Canadian Federation of Students

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Canadian Federation of Students
Fédération canadienne des étudiantes et étudiants
Canadian Federation of Students' Logo.png
Founded 1981
Members 650,000 (est.)
Key people

Bilan Arte (Chairperson)

Anne-Marie Roy (Deputy Chairperson)

Peyton Veitch (Treasurer)
Office location Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Country Canada

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) is the largest student organization in Canada, representing over 650,000 students from across Canada. Formed in 1981, the stated goal of the Federation is to represent the collective voice of Canadian students and work at the federal level for high quality, accessible post-secondary education.[1] The CFS has its roots in Canada's long tradition of having national student organizations, such as formerly the National Union of Students (Canada), the Canadian Union of Students, the National Federation of Canadian University Students, the Canadian Student Assembly, and the Student Christian Movement of Canada (SCM).

CFS is composed of member local student unions. All members of the Canadian Federation of Students pay membership dues as a part of their membership.

In Canadian student politics, the decision of whether a student union should be a member of the Federation is a contentious issue, and the organization's processes for joining or leaving its membership has been the subject of much debate.


The name "Canadian Federation of Students" is generally used to designate three legally distinct organizations: the national CFS, one of the provincial components of the Federation, and/or CFS-Services.

CFS and CFS-Services share the same bylaws[2] and decision-making structures. These structures include biannual general meetings, where every member students' union receives one vote regardless of the size of their local membership, and an executive,[3] which includes representatives of each provincial affiliate. In provinces where a significant number of students' unions are members of the CFS, the affiliated component (e.g. CFS-BC, CFS-Ontario) has its own general meetings and executive, the latter being formed by representatives of the local students' unions.[4] In October 2009 CFS-Quebec ceased to operate as a recognized provincial affiliate of the CFS.[5]


The CFS was officially formed on October 18, 1981, from the merger of two national organizations - the National Union of Students in Canada and the Association of Student Councils - and student federations from five Canadian provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Saskatchewan).[6] The goal of the merger was to create a united student movement in Canada that could provide student-oriented services and political representation at the federal and provincial levels of government. Part of the impetus to organize came from the federal government's announcement of $2 billion of cuts from Established Program Financing (including cuts to federal transfer payments for health and education).[7] Another impetus was raising tuition fees, which had been a major issue for CFS' precursor organization. the NUS, starting in the late 1970s.[8]

Founding conference[edit]

The founding conference was held at Carleton University between October 14–19, 1981. Mike McNeil was elected as the organization's first Chairperson, along with Mike Walker (Treasurer), former NUS treasurer Kirk Falconer (International Affairs Commissioner), Kathie Cram (Women's Commissioner), Brian Robinson (Graduate Student Representative), Ben Freedman (Member at Large), and Leslie Neilson (Member at Large).[9] The Federation's bylaws and constitution were finalized and over 50 motions were passed during the plenary. After hearing speeches by Salvadoran and Chilean students, delegates passed motions condemning human rights violations and anti-student policies in those countries.[10]

A campaign strategy was also launched to oppose the federal government's planned cut to Established Program Financing (EPF). The slogan for the campaign was "Access not axe us" and it called for an establishment of an all-grant system and a public inquiry into the future of post-secondary education.[9] The campaign also called for alliance building with community groups and public sector workers to gain support and fight against cutbacks to social programs. The campaign was named after a research report of the same name, by Bruce Tate. The report focused on effects of the Government of Canada's cutback to education and highlighted issues such as access and tuition fee levels.[11]

The conference ended with a student presence in Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons, a meeting with Secretary of State Gerald Regan, and a one-on-one debate between Chairperson Mike McNeil and Member of Parliament John Evans (parliamentary secretary to Finance Minister Allan MacEachen) in the Snake Lounge at Carleton University.[12] Delegates attending Question Period were denied entry by security guards.[13] Mike McNeil and delegates were not satisfied with the outcome of the meeting with Gerald Regan.[14]

Evolution of membership[edit]


In 1992, the CFS resolved that it would be a “partner in the International Student Trade, Environment and Development Program.” Member locals were urged “to consider hosting international guests from the US.A and Mexico during the fall of 1992 to contribute to the national dialogue of the effects on the education system of the North American Free Trade Agreement.” (CFS Minutes, May 24-3th[clarification needed] Centre Universitaire Saint-Louis Maillet, Edmundston, New Brunswick).

