Ontario Divisional Court deems Ford’s Student Choice Initiative unlawful

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On Nov. 22 it was announced that the Student Choice Initiative was deemed “unlawful” by the Ontario Divisional Court and a violation of university autonomy.

The initiative, which was brought to life for the first time during the 2019-2020 school year, allowed students to opt out of fees from the university that the government deemed “non-essential” including students’ union programming and campus publications among others.

“It was the decision of the national executive, the national executive is made up from one member of each province, then also members from constituency groups and caucus groups as well, graduate students, racialized students, women along with other identities,” said Kayla Weiler, the Ontario representative for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).

“This decision was a lengthy discussion of the national executive, then it was voted on that the CFS would be taking the government to court along with the York Federation of Students (YFS) and the YFS is a member local of the CFS and one of the largest student unions in the country.”

The CFS and YFS jointly filed a lawsuit against the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities in May of 2019 on the basis that the government’s policy for the Student Choice initiative lacked authority.

“It was such a great feeling to know that the hard work we put in paid off – special thanks to our legal team, but I think the most exciting thing about this challenge is that the day the Student Choice Initiative was announced was the day that the government made the statement that they didn’t think that students’ unions or other organizations such as campus radio stations or newspapers, they didn’t see them as essential, they didn’t see them as important,” Weiler said.

“They didn’t recognize our autonomy or our democracy. It was a clear statement from the government that they don’t care about the work that we do for students, whether that is running an on campus food bank, support centres for survivors of sexual violence or the fact that we continuously advocate for lower tuition fees and an education system that is fully funded.”

The CFS and YFS appeared in court on Oct. 11, arguing that the initiative negatively affects student organizations and their ability to properly provide essential services and programming on campuses across the country.

“Since it’s been repealed by the courts, it’s great to hear that the Student Choice Initiative was never lawful. It was unlawful from the very beginning and it shouldn’t have been a policy in the first place so it’s really nice to know the courts backed up and reconfirmed what students already know in this province and in this country,” Weiler said.

“Student organizations are democratic and autonomous – they are funded by students for students to do the work that we find is essential and is mandatory for students on our campuses, the work that we do is fundamental to our education system.”

They didn’t recognize our autonomy or our democracy. It was a clear statement from the government that they don’t care about the work that we do for students, whether that is running an on campus food bank, support centres for survivors of sexual violence or the fact that we continuously advocate for lower tuition fees and an education system that is fully funded.

– Kayla Weiler, the Ontario representative for the Canadian Federation of Students

This decision, however, does not come without backlash from many students who feel that these options saved them money to be able to afford groceries or help pay for rent due to having to fund services they claim to never use.

“Every student benefits from the advocacy work of the students’ union, regardless of if you even step foot on campus or if you’re just an online student,  you still benefit from the academic advocacy that the students’ union has done and it’s all about collective action and collective power,” Weiler said.

“If everybody pays a little bit of money, we’re able to run things on campus such as a food bank, but also an orientation week to orientate new students on campus to make that first transition less scary.”

The Student Choice Initiative news came out after an already devastating blow to students as it was announced at the beginning of the year that millions of dollars would be cut from OSAP funding, a service many students use to be able to afford tuition.

The Ford government also eliminated the policy for fully covered tuition for students who come from a household that makes under $50,000 per year, a policy put in place by the Liberal government.

“This ruling is very crucial because it has made it very clear that the Ford government was attacking the autonomy of the universities and the democratic procedures of the universities, so this is a great moment of victory for both faculty and students,” said Rahul Sapra, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA).

Students’ unions can now generate more awareness about the dangerous performance-based funding model that can cut millions off of funding at universities; now that the newspapers will survive and students will continue to do well, we have to make sure these models are reversed.

– Rahul Sapra, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations

“The government might come back, but we will keep fighting. We are always onto the next fight, we are ready for it and the students and faculty will always work together. Now that we have won this big victory thanks to our students, students and faculty need to continue to fight and make the Ford government reverse the OSAP cuts.”

Students across Ontario have been fighting this victory for months, from striking outside of Queen’s Park in Toronto, thousands signing petitions and walking out of classes, it has been made clear that students refuse to settle with detrimental changes to their education.

“Students’ unions can now generate more awareness about the dangerous performance-based funding model that can cut millions off of funding at universities; now that the newspapers will survive and students will continue to do well, we have to make sure these models are reversed,” Sapra said.

“Students play an important role in holding university administration and governments accountable about issues including tuition fees, social assistance and a number of other services – they play a very crucial role.”

The decision comes after months of hard work from students, yet the victory is short-lived as the CFS moves to their next battle for a fair education and university experience for students across the nation.

“With a federation that doesn’t have to worry anymore about taking the government to court over defending our autonomy and our democracy, we’re able to get back to what we were doing before and love doing, which is fighting for students rights,” Weiler said.

“What was really fundamental to our legal win was being on campus radio stations, having those conversations on campus, through tabling or picking up a campus newspaper and reading about it, often times the stories of the student movement aren’t being told through the Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail, it’s important for campus newspapers that their fees are protected and that they’re autonomous.”

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