The University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) owes nearly $1 million in membership fees to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), and other member locals in the province are starting to get impatient.
A resolution passed at the CFS-MB annual general meeting (AGM) April 30 called for UMSU to pay back all outstanding fees immediately. Member locals, including UMSU, voted unanimously in favour of the motion.
The issue reaches back more than three years, when the then-UMSU executive questioned its membership in the federation and began withholding fees it collects from University of Manitoba students on behalf of both the national and provincial Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) bodies. UMSU owes fees dating back to the 2013-14 academic year.
The motion for immediate payment was proposed by representatives from the Brandon University Students’ Union (BUSU). Nick Brown, BUSU’s president, said UMSU’s withholding of fees for the last three years disproportionately hurts service to campuses outside Winnipeg.
“We offered to and intended to host the AGM in Brandon, which would be the first time in at least five years,” Brown said in an interview.
“We were going forward with that plan, and then UMSU still hadn’t paid any fees, and then CFS couldn’t afford to pay all the travel and hotel expenses for all the delegates because it’s a free conference.”
The AGM was instead held in Winnipeg at the Université de Saint-Boniface.
“We’d like to engage, but if we can’t bring folks to Brandon, then we’re constantly having to go to Winnipeg,” Brown said. “And that’s fine for 90 per cent of things, but we’re 20 per cent of the voting power in CFS-MB and we’re getting five per cent of the engagement.”
Brown said student unions join CFS to connect, engage, and help each other out, and when smaller members want to host an event, the larger members support it with funding.
“Members and executives of UMSU are attending meetings and attending events hosted by the CFS, and then UMSU’s not paying back into it,” he said. “The CFS is spending lots of money and lots of time trying to engage on the U of M campus. They spent more time in the past year on the U of M campus than in Brandon.”
Although Brown said there was engagement in Brandon over the past year, representatives from CFS-MB were only able to come out to campus five times for a day at a time.
“We know we’re only 3,000 students. But proportionally I think they’ve spent more time at U of M.”
Three years of tensions
In April, UMSU voted to uphold a decision to “denounce” CFS-MB for an allegedly biased provincial election campaign. This vote capped off the third year of tensions with the national lobby group and its Manitoba branch.
In 2013, UMSU conducted a review of its membership in CFS and ripped CFS-related pages from 20,000 free student daytimers over a business dispute.
Since that time, UMSU’s dispute with CFS has shifted to the federation’s alleged refusal to turn over certain web hosting information and legal documents, and then to determining the precise amount of outstanding fees.
UMSU pegs its outstanding membership fees at $980,555.54. According to UMSU president Tanjit Nagra, CFS “did not confirm through the appropriate channels” whether the number is accurate. Nagra said this is the reason for the delayed payment.
Michael Barkman, chairperson of CFS-MB, noted in an email U of M students are members of the federation, with access to services and campaigns, and called it unfortunate UMSU has withheld fees for so long.
“Students’ unions have a responsibility to collect and remit membership fees based on enrolment of students […] We are hopeful that UMSU will finally remit membership fees and continue to work together on campaigns and services.”
Barkman added he remains “optimistic that fees will be paid within the next week.”
Nagra said UMSU recently received a letter from CFS that may clear the issue up, but due to the amount of money involved it will have to be forwarded to UMSU council first.
“It’s UMSU council’s decision at the end of the day,” she said. “Any member of the union can put forward any motion to UMSU council […] and if it passes we have to follow it.”
“But we have to go through proper channels. Given the amount of fees that are owing, we would have to go through UMSU council.”
UMSU council’s next meeting is scheduled for June 16.
A change of position?
Nagra said she could not comment on the decision to withhold the fees, which was made by past executives.
“However, at this point, the way I see it, we want to resolve any further issues there are with CFS and solve any conflicts that there are and we are working to do that every day,” she said.
She said UMSU’s goal is to ease tensions with CFS for the coming year. “It is unfortunate that it’s gotten to this point, but at this point we’re just looking to solve the problem and find a solution.”
However, Brown said he doubts the new UMSU executive has changed course much on relations between UMSU and CFS.
“It’s been over a month since the AGM, it’s been a month since the new executive for UMSU, and we’ve seen nothing.”