HOW THE ONTARIO GOVERNMENT IS THREATENING ACTIVISM ON CAMPUS
By Alanna Rizza & Sarah Krichel
Content warning: The following contains graphic and potentially triggering content surrounding abortion.
On the first day of spring, Ryerson students walked out of their classrooms. Loud chanting could be heard from a distance.By noon, hundreds of students were crowding the intersection of Gould and Victoria streets, picket signs in hand. Some read, “Protect Students’ Independent Voices” and “Defend the Right to Organize.” They chanted: “The students united will never be defeated.”
The protest was in response to the Ontario government’s changes to post-secondary education fees, which include a 10 per cent tuition cut for domestic students, scrapping free tuition for low-income students and cuts to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).
“If I don’t fight this, the next time I renew my OSAP contract this coming fall, I’m screwed. There’s no way I can pay it off,” a student told The Eyeopener on the day of the rally. “We have to do something. Each of us has more power than we know.”
Ryerson’s walkout was one of 16 protests held across the province. It was organized by We The Students RU and supported by the province’s largest student advocacy group, the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O).
Protesting has always been considered a staple in students’ ability to express their opinions, beliefs and rights on campus.
Chelsea Davenport, a fourth-year social work student and Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) board of directors member, spoke at the rally. She says protesting allows students’ voices to be heard and allows them to support each other.
But come September, protesting on campus, and with it, the ability to exercise free speech, may become less accessible and possible. This is due to Premier Doug Ford’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI) draining the resources that are required for such movements. The legislation gives students the ability to opt out of certain ancillary fees. “Not being able to exercise our right to protest will create barriers for students to share their opinions and lived experiences,” says Davenport. “It will make it more difficult to hold [Ryerson] administration and the government accountable.”
The initiative’s guidelines outline which fees are mandatory and which fees are optional. Mandatory fees include student ID cards, health and dental plans and safety programs, among others. Fees that you can opt out of include the RSU, which funds the seven equity service centres: the Centre for Women and Trans People, the Trans Collective, the Racialised Students’ Collective, the Sexual Assault Survivor Support Line (SASSL), the Good Food Centre (GFC), RyeAccess and RyePride. Other optional fees include independent campus press, such as Ryerson’s campus radio station CJRU 1280 AM, as well as The Eyeopener.
“We have to do something. Each of us has more power than we know”
Organized protesting takes educational and campaign material resources, as well as a platform to communicate from. Typically, protests or organized activism are arranged by the groups who have those platforms and resources, and are funded entirely through student levies, such as the various groups that went into organizing the walkout that took place on March 20. The walkout saw the RSU, Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR), various course unions and The Eye come together to send the message to the government.
Nour Alideeb, chairperson of CFS-O, worries the SCI could mean less resources allocated to organize movements meant to effect change and educate the community on issues. Consistent funding has allowed student organizations to afford educational and campaign materials, along with being able to pay staff for their work. But with less resources, student groups will have to reevaluate how they organize on campus.
Naja Pereira, the incoming vice-president equity of the RSU, says that the first thing on her agenda is meeting with the executive team of the RSU in the coming weeks to figure out how to best mitigate the impacts of the SCI. For example, she wants to make use of social media activism in the coming year, when resources become scarcer. But despite any efforts made, activists part of the Ryerson community are seeing all of their work in the past years undermined by this legislation.
The people out on Gould Street with signs, yelling into megaphones and demanding change, are part of the groups who will be losing that funding.
“The reality is the most marginalized groups tend to be the ones without those resources,” Alideeb says. By eliminating the resources for marginalized groups, “we are actually going to see them struggle even further to talk about these issues and put forward an important cause for change.”
The legislation Ford’s government put forward has triggered a mobilization of student voices, coming together for various causes that affect us all. But while students work to come together and express their concerns, it’s the very legislation they’re protesting that will restrict their ability to do so. Ford’s given us something to be really angry about, and made it nearly impossible for us to do anything about it.
The threat to student life, advocacy and activism in Ontario is not unprecedented. In 2005, the Australian government passed legislation that would remove funding for university student unions. These unions were expected to stand on their own through voluntary memberships and investments. Like in Ontario, universities that were found financially supporting their unions would see their government grants reduced.
But as per a report by the National Union of Students of the United Kingdom, written two years after the legislation was put into effect, the unions weren’t able to stand on their own. To appease these losses, student service organizations turned to the universities, or university-owned companies, to have those institutions take over those student services and embed those fees as part of their departmental responsibilities.
The report stated that 25 out of 30 student organizations in Australia reported substantial or total job losses. Another notable result of the legislation was how independent “student rights advocacy support” became something conducted entirely by the universities themselves. According to the report, at least six campuses saw their student advocacy services taken over by the university or a company owned by the university.
While, in theory, it’s possible to have student advocacy rights be independent from the school, Australian student organizations reported the precarity that comes with going down that route. “Our funding agreement is for one year only,” said the Australian National University Students’ Association in the report, “and is a verbal agreement which could be changed at any time.”
In light of the SCI, some are turning to this legislation that took place in Australia as precedent for what might happen to Ontarian students. If this is the case, students could become extremely dependent on the university for student rights advocacy, among other services.
