Stephen Littley: Canadian Federation of Students chief returning officer

During the May 2011 Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) semi-annual general meeting, a motion (2011/05:N15) was passed which saw the referendum oversight committee (ROC) replaced with the position of chief returning officer (CRO). The CRO would thus oversee CFS referendums and all powers previously invested in the ROC would be transferred to a single individual, nominated by the CFS national executive and approved by the general assembly.

When talk of defederation began to heat up last September, the Federation’s national executive recommended that former CFS national chairperson Katherine Giroux-Bougard be appointed as CRO at the November 2013 national general meeting. In the end, her appointment was ratified during the closing plenary. When the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) learned of this partisan appointment, its executive addressed a letter to the CFS national executive requesting that Giroux-Bougard’s appointment be reconsidered. In response, a letter dated December 3, 2013, national deputy chairperson Vanessa Hunt indicated that Giroux-Bougard’s appointment had been ratified during the opening plenary and that “there were no objections or opposition” voiced at that time. However, these facts were disputed by the UTGSU executive in a letter to General Council.

Giroux-Bougard replaced by Stephen Littley as CFS CRO

Then, in an email dated January 20, 2014, Hunt informed member locals’ executives that, “due to work obligations”, Katherine Giroux-Bougard would “not be available to undertake the duties associated with the position of Chief Returning Officer.” She was replaced with Stephen Littley (pictured on the right), a lawyer from British Columbia. Because Littley’s appointment as CRO required the approval of the membership, a motion was passed at the most recent CFS semi-annual general meeting.

Stephen Littley’s involvement in student politics

The same email further outlines Mr. Littley’s qualifications and previous involvement in student politics:

Mr. Stephen Littley is a member of the BC Bar and has been practicing law since 2005. He is a partner in the Bastion Law Group, a firm he founded with his fellow partner in 2007. Mr. Littley completed his law degree at the University of British Columbia in 2004, following completion of his undergraduate degree with double majors in Anthropology and Psychology. While an undergraduate student, Mr. Littley was active in international development work. He co-founded a grassroots NGO that raised money in Canada to enable children in the developing world to attend school, rather than being forced into labour. He also led several international field schools to India and Thailand, and completed graduate work in Anthropology at Simon Fraser University.

Mr. Littley served as President of the Malaspina (now Vancouver Island University) Students’ Union from 2000 to 2002, and served two terms on the Vancouver Island University Board of Governors as a student representative. During his students’ union involvement Mr. Littley oversaw both elections and referenda, serving as an electoral officer and chair of the elections oversight committee.

His previous experience includes involvement in the Federation, having served as the Local 61 Members’ Representative to the [CFS-]BC Executive Committee between 2000 and 2002 and [CFS-]BC Treasurer for the 2002-03 term. Littley maintains an active role in advocating for students, currently serving his second three-year term as the Alumni Representative on the Vancouver Island University Senate. Mr. Littley is currently a member of the Trial Lawyer’s Association of British Columbia, and has served as counsel for the Ministry of Children and Family Development since 2008.

During his time as Malaspina Students’ Union president, Littley was a part of a delegation of CFS representatives at the British Columbia Legislature in 2001 when the Access to Education Bill was introduced by NDP MLA and Minister of Advanced Education, Training and Technology, the Honourable Cathy McGregor. Furthermore, upon graduating from Malaspina University-College in 2000, he attended the University of British Columbia Law School while simultaneously working on his Masters degree at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

While at SFU, he got involved in student politics: he sat on the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) board of directors as an at-large representative (graduate students) and was a member of the advocacy committee until he resigned on February 5, 2003. In an article published in The Peak, some SFSS student representatives claimed that “[t]here is a little clique within the student society who seem to be more concerned about the CFS than they are concerned with SFU students.” They alleged that Littley was a member of this pro-CFS faction. He was also elected (by acclamation) to sit on the SFU Senate Committee on University Teaching and Learning (SCUTL) during the 2002-2003 academic year but failed in his bid to be reelected for a second term.

Finally, according to the Vancouver Island University Alumni Magazine Journey (Volume 7, Issue 1, Spring/Summer 2014), Stephen Littley has served as the alumni representative on the VIU Senate since 2009.

