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Let's abolish compulsory membership in student unions

By Jonathan Wensveen
web posted November 21, 2011

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes every Canadian's freedom to associate. It is widely understood that this freedom includes the freedom not to associate. The existence of compulsory student union membership for post-secondary students in Canada undermines this freedom.

Despite being in clear violation of the Charter, many student union officials continue to support compulsory student unionism. Specifically, these officials argue that student unions are governments with a right to compel membership and coercively tax their members. They also claim to represent the interests of all students, and so all students must join. Both claims are false.

First, student unions are not governments. Although they are structured and sometimes operate like governments, they differ from governments. A government is a recognized political authority that legislates and enforces laws to protect the natural and civil rights of citizens. A union, conversely, exists in order to secure particular interests on behalf of a specific group of citizens. Put simply, government exists primarily to secure natural and civil rights, but a union exists primarily to secure entitlements. A student union is an interest group seeking to secure the narrow interests of its members only.

Second, student unions do not represent the interests of all students.  Due to low voter-turnout rates in their elections, student unions have begun to support causes and spend funds in ways that represent the interests of a shrinking number of activists at the expense of all. The 10 to 30 per cent of students voting in any given election don't constitute a large enough ratio for an accurate assessment of student support, let alone extrapolations of their interests.  Elections for Guelph University's Central Student Association last year drew 25.5 per cent of the school's undergraduate population. This year, elections for the University of Toronto Students' Union were decided by 18 per cent of undergraduate students, while recent elections for the University of Ottawa Students' Union drew an abysmal 11.5 per cent.  These extreme low voter-turnout rates on campuses across the country preclude any elected student union official from claiming sweeping representation.

Consequently, student union funds are increasingly spent without much legitimacy, according to what a minority of activist students deem important, and who assume to represent the interests of all. Often, these funds are exclusively spent according to fringe ideological preferences.

For example, in recent years, student union officials at the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria, the University of Calgary, and York University, have either stripped or threatened to strip pro-life groups of their club status and funding. In 2010, The University of Ottawa's Student's Union allegedly spent at least $1,000 to rent a bus to send 50 protesters to Toronto during the G20. At the same time, the University of Toronto Students' Union co-sponsored an event with York's Students' Union titled "Toronto vs. the G20: a teach-in," which introduced students to "Black Bloc tactics" used to smash storefronts and destroy public property during the summit. Finally, several student unions, including those at Carleton University, York University, and the University of Toronto, have either funded events or provided outspoken support for anti-Israeli apartheid week—another partisan and ideologically motivated event that does nothing to advance the interests of all students.

Whether these and other such causes warrant attention or deserve recognition is beside the point. The issue is over whether funding and supporting ideologically motivated campaigns, committees, events and activities actually represents the interests of all, or even a majority of students. Students in Canada embrace a variety of religious, political, and moral views that necessarily conflict with those of other students, and should not be required to provide financial support for causes and events that they may or may not agree with. Anti-Israeli apartheid week should be permitted, but the notion that it somehow represents the interests of all students is absurd. Ideologically charged events ought to be funded by those who wish to support them and have chosen to have them. Naturally, students who wish to abstain from membership in student unions should be free to do so.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms "guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society." While the rights in the Charter may not be absolute, there must be "reasonable limits" to curtail them. Despite what advocates of compulsory student unionism argue, no "reasonable limits" exist to justify curtailing the freedom not to associate on Canadian university campuses: student unions are not governments and simply do not represent the interests of all students. Compulsory student unionism should therefore be abolished. ESR

Jonathan Wensveen is a graduate student at Carleton University. He was the Manning Centre's intern at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy last summer.





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