The CFS reached a membership of 440,000 students from 65 member students' unions in 1993-1994.

Overall, 20 membership votes were held in 1994-1995, with the net result that 59 member students' unions formed the CFS in September 1996.[15]


Between 1995 and 2007, over twenty students' unions joined the CFS, including many graduate students' associations and part-time students' associations.[16]

Several large undergraduate students' associations voted to certify during the same period. In 2002, the University of Toronto Students' Administrative Council, which had never been part of a national students' union before, voted to join the CFS.[17] At the November 2005 Annual General Meeting of the Federation, the positive result of certification votes at both University of Manitoba Students' Union and the University of Saskatchewan Students' Union were ratified. The latter vote result was challenged by former USSU director, and in 2007, the courts ruled the vote to be of no force or effect. The CFS website continues to list the USSU as Local 17.[18] In October 2007, USSU voted to keep prospective membership in the CFS and hold a referendum in the next two years;[19] however, in September 2009 the USSU voted to rescind that motion and claims that its certification is void.[20]


In March 2008, students at four campuses (Cape Breton University, Simon Fraser University, Kwantlen University-College, and Graduate students at University of Victoria) held votes to decertify with the CFS. The negative media coverage of the CFS was one of the reasons listed by the Kwantlen Student Association representatives for calling the decertification votes. Members at CBU, the SFU and the UVic (graduate students) voted to decertify. CFS representatives did not participate in the Cape Breton referendum, noting that the CBUSU failed to give proper notice. Fellow CFS members from other campuses participated in the Simon Fraser decertification vote, but then national chairperson Amanda Aziz stated that problems with the voting process could result in the outcome not being recognized by the CFS. The UVGSS result was not contested by the CFS.[21] The Canadian Federation of Students petitioned the BC Supreme Court to postpone the Kwantlen referendum after Kwantlen Students Association representatives hired Schiffner Consultants to run the decertification vote (contrary to CFS bylaws but in accordance with KSA standard operating procedures).[22] Then-KSA chairperson Laura Anderson claimed that the Federation was attempting to stall the vote, but the court granted the CFS the injunction and the decertification vote was rescheduled for April 2008.[23] Three weeks after the referenda at SFU and UVic (graduate students), Kwantlen students voted to remain members of the CFS.[24]

In the fall of 2008, the largest bilingual student association in Canada, the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa, re-joined the CFS.[25]


In October 2009 students at Carleton, Guelph, and Concordia organized a decertification drive, resulting in petitions meeting the threshold necessary to initiate decertification votes.[26][27] Students at the University of Victoria Students' Society, and the Graduate Student Association at the University of Calgary collected enough signatures to initiate a decertification vote.[28][29]


In the spring of 2010, undergraduate students at the University of Guelph and the Alberta College of Art and Design and graduate students at the University of Calgary and McGill University attempted to hold decertification votes. Only the Alberta College of Art and Design vote followed the CFS bylaws for decertification. Several irregularities in the conduct of the students' unions at McGill and Calgary were cited by the CFS as reasons for invalidating the decertification votes.[30][31]


In March 2011, undergraduate students at the University of Victoria voted to decertify from the CFS.[32]


In January 2012, students of Laurentian University at Georgian College in Barrie joined the CFS as the Laurentian Students' Union (Local 111).[33] In a February 7, 2012 article that appeared in The Concordian, it was reported that the CFS was alleging that the Concordia Students' Union owed $1.8 million in unpaid membership dues going back as far as the 1990s.[34] Lex Gill, then-president of the CSU firmly denied the CFS' claim.

Membership disputes[edit]

The federation has had numerous legal disputes with student unions over its membership rules. Under its rules, student unions are contractually required to pay membership fees to the CFS, even if the student union leadership does not want to remain members of the organization. This arrangement has led to numerous legal battles between the federation and student unions wanting to leave or enter the organization.