Administration of CFS referendum at Capilano University

Mr. Littley oversaw the most recent CFS referendum that took place earlier this year at Capilano University. I first emailed him regarding the Capilano Students’ Union (CSU) referendum on continued membership in the CFS/CFS-British Columbia on March 19, 2014. He had recently ruled that the No committee must remove articles that were published in mainstream media from its website. After two subsequent emails, Mr. Littley finally responded on March 23 by stating: “I am in contact with the Parties and campaigns involved, and will not communicate with media while the referendum is underway.” I therefore followed up with him on April 10 and again on April 23 again requesting to speak with him about the CSU referendum on continued membership. He responded on April 23 informing me that when he had completed and released his report, I should ask one of the parties (the Yes and No committees) to disclose it to me.

It was clear to me that he had absolutely no intention of answering any questions about his role in the administration of the referendum. Similarly, the Yes CFS committee didn’t to respond to interview requests from yours truly as well as from The Runner student newspaper.

Littley’s refusal to answer questions from the media doesn’t serve the interest of anyone involved with the CFS. According to sources, the CRO failed to provide the official results to the CSU and the No committee; The results were conveyed by the scrutineer from the No committee. It’s also problematic that the Federation has yet to release Littley’s final report. All in all, it would appear as though the entire referendum process lacked procedural fairness, transparency, and the administrators of the referendum, including Littley himself, were biased in favour of the Federation due to the fact that they’re all closely connected to the organization.1

1. The deputy returning officer was Lori McDonald, the executive director of the Emily Carr Students’ Union; The Appeals Committee is made up of two individuals, also appointed by the Federation: Amy Hammett, Student Federation of University of Ottawa’s executive coordinator and James Bowen is an organizer for the North Island Students’ Union (NISU).

St. George Round Table sends letter to Provost Regehr

Yesterday, the St. George Round Table (SGRT) sent a letter to University of Toronto Provost Cheryl Regehr regarding longstanding issues surrounding the governance of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). The letter raises three main concerns: the administration of UTSU elections, the hiring process of the UTSU Chief Returning Officer (CRO) and the question of student representation.

The administration of the student union’s elections is raised: “Most worrying of these is the UTSU’s inability to deliver transparent, democratic, and accessible elections practices.” Then, the letter claims that the UTSU broke its own bylaws by extending the voting hours at the University of Toronto Mississauga (due to poor weather conditions) without having first consulted with the UTSU Board of Directors. However, the effect of the ballots cast during those extended hours on the final results will never be known as, contrary to the request of numerous campus groups as well as the Vice-Provost, the ballots were destroyed.

Another criticism, closely linked to the first, is the method by which the UTSU CRO is hired: “The CRO is hired by the executive team, which has been in recent years almost exclusively made up of incumbents. Such hiring serves to deepen the lack of trust of the student body in the UTSU as a functioning democratic institution by hampering the ability of students to receive full representation.”

The effects on the U of T’s reputation as an institution of prestige has also been affected due to the negative press in national media according to the SGRT. Some prospective students have allegedly contacted SGRT student representatives to inform them that they “have turned down U of T acceptances as a consequence…” of these articles.

Further to the issue of the impact on U of T’s reputation, the question of representation is raised. The signatories question why, for example, the Mississauga and Scarborough campuses each have their own independent student unions while St. George campus (the largest of the three campuses) does not.

Finally, the SGRT believes that the issue of student autonomy should be considered. The U of T’s Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees (the “Policy”) states that if the Office of the Vice-President and Provost “has reason to believe that a student society is not operating in an open, accessible, and democratic fashion, then it may withhold fees from that society.” The letter urges “[g]reater definitional clarity” of what constitutes “open, accessible, and democratic” from the administration.

Thoughts on the ongoing situation at the U of T

This letter is yet another another example of the momentum that the proponents of reform have in this ongoing dispute. While it is unclear whether the recommendations in the final report of the Undergraduate Student Societies Summit could be unilaterally implemented by the U of T administration, a recent cease and desist order from the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS) appears to indicate that at least some student societies are prepared to take this political battle into the legal realm. If this were to occur, the courts could determine whether a postsecondary institution’s administration (which agrees to collect and disburse fees to the student unions) has the ability to withhold fees from a student union when serious allegations of mismanagement are brought to its attention. To complicate matters further, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) semi-annual general meeting will be voting on motions (2014/05:N06 and 2014/05:N07) that would immediately increase the Federation’s students’ rights legal defense fund by $250,000 and by $50,000 over the next five years commencing in fiscal year 2015. These increases are seen as necessary, according to the motion, because “college and university administrations are increasingly attacking students’ unions across the country by threatening to withhold fees and interfering with students’ union operations”. This funding would likely be used in any future legal action pursued by APUS or others against the U of T administration.

