Last Thursday and Friday, members of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society of McGill University (PGSS) voted against continued membership with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), a national union for post-secondary student societies.Preliminary results, which were announced at 2:55 AM on Saturday morning, showed that 2014 students voted “No”, 56 “Yes”.
The PGSS’ motivation to leave the CFS included complaints over difficult-to-manoeuvre procedures, lack of proper representation, lack of democratic process, and complaints over the tedious and difficult-to-manage rules surrounding the referendum.
National Chairperson of the CFS Jessica McCormick explained, however, that PGSS would not be completely disaffiliated with the CFS until June.
“[The] vote will be ratified at the next national general meeting and will take effect on June 30th,” McCormick said.
Superior Court rules against referendum regulations imposed by CFS
According to Jonathan Mooney, first-year law student and chair of the “No” campaign, the Quebec Superior Court struck down certain rules of procedure last week that CFS had initially implemented for the referendum.
“The first [rule] said there is no campaigning in a business owned or operated by the student union,” Mooney said. “The second [rule] said that there is no campaigning at events or activities where alcohol is served. The third one said that campaign material will not be approved that includes legal or quasi-legal actions.”
He continued to explain that the Superior court struck down the referendum rules due to their inconsistencies.
“First, these rules are not permitted under CFS’s own bylaws, because the chief returning officer (CRO) can only make rules about voting and not campaigning,” Mooney said. “Second, they are a violation of guarantee to freedom of expression under Article III of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedom.”
PGSS Council officially endorsed the “No” committee during an emergency Council meeting on Jan. 7. PGSS Internal Affairs Officer Ge Sa stated that approximately 10 other post-graduate student associations had also endorsed the “No” campaign.
Referendum debate and special general meeting
Last Wednesday, PGSS hosted a debate on the CFS referendum question. The debate was attended by PGSS members and the official “No” committee, which was chaired by Mooney. Members of the “Yes” committee did not attend, although Mooney confirmed that McCormick, who also acted as the chair of the “Yes” committee, had been invited to participate in the debate.
On the following Thursday, PGSS held a special general meeting. According to Mooney, the meeting was an important step in the referendum process and served to assert a larger body of graduate students’ support for the “No” vote passing in the referendum. The general meeting endorsed the “No” vote, with 79 votes in favour of separating from CFS and two abstentions.
Last week’s referendum comes after a long struggle between the PGSS and the CFS, including a lawsuit over a similar referendum in 2010 that was declared invalid by the CFS because of a disagreement over voting period dates. In 2013, prior to his involvement as PGSS internal affairs officer, PhD student Ge Sa collected over 2,000 graduate student signatures on a petition calling to hold a new referendum on disaffiliation from the CFS. Initially, the CFS refused to grant PGSS the new referendum due to a disagreement with how the signatures on the petition were collected. In September 2014, the Quebec Superior Court ruled in favour of Sa, and required the CFS to allow another referendum, which was held last week, to take place.
Many graduate students involved in campaigning leading up to the referendum expressed their satisfaction over the voter turnout. About 2,100 votes were counted, surpassing the quorum of 800 votes by a large margin.
“I was blown away by the voter turnout, and I hope the McGill community and other universities can look to the hard work that was done by PGSS, ‘No’ campaigners, and students as inspiration in the future,” said Laura Cohen, a Library and Information Studies master’s student and PGSS Council representative.
According to McCormick, The PGSS owed over $400,000 in back membership fees to the CFS, all of which was remitted to CFS before the referendum in compliance with CFS bylaws.
However, these fees are currently being contested by the PGSS in a separate litigation.
“The fees the CFS claim that PGSS owes them already had to be paid back in November for the referendum to proceed, [as] CFS bylaws require all outstanding fees to be remitted six weeks prior to the first day of voting,” said PGSS Financial Officer Nikki Meadows, who also acts as the official liaison between the PGSS and the CFS. “Those fees were paid under protest, and we are [seeking to claim] them in the case regarding the unrecognized 2010 vote.”
According to Meadows, money that was being spent on legal fees throughout the referendum process can now be put into other projects to benefit the student body.
“The monies spent in legal costs absolutely can, and will, be redirected elsewhere as soon as possible.” Meadows said. “We’ve discussed many ideas for how to spend that money—a daycare for student parents and projects to make Thomson House more sustainable and environmentally friendly being two of our most appealing [options], but any major project will be undertaken with consultation and approval of our members.”
Students are hopeful that the PGSS’ case will assist many of the other university organizations involved in similar disputes with the CFS.
“I hope it will set a precedent at other universities,” Cohen said. “Our success can only help other universities who are trying to leave.”
PGSS remains a member of two other student organizations, the GU15, an annual summit of graduate students from 15 universities across Canada, and the Fédération Étudiante Universitaire du Quebec (FÉUQ). PGSS External Affairs Officer Julien Ouellet stated that he believes that leaving the CFS will improve their relations with these organizations.
“The FÉUQ is transparent, accountable, and efficient in representing us at the provincial and federal level,” Ouellet said. “Even though we sometimes have important disagreements, they have always shown great deference to democratic principles and respect our right to dissent. We are very satisfied with this membership [….] I think it really is the [dawn] of a new era for PGSS.”
The PGSS does not currently have plans to pursue membership in another organization.