Cape Breton University[edit]

In March, 2008, students at Cape Breton University held a vote to leave the CFS, with 92% of voting students supporting exiting the organization.[35] Arguing that the vote failed to follow the organization's bylaws regarding notification of referenda, the CFS declined to recognize the results of the vote. After the referendum, the Cape Breton University Students Union (CBUSU) ceased collecting membership fees on behalf of the CFS. In 2009, the CFS filed suit for dues owed, and in 2015 the Ontario Superior Court ordered the CBUSU to pay $293,000 in unpaid membership fees, plus the CFS' legal expenses.[36] In August, 2015, the CBUSU announced its decision to appeal.[37] In September, 2015, a fourth year CBU student delivered a petition to the CBUSU signed by approximately 30% of the CBU student body seeking a new vote on exiting the CFS. However, the CFS' bylaws do not allow a member organization to hold an exit referendum while dues remain outstanding.[38]

Capilano University[edit]

In March 2014, Capilano university students voted by referendum to terminate their membership.[39]

Concordia University[edit]

The CFS is a defendant in a suit launched by the Concordia Students' Union seeking recognition of a decertification vote in 2011.[40][41][42] The National Executive refused to grant a decertification vote before $1.8 million in alleged outstanding membership fees were remitted. The then-president of the Concordia Students' Union, Lex Gill, firmly denied this claim: "I am completely firm in my conviction that we do not owe the CFS $1.8 million and never have."[34] In 2015, CFS Entities and CSU reached an agreement that the CSU "membership has been terminated." The Concordia Graduate Student Association (GSA) has also terminated its membership. The details of the agreement remain confidential.[43]

Post-Graduate Students’ Society of McGill University[edit]

In April, 2010, members of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society of McGill University (PGSS) voted 86% in favour of ending association with the CFS.[44] The CFS did not recognize the results of this vote, leading the PGSS to file suit.[45] The PGSS' lawsuit is still in progress. In January, 2015, a second referendum on membership was held, following a court order against the CFS in response to a separate lawsuit filed by McGill Student Ge Sa seeking recognition of an exit petition forwarded by Sa in 2014.[46] In the 2015 referendum, McGill graduate students voted 2014 to 56 in favour of leaving the CFS.[47]

Simon Fraser University[edit]

The CFS was a defendant in a case brought by the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) at Simon Fraser University over the validity of a decertification vote in March 2008. After a summary trial was rejected, the judge ruled that the SFSS had the option of holding another vote or continuing to resolve the legality of the disputed decertification through a trial. The judge urged both parties to consider settling the matter out of court before spending large amounts of money on a full length trial.[48][49] In early January, 2012, the CFS/CFS-Services/CFS-British Columbia and the SFSS agreed to an undisclosed settlement and ceased all court action.[50]

University of Guelph[edit]

The Central Student Association representing undergraduate University of Guelph students submitted an injunction on February 16, 2010 against the CFS and its affiliates [51] for denying the student association a decertification vote as a result of a dispute over the validity of a petition required to initiate decertification.[52]

Justice O'Connor of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ordered that a decertification vote be conducted and administered by a referendum oversight committee (ROC) based on CFS bylaws (consisting of two representatives selected by the CFS and two representatives selected by the student association). Justice O'Connor modified the committee by appointing former Ontario Superior Court Justice James Chadwick as a fifth member of the committee to act as an independent third party to break deadlocks should the two parties disagree on administration of the vote.[53]

The court-ordered decertification vote was conducted online in early April 2010.[54] Guelph students allegedly voted 73.5% in favour of decertification in an online poll conducted by the university administration.[55][56] CFS and CFS-O appealed Justice O'Connor's decision and the matter was held on May 31, 2011[57] though the application Judge, Justice O'Connor, failed to provide any reasons for the decision, making it impossible to review the appeal. The Appeals Court Judges ordered the matter be heard by a different Judge.[58]

University of Victoria[edit]

The University of Victoria Students' Society (UVSS) representing undergraduate University of Victoria students submitted legal action against the CFS in November 2010 to seek a vote on decertification. The dispute centered around a petition submitted by UVic student Jose Barrios in the Fall of 2009 that had the required 10% of signatures needed to initiate decertification. In Spring 2010, the CFS National Executive rejected this petition because hundreds of students signed a second petition calling for their names to be removed from Barrios decertification petition list. In November 2010, Barrios initiated legal action against the CFS.

