The Ontario Court of Appeal unanimously upheld the decision on Wednesday that the Student Choice Initiative put forth by the Ford government is unlawful, and attacks the independence of universities.
First introduced in January 2019, the Student Choice Initiative gave post-secondary students the option to opt out of previously mandatory fees that paid for campus services, and that the Ford government deemed to be non-essential.
These services included campus media, student unions, food banks and equity groups that serve marginalized communities.
In a year where essential and non-essential work has been more discussed than ever, Tim Gulliver, president of the University of Ottawa’s Student Union, says campus groups have kept students from feeling isolated during the pandemic.
“I can’t think of anything more essential,” he said. “And so, to see them deemed non-essential by the Ford government in 2019 was an insult. And to continue to spend taxpayers money on an appeal to try and defund by a certain amount these kinds of services just seemed completely ludicrous.”
Kayla Weiler, from the Canadian Federation of Students - Ontario, says that these services especially help marginalized communities on campus.
“Some of the non-essential fees included things such as food banks, gender equity offices, or support for survivors of sexual assault offices were considered optional,” she said.
“But also different student clubs. When it comes to levy fees for Black Student Associations, Muslim Student Associations, these were considered non-essential. But we know as students that these are really important groups on our campus that elevate their voices as students and provide services they rely on every day.”
The initiative was operational only during the fall semester of 2019. The Canadian Federation of Students and the York Federation of Students filed a challenge to the initiative in May 2019, and it was struck down by three Divisional Court judges who also deemed that it was unalwful in early 2020.
The Ford government appealed the decision last year.
Weiler says that it’s important for student unions to operate autonomously from their institutions and the government so that they can hold these bodies accountable.
However, both she and Gulliver are still wary of accepting the fight as won, even though the initiative has now been deemed unlawful by two different courts.
“One thing we are keeping our eye on is if the Ford government tries to make this change through the Ontario legislature. We certainly hope the Ford government doesn’t spend this pandemic trying to undermine student democracy,” Gulliver said.
“If they go that route they will have a pretty big fight on their hands.”
Listen to the story below to learn more about the Student Choice Initiative: