Meet the CFS’ first Afro-Indigenous national chairperson

Coty Zachariah on the federation’s challenges, winning and losing elections and being a new father

Amid intense calls to reform the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), Coty Zachariah is set to step into the ring as the national student federation’s new chairperson in June.

With a father from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory and a mother from Nova Scotia’s black community, Zachariah is the CFS’ first Afro-Indigenous national chairperson. He was elected in November, but he said that it’s still sinking in.

“I remember standing downstairs in (George Brown) collecting votes. I remember the first time I went Ottawa for CFS things, I was so inspired by this whole new world, but there was not a lot of indigenous students,” said Zachariah, who got his start at the Student Association of George Brown College (SA).

Zachariah said that the lack of Indigenous folks participating in student politics troubled him, and he didn’t see enough outreach to First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students at the time.

The first time Zachariah ran for what is now the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit representative position at SA, he lost. But win or lose, Zachariah said running for office can take a toll on relationships, particularly for positions related to identity.

“One of the unfortunate parts of about ethnocentric positions was you had to beat other indigenous students that were engaged,” Zachariah said. “It doesn’t feel good especially when we all care, we’re all friends or we were all friends at some point, and then someone wins and that changes.”

The CFS is facing questions about its structure, transparency, and lately, secret bank accounts. In the wake of these concerns, Zachariah is encouraging healthy debate and unity.

“People want different things and it’s okay to want different things, services, and approaches,” said Zachariah. “It’s okay to disagree, I think that’s healthy, but the work still needs to get done and I think the divide that’s been going on is not healthy for many of us on either ‘side’ now.”

In September, 10 CFS member unions signed an open letter which stated that they “can no longer accept or support the current governance structure of our organization.” By Oct. 14 member locals, including the SA, had presented a list of 14 motions aimed at reforming the CFS.

“I think something that’s been missing is communication,” said Zachariah. “I think there’s people feeling unheard right now. There’s people with genuine concerns and work that are being overshadowed by other things going on.”

Zachariah said he is aiming to open up lines of communication to help ensure that members are heard and that the movement keeps going forward.

Carolyn Mooney, who served on the SA board with Zachariah last year, believes that he is capable of changing CFS for the better.

“He was very open to incorporating new ways of doing things and I think that will serve him well as CFS is kind of being ushered into a new era,” said Mooney. “People want to see some changes, and from what I understand these are changes that will benefit all of CFS’ locals and students.”

If Zachariah seems calm under fire, it could be because he recently made it through a serious scare in his personal life when his daughter Sequoia was born prematurely. After two months in and out of the hospital, his daughter is doing fine, and Zachariah sees a change in himself.

“Obviously still you have your self interests and things like that, but you know I’m responsible for a little person’s life and development now and that’s totally changed my perspective on a lot of things,” said Zachariah. “(There’s) a lot more diapers in the house, and I have to be more fiscally responsible but it’s been amazing.”

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Meet the CFS’ first Afro-Indigenous national chairperson