rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Student union busting -- Carleton style

Please chip in to support rabble's election 2019 coverage. Support rabble.ca today for as little as $1 per month!

On Nov. 10, Carleton University's undergraduate and graduate student associations jointly filed a court application to force the university to fulfill its legal obligation and remit the fees it holds "in trust" for each association. The outcome of this precedent-setting legal case has serious implications for student activism not only at Carleton, but throughout Canada.

The university claims it's simply trying to please its auditors, but the university's real motivation is to put each student association on a shorter leash, making it less desirable for students to speak out in ways that could potentially cause embarrassment to the university.

Across Canada, student associations provide both services and representation to their members. When students register for a term, membership fees are automatically collected by the university's business office, much like an employer automatically collects union dues in a unionized workplace. The university's business office temporarily holds student membership fees "in trust," and then remits them to each respective student organization after they're collected. All fees collected for the student associations are democratically determined through referenda.

Student associations use the fees to provide services to their members, including health and dental plans, financial assistance and awards, guest speakers, social events and club funding -- often including funding specifically targeted to support marginalized and underrepresented groups. They also use the fees to provide representation to their members, for example, in advocating for lower tuition fees and in advocating for more student services on campus.

Recently, Carleton University has done something unprecedented -- it has refused to remit the fees it has been holding for student associations. The university claims it's merely trying to ensure more financial transparency, but this is not the whole story.

It's the job of a student association to advocate for its members. At Carleton, each student association has disagreed both publicly and loudly with the university on its refusal to support a sexual assault centre, attempts to take over undergraduate orientation and annual increases in tuition fees. Such vocal, public opposition has been embarrassing for the university's senior administration, and this brings us to the recent conflict over the release of each respective student association's membership fees.

In 2009, Carleton's auditor advised the university that it should seek additional assurance that fees collected on behalf of student associations are indeed being passed on to the groups for which they are intended, for example, the campus radio station, the Ontario Public Interest Research Group and a student newspaper.

Since that time, Carleton has (understandably) asked each student association for more financial information, but with one enormous catch -- rather than simply ask for more information on how specific fees are transferred or expensed (as requested by their auditor), it has used this request by the auditor as an excuse to propose brand new agreements governing the relationship between the university and student associations. Unlike existing agreements, the new agreements would give Carleton's senior administration far-reaching powers over each student association, and the university has threatened to stop dispensing membership fees to student associations altogether unless these new agreements are signed.

The student associations have offered to provide statements from their auditors attesting that fees intended for other groups were indeed passed on. The associations have also published their audited financial statements in the campus newspaper. The fact that the university still refuses to remit the fees it owes the student associations confirms that financial transparency is not their true motivation.

Carleton's auditor asked for something small, namely a bit more financial transparency. Carleton's senior administration, in turn, has used this request as an excuse to ask for something much bigger, namely the power to take over each student association at will -- something that was never requested by their auditor.

Measures proposed by the university in the new proposals would, at least indirectly, make it so that any student organization that helps organize a boisterous rally against tuition fee increases would face the veiled -- or not so veiled -- threat of takeover by Carleton's senior administration. The same would hold for any future rally supporting a sexual assault centre.

Carleton is holding student membership fees in trust. The fees are intended for the student associations, whose members paid them on the understanding that their student associations would receive them.

Carleton University has plenty of reasons to avoid an expensive court battle, not the least of which is the bad publicity resulting from its blatant disregard for its obligations to its students.

Nick Falvo is a PhD Candidate at Carleton University's School of Public Policy and Administration. He is also Vice-President Finance of Carleton's Graduate Students' Association (Local 78 of the Canadian Federation of Students).

A version of this article first appeared in The Charlatan.

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.