Volume 93, Issue 90

Monday, March 21, 2000


It's easy to get lost in the alphabet soup

It's easy to get lost in the alphabet soup

To the Editor:

The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations regularly distributes literature that compares itself to the Canadian Federation of Students. Thus, I decided to take a closer look at CASA's analysis.

Bear in mind that the University Students' Council has been a member of CASA for approximately five years. On the other hand, members of Western's Society of Graduate Students have been members of CFS since the late 1980s.

First, CASA states that while CFS is a "federation of individual students," CASA is an "alliance of student governments." Semantically, this does not make any sense. CFS is a carefully structured, federated organization – it has national, provincial and local components. And while individual students exist at all of these levels, it does not make any sense to call the CFS a "federation of individual students." It is an organization of organizations. By contrast, whether CASA is an "alliance" – or something else – is purely a matter of semantics.

Second, CASA points out that while individual students pay a membership fee to CFS, it is the individual student associations that pay membership fees – from their operating budgets – to CASA. This is a curious comparison because, ultimately, is it not the same thing? The only real difference is that the process is much more transparent in the case of CFS membership.

Third, CASA charges that CFS membership comes at a "high cost," while CASA membership is "low cost." Of course, nobody generally knows what CASA membership actually costs because it is buried in the operating expenses of individual student associations. On the other hand, CFS makes it clear that membership costs less than $12 per year, per student. And included with membership, among other things, is the International Student Identity Card. Non-members pay $16 for the ISIC. CFS begins saving its members money from the moment they join. The same cannot be said for CASA.

Fourth, CASA states that CFS is "top-down" and "bureaucratic." Apparently, CASA is "bottom-up" and employs a "round-table" model. Indeed, CFS is more structured than CASA. But then, CASA is only a fraction of the size of CFS. While more than 60 student associations from across Canada make up the CFS, only 17 make up CASA. Moreover, membership in the CFS is contingent upon referendum – individual students get to decide, by voting, whether they want to join.

On the other hand, not individual students, but rather student councils, decide whether they will become members of CASA. Thus, to my mind, the referendum approach of the CFS is better characterized as "bottom-up."

Fifth, CASA states that CFS representation is "by locals" and that CFS elections are "by caucus." This is where CASA defies its own logic. On the one hand, CASA claims that CFS is a "federation of individual students," but on the other it states that CFS representation is "by locals" – that is, by student associations. Moreover, the claim that CFS elections are "by caucus" is only partly true. Core members of the CFS national executive are elected by the delegation at large. But indeed, many CFS officials are elected "by caucus."

In other words, the Ontario caucus elects it's own representatives, the graduate student caucus elects it's own representatives, the women's caucus elects its own representatives and so on. The CFS model is one of a representative democracy – about as "round table" as it gets. By contrast, both representation and elections are by "student governments" for CASA. In other words, the more than 285,000 students across Canada that CASA purports to represent are represented only indirectly. On the other hand, the more than 400,000 members of CFS are represented directly.

Finally, CASA states that while CFS is a "social movement," CASA is a "policy movement." In other words, while the CFS is interested in both post-secondary education and social issues, CASA is interested strictly in post-secondary education. Now, call me a sociologist, but should a student movement not strive to understand the system of post-secondary education within a broader system of social and power relations?

So there you have it – in the words of CASA, the "activist" CFS and the "pragmatic" CASA. What does it all mean? Ultimately, CASA's foundations are neither "activist" nor "pragmatic." They are purely semantic. CASA's foundations are built less on action and more on rhetoric.

Richard S. Telfer
Master's of Sociology II
Society of Graduate Students

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