Ford Government Loses Appeal on Student Choice Initiative

Chalk up another loss in court for the Premier Doug Ford and the Government of Ontario as the Ontario Court of Appeal has ruled that a lower court was right to overturn the Student Choice Initiative. Although there is some disagreement between the courts about the rationale, the Court of Appeal affirmed that the lower court was right on the basic fact: the Student Choice Initiative is no good.

“In my view, although the Divisional Court erred by characterizing the framework as an exercise of prerogative power, the court reached the correct conclusion: the ancillary fees framework conflicts with the legislation governing Ontario’s colleges and universities and cannot be imposed upon them by the exercise of executive authority,” wrote Justice Grant Huscroft in his decision.

“If the framework is to be established, the OCAATA [Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Act] and University Acts must be amended,” Huscroft added.

Divisional Court ruled in November 2019 that the Student Choice Initiative represented an act of overreach by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, and that the policy was “inconsistent with the autonomy granted universities.”

“The OCAATA confers extensive authority on the Minister to direct college operations while the University Acts contemplate virtually no role for the Minister in university governance,” Huscroft wrote. “Student associations are not public bodies; they neither exercise public authority nor expend public funds. The OCAATA is concerned with the regulation of colleges, not student associations.”

“Indeed, given the role played by student associations in university governance, the framework is a profound interference in university autonomy — not a mere fettering of the universities’ discretion, as the Minister submits,” Huscroft added.

The Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario, who sued the Ontario government to overturn the Initiative with the York Federation of Students, celebrated the affirmation of the original decision in their favour.

“Today’s ruling reflects what students have been saying across the province, the Ford government’s assault democratic processes and student unions is not only unnecessary but unlawful,” said National Executive Representative for CFS-O Kayla Walker in a statement. “Students’ unions exist on campuses around the world to provide students with a united voice, advocate for change and operate essential support services. Ontario’s students deserve the same and it is not the place of the Premier or Minister to interfere with long-standing democratic processes.”

“This is yet another episode in Doug Ford’s recent run-ins with the courts, and another attempt by the Premier to overstep his boundaries and abuse his power,” said Green Party deputy leader Dianne Saxe in a statement supporting the court’s decision. “Doug Ford needs to stop going on power trips when he disagrees with the courts — whether it’s gas pump stickers, election financing, the carbon tax or student life.”

CBC News reached out to the current Minister of Colleges and Universities to get a comment about the decision, and whether the Ontario government will continue to pursue legal action to the next level. A spokesperson said that they’re reviewing the decision and all options for next steps.

“The government remains committed to increasing transparency for all post-secondary students and their families who make tremendous personal and financial sacrifices to attend post-secondary institutions,” a spokesperson for Jill Dunlop said.

“Instead of continuing to fight students in the courtroom and wasting taxpayer dollars that could be better used helping students, Ford must obey the court ruling and eliminate the Student Choice Initiative immediately,” said Kitchener Centre MPP Laura Mae Lindo, who’s also the NDP critic for Colleges and Universities, in a statement.

“As Ontario’s college and university students head back to class after a traumatic and challenging pandemic year, the support provided by student-led organizations — like food banks, mental health services, and peer-to-peer support groups — will be more important than ever,” Lindo added.

The Government of Ontario was also ordered to pay $20,000 in legal costs for the CFS and the York Students Federation.

You can read the full 28-page decision from the Ontario Court of Appeal here.

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