Ontario government misses deadline to appeal Student Choice Initiative ruling

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By Tyler Griffin

The Ontario government has missed the deadline to appeal an August court decision upholding the Ford government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI) as “unlawful,” according to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).

On Aug. 4, Ontario’s Court of Appeal released a decision unanimously upholding the 2019 ruling by the divisional court and ordered the provincial government to pay CFS $20,000 to cover the costs of the appeal. Justice Grant Huscroft called the SCI “a profound interference in university autonomy.” 

According to Kayla Weiler, national executive representative for CFS-Ontario, the province was given 60 days after the Aug. 4 ruling to file an application for leave to appeal, which the CFS did not receive by Oct. 5.

“[The CFS] is left with the impression that the government is not interested in pursuing this in a legal sense any further,” said Weiler. “It’s time for Doug Ford to stop taking students to court rulings.”

The controversial SCI policy was first announced by Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government in January 2019, and implemented in September of that year. The policy allowed students to opt out of ancillary fees deemed “non-essential” and caused significant losses in funding for student groups, unions, cultural associations and campus media organizations such as radio stations and newspapers.

Ryerson groups impacted by the policy included the Ryerson Students’ Union and its equity centres, the Continuing Education Students’ Association of X University (CESAX), campus radio station CJRU and The Eyeopener. Opt-in percentages for Ryerson groups ranged from 43 to 79 per cent.  

Many other student groups across Ontario also faced significant reductions to their operating budgets as a direct result of the SCI, which resulted in permanent staff layoffs and some groups disbanding entirely.

“The threat of the SCI will always be there until we have standalone legislation that protects student unions as democratic organizations”

The CFS and York Federation of Students initially filed a legal challenge against the SCI in May 2019, with the court ruling in their favour months later in November. In March 2020, the government sought an appeal to reinstate the SCI.

Regarding the missed deadline to appeal, Steph Rychlo, vice-president equity and campaigns at CESAX, said many organizations on campus had to change operating structures and board compositions under the SCI, but that the policy also brought many student groups together “to think critically about the role of our students’ unions.” 

“A huge concern that remains is the longstanding changes that our university has made in the name of funding cuts and quick timelines to change student fee structures.”

Weiler, who has been at the forefront of the CFS campaign against the SCI since early 2019 when she was part of the University of Guelph’s student union, said the provincial government failing to appeal is a “relief” for students worrying about cuts to campus programming. However, Weiler also said it’s been “sad” to see students miss opportunities in the years since the SCI was introduced due to tighter budgeting for student life.

“The threat of the SCI will always be there until we have standalone legislation that protects student unions as democratic organizations,” said Weiler, adding that it’s unsustainable for students to anticipate policies like the SCI whenever a new government or premier comes into power.

“What’s important is for our students’ unions and groups to reflect on our methods of member engagement to work towards creating a cohesive students’ movement,” said Rychlo.

“With a looming provincial election, it’s more important than ever to fight for public funding for education, stronger protections for student organizing on campus and a government that will work with the students’ movement rather than attempt to thwart and destroy it.”

With files from Thea Gribilas, Sarah Tomlinson, Emma Sandri and Madi Wong

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