Last updated: June 14, 2012 3:24 pm
University of Ottawa student challenges mandatory student union membership in lawsuit
ONTARIO (CUP) — What began as a simple request to be removed from the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) email list serve has now transformed into a legal request for resignation and compensation.
Edward Inch, a fifth-year chemistry student, is currently suing the SFUO in an attempt to defederate and be exempt from the mandatory $96.60 incidental fees that go towards their services and advocacy.
“I am suing them because I feel they are a political organization and they take political stances I disagree with. I basically feel it is a violation of my freedom of association … I want nothing to do with them,” explained Inch.
Inch ultimately decided to take the SFUO to small claims court after months of being ignored when he asked to be removed from the weekly student email sent out by the federation. This prompted Inch to analyze his involvement at the university and realize that he was dissatisfied with how the SFUO was spending the fees he paid every semester.
In particular, Inch was disturbed that the student federation encouraged students to participate in Occupy Ottawa or other political associations.
“The point is they take political stances that not everyone agrees with — and I might not agree with them, I may even agree with them — but I don’t want to be told by a student group that I have nothing to do with what my opinion is,” he said.
Ethan Plato, president of the SFUO, rebuked Inch’s argument by stating that the federation represents the interests of the students at large and that as a student at the University of Ottawa, Inch has no choice but to pay his dues.
“As a member, as any undergraduate student, they have to pay all the incidental fees,” said Plato. “All incidental fees, including those collected by us, the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa, are adopted democratically by referendum and are recognized by both the Ontario government and the University of Ottawa.”
The money collected by the SFUO goes towards providing student services and advocacy. Plato explained that their advocacy helped initiate things such as the fall reading week, better food in the cafeteria,and 24-hour library services.
“Not all services are used by every student. That is a reality … but there are certain things that we do that all students benefit from,” Plato reiterated. “There is advocacy on almost every level with our administration that happens that wouldn’t necessarily happen if the SFUO didn’t exist in its current form.”
The concept of voluntary student unionism has been widely discussed over the past few years. In November of 2011 the Frontier Centre for Public Policy released a report that outlined the argument for and against mandatory student fees. The overarching conclusion was that mandatory student fees violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that as student unions are not governments, they do not have the right to compel membership.
Inch agrees with this statement and argued that by forcing membership the SFUO has violated his right to freedom of association.
“I’ve read the Corporations Act in its entirety and since they are registered, there is nothing that states that I am compelled to be a member. I have a right to resign.”
The legality of mandatory student unionism has been brought to court before. In 1994, David Feldhaus, member of the member of Students Advocating for Freedom of Association (SAFA) at Simon Fraser University, filed a claim alleging that mandatory student fees were unconstitutional and that the student federation was not acting in the public interest. This claim went all the way through the British Columbia Court of Appeals before it was overturned.
Examples were presented from Australia and New Zealand where voluntary student unionism has been legalized. For some, this is proof that it should be adopted in Canada.
Christopher Ford, a second-year international student studying medicine at the University of Melbourne, readily accepted voluntary student unionism when he transferred.
“I am very happy that I am able to opt out of the student union fees,” he said. “Although there is a large international student population at the University of Melbourne, my interests are very different from other students here. I am 25 years old and independent, thus I do not need the support services that an 18 year old moving from another city might need.
“I felt the same way while I was at the University of Ottawa form 2005-2009; I was fairly independent and not associated with campus life so I felt as if the fees were not going to benefit me, but they would hopefully help those that needed access to them.”
While the overseas opt-out mandate may be enticing to students, the financial consequences explained in the Australian government’s 2008 report, The Impact of Voluntary Student Unionism on Services, Amenities, and Representation for Australian Students presents a less rosy picture.
In each case there were significant reductions in funding allotted for student groups, clubs, interuniversity sport, and student services such as community legal aid, childcare and news outlets.
The outcome of the case at the University of Ottawa could set a precedent for other students to file similar law suits against the SFUO. Over the last year, numerous student associations have held referendums to defederate, and while the results of those referendums are still being dealt with by the SFUO, it points to many dissatisfied students who may prefer to eliminate mandatory student fees.
However, Plato firmly believes that the financial and social consequences are too great a risk, and that continuing along the tradition of mandatory student fees without exemption will benefit the students at the University of Ottawa.
“It may be difficult to determine that not all services are used by every student. That is a reality—not everything is used by every single student—but there are certain things that we do that all students benefit from,” he said. “We are fairly confident in our position and all students are aware that they must pay these incidental fees coming in to the U of O and I don’t think one case will change that requirement.”
Both parties will attend a settlement conference on June 21 to be advised on how to proceed.