It all seems so distant now, but there was a time when no decision was made by the Simon Fraser Student Society — no piece of legislation tabled, no money spent, no program approved, no poster drawn — without first calculating how it would harm the Canadian Federation of Students. For anyone who served in student politics during those fanatic days, as I did, it was thus more than a little anti-climatic to hear that the long-running divorce proceedings between the SFSS and CFS had come to such an abrupt and amicable end last week.
Rather than the long, multi-week trial many had been anticipating — a trial that would have allowed everyone to vividly relive some of the most controversial years of SFU student politics — students were given a curt, four sentence press release. “[I]t is agreed that the membership has ended,” said one of them. We have resolved “all outstanding issues,” said another. There will be “no further public statements regarding this matter.” So that’s that.
From 2007 to 2008 I served two terms as head of SFSS elections, during which I ran the now infamous ’08 separation referendum where SFU students voted 67 per cent in favor of leaving the CFS. To broadly summarize a complex situation, the vote I organized obviously violated a number of CFS laws, though my SFSS bosses at the time argued that holding a vote with imperfections was still preferable to holding no vote at all — the position the CFS seemed to be favouring.
Why SFU students hated the CFS so much in those days is hard to generalize, since the anti-CFS movement was a fairly broad coalition of students of varying political, personal, and petty motivations who had made common cause of a common enemy. The conventional narrative, however, was that Canadian Federation of Students was simply this lumbering, useless behemoth that wasted enormous amounts of student money on dumb projects and wasteful bureaucracy — and was appallingly secretive, undemocratic, and crooked to top it off.
It’s more than a little disappointing, therefore, that the SFSS’ out-of-court settlement with the embattled lobby group remains so mysterious and unaccountable, since leaving the CFS was supposed to help expunge this sort of stuff from SFU politics.
There’s an obvious cost-benefit analysis to be done here: for the last three years, the SFSS has spent untold thousands of dollars on legal fees in their vain efforts to get the courts to recognize the validity of my referendum, and now they’ve just unloaded many thousands more in some manner of huge CFS payout. When the final bill is tallied up, will we have spent more money leaving than we would have spent staying? Even if you hate the CFS with a fiery passion, that’s not an unreasonable question to ask.
In theory, I understand why the SFSS board agreed to keep things so hush-hush. I personally didn’t think the SFSS’ legal defense of my referendum was ever that strong. Unreasonable though they were, we did not follow CFS rules to the letter, and “close enough, Your Honour” is not a particularly robust argument. The possibility of losing an expensive multi-week trial, and being forced back into CFS membership after so many wasted years was a frighteningly real possibility.
It also appears the SFSS board may have played the CFS to some degree. SFSS financial documents are a matter of public record; there is therefore simply no way the SFSS can award the CFS a massive financial settlement without it someday appearing as a line item in some future budget. Coupled with the likelihood of leaks, a vow of perpetual secrecy surrounding the most high-profile student politics spat in modern B.C. history seems like the kind of empty promise only an organization arrogant as the CFS would ever believe possible in the first place.
Still, tempted as one is to declare SFU’s long national nightmare finally over (a nightmare many of today’s SFU students will have no memory of whatsoever) there are still a lot of questions to be asked.
The CFS may be gone, but the distasteful spirit of mystery and intrigue that so often surrounds student politics at this school remains.