which the executive is part, is elected to govern on behalf of students. It should not shirk from the task of making difficult decisions, and doing so on the record.

CSA Communications Commissioner Gavin Armstrong suggested in a press release that not taking a stance on de-federation was the only was to “represent all undergraduate students here at the University of Guelph.” If organizations responded to contentious issues by remaining neutral, no decisions of consequence would ever be made.

His comments also ignore the fact that those lobbying to leave the CFS are up against a lopsided opposition.

If history is any indication, the CFS will lobby heavily to keep the U of G in the fold. Armstrong estimated that student unions attempting to leave the federation were outspent 20-to-one in previous campaigns. During referendums held in British Columbia two years ago, campuses found themselves swarmed by CFS staff flown in from across the country.

To be frank, an independent push for de-federation does not have the resources necessary to stand up to the CFS’s veteran campaigners, who are experts at getting otherwise apathetic students out to vote on issues they may know nothing about. The CSA needs to recognize that a position of neutrality is exactly the same as endorsing the status quo.

There’s also the matter of the legal challenges that have befallen member unions that couldn’t agree on referendum rules with the CFS, or whose referendum results the federation considered invalid.

In a conversation, Armstrong hinted that the CSA didn’t want to get involved for fear of ending up in court.

“We don’t want to be sued. It’s not that we’re scared or anything,” he said, before going on to note that the CSA was well-aware of the CFS’s history of litigation. In politics, that kind of policy is called appeasement, not neutrality.

At best, the executive’s silence is a misguided attempt at impartiality that favours one side by default. At worst, it’s a cop-out that avoids real leadership. Students deserve better from their elected officials.

The Loose Cannon published in the Ontarion stated that undergrads pay $300,000 a year in fees to the CFS. The figure is actually $225,000. thecannon regrets the error.

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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  1. Posted by: John Sakaluk on Oct 11, 2009 @ 10:22pm

    I think it's important to keep in mind, when judging the current tight-lipped stance of the executive, the current state of the petition process. At this point, the petition has confirmed to have been submitted (with roughly 2400 signatures), but CFS has yet to confirm its receipt. Additionally, knowledge of the petition itself has only been presented to the CSA Board as an item "for information only". Until the petition is validated, brought before the board...

  2. Posted by: John Sakaluk on Oct 11, 2009 @ 10:22pm

    I think it's important to keep in mind, when judging the current tight-lipped stance of the executive, the current state of the petition process. At this point, the petition has confirmed to have been submitted (with roughly 2400 signatures), but CFS has yet to confirm its receipt. Additionally, knowledge of the petition itself has only been presented to the CSA Board as an item "for information only". Until the petition is validated, brought before the board, and the referendum process...

  3. Posted by: John Sakaluk on Oct 11, 2009 @ 10:27pm

    formally initiated, it's jumping the gun to fire up criticism of the executives. Until it's an issue that demands action, which would transpire if/when the petition is validated, the executive would be prematurely commenting on an issue that isn't up for debate/decision making yet... so it makes sense that, at least for the time being, they have nothing one way or another to say on the matter.

  4. Posted by: jacobmendelson on Oct 12, 2009 @ 4:47pm

    (2/2) ...ISIC cards, travel cuts, etc., etc., You've pointed out that the CSA exec probably has an opinion but has decided to remain neutral so as to not influence the lobbying by both sides. In your article, which has decided to trash "neutrality" as a secret pro-CFS agenda, you have made it very clear that you don't care about educating the student population about what actually matters in this case: what the defederation drive will do and the services it will eliminate.

  5. Posted by: jacobmendelson on Oct 12, 2009 @ 4:48pm

    (2/2) Greg, its only your neutrality that should be called into question here. You say nothing about what is at stake in the defederation drive and instead talk about "CFS’s veteran campaigners, who are experts at getting otherwise apathetic students out to vote on issues they may know nothing about". I'll let you in on their secret. They actually tell students what their $7 a semester goes towards; organizing student's to fight for accessible education (drop fees), anti-racism campaigns,

  6. Posted by: D.L Newton on Oct 14, 2009 @ 5:52pm

    Lets be honest here, you are just trying to solicit the help of the csa for the de-federation drive. The unfortunate truth is this, and I really am sorry to tell you this, David and Goliath pairings often take place within politics, and yes it can be a stuggle to overcome the inertia of status quo,

  7. Posted by: D.L Newton on Oct 14, 2009 @ 5:52pm

    but this does not mean that a party that should remain neutral, should now take a side to even the odds, the fact of the matter is the process cannot be made equal. This article is truly foolish, be it opinion or not.

  8. Posted by: CB on Oct 16, 2009 @ 12:08am

    D.L it's obvious you know nothing about how CFS-Services, or even the CFS is organized.

    By engaging in a referendum students have the democratic freedom/right to choose whether they want to remain a member of an organization that they did not have the opportunity to originally vote to be a member of. We joined in 1987, before many of the students were even born. Any reasonable person could then follow by asking the question "Do I support this?"

  9. Posted by: CB on Oct 16, 2009 @ 12:09am

    This is the fundamental right in any democratic society, the right to choose to vote and discuss on issues that we are involved in.

    As for leaving the CFS and "losing services," you are woefully ignorant. CFS-Services is a completely separate entity from CFS-National, and CFS-Ontario. By voting to leave the CFS-N or -O we will not lose access to anything.