Mr. Justice Malcolm D. Macaulay of the Supreme Court of British Columbia heard oral arguments from both sides on January 6 and 7, 2011. On February 1, 2011, Justice Macaulay ruled that the use of a 'counterpetition' to nullify the original petition 'must fail' and ordered that the process to hold a referendum on continued membership must move forward.[59] On the applicability of the second 'counterpetition', Justice Macaulay wrote: “The national executive of the CFS invoked a process that was not contemplated by the bylaws in effect at the time and, as a result, applied an irrelevant consideration in determining that the petition was not in order. The adoption of a process outside the bylaws amounted to an excess of jurisdiction.”[60]

The CFS refused to grant a decertification vote until the UVSS paid $100,000+ in outstanding membership dues. The UVSS rejected the claim that it owed money [61] and took the CFS to court on February 17.[62] The UVSS argued that by bringing up this issue so late, the CFS was making an intentional move to delay a vote from occurring before the end of the 2010-2011 academic year.[62] Justice Macaulay ruled for the vote to take place regardless of outstanding dues. In March 2011 UVic undergraduate students voted to decertify the Canadian Federation of Students.[63] The National Federation recognized the result, but the CFS-BC refused, claiming the vote did not apply to the provincial affiliate. A subsequent legal battle ensued, leading to a new successful UVSS petition effort to trigger a CFS-BC membership vote.[64] In 2013, one month before the UVSS was scheduled to vote on its CFS-BC membership, the CFS-BC voted to terminate the UVSS's membership, marking the official end of all UVSS membership ties to the Canadian Federation of Students.[65]


The CFS has been heavily criticised and remains a controversial topic in student politics.[66]

One area of criticism has been the CFS's refusal to let member federations defederate - with the CFS often returning petitions to student unions without acknowledging them. One student commented that "[The CFS are] like a creepy ex-boyfriend who won’t let it go."[67] In fact, British Columbian Premier Christy Clark had campaigned against the CFS when she was a student in the 1980s.[68] The CFS is also criticised for being ineffective, with one student stating that "They don’t put enough emphasis on focused lobbying of elected officials, and continue to prefer the protests and sit-ins."[69] This is important because students pay about $14 a year in membership fees to the CFS. The CFS has also been criticised for lacking transparency: "a solid understanding of its place within our campus and vice versa is next to non-existent for the majority of students."[70] The organisation has been also been accused of too often taking part in partisan political activity, without consulting students.[71] The CFS has accused anti-CFS students of being right-wing union busters, with Fred Hahn stating that: "Workers know that the push for decertification votes, whether for labour or students’ unions, are not driven by an interest in democracy, but by a commitment to weaken the collective voice of union members."[68]

The CFS has been heavily criticised for placing its own interests over those of students and student unions.[72] One research paper argued that:

The CFS is governed, de facto, as an oligarchy consisting of a relatively small group of staff and directors. Due to a number of structural factors, the proper relationships of accountability between staff and directors, and between the CFS and its member students' unions, are partially inverted, turning the organization in to a top-down structure whose corporate culture is essentially bureaucratically-oriented, rather than membership-oriented. As a result of this bureaucratic orientation, the CFS's interest in maintaining and increasing its membership (and source of funds) eclipses its commitment to respecting democratic decision-making, local autonomy, and freedom of the speech and of the press... By forcing an oppressive and alienating bureaucratic structure on students, the CFS is not only turning students away from political activism, but is in fact delegitimizing the very concept of a democratic collectivist organization.[73]

When students unions hold referendums on joining the CFS, many CFS officials tend to show up and campaign to join the CFS, despite not being students.[74]

Legal cases (advocacy)[edit]

Student loan bankruptcy[edit]

In 1999 the CFS challenged the legality of the student loan bankruptcy prohibition.[75]

