Student leaders from a coalition that won a landmark legal challenge against the Provincial government over making certain student fees optional spoke from Queen’s Park on Friday morning. Representatives of the groups, who were supported in Queen Park’s media room by the New Democrat education critic, said that the ruling shows that “our democracy is valid.”
“Students often times get the opportunity to vote and have direct democracy and have their voices heard, and I think that’s the core issue that resonates with me,” said Kayla Weiler, Ontario representative for the Canadian Federation of Students, or CFS. Weiler is also a former vice-president of the Central Student Association at the University of Guelph.
“Our democracy is valid and it never was not valid,” she said. “This court ruling just reaffirms that our democracy and the work that student unions do is important to students in this province.”
In a unanimous ruling released late Thursday evening, the Ontario Divisional Court sided with the CFS and York University’s student union in their legal argument that the Student Choice Initiative, or SCI, was “unlawful.”
“There is no statutory authority authorizing Cabinet or the Minister to interfere in the internal affairs of these student associations,” the decision read. The court also said that there was a lack of explanation as to how the government determined which fees were essential, and others were not.
The legal decision went further in its decision saying that the province are “not authorized by law and are inconsistent with the autonomy granted universities, bedrock principles on which Ontario universities have been governed for more than 100 years.”
In a statement Friday afternoon, the student government at the University of Guelph-Humber, IGNITE, said that they would “not speculate on the ramifications of this announcement” and that they will instead wait on a response from the Provincial government.
The Provincial government, meanwhile, had no comment. According to the CBC, the Office of the Attorney General said it would be “inappropriate” to comment while the decision is being appeal.
That could take several weeks or months before the case works its way through the appeals system, but should the ruling remain without challenge, and the SCI is reversed, New Democrat MPP Chris Glover said the Ford government should be responsible for retroactive payment of fees unpaid.
“[The SCI] has led to shortfalls in funding for student food banks, support programs for women and LGBTQ students, and for campus newspapers and radio stations,” said Glover.
“The court was unequivocal about their condemnation of the actions of this government,” he added. “It’s clear that Ford’s attacks — from municipal elections, to business contracts, to students’ unions — are attacks on the legal and constitutional rights of Ontarians.”
“This is a victory for students who were fighting to preserve student democracy and the quality of campus life,” said Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner in a media statement.
“The defunding of student newspapers, campus food banks, and social justice groups is a recipe for worsening the student experience and undoing student efforts to make campuses safe and equitable,” Schreiner added. “The Ford government should accept this decision, respect student democracy and return the decision-making power that was unlawfully seized from student associations.”
The SCI was announced by the Provincial government in January and came into effect for the first time for the fall semester of 2019/2020 school year. Critics said the optional student fees threaten the status of student unions, campus publications and other organizations as they rely on the fee funding to operate year-to-year.
According to a report in GuelphToday.com last month, 8,556 graduate and undergraduate students opted out of at least one fee for the fall semester.
“About $537,000 was lost due to the opt out process,” said U of G’s director of news services Lori Bona Hunt. “In other words, had there been no Student Choice Initiative, we would have collected about $537,00 more than we did through various optional student fees.”
While student organizations staged walkouts and protests through the spring, summer and fall months, the Ontario government insisted that the SCI, along with a 10 per cent cut to domestic tuition, was an effort to “put students first.”
The Ford government also eliminated free tuition for the lowest income students, a policy started by the previous Liberal government, and changed the rules around the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).
After what the Canadian Federation of Students considered a major victory in the court on Thursday, the question was raised as to whether students unions should join an organization such as the CFS, a group that has members across Canada.
“We’re stronger when we’re united together. We’re stronger when we can pool our resources together and provide services,” Ontario representative Kayla Weiler said in response. She encouraged interested student unions to reach out to build a bridge.
The CFS has over 30 member student unions in Ontario. This does not include IGNITE, who said previously that they are focusing on providing services on campus and not an external fight against the province. IGNITE also did not lend any support to the legal challenge won on Thursday.
The Central Student Association of the U of G is Local 54 of the CFS.
Whether student groups are official members of the team or not, Weiler said that “all student unions are valid and are really appreciated for the work that they do.”
But for those that are not currently part of the CFS, the Ontario executive encourages them to “have conversations with us about how we can continue to work together.”
“When we work together, then we win,” Weiler added.
This post originally appeared on The Avro Post. Photo By Eli Ridder