Opinion: Are Student Unions Violating Your Human Rights?


3.5 million dollars. That is a rough estimate of just how much of your fees are being allocated to our very own student union, the York Federation of Students.

650, 000. That is the number of students the Canadian Federation of Students claims to represent and speaks for. And if you go to York you are one of said students. That’s right! You are essentially part of an organization you’ve probably never heard anything about, who represents ‘your views’ to the government of Canada. Let that sink in.


We’ve all heard the odd spiel for reform at student unions, councils and other student governing apparatus, especially at the tertiary level. Perhaps, you discussed it last night at your favourite watering hole with your friends over alcohol, even as you mulled over all the ways to achieve this, or perhaps you’re less politically inclined and you’ve unfortunately been mobbed by various groups during election period promising reform. There is even the more unfortunate possibility that you have that one friend who waxes eloquently and frequently on this issue and just doesn’t understand you don’t give two… However you feel about whatever collective of students’ advocate on your behalf, there is little to no doubt that you are either aware of their faults or completely unaware of them altogether –which is perhaps even worse.

A recent argument with a friend drew my attention to an emerging form of reform slowly building on the horizon at Alberta, a solution that is definitely daring and worth paying attention to, whether you care about politics or not.


To return to the point of reform being suggested by a number of students at Alberta, let us turn to their website: studentbeyourself.com and the message it is trying to pass across so loudly. Tagged: Just Be Yourself, the home page lists the premises of the movement which include: a reference to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights’ freedom to not be compelled to belong to an association, the Charter rights of freedom of thought, belief, expression, and association. Following these premises, the goal is simple: to change Alberta legislation to end forced membership with students’ associations and unions?

What does this mean?

Quite simply, right now you are a member of the YFS and more largely the CFS, regardless of whether you agree with their policies or not. A part of your ever growing tuition goes to fund their activities, and they have a seat at the table where they tell all the major shareholders how you feel on every major issue. What these students in faraway Alberta are in fact pushing for, is for compulsory enrollment into student unions to be taken away. This would result their funding coming directly from the students who do agree with their decisions and policies -those who do actually give two.

As of this moment, they are still a young movement which has not gained traction, and they might never do. But if they do succeed in Alberta, then the potential consequences for university level student organizations will not be small. Student Unions and Councils are largely invisible from the actual concerns of the students they claim to represent but this does not by any stretch diminish the impact of the actual work they do –work which is often taken for granted. And the importance of the collective voice cannot be reduced. It is often the saving light in moments of darkness which are beyond the public’s notice.

So what?

Why bother discussing a movement in far-off Alberta which may or may not succeed? It is because while I do not quite support the end goals of that Albertan reform movement, I do empathise with the underlying discontent of these students. The YFS elections have just concluded, yet only a handful of ‘political elites’ and student leaders at York truly grasp the ramifications of the results in what is quickly becoming a politicized environment. The YUDivest Campaign most widely attributed to the incumbent slate, a campaign which is largely reported to be the will of the majority of students at York, is one that few of those students being represented truly care about. The last rally held, only had a few hundred students in attendance. Even the Fight the Fees movement is often attributed to being a push for free tuition rather than stronger regulations to curtail student debt. There is obviously a noticeable communication gap here.

The voice of the student body has been in the hands of a decade long political dynasty which is widely disconnected from the students it represents, is hardly accountable and not at all transparent. This has been a fact of life most students have been okay with ignoring, but discontent is brewing and apathy is becoming institutionalized. Perhaps, five years ago, this would have been less capable of causing any actual damage. But in 2018, old lines of identity politics are being redrawn and every conversation is infused with a strong strain of tension. Fees are rising, a portion of which goes to fund a group that pursues its own personal objectives and plays them off as the interests of the larger group.

We can no longer wait till students become so fed up with these organizations, they decide to leave rather than fix them. It is high time we all became concerned and took steps to ensure that ‘our voice’ is not simply exacerbating the problems. Alberta might not be here yet, but it is not far enough. Let us hope that when it comes down to it, we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.