In 2013, Pascale Diverlus recalls seeing hundreds of students lining up weekly for Ryerson’s food bank, the Good Food Centre (GFC). It offers emergency food relief, inexpensive food and workshops on meal planning and gardening. Sometimes there would be students and other Ryerson community members lined up down the staircase of the second floor of the Student Campus Centre.
Meanwhile, as coordinator for SASSL, Diverlus—who was also the vice-president equity of the RSU at the time—was working 20 hours a week on paper, but often ended up working full-time hours. It was a time of urgency, she says. To mitigate the lack of resources the two centres were dealing with, a campaign began to take form to have a student referendum, which would further fund the two equity centres.
Finally, in November 2017, the Feed Students, Support Survivors campaign was successful in pushing for $5 from each student per year via ancillary fees to support the GFC and SASSL. Starting September 2018, the successful campaign provided the two of seven equity service centres with approximately $186,265, The Eye previously reported. Emily Kolomvos, one of this year’s GFC coordinators, says the GFC saw their member count double this year and SASSL began to work on their long-term plan of adding a full-time clinical supervisor with a background in clinical social work, as well as four other staff workers to run the support line, work on upcoming projects and many other goals for the line.
But all of this was before the SCI came into play. Now, it’s unclear whether the two services will survive. Ryerson President Mohamed Lachemi told The Eye that certain services the equity service centres provide are “important,” pointing to SASSL as an example. It’s possible, Lachemi says, to have some of those services fall “under the umbrella” of “essential” services. “I am a big believer of giving a voice to students because it’s not just the administration or the government that should control this. This is part of a free society, and it’s very important for us to hear from students on that aspect.”
“The reality is the most marginalized groups tend to be the ones without those resources. We’re actually going to see them struggle even further”
Until the provincial government further clarifies what line items will be for the opt-out system, all the work that went toward the referendum is in jeopardy, says Diverlus. “It’s heartbreaking,” she says. The referendum process was worked on for years to bring higher quality and quantity service to the centres, Diverlus says. “You think years ahead, and the fact that so many things for decades we’ve been working towards, is in the blink of an eye, going to be gone. It’s heartbreaking that students are really just not going to have the same caliber of services that are now being offered.”
Although Australia’s experience with “voluntary student unionism” showed student advocacy becoming part of the school’s mandate, it is important to note the significance of independent advocacy when it comes to issues like sexual assault support, for example. In an instance where a student could have been assaulted by a university staff or faculty member, some students would rather go to an independent body than the university itself—which has a stake in the complaint.
However, Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates—an organization that provides consulting services to governments, post-secondary institutions and agencies—doesn’t think the initiative threatens free speech, and that it’s more of a campus life issue. “You don’t need subsidies to have freedom of speech,” says Usher, who does not see the decreasing inability to mobilize and protest as a threat to freedom of expression.
Usher’s perspective on the issue has been the wider consensus among student bodies across the province. Many deem it “an attack on student life,” but do not label it as an issue of free speech.
But Diverlus disagrees. “What [Ford] has done is eliminated the dissenting voice. He’s cut voices that are the loudest of criticism and criticizing him, which are students—vulnerable and marginalized students.”
To this day, across Gould Street and at its intersections with Church and Victoria streets, anti-choice protesters demonstrate with massive graphic images of what appear to be dead fetuses. Members of the organization Toronto Against Abortion (TAA) are being paid to stand on the public streets with triggering signs, talk to and incite reactions from students on what can be a stressful and traumatic issue to some.
In November 2016, members of the equity service centres created the Ryerson Reproductive Justice Collective (RRJC), to combat the triggering images being displayed on the public streets. The collective penned an open letter to the university to call it to action against anti-choice protesters, but the school could not do anything due to the fact that the protesters stood on public property. That, however, didn’t stop the RRJC from further action. Members printed large signs—funded by the equity centres—that read “Policing someone else’s body is violence” and “Mind your own fucking body,” to cover up the anti-choicers’ graphic images.
Today, photography prints of the RRJC’s members—who consistently showed up when they were made aware of anti-choicers being on campus—are plastered all over the SCC’s Oakham Café.
Although the RRJC only required funding for posters, it’s an example of activism groups being created in response to hate or violence on campus. And without student groups that are present and able to respond, we may not see conversations like this happen.
Andrew Hight, a fourth-year arts and contemporary studies student, says without the posters and materials for the counterprotesting, Hight and the other RRJC counterprotesters wouldn’t have been able to block the triggering imagery from TAA. He says without campaign materials, movements aren’t as impactful.
“Ford’s cut voices that are the loudest of criticism and criticizing him, which are students—vulnerable and marginalized students”
“The equity service centres have shown time and time again that they actually care for the safety and well-being of the students, and to think that these could be taken away because of cuts is extremely disappointing and really upsetting that these materials could just vanish,” he says.
Alideeb says it was those counter-protesters who changed the conversation about anti-choice demonstrators, such as no longer referring to them as “pro-life.” It’s education coming through protesting like this that she believes is at risk when equity centres are being defunded. She adds that she often thinks about how right-wing and other hate groups are increasing their presence around the world.
Many students feel safer using resources that are “for students, by students,” Alideeb says. “I really think there’s nothing better than students providing things for each other.”
Diverlus is one of many student activists left wondering if the work they put in over the years was worth it in the end. “I think really the only thing we have to do is fight,” Diverlus says. “If there’s any attack for students to get the most mobilized, it’s now.”
With files from the News Team and Kiernan Green.