STUDENTS ARE FIGHTING FOR THEIR RIGHT TO EDUCATION. BUT BETWEEN CLASSES, WORK AND OTHER PRIORITIES, SOME CAN’T FIND THE TIME. CATHERINE ABES REPORTS
Sitting at the kitchen table at her family home in Hamilton, Ont., Kassandra Bugden went into “panic mode.” She was questioning how she would be able to afford school. It was June and she had just seen that her Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) application had just been assessed. She was approved for $3,000 less in grants than the previous year, and she didn’t know what to do.
In her first year of RTA media production in 2018, Bugden’s OSAP grants allowed her to live downtown in a modest basement apartment. Coming from a middle-income, single-parent household, the money gave her financial stability and peace of mind.
“Without that $3,000 there’s no way I can even afford to pay my rent monthly,” Bugden says. “I was freaking out.”
Eventually, her mom helped her calm down. She told her daughter that she could move back home and commute to school during her second year instead. It isn’t ideal, but Bugden didn’t have a choice.
Bugden is one of the many students who must now figure out how to fill the gaps in their budget for rent, tuition and other costs, having previously thought they could afford it. On March 20, when students left their classrooms and rallied on Gould Street to protest the cuts to OSAP, Bugden chose to cover the event for a media assignment.
In the crowd, she saw solidarity among students—people weren’t just fighting for their own individual needs, but on behalf of their friends, family, peers and other people who hoped to pursue their university or college dreams.
“It is about fighting for us, but also fighting for students coming to university in the future,” she says. “It’s fighting for all students.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s OSAP cuts mobilized the province’s student population in a way that had never been seen before. The changes included the elimination of free tuition for low-income families, converting grants to loans and having interest gather during the six-month period before students must pay their loans back. The demonstration that Bugden attended saw hundreds of Ryerson students leave class in one of the biggest walkouts in the province.
But Sam Andrey, director of policy and research at the Ryerson Leadership Lab and former manager of OSAP for the Liberal government, says he worries the momentum of the movement may have been lost. “I think there’s a risk that the energy that was there in the winter dissipates because of the summer break,” he says.
Last year, The Eyeopener wrote about funding being a barrier to students’ right and ability to protest. Students are still angry about the cuts, but they’re finding it difficult to balance school, work and personal wellness on top of the added pressure of reduced OSAP funding. Now, some students say they don’t have time or energy for activism.
“If the message that the government gets is that the students were upset but they’re kind of over it now, students are vulnerable to yet more cuts to come,” Andrey says. Apathy toward the cuts, he adds, is not an option if students want to see them reversed.
“It’s about fighting for us, but also fighting for students coming to university in the future”
In a small room on the second floor of Oakham House, representatives from several campus groups sit in a cramped circle of chairs.
Among the groups represented are Ryerson Students Union (RSU), Continuing Education Students’ Association at Ryerson (CESAR), Socialist Fightback Students (SFS) and campus press. It’s the first meeting for We the Students RU (WTSRU), a campus-wide coalition that was created as a response to the government’s cuts to education.
At the meeting, representatives from SFS pushed for the student unions to endorse the Ryerson Student Strike, a campaign that would see a general assembly Sept. 25 and one-day strike on Nov. 6, with the goal of shutting down the university.
Absent from the meeting was the rest of the Ryerson student body who the cuts are also affecting. RSU vice-president equity Naja Pereira said organizers should “meet students where they are.” She suggested practices such as having information available online as well as reaching out to students through classes or course unions, rather than only engaging with students who show up at meetings.
She also noted the unique challenge Ryerson faces as a commuter school, being that many students do not have extra time to spend on campus.
CESAR President Nicole Brayiannis said that continuing education students may need different methods of mobilizing, as some of them may only take online courses or evening courses after work, and may not be on campus during the day.
Timeline by Funké Joseph
Last winter when students were rallying at Queen’s Park, walking out of class and protesting on Gould Street, Maha Sulaiman stayed inside and studied.The second-year civil engineering student says that while she knew that a movement was building, she didn’t pay much attention because she was so busy trying to stay on top of six courses.
“If I find free time, I spend it studying, because my major is so hard.”
Sulaiman says she’s uncertain that more protesting will help, given that the cuts still happened in spite of student demonstrations. However, she says it’s unlikely she could even find the time to participate in a rally or walk-out at all. This year, she is balancing a part-time job with her studies because her OSAP will not cover the full cost of her tuition.
If she had the time to participate, she would. But it just isn’t realistic.
Felipe Nagata, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario (CFS-O), says that a lack of free time is one of the biggest reasons why it can be difficult to mobilize students.
“Class is a lot,” he says. “We’re trying to work to pay our bills when rent is expensive and food is expensive, especially here in Toronto. It’s very hard for us to give up a shift at work to go to a protest.”
