The case of the mystery million dollars

The CFS says Concordia can’t hold membership referendum until it pays $1-mil the union says it doesn’t owe

When Concordia Students’ Union president Amine Dabchy received the letter, he burst out laughing. “How did they pick such a specific number?” he recalls thinking. The letter informed the students’ union that it owned over $1 million to the Canadian Federation of Students—a huge sum Dabchy does not believe his organization owes.

The disagreement over $1,033,278.76 in unpaid fees is the latest episode in a months-long conflict between the Concordia Students’ Union (CSU) and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), the largest student lobby group in Canada. Since the fall, the CSU has been attempting to put in motion a student referendum that would allow the union to cease its membership in the CFS. According to Dabchy, the CFS has been doing everything in its power to prevent a referendum, including demanding payment of this sum. “We believe this is a political tactic to prevent us from having a referendum,” he says.

When asked whether the debt is a political tactic Dave Molenhuis, treasurer and chairperson elect for the CFS, replies, “Definitely not.” He goes on to explain that the CSU was made aware of the debt years ago and that clearing outstanding fees has long been standard procedure before a referendum. “The rules around outstanding membership dues are very clear. It’s nothing new.”

The CSU—which pays over $200,000 annually to the CFS—is one of 13 students’ unions at 12 universities attempting to end its membership in the CFS. As the battle for student votes heats up, it seems inevitable that the CFS and multiple students’ unions will find themselves in court over the results.

Read about the disputes over referendums at other universities here

The trouble at Concordia started when the newly elected executive of the CSU started the process to leave the CFS. After over 16 per cent of the Concordia student body signed a petition asking for a vote on their continued membership in the group in October 2009, the CSU attempted to schedule a referendum. CFS bylaws at that time required that at least 10 per cent of the student body sign such a petition and that the petition be delivered six months in advance.

However, the CFS has repeatedly rebuffed the CSU’s efforts to get the ball rolling. In January, more than two months after receiving Concordia’s petition, the CFS requested that the university registrar verify that the nearly 5,500 signatures were signed by full-time students with valid student numbers. The registrar disqualified only 269 ineligible signatures, leaving enough eligible signatures to trigger a referendum.

The CFS then requested a copy of the petition that the registrar used when verifying signatures. The CSU responded and asked the CFS to confirm its proposed referendum dates by January 28. That deadline came and went without a response.

That’s why Dabachy couldn’t believe his eyes when he received the CFS’s letter detailing the staggering debt owed by the CSU. “We are denying that this is true,” he says. Dabachy wasn’t able to find any record of the debt in CSU books or meeting minutes. In the letter, the CFS states no referendum can be held until the CSU has paid the amount in full.

The disagreement comes down to a Memorandum of Understanding that was signed by former CSU president Keyana Kashfi in April 2009, less than two months before Dabachy took office. The MOU—a copy of which accompanied the CFS’ letter to the CSU—stated that the CSU owed the money for unpaid membership fees and laid out a payment schedule to start in September 2010.

With the exception of Kashfi, no director of the CSU was aware of the document, according to Dabachy. “When we look through our records, we have paid our membership fees since we first became members,” he says. Kashfi appears to have signed the MOU without consulting the CSU council.

Molenhuis says that it is impossible that the union was unaware of the outstanding fees. “It’s common knowledge amongst previous executive members of Concordia,” he says.

Dabachy believes that Kashfi’s actions are a clear violation of CSU bylaws and Quebec laws. CSU lawyers sent a letter to Kashfi last week informing her the CSU would be holding her liable for over $1 million for entering the agreement on her own.

In an interview with the student newspaper The Concordian, Kashfi explained that the debt was incurred in part because the CSU hadn’t adjusted its membership fees for inflation. The CSU also allegedly didn’t pay fees for business and engineering students.

“It’s a lot of money, but it’s what’s owed,” Kashfi told the Concordian. “If anything I did a service to the CSU by stopping the CFS from collecting the debt all at once.” She also said she was not in violation of CSU bylaws because she wasn’t making a purchase, rather paying what was owed for services rendered.

In a statement emailed to Maclean’s OnCampus, the CFS states: “In fairness to all other dues paying members of the Canadian Federation of Students and in accordance with the Federation’s Bylaws, any outstanding dues must be remitted prior to holding a vote on the question of continued membership.”

So what’s next for the CSU? Dabachy says that he plans to go ahead with the referendum regardless of whether the CFS agrees. “We’ll see what happens and we will make use of all of our legal options and rights.”