It should also be noted that those playing the “student autonomy” card will have to acknowledge the fact that postsecondary institutions have collected and disbursed fees to student governments for years. Even the CFS acknowledges that student governments sign fee collection agreements with their respective institutions’ administrations. If student governments were truly as autonomous as the rhetoric leads us to believe, then why aren’t student governments demanding to collect the fees themselves without having to deal with the university as an intermediary? If this were to happen, would this mean that students could choose whether or not to become members of their student association rather than having to pay mandatory non-tuition ancillary fees included in their tuition fee bills? These are all questions that readers should ponder.

APUS to U of T Governing Council: Stop interfering in our affairs

On May 22nd, the University of Toronto Governing Council met for its second last meeting of the 2013-2014 academic year. The Undergraduate Student Societies Summit was discussed (I will provide an update on the specifics in the near future).

However, Vilko Zbogar, LL.B. sent a cease and desist order to members of the Governing Council on behalf of the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS). In it, Zbogar writes:

It is readily apparent that the recommendations set out in the Report are ultra vires the Governing Council of the University of Toronto. Since the Governing Council has no jurisdiction or authority to unilaterally implement those recommendations or any other initiatives that may interfere with the autonomy of independent student societies, it would be advisable for the Governing Council and the administration of the University to refrain from taking any further steps toward implementing the proposed policy of the other recommendations set out in the Report.

He cites a previous Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruling, Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students of the University of Toronto v. University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union and Erindale Part-Time Undergraduate Students’ Association, (2008) which stemmed from a merger agreement between EPUS and UTMSU. This agreement led to the approval of the winding up of EPUS by students by way of referendum. However, members of EPUS were also members of and paid membership fees to APUS. Therefore, APUS was directly affected by the winding up of EPUS because it was losing members and money. Justice Allen ruled that EPUS and UTMSU acted beyond their authority as their actions “affected fees and membership in APUS without APUS’ consent”.

APUS’ counsel also mentions the “Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees” and claims that “any effort to expand the power to withhold fees collected on behalf of student societies would be vulnerable to a court challenge, and any attempt to exercise such power may constitute a breach of trust and a breach of fiduciary duty.”

Letters sent by various Ontarian student associations to the U of T Governing Council can be found here

Finally, Zbogar concludes that “it is apparent that the University would have no jurisdiction to act on any of the recommendations set out in the Report of the University of Toronto Student Societies Summit. It would there be appropriate to terminate the process of seeking to make policy changes affecting student societies, without the consent of the affected student societies.”

I find it interesting that Zbogar claims that the “Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees” is a policy that “exists with the consent of the interested student societies, but if they were to withdraw their consent, even powers exercised under the current policy would be vulnerable to a court challenge.” This appears to imply that, if any of the student societies that are signatories to this policy decided to withdraw their consent for the agreement, the University would be not be able to ensure that they operate “in an open, accessible and democratic fashion”. The veracity of this claim, however, remains unclear.

Nonetheless, the fact that Ontario has no laws on the books that regulate the relationship between student associations and post-secondary institutions’ administrations (hereinafter administrations) is very problematic. In recent years, the number of disputes between independent student organizations and administrations has continued to rise. For example, the Durham College/University of Ontario Institute of Technology administrations are withholding fees from the Student Association due to, among other things, governance concerns. It would be advisable for the Ontario government to look to our neighbours in Quebec and model such legislation on the Act respecting the accreditation and financing of students’ associations. The balance between the independence of student associations and the oversight exercised by administrations (which collect and disburse fees) is definitely a delicate one. However, when elected student officials consistently view any intervention by administrations (i.e. withholding student association fees) as illegitimate, this ignores the fact that many student associations have had very real issues (i.e. governance, corruption, etc.) that can drag on for years. While there should be reasonable limits on administrations’ ability to intervene in the internal affairs of a student association, this possibility must remain an option in some specific cases.

What are your thoughts on this issue?