  10. Posted by: CB on Oct 16, 2009 @ 12:09am

    CFS-Services are available to members or non-members alike. Students can do a follow up referendum to choose what services they would like to continue receiving from the CFS-Services branch of the corporation. Muddling these 3 organizations together by saying leaving one we will lose the other, is a fallacious argument. Please do some real research (e.g. read the bylaws of CFS-Services) before posting spurious and ignorant observations.

  11. Posted by: CB on Oct 16, 2009 @ 12:11am

    Students have the democratic right to choose whether to be a member of this organization. There is nothing wrong with free and open democratic debate and referenda, regardless of the issue. However, the CFS will do everything possible to stifle this debate because of the money involved ($250,000/year from us). We need the CSA to protect the students democratic rights because we know that the CFS will not.

  12. Posted by: CB on Oct 16, 2009 @ 12:13am

    Jacob you could not be more wrong. The CFS has had almost 30 years to accomplish any sort of impact on student tuition rates. What the CFS has presided over is a 300% increase since 1990 of tuition rates across Canada. This is pure failure incarnate and is completely unacceptable. What could they possibly do now? Organize their one day a year lobbying campaign and fail this year as well? Give me a break.

  13. Posted by: CB on Oct 16, 2009 @ 12:17am

    As for the anti racism campaigns, there are plenty of NON-PROFIT organizations that have had a greater impact on anti-racism causes. Amnesty international, UNHRC, CARE, Minority rights, and not to mention the HRC across canada and even Canadian Legal cases. All of these don't cost the students a penny and are more effective than the CFS. The CFS only pays lip service to anti racism campaigns while making the students do all the work (and charging us $250,000/year to do it).

  14. Posted by: CB on Oct 16, 2009 @ 12:19am

    We pay the CFS to lobby, pure and simple. They are either incompetent lobbyists or they just don't care enough about student lobbying to focus on that. As soon as they accomplish their primary goal (lowering tuition) then we can talk about social justice campaigns. Until then, all of our money is being poured down the drain by a financial corporation who exploits students by pulling at our heart strings through "social justice" campaigns that don't accomplish anything.

  15. Posted by: D.L Newton on Oct 16, 2009 @ 10:05pm

    I would like to hear of alternative lobbying groups for tuition, and as for anti-racism campaigns, you must be joking. The task force on campus racism has actually helped groups identify problems and work towards solutions on campus. The fact that you would even bring that up means you have no clue what you are talking about, but thats ok thats why you read my comments and become informed from time to time. Now as I recall I never mentioned anything about CFS services...Maybe you misread?

  16. Posted by: on Oct 17, 2009 @ 1:52pm

    This is a great editorial. It would be responsible of the CSA to solicit the student body's view, not assume it. I have a hard time believing that my fellow students like dishing out $7/semester for 30 years and more of epic failure.

  17. Posted by: CSA External Commissioner on Oct 20, 2009 @ 12:27am

    I would like to take this opportunity to clarify some of the things that have been posted on here. There are 2 organizations that students at U of G are a part of, one is the Canadian Federation of Students (National - which provides services) and the other is Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario. They both have the same structure as the CSA in that, we are all members of the Federation and have elected representatives that represent us through both organizations at the provincial & national

  18. Posted by: CSA External Commissioner on Oct 20, 2009 @ 12:32am

    level. Each local (student union) has a rep that sits on the Board, which in the case of Guelph is myself and their responsibility is to connect their student body to CFS and its benefits. CFS does not just lobby the government for students rights, they also do a lot of research, provide services and do several campaigns, especially in the areas of social justice to fight for marginalized students rights. If you would like more information please visit www.cfsontario.ca or www.cfs-fcee.ca

  19. Posted by: CSA External Commissioner on Oct 20, 2009 @ 12:39am

    Just to share a personal experience working with CFS campaigns in the past, the Islamophobia taskforce was a huge success at U of G and the report that was compiled can be read here: http://www.uoguelph.ca/~msa/TaskForce_FinalReport.pdf
    Several recommendations from the report were successfully implemented at U of G with the help of the CSA and the administration, details for which I would be more than happy to discuss if anyone is interested in them.

  20. Posted by: CSA External Commissioner on Oct 20, 2009 @ 1:02am

    As members of CFS, U of G students can benefit from services such as the studentsaver card, ISIC, TravelCuts, studentphones.com, Ufile.ca and the Student Work Abroad Program. There is also a student union directory put together by CFS in the CSA main office that students can use. Campaigns such as Poverty Free Ontario, No Means No, Students for Sustainability, Taskforce against Racism, OHIP for International Students and several others are great ways to get involved.

  21. Posted by: on Oct 21, 2009 @ 5:39pm

    I would like to take this opportunity to clarify some of the things that have been posted on here. There are 2 organizations that students at U of G are a part of, one is the Canadian Federation of Students (National - which provides services) and the other is Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario. They both have the same structure as the CSA in that, we are all members of the Federation and have elected representatives that represent us through both organizations at the provincial and national

  22. Posted by: on Oct 21, 2009 @ 5:39pm

    I would like to take this opportunity to clarify some of the things that have been posted on here. There are 2 organizations that students at U of G are a part of, one is the Canadian Federation of Students (National - which provides services) and the other is Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario. They both have the same structure as the CSA in that, we are all members of the Federation and have elected representatives that represent us through both organizations at the provincial and national

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