But while students are focused on staying afloat, there’s less pressure on the government to reverse the cuts to post-secondary education and more opportunity to introduce further ones.
On May 22, 2012, tens of thousands of students flooded the streets of Montreal in protest of a proposed tuition hike by the provincial government. The demonstration marked the 100th day of a province-wide strike that saw over 200,000 students—about half the student population—refuse to go to class.
The seven months of protests, known as the Maple Spring, were characterized by nightly demonstrations, the banging of pots and pans, broken windows and frequent marches. Some protests escalated into violent encounters with riot police. One student allegedly lost sight in one eye after being hit with a police stun grenade.
On May 18, 2012, Quebec’s legislature passed an emergency law known as Bill 78. It imposed restrictions on where students hold demonstrations, and established hefty fines for students who did not comply. But the movement gained more support from human rights organizations and lawmakers who questioned Bill 78’s constitutionality, saying it violated freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to assemble.
In September 2012, the protest ended with a shift in power from a Quebec Liberal Party majority to Parti Québécois minority following a general election. The new government shelved the tuition hike and students declared victory.
“One of the things that the Quebec student strike did really well was to clearly articulate to the media and to the other students that this strike was to protect the students future…that not striking was more dangerous than striking,” says Jacqueline Kennelly, a Carleton University professor whose research focuses on youth culture and activism.
Kennelly says that for an Ontario strike to work, it would need to extend beyond Ryerson’s campus—involving universities and colleges across the province while also garnering support from the general public.
“If 50 students go out on strike, it will make no difference whatsoever,” Kennelly says. “This Conservative government is not going to pay attention to a student strike unless it starts to have a big impact on everyday functioning and unless the public opinion is in favor of the students.”
“If the students can get enough other students across the province to participate, that would be extremely powerful.”
However, Nagata, from CFS-O, says that while the possibility of a province-wide strike is being investigated, it may be a challenge right now.
“Every campus has a different pulse,” he says. “Some campuses are not really in tune with the strike. They would much rather do something more calm, more lobby-like or a different type of advocacy.”
By the end of WTSRU’s meeting, RSU and CESAR had not stated whether or not they endorse the general assembly and strike. But this didn’t impede on the Ryerson Student Strike initiative. Members of SFS have given out red squares of cloth that students can pin to jackets, backpacks and the like to signify support for a strike. The same technique was used during the Maple Spring.
“We have to use bolder and bolder tactics until we see something like Quebec,” said Hermes Azam, president of SFS, at the WTSRU meeting.
“This strike is to protect the future…not striking was more dangerous than striking”
Donald Higney mapped out his entire academic career in his first year of university. He took care to make sure he’d complete his required courses in time, fulfill a double minor in history and public relations and get the most out of his four years in Ryerson’s journalism program. Being in school is important to him—he’s the only person in his immediate family that’s gone to university.
Last year, OSAP allowed Higney to fully immerse himself in his first year of school. He didn’t have to work because he had more than enough money to pay tuition. This left him with some extra funds to help out around the house, making sure there was always food in the fridge and that he could afford to get himself to school. He comes from a single-parent household, with a mom who works over 40 hours a week from home and a 15-year-old brother who isn’t old enough to look after himself. Every dollar, for Higney’s family, makes a difference.
“I purposely chose Ryerson because it’s the best program, as well as closest proximity,” Higney says. “Being at home just kind of helps me help out my mom.”
Higney was livid when he saw the announcement that OSAP was going to be cut. He was scared that he would have to take a year or more off school so he could work and make enough money to afford the rest of his degree. He hadn’t planned for this.
Now Higney needs to come up with $850 to be able to pay his tuition next semester. Going into the fall semester, he feels on edge—uncertain of how he’ll be able to balance his course load with a part-time job that he still has to find and volunteering with campus press. Higney says he feels the government left students with zero options, and isn’t hopeful about the damage being reversed.
“I honestly feel like all the protesting in the world isn’t really going to help this situation,” he says.“I think it will bring awareness to it, but I think the government’s mind is made up. I think it will take a new government to reverse the changes. And by that time, we won’t be in school.”
Bugden, trying to make up for the grant money she lost, now travels to Ryerson for just over an hour from Hamilton four times a week. She hopes that she’ll be able to balance her new commute with her school work, but she isn’t certain she’ll be able to handle it all.
Adapting to the situation also means that she may not be able to participate in the student-led movement to the same degree she did last year. As most students know, time and energy are a limited commodity. It’s hard not to be tired, Bugden says.
“We want to rally, but then we’re also dealing with the reality of it all.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Donald Higney is minoring in communications and his mother worked 16 hours a day. Higney is doing a double minor in history and public relations and his mother worked 40 hours a week. The Eye regrets the error.