Volume 92, Issue 21
Alliance vs. Federation
Policy splits and separates Canada’s student lobby groups
Listening to Bill Smith speak about the state of co-operation between student unions across Canada makes you wonder what all of the fuss about national federations and alliances is about. While addressing a group of student journalists at a recent conference, Smith — the veteran general manager of the University of Alberta Students’ Union —struck at the big-picture issue facing post-secondary students nationwide.
“Student unions in Canada seem to get along fine together, until they realize that the other is a member of a different lobby group.”
Smith is commenting on the sometimes-cliquey rivalry between members of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA).
UMSU has been a member of CASA since 1996, and the UMSU President, Amanda Aziz, sits on the national lobby group’s board of directors as the prairie region representative. Earlier this year, UMSU decided to evaluate its membership in CASA and explore the other large lobby group, CFS.The decision was then made to become a “prospective member” of the Federation in order to evaluate the benefits offered, while remaining a part of CASA. By becoming a prospective member, the students at the University of Manitoba have been able to access all the services — with the exception of the International Student Identity Card — without paying membership fees, for one year. The U of M also played host for the CFS Day of Action within the province on Feb. 2.
The problem with comparing CASA and CFS exists because the two were founded for different reasons and exist for different purposes. CFS was founded in 1981 to provide a “unified voice” for students, while CASA began in 1995 with five schools that had “different ideas” about lobbying for change. CASA’s National Director James Kusie explains why the organization exists:
“We are a member-driven organization that represents the interests of post-secondary students from 19 universities and colleges across Canada. The [member] schools’ presidents and vice-presidents form CASA’s table, determine the policies of the organization and determine the strategic direction of the organization. . . .We are a lobby group — focusing on post-secondary education only — aimed at the federal government and inter-governmental jurisdictions,” says Kusie.
Essentially this means that CASA has a lobbying approach that Kusie describes as “three-pronged.” Firstly, CASA is involved with awareness campaigns through member schools. Secondly, the Alliance meets personally with senators, members of parliament and other political policy-makers to draw the government’s attention at a personal level. Thirdly, media events are staged to show public support for the Alliance’s ideas.The Canadian Federation of Students has a mandate to provide a slightly different form of representation, as well as to provide services that CASA does not aim to prepare. Mike Conlon, the director of research for CFS, explains the Federation’s mandate in his own words.
“Our primary mandates are to offer students political representation in an integrated way at the provincial and national levels, but also to offer students a comprehensive set of services. Essentially we exist for two reasons: to do political work on a variety of issues, and in addition to that, provide services through Travel CUTS and the International Student Identity card,” says Conlon.
Not helping with the confusion between the two lobby groups, Conlon also used the phrase “three-pronged” to describe CFS’s approach, yet the language is largely a coincidence. Firstly, CFS employs a team of full-time researchers. Secondly, a full-time staff lobbies the two levels of government, and thirdly, members are mobilized through demonstrations and petition drives to show support.A clearer difference between the two is CFS’s inclusion of provincial governments in its lobbying activities. CASA was created to focus on the federal government and inter-governmental levels of decision-making while leaving provincial lobbying to individual member schools. Both organizations have seen results by using their different lobbying measures. CFS counts tuition freezes by several provincial governments, including Manitoba, as successes in part because of their efforts. At the same time, CASA takes credit for results such as the Millennium Scholarship Foundation and the Debt Reduction and Repayment program.
The way in which membership fees are paid and how schools join or leave the groups demonstrate one of the most explicit differences between CFS and CASA. CFS calculates membership fees based on the number of students that attend the university while CASA formulates a final amount using the budget size of the student union in addition to the number of students.
Currently, membership rates at CFS stand at $3.60 per student, per semester. This money is collected not through the dues that students pay to their local student union, but as a seperate levy. Conlon explains why the Federation opted to collect by this mean.
“To hire staff, to have a presence at the government-relations level and to do world-class research: all of those things take some resources, so the basis of the Federation’s structure is that students pay an individual levy . . . to do this together, to effect change,” he says.
Since students typically have to decide whether they are to pay extra mandatory fees, CFS requires that students accept or relinquish membership through a referendum. It is the view of CFS that requiring a referendum ensures that each student who joins the Federation is an individual member. However, in terms of representation, student unions speak for students during CFS meetings as opposed to students at large.
CASA’s formula for determining membership fees takes different considerations into account. To start with, the fees are paid through the regular operating budget of the student union. In calculating the dues, CASA also imposes a maximum payment amount; the most that large universities are expected to pay is $41,154, as opposed to the more than $90,000 that they — including UMSU — would pay if CASA did not include a cap.
CASA does not require a referendum to enter or exit because the fees that students pay to their student unions do not change with membership. This means that students are members of CASA through their student unions and not on an individual basis. In other words, it is the member schools that decide how to become members.“It is up to the member school, up to their legislative agenda of how to enter [or] exit the organization. If it’s in their bylaws that they need to go to a referendum to join an external organization like CASA, then that’s what they have to do. If it’s a vote of council, then that’s what they have to do,” says Kusie.
United student voice
The outsider’s view that two large lobby groups split Canadian students into two camps is, in most cases, overestimating the issue. CASA and CFS have worked together in many instances and are by no means petty rivals for rivalry’s sake. Both groups seek to promote post-secondary students’ rights and to make post-secondary education accessible to all Canadians regardless of their economic background; there is just a difference in how each organization works to achieve those ends.
“I know that CASA and CASA’s members . . . will always look to work together with external stakeholders in areas of common concern, and that’s all we can do on our end. And if it’s not received and if the invitations aren’t accepted, then there’s not much more we can do,” says Kusie.
Conlon agrees that CASA and CFS have worked together in the past, and that having two competing national lobby groups is not the best thing for post-secondary students.
“I don’t think that students are served particularly well by having two organizations,” says Conlon, “where there are very substantial policy differences, it would appear that it would be very difficult to work together . . . [yet] where it makes sense, we work together.”Representation is generally more effective when more members are involved. In Canada, post-secondary representation is split between two sides which both acknowledge that a united student front and platform would be the most beneficial arrangement. Yet policy differences may keep the two polarized — which could keep students from getting what they need.
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