Translink and free speech[edit]

The legally separate but closely related affiliate, the Canadian Federation of Students-British Columbia (CFS-BC), in participation with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and British Columbia Teachers' Federation, won a case against Translink for refusing to put CFS-BC Vote Education advertising on buses that Translink deemed to be partisan advertising during an election. The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where it ruled that Translink's actions violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in doing so, the Court set the precedent that "arms-length" government agencies such as Translink do come under Charter scrutiny.[76][77]

Injunction against Fair Elections Act[edit]

In 2014, The Council of Canadians and the Canadian Federation of Students launched a challenge against the Fair Elections Act, which the organizations believed would disenfranchise Canadians and prevent the most marginalized people in our society from voting.[78] While the matter is still before the courts, the Liberal government has promised to repeal the changes implemented by the Conservatives, which was the basis of the court challenge.[79]

Government relations[edit]

A large part of the CFS' mandate is to lobby the federal government from its national office in Ottawa. Over the years, CFS representatives have testified to dozens of House of Commons committees, including the Standing Committee on Finance and the Standing Committee on Humans Resources Development and Persons with Disabilities (student loans).[80] In 2009, the CFS national chairperson was invited to deliver a workshop on lobbying policy-makers at a conference hosted by the Federated Press.[81]

The 2016 federal budget included several of the CFS' lobbying recommendations, including a 50% increase to the Canada Student Grants program, a $165 million investment in the Youth Employment Strategy, and additional public research funding.[82]

In addition to the ongoing testimonies and meetings, the CFS holds an annual Lobby Week that brings together dozens of students from across Canada to meet with their local Members of Parliament and Senators. In 2017, over 150 meetings were held to lobby for eliminating domestic & international student tuition fees, student debt relief, investing in indigenous learners, and more graduate research funding.[83][84]

Current political positions[edit]

Social issues[edit]

Opposing Islamophobia[edit]

The CFS supports Motion 103, a motion condemning Islamophobia in Canada along with all other forms of "systemic racism and religious discrimination".[85]

Same-sex marriage[edit]

In 2004, the CFS joined the coalition Canadians for Equal Marriage.[86]

Endorsement of Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions Campaign[edit]

On August 20, 2014, the Ontario branch of the Canadian Federation of Students, representing more than 300,000 university students, passed a motion to boycott Israel, by joining the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (or BDS) Movement in support of Palestine.[87] This motion received no opposition at the Annual General Meeting, and was said to “endorse a number of solidarity tactics that have been called for by Palestinian civil society," by one of the group's executive members.[87] The motion was put forward by Ryerson University Students' Union, whose president went on record as stating that universities should not “remain complicit” through investments and ties with academic institutions that support or profit from Israeli war crimes.[88]

Current campaigns[edit]

Tuition freezes/cuts[edit]

The CFS actively lobbies on tuition-related issues, including holding rallies and national "days of action" to address such issues as eliminating tuition fees and reductions in student loans. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the only province where all public college and university students' are members of the CFS, students pay the lowest average undergraduate tuition fees in Canada.[89] There, tuition fees were reduced by 25% in the 1990s and have remained frozen. The current Progressive Conservative government has pledged to keep the freeze in place until the end of their mandate, and recently eliminated the interest on the provincial portion of student loans.[90]

In British Columbia, the CFS lobbied the former New Democratic Party (NDP) government to introduce tuition fee freezes and reductions.[91]

Rock the Vote[edit]

The CFS has also been involved with attempting to increase turnout (particularly among students and young people) in elections. For example, in 2005 CFS-British Columbia (the provincial chapter of the CFS), the Langara Students' Union and the Corus Entertainment owned radio station C-FOX led a "non-partisan" campaign registering young voters in BC called Rock the Vote BC, based on the Rock the Vote campaign drives used by the Republican and Democratic parties in the 2004 US election to register young voters. Elections BC did not endorse the initiative because of concerns of partisanship.[92]

The CFS was one of several groups admonished by the Commissioner of Canada Elections in October 2002 for having failed to submit an elections advertising report by the established deadline. The Commissioner notes that the report was filed by CFS in May 2002.[93]

