Editorial: The great grad student escape

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

Unfortunately for students, post-secondary politics are no stranger to bureaucratic labyrinths. The University of Calgary’s Graduate Students’ Association’s ongoing efforts to leave the Canadian Federation of Students is a good demonstration of this.

Despite filing a petition with CFS last year, the GSA is back at Stage 1 in their efforts to abandon the national lobby group. Part of the reason for this is the strictly regimented procedure that student organizations must follow to remove themselves from the CFS roster.

It is understandable that a national group would require some formal way for its constituent organizations to leave. If it didn’t it would be severely impeded in its ability to function, as it could never be sure whom it was representing. This problem is accentuated by the nature of most students’ unions and associations, which change their leadership over from year to year. Lacking a firmly established membership, CFS would be too unstable to properly carry out its mandate.

Yet there is a great difficulty when an organization clutches onto its membership too tightly. Even though some continuity must be established in order for the lobby to function, there must remain a simple way for its members to exit, if they so desire. Otherwise, they risk losing the legitimacy they need to represent their constituents’ interests. There is simply no way a national body can say it speaks for a group that would leave, if it could.

It is instructive to look to the governing guidelines of both CFS and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, the two national post-secondary education student lobby groups. The latter has a relatively simple mechanism for student groups to opt out: they are required to file a notice 12 months prior stating their intention. CFS, on the other hand, imposes an onerous process that members must follow in order to leave, including a petition and a referendum. CFS has 90 days to review the petition, after which the referendum is held between 60 and 90 days later. Given that referendums cannot be held between April 15 and Sept. 15 or between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15, and that the period in which CFS may respond and when the referendum can be held may stretch up to nearly six months, there is a limited window in which to act.

The issue here fundamentally returns to the problematic single-year terms of most students’ association executives. Setting up such a difficult way for student groups to exit the organization clearly damages its legitimacy. In a democratic society, a supposedly representative group should be comprised solely of organizations that want to be members. Allowances must be made for the stability of the national organization, but these should be restricted to the bare minimum necessary and a reasonable and simple process for cessation of membership should be employed.

Agreements must be honoured and an organization should certainly not wantonly abandon their commitments, but if a carefully considered decision is made to leave a particular lobby group, there is absolutely no legitimate reason not to let that organization go freely. Such a position merely renders CFS illegitimate.

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