Representing over half a million students from 64 universities, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) is a national student union that is meant to provide students with a larger voice. Claiming “no individual students’ union” can advocate for themselves, the CFS is able to influence policies for post-secondary students.
With constituents across four provinces, the CFS has over 100 student governments, the majority of which are in Ontario. Each government pays dues, as being a member of the CFS provides incentives such as health benefits and tax filing discounts. CFS also provides campaigns and materials to individual student governments.
If this was all the CFS did, there wouldn’t be any problem. Except, it’s not.
CFS has a history of antisemitism, corruption and lying. It has made life on college campuses challenging for Jewish students, who are made to pay student fees for groups which do not have their own interests at heart.
One of the main campaigns CFS provides for its members is United for Equity. Aspects of this campaign include challenging racism, colonialism and Islamophobia. However, fighting antisemitism in higher institutions is not part of this campaign.
The CFS also provides student governments with anti-racism training, including a toolkit to “eliminate white supremacism.” Yet, Jews, historical victims of white supremacy, are excluded. Antisemitism is only acknowledged once in the 64-page document.
On the provincial level, the CFS-Ontario has partners with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid and Faculty For Palestine, the latter of which endorsed the “Unity Intifada” claiming that this solidarity movement was anti-racist.
Faculty for Palestine and CFS have both openly endorsed the #NoIHRA campaign, as they believe the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism hinders free speech. Both groups have also supported the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) censure of the University of Toronto over the hiring controversy.
CFS also works with select Jewish groups, stating that they will prioritize Jewish groups that supported their vision, most notably Independent Jewish Voices (IJV). IJV is a fringe group who rejects key aspects of Judaism, such as Zionism. When the CFS amplifies the voices of fringe groups, it makes them appear as the voice of Jews, despite Canadian Jews citing Israel and Zionism as key aspects of their Jewish identity.
As a result of their biases, CFS has taken stances on difficult issues, such as their endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) in 2018. This motion allowed several Canadian university campuses to bypass a BDS vote as they have already essentially adopted it, thanks to the CFS.
Interestingly, the BDS motion was passed at the National General Meeting, where CFS members also voted to revitalize the “No Anti-Semitism” campaign. However, no further details have been provided on this campaign, making it appear performative.
While BDS appears to fight for the human rights of Palestinians, in reality, it isolates Jewish students in North America. For instance, in November 2021, the University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus’ student union (SCSU) passed a motion that limited Kosher food options to those who did not “normalize Israeli apartheid,” while not re-affirming the rights of Jewish students.
After the President of UofT condemned the motion, it was removed. Groups like IJV never condemned the blatantly antisemitic rhetoric that further alienated Jewish students, displaying that while IJV’s voice is amplified by CFS, IJV does not amplify its own community.
CFS-Ontario claimed the statements made by the President of UofT were “false,” because motion did not discriminate on the basis of religion, ethnicity, culture or heritage. In truth, Jewish students were excluded and discriminated against on the basis of their heritage and culture.
In February 2020, CFS endorsed the Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) definition of antisemitism. In the endorsement, CFS claimed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism would be detrimental to “freedom of expression and academic freedom in post-secondary education campuses.”
The IJV definition believes understanding antisemitism must be coupled with understanding all discrimination. It does not recognize how antisemitism may differ from other forms of racism and all the forms in which it manifests, including the delegitimization of the Jewish state.
At the same time, IJV released an open letter from over 650 Canadian Academics who opposed IHRA. One of the signatories, Faisal Bhabha, an Associate Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, went under fire just months after signing the open letter. In an online panel, Bhabha asserted “Zionism is about Jewish supremacy” and “accusing Israel of exaggerating the Holocaust could be, for some, a plausible argument.” This only reaffirms the need for the adoption of IHRA into public institutions.
In October 2020, the Government of Ontario passed Bill 168, the Combatting Antisemitism Act as the government recognized antisemitism. The Act was made to protect Ontarians from antisemitism by adopting IHRA.
In response, CFS-Ontario called the government “anti-democratic,” citing that IHRA “conflates antisemitism with legitimate critique of Israel and Zionism.” However, the Bill did no such thing. Rather, it protected Jews from the double standards, demonization and delegitimization leveled at the one Jewish State. This Bill can especially be applied to the CFS which has equated the “threat” of Zionism to settler colonialism.
The CFS has been found to have secret bank accounts holding an unauthorized total of over $200,000, yet refused a full forensic review. As mandatory fees are challenging to opt-out of, it brings upon the question of what the fees are actually used for, and where they end up. For instance, the University of Toronto’s Graduate Student Union previously used mandatory fees for funding BDS.
This may be in part the reason why member locals have tried to leave the CFS, albeit many have been unsuccessful. The CFS has made a rigorous process out of decertification. Not only do the student governments need a petition signed by at least 15–20% of the student body, but the campaigning for elections must occur within the CFS’ campaign period. This drawn out process is often accompanied by litigation, as seen at McGill University and Concordia University among others.
In 2016, the Ryerson Student Union (RSU) released a report detailing “controversy” with the CFS, accusing them of detering student unions to leave their membership behind. This came from a student union that had to pay nearly $500,000 per yer to stay in the CFS. The RSU also claimed that the CFS is unfairly involved in student government’s elections, pushing for candidates whose views align with the CFS’.
RSU isn’t the only student government that has been vocal about wanting to leave the CFS. The University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU) tried to leave in 2016 and 2017, and most recently in 2021, when the UTSU made a report accusing the CFS of obstructing the decertification process.
When voting for student governments to leave the CFS does take place, schools have to mobilize the student body to not only show up, but to volunteer to run the voting centers. Some students have even suggested that the volunteers that appear on campus during voting periods are not volunteers at all, but rather paid CFS employees.
The CFS has been around for 40 years and their iron fist over Canadian university students still reigns. For a centralized student government that is meant to be non-partisan, it is far from it. From the antisemitism that runs rampant to their unfair election campaigns, something must change. Students — especially Jewish students who are perhaps the most affected by these policies — should not be paying mandatory fees that funds bias and inequity.