Aboriginal student issues[edit]

The National Aboriginal Caucus is the mechanism with the CFS by which Aboriginal students can organize campaigns. The Caucus has its own budget and runs campaigns such as Where's the Justice for Aboriginal Peoples.[94]

Graduate student issues[edit]

The Canadian Federation of Students is the only student organization in Canada with a distinct graduate caucus that elects its own executive and operates with its own budget. Known as the National Graduate Caucus (NGC), it consists of 90,000 graduate students at 29 campuses across Canada.[95]

Commercialization of research[edit]

The NGC campaigns to oppose commercialization of university research because its research shows that pressures from industry partners can threaten academic freedom and the public interest.[96] It points to cases such as those of Nancy Olivieri and David Healy as examples of commercialization run amok.[97]

Whistleblowers campaign[edit]

In 2006 the NGC began working with Christopher Radziminski, alumnus from the University of Toronto, to support his battle with the University of Toronto and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) over research conducted with ERCO Worldwide. The former student alleges that a drinking water experiment in Wiarton, Ontario was not accurately reported in scholarly journals, posing a serious health risk to Canadians.[98] The NGC is supporting a judicial review of NSERC's decision not to press for an investigation at the University of Toronto.[99]

Post-residency fees[edit]

The NGC has an active campaign to reduce fees charged to graduate students after their residency period. Graduate student unions affiliated to the NGC urge graduate students to sign pledges that they will not make alumni donations until their university reduces post-residency fees.

Copyright renewal[edit]

The NGC has been lobbying the federal government in partnership with several organizations over current reform of the Canadian Copyright Act. This involves a letter writing campaign to MPs and participation in developing the Creative Commons project.[100]

Research funding[edit]

The NGC advocates for increased graduate student funding in the form of scholarships and training programmes. In the 2016 federal budget, the Government of Canada allocated an additional $95 million towards public research through the Tri-Council granting agencies.[82]


The Canadian Federation of Students-Services (CFS-Services) is a legally separate branch of the Federation, founded in the early 1980s as the successor organization to the Association of Students' Councils Canada (AOSC). Services made available to individual student members or member students' unions of the CFS include:[101]

  • Travel CUTS and the International Student Identity Card (see below);
  • the StudentSaver Discount Card;
  • the Student Work Abroad Program (SWAP);
  • the National Student Health Network (NSHN), a non-profit health and dental benefits buying consortium;
  • a handbook and dayplanner producing service, which aims to reduce the cost per handbook to the individual students' unions, through economies of scale;
  • Digital services, including web services, a comprehensive web authoring solution for students' unions that allows them to easily publish and maintain database driven websites;
  • Sexual health products, where members can purchase products for their membership at reduced cost;
  • UFile, a partnership that allows students to file their taxes for free;
  • Ethical Purchasing Network (EPN), which uses members' collective purchasing power to buy goods that are ethically sourced. Products are fair trade, union-made, or sweatshop-free.

Travel CUTS[edit]

Travel CUTS (Canadian Universities Travel Service) is a travel agency that was majority-owned and operated by CFS-Services (CFS-S), which operates in Canada and the United States. In 2009, Travel CUTS was sold to Merit Travel Group.[102]

As a member of the International Student Travel Confederation, Travel CUTS is the Canadian issuing agent for the International Student Identity Card (ISIC), an internationally recognized student identification that also provides access to discounts on travel. Services at Travel CUTS are not restricted to members of the CFS, but full members can obtain an ISIC at no charge. The ISIC is considered to be the most direct financial benefit associated with CFS membership.[103]

In 1996, the University Students' Council at the University of Western Ontario initiated a lawsuit against CFS-Services, to be later joined by three other student societies (Alma Mater Society of the University of British Columbia, Queen's Alma Mater Society and University of Alberta Students' Union). The plaintiffs "alleged the CFS-Services illegally transferred assets from the AOSC, including Travel CUTS, to itself at a 1987 meeting".[104] A settlement was reached in 2006 through which the plaintiffs acquired 24 per cent of Travel CUTS and two seats on its board of directors.[105]


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External links[edit]