BC’s student societies have a big question on their minds — can their members optout and stop paying fees?

The answer is complicated, but it’s true that students may now “resign” from UBC’s AMS, thanks to new provincial legislation. What this would mean for voting rights and other aspects of AMS membership is unclear. Under that legislation, students are also entitled to a number of court remedies if their society has “oppressed” or “unfairly prejudiced” them.

These changes are part of an update to the BC Society Act, which took effect November 28 after five years of consultation. The act governs more than 27,000 societies in BC. Included under that umbrella is the AMS and all other student societies in the province – about 25 in total, representing close to 100,000 students.

The new act is now enforceable. It is not intended to be retroactive, but how it will be enforced is still unclear moving forward. When the act was first proposed in 2010, the AMS was worried about it then.

“Allowing certain groups of students or individuals to opt out of student societies would do a disservice to the students and the organization,” the AMS wrote to the BC government in 2010. “We do not allow disaffected voters to abandon their obligations to public life, and nor should we for student societies.”

The AMS’s concerns were echoed at that time by the UBC Graduate Student Society, the University of Victoria Student Society and the Canadian Federation of Students BC (CFS BC), a provincial alliance of 14 university and college students’ unions that aims to provide a unified voice on education.

In response to these concerns, the government passed Bill 41. This bill splits student fees into two categories: “capital fees” and “program and service fees.” The AMS is now waiting for Bill 41’s terms to be clarified, as it will affect their current fee structure. Also unclear is what resignation does to a student's other rights such as voting on the implementation of new fees.

According to a written statement from BC’s Ministry of Advanced Education, they have finished consultations, “and will communicate to student societies regarding any regulations that may be passed.”

The Alliance of BC Students (ABCS), similar to CFS BC, is a not-for-profit advocacy group of graduate and undergraduate student societies representing more than 60,000 students, and said they were promised the “status-quo” of fees would remain. But they’re awaiting clarification, and uncertain whether courts would enforce the fees of resigned members.

The AMS is not a member of the CFS BC or the ABCS, but on its own, UBC’s student union represents 45,000 students, making it Canada’s largest student union. The AMS declined to comment on their efforts to influence the Society Act, and declined an interview about the effect of the new act, saying it would be premature until the province issued its clarifying regulations. 

The right to resign is not the only significant change under the new Society Act. Under Section 102, “Complaints by Members,” students are now entitled to new court remedies. The court has always been able to interfere in societies under Section 105, but only when “irregularities” occur such as a failure to comply with provincial legislation or a society’s own bylaws. Now, students can take their societies to court over “oppression” and “unfair prejudice” — terms which have yet to be tested in court.

Section 102 allows for 10 ways that a court can intervene short of removing a director, including “regulating conduct,” “directing of or prohibiting any act,” “directing the society to compensate an aggrieved person,” and “directing correction of the records of the society.”

Since these terms are untested in court, it’s too early to tell what their effect will be, or how much more vulnerable to litigation. That will depend on the court’s interpretation.

CFS BC opposed Section 102, however, calling it an “invitation to nuisance litigation.” But the AMS took a different view, and encouraged additional avenues of accountability. Societies can remove elected officials, but only at a special general meeting that meets quorum, which is the minimum number of students that needs to be in attendance to make decisions on their behalf. Reaching quorum of 45,000 students the AMS represents has been historically difficult to achieve.

“Because a person’s election to a student society may be their first encounter with public life, student societies face special challenges around accountability of directors in the face of occasional misconduct,” the AMS wrote. “Less serious infractions often remain unchecked because of logistical difficulty.” 

A number of other Society Act clauses were disputed by student societies. The AMS fought against a requirement that all directors be at least as old as 18. This was passed, but student societies were allowed to make exemptions. Another gave members of the public legal recourse if a society failed to act in the “public interest.” In response, the CFS BC argued that student societies are designed to serve the interests of their members, not the overall public. This public interest clause was removed in the final version.

The AMS has other concerns with the act, but they are summarized by their core argument in 2010 — that BC student societies, which collectively represent more than a hundred thousand students, are significantly different from the 27,000 other nonprofit societies governed by the BC Society Act.

“We have long been concerned that the work and business of student societies are not well described by current legislation,” wrote the AMS. “Student societies are larger than other societies, operate businesses and services while continuing to be not-for-profit entities and conduct business differently, often because of their size.”

The option of resignation and new legal remedies are significant changes to students’ rights within their student unions, and both can have an effect on a society’s funds, whether through revenue collection or legal expenses. The two combined represent a shift of power from societies to individual members.

The Ministry of Advanced Education did not respond to a question about whether a separate student society act was considered. The CFS BC and the CFS did not respond to requests for comment.