Provincial Court Hears Government Appeal of Student Choice Decision

Just because there’s a pandemic to worry about, it doesn’t mean that the Government of Ontario can’t multitask with some old priorities. On Friday, the Ontario Court of Appeal heard the government’s case about why they needed to overturn a lower court’s ruling about the Student Choice Initiative, a policy that separated services at post-secondary schools into essential and non-essential categories.

To recap, the Ontario government announced the changes covered by the Student Choice Initiative in January 2019. The policy grouped some services like athletics, health, and campus safety programs as essential while categorizing student-run governments, newspapers, radio stations, advocacy groups, and sexual health services as non-essential. Under this policy, students would have to pay the fees for essential services, but they would be able to opt in, or out, of the non-essential ones.

After a court battle that summer, an Ontario Divisional Court returned a verdict in November 2019 saying that “There is no statutory authority authorizing Cabinet or the Minister to interfere in the internal affairs of these student associations,” and that the policies in the Student Choice Initiative “are inconsistent with the autonomy granted universities.”

A month later, Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano confirmed that the Province would be appealing the decision.

Fast forward nearly 16 months, and the case was back before the court to hear the Ontario government’s appeal. According to reporting in the Queen’s Journal, Sunil Matha, legal counsel for the Ministry of Colleges and Universities, argued that the Initiative does not interfere with operations at student organizations, and it wasn’t the intent of the government to do them harm with the new policy.

Meanwhile, the counsel for the Canadian Federation of Students, Louis Century, argued that the Student Choice Initiative was enacted in bad faith and allowed the Provincial government to interfere with student-run groups and over-step their purview. “Student unions belong to, and are funded by students and the government has no authority to interfere with them” CFS Ontario’s Kayla Weiler to the Toronto Star in 2019. Weiler was a vice-president of the Central Student Association at the University of Guelph.

Legal counsel appearing on behalf of Ontario’s universities did not take sides in the court action, but lawyer Rob Centa told the court that the Province has no jurisdiction to intervene in the internal affairs of universities, and that the affected clubs all contribute to the richness of campus culture.

According to Guelph Today story in November 2019, 35 per cent of the student population at the University of Guelph that semester had opted out of paying at least one fee. All told, approximately $537,000 for various student groups was lost in the process. According to the University of Guelph student paper, The Ontarion, more than 60 groups at the U of G were affected by the funding changes in the Student Choice Initiative.

The Ontario Court of Appeal will return a verdict sometime later this year.

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