A provincial policy that defunded student groups. The termination of the RSU. And a global pandemic to top it all off. Alexandra Holyk and Madi Wong report on the takeaways for the community
For two years, David Jardine has been heavily involved in student life on campus—from being the now-former president of the Ryerson Science Society, to working as a residence advisor at the International Living/Learning Centre (ILC), to proposing a new student government structure.
But Jardine has struggled with constant “wrecking balls” being thrown at students.
There were numerous times this year when it seemed like the universe wanted everyone to give up, Jardine says. “And, I mean, I think everyone at certain points did for at least a little bit. And I think that’s valid.”
Nothing prepared Jardine for the email they received when Ryerson announced students living on campus would have to move out within five days because of COVID-19. “I can’t remember a time in the last two or three years where I cried as much as I did.”
“Every single thing that has happened…I can’t comprehend that this is the same year. This has all been one year.”
Ryerson students have faced a tumultuous year to say the least. It started with the implementation of the Student Choice Initiative (SCI), which drained numerous student groups and unions of their funds—only to later be deemed unlawful (a decision that is now being appealed). This was followed by Ryerson’s termination of the operating agreement with the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU). Now, students have been uprooted from their homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After a year of chaos, Ryerson students and leaders speak to us about how they have navigated everything, the lessons they learned and how to move forward.
sci? more like sci-bye
On Jan. 17, 2019, the provincial government introduced the SCI to give post-secondary students the ability to opt out of certain fees that were previously a mandatory part of tuition.
“The SCI was so hard to navigate…It was just always so unclear,” RSU president Vanessa Henry says, adding that all communications were like “a copy and paste” of what the government said.
Sixty per cent of full-time students opted into the RSU in September—more than services like the campus radio station and student refugee program received.
“Most students on campus [recognized] that paying into these things is beneficial. Obviously, some services suffered more than others, and I think that’s super unfair,” says Jardine.
On Nov. 21, 2019, it was announced that an Ontario Divisional Court ruled unanimously that SCI was “unlawful.”
Adam Asmar and Charmaine Reid have faced this year’s turmoil together as RyeACCESS coordinators.“The overturning of SCI was huge,” says Asmar.
But, the RSU hadn’t received any funding since the fall 2018 semester, including the opt-in fees of fall 2019 when the SCI was in place. The uncertainty around what they could afford to do prevented Asmar and Reid from pursuing things they wanted to, running off only savings.
“You can’t do everything, you can’t save everything”
Asmar recalls the opt-out portal from the SCI being implemented on Ryerson’s RAMSS system without notice, while his friends from the University of Toronto were given warning. “Ryerson just woke up one morning and [said], ‘Oh, here’s the portal!’ Now we have to organize a campaign to stay opted in.”
Ali Patel, a third-year biomedical engineering student, says the university did a “very very bad job” when putting up the SCI portal. “I didn’t have a chance to go through everything else and see what I wanted to support and what I didn’t want to support.”
When the November ruling happened, overturning the SCI, Ryerson made a good decision—they announced the portal suspension. “But we still didn’t get our funding,” Asmar says.
till termination do us part
On Jan. 24, the university announced its termination of the 1986 Operating Agreement with the RSU, citing it had “lost confidence” in the union’s ability to represent and serve students. A few days later, the RSU announced they filed a legal claim against the university with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
Vicky Cheung, a second-year child and youth care student, says she felt the communication of events in the past year has been “really unclear”—the termination being an example. She says she assumed the university didn’t want to post too much information because of the court case, but it made her not trust the school as much.
During a hearing on March 6, the RSU sought an injunction—requiring the university to temporarily comply with the operating agreement by recognizing the RSU as the official student union and transferring withheld fees. Following the hearing, an Ontario Superior Court judge granted the injunction.
“I think [the granting of the injunction] set a huge precedent, not just for the RSU but for schools all across Ontario,” says RSU president Vanessa Henry. “Don’t infringe on our democratic right to run a student government…don’t try to silence a union who is working and still putting on events despite the lack of money and resources available to us.”
According to Henry, vice-provost, students Jen McMillen said Ryerson doesn’t plan on appealing the injunction result. “I would say that it was a learning lesson for [the university]. And I think they needed to do that for themselves to see how meaningful the RSU is.”
“It was like having a rug pulled out from under [student’s] feet”
“[The injunction grant] felt like we won some sense of stability and some enforced respect from the university,” Reid says.
But Reid says there was never a time during this situation where students were given the ability to consult before the university acted.
“I struggled…being caught in-between ‘I want to see the RSU burn’ and ‘I want to see Ryerson told to stop having a power trip,’” says Jardine.
“We hate the system that gave us Ram Ganesh but also that system is what gave us the Equity Service Centres. So it’s very complex,” they say.
Jardine added that it was a struggle to get students to see the termination and formation of a new student government as anything other than “black and white.”
uprooted by covid-19
On March 13, Ryerson campus life came to a standstill when the university announced the cancellation of in-person classes in light of COVID-19. Patel came out of a midterm with no idea what was going on.
COVID-19 led to the cancellation of major Ryerson events, like the fashion school’s Intro and Mass Exodus fashion show, students on exchange being asked to return home and June 2020 convocation being postponed until fall. In an interview with The Eye on March 16, Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi confirmed student residences would remain open. However, it was announced the following day that students living in residence buildings would have to move out by March 23. Only students with “exceptional circumstances” were allowed to stay or have extra time to move out.
Jardine says as a leader to students living at ILC, seeing students be uprooted without certainty of when they would see their peers again was like having a “rug pulled out from under their feet.”
“It was just so hard to be in a position where my job is to support them…When I’m also struggling a lot.”
Students on exchange were also asked to return as student internships and practicums were cancelled. June 2020 convocation was also postponed until fall.
“I still can’t really comprehend how much [COVID-19] has changed our lives…This isn’t something that we can do anything about other than just adapt to change our entire lifestyle, Jardine says.
As for the RSU’s Equity Service Centres, Henry says they’re trying to adhere to students’ needs by providing access to external resources. She adds that RSU board meetings are being run online, however, training the incoming executive team poses a challenge.
With all levels of government advising people to stay inside, it’s unclear what the future holds for the Ryerson community.
“We are trying to be creative and deal with a very difficult situation. I’m very positive that we’ll learn a lot from it and will be much stronger in the future,” says Lachemi.
Looking back, Asmar says in times like this—especially as a student leader—it’s important to ground yourself. “Don’t just abandon student life when things get hard, because you’re in it for a reason.”
Reid’s advice is to “get involved casually” with student life. “Go to a few events, learn how to follow the news of the RSU…you can have a better university experience by getting involved,” she says.
Though letting go may be unpopular advice, Jardine says it is one of the things they have learned throughout the year. “Everyone has to recognize that you can’t do everything, you can’t save everything.”
“Sometimes things are out of your control. Whether that be because Doug Ford passed a law that you don’t agree with, or a deadly virus is spreading….You just can’t save everything.”
With files from Sarah Krichel
Disclaimer: Adam Asmar and Charmaine Reid have an existing relationship with Eyeopener masthead as their offices are located on the same floor of the Student Campus Centre.