Galvin Zaldivar, News Editor
The Divisional Court of the Superior Court of Justice quashed the Conservative government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI) last night.
The SCI was originally announced by the Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government in January and implemented for the 2019-2020 academic year. It was accompanied by an overhaul of OSAP eligibility and the elimination of free tuition grants introduced by the previous Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne.
The initiative made certain tuition fees used to support student organizations, unions, newspapers and clubs optional.
The fees amounted to $55.95 for Humber students. It’s not clear when the optional fees will be reinstated.
Student organizations, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) chief among them, protested the changes since their announcement.
The CFS and the York Federation of Students (YFS) applied in May for a judicial review of the SCI with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice’s Divisional Court. Later the University of Toronto Graduate Students Union intervened in support of CFS, while the Jewish social organization B’nai Brith intervened in support the government.
Humber’s student association, IGNITE, wasn’t party to the application but will benefit from the protections upheld by the court.
“IGNITE will not speculate on the ramifications of this announcement as we await a response from the provincial government,” Monica Khosla, IGNITE President, said in a statement.
The main question before the court was whether the SCI was improperly issued under the guidelines given by the government to colleges and universities, if they were made in bad faith and without notifying or consulting student associations.
The government argued the change was made to allow students the freedom not to fund student organizations whose actions they do not support. For example, CFS is one of the few civil society bodies in Canada that adopted a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) policy in regards to Israel.
The court, in a 3-0 unanimous decision, could find no reason in the record for why student association fees were deemed non-essential, while other more expensive were deemed essential. Ancillary fees at colleges and universities can range from several hundred dollars to more than $2,000 per academic year.
The court also accepted the reasoning that a phrase used by the Premier in a fundraising email to supporters, where he referred to the “kind of crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to” provided evidence of the true purpose of the SCI.
Kayla Weiler, CFS National Executive Representative told reporters at a Friday Queen’s Park press conference the SCI was not about putting students first, but rather about trying to undermine student democracy and memberships to student unions.
“I’m very excited” by the ruling, Weiler said. “I’m really glad to hear the court ruled that this policy was unlawful from the very beginning it was announced back in January.
“This has always been a bad policy,” she said.
In the 30-page decision released by the court, the government argued the implementation of the SCI was a prerogative power not justiciable before the courts.
Citing the United Kingdom’s prorogation case in October, the court affirmed the justiciability of prerogative powers, in lieu of undermining the supremacy of the legislature, and allowing the government to rule by executive-decree.
But the court affirmed student associations and unions are private not-for-profits, and there existed no legal authority allowing the government to interfere with their internal affairs.
For student unions, the SCI would lead to an uncertain level of funding available to carry out their normal activities from semester to semester.
YFS also argued the uncertainty from semester to semester would force student unions to spend more of their resources on trying to persuade students to opt-in to their ancillary fees.
“We have been restricted from supporting our membership to our full capacity, due to the government’s unwarranted intervention into student affairs,” Fatima Babiker, President of YFS said at the press conference.
The court also found since most student unions are separate entities from universities and colleges, the guidelines implementing the SCI forced them to interfere in the internal affairs of student unions.
Chris Glover, the NDP critic for Colleges and Universities, described that Ford’s policies are attacks on the legal and constitutional rights of Ontarians.
“I think Doug Ford should reimburse the services that had their funding cut this year,” he told Et Cetera.
He thanked CFS for leading the fight against the SCI and said the NDP will keep fighting until Ontario starts investing in students again. The Ministry of Colleges and Universities is currently reviewing the decision.
-with files from Druv Sareen, Madison Raye and Jared Dodds