Ontario court declares Student Choice Initiative contrary to law

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Harshitha Damodaran

Student unions won a nine-month long battle against the Government of Ontario on Nov. 21.

The Ontario Divisional Court ruled that the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) as formulated by the Ford government is contrary to law, as it infringes on the autonomy of universities as places of learning not contingent on the “whims of the government”. 

The SCI demanded post-secondary students be able to opt-out of certain student fees considered ‘non-essential’ by the government., including some student union fees. 

“We, the students, have won a legal challenge against the Ministry of Colleges and Universities and the Ontario Government. The panel of judges ruled in our favour, stating that the provincial government acted without statutory authority when implementing the Student Choice Initiative,” Felipe J. Nagata, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, said in a press release. 

Student unions said the SCI had a negative impact on the functioning of student organisations.

“We now have, again, the potential ability to make mandatory advocacy fees, which is important for when we go talking to the provincial government and to the university,” Michael Beauchemin, WUSA president, said. “It allows us to do proper research and allows us to take time when we do things.”

The Canadian Federation of Students— Ontario (CFS-O) and the York Federation of Students (YFS) jointly filed an application for judicial review on May 24. 

They said the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (MTCU) did not follow the legal principles of procedural fairness and natural justice as they did not consult with student groups about the SCI.

“I cannot pretend to know exactly what the government was thinking. I imagine that they had students’ best interests at heart but we would’ve appreciated a more targeted consultation with important stakeholder groups and we probably could have helped them out more if they had done a thorough and comprehensive consultation,” Beauchemin said. 

Imprint reached out the provincial government and was told “The Ministry of Colleges and Universities is currently reviewing the decision released yesterday. We will have more to say on this at a later date.”

Premier Doug Ford has previouisly provided only one reason that student union fees were considered non-essential. 

“I think we all know what kind of crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to. So, we fixed that. Student fees are now opt-in,” he wrote in a fundraising letter to his supporters earlier this year. 

Fatima Babiker, President of YFS, said in a press release that student unions are not a place for government interference; rather, they are representative of the students they serve. 

“The services that student organizations on campus provide have been democratically voted on by the students themselves.”

The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) acted as an intervenor, and was represented by Borden Ladner Gervais LLP while the YFS and CFS-O were represented by Goldblatt Partners LLP. 

The CFS-O and YFS claimed the government acted in bad faith and with improper purpose. However, the court did not take these arguments into consideration and scrapped the SCI solely because it was contrary to the law.“Obviously, I’m a little bit shocked. I have been focusing personally on the [long-term] plan so I haven’t had time to follow the court case all the way through and I didn’t really anticipate that it would be stricken down like that,” Beauchemin said. “But it is something that provides a lot of opportunity and of course we’ll have to see how the provincial government reacts and what they do in response but we are going to be thinking about that in the next coming weeks,” he said. Protests against the SCI began on the day it was announced in almost every post-secondary institution in Ontario as a lot of on-campus services like food banks, legal aid clinics, campus media, etc., were losing funding.