Student groups win legal battle over optional fees

The Ontario Divisional Court unanimously sided with allied student groups in a legal challenge against the province on Thursday, finding that the Student Choice Initiative introduced by Premier Doug Ford’s government was “unlawful”, according to the provincial body of the Canadian Federation of Students.

“The panel of judges ruled in our favour, stating that the provincial government acted without statutory authority when implementing the Student Choice Initiative,” a statement from the CFS said. Despite a 30-page ruling against the SCI, there is the possibility of an appeal from the province in the coming weeks.

The Student Choice Initiative, or SCI, was first announced by former minister of training, colleges and universities Merrilee Fullerton to backlash from student unions, campus publications and other organizations. The Canadian Federation of Students, allied with the York Federation of Students, filed a legal challenge against the SCI in May against the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

With the SCI, students were able to opt out of fees that were previously mandatory, starting with the fall semester. At Humber College this only impacted IGNITE, who had six “Enhanced Student Experience fees” that students could opt out of, worth altogether $55.95.

Independent student newspapers, radio and other media were also threatened by the SCI at most other Ontario post-secondary campuses. However, because Humber and Guelph-Humber do not have a student-funded independent media, there was no impact beyond the student union.

IGNITE told the Et Cetera earlier this week that 80 per cent of students opted in to the six fees.

The legal challenge for the Student Choice Initiative was heard in October, where lawyers for the CFS and YFS argued that the provincial government had no authority to implement a policy mandating that colleges and university make fees “non-essential”.

The legal battle was a judicial review. In such a process, the court is charged with considering a decision made by a body such as the provincial government and make a call on if the decision was appropriate.

Ford’s government insisted that optional student fees aligned with the ruling Progressive Conservatives as they were elected on transparency and affordability. The premier once referred to student unions as “crazy Marxist nonsense”.

The at-large executive for the Canadian Federation of Students said in a statement that they could not comment further on next steps at this time.

“So far, there are very few details to be shared, but we will keep you folks updated as we find out more,” the statement sent out by Chairperson Felipe J. Nagata said.

“In the meantime, we hope you share in this celebration of our collective victory for students across the province and the country.”

There will be a press conference held at Queen’s Park starting at 10 a.m. on Friday.

IGNITE did not participate in the lawsuit. In January, President Monica Khosla said she was “devastated” by the optional student fees. IGNITE had students mark their support for the student union on postcards that were then delivered to Queen’s Park.

Khosla said in September that the postcards were “just the start” and that “if something else comes up this year, we will be right in your corner again” as a voice for the students. IGNITE has been criticized by some students who said that the postcards were “not enough”, and that more could be done.

When asked if there would be further action against the province, which also carried out several cuts to student loans and grants, IGNITE officials told The Post in October that they wish to focus on campus issues.

Reaction from across Ontario

Reaction from opposition politicians and student groups was celebratory over the legal win but critical of the Progressive Conservatives.

Steven Del Duca, a former Liberal MPP vying for the leadership of his party, called the Thursday night ruling a “victory for students across Ontario”, adding that he remains dedicated to defeating Ford and his PC Party in the next election.

“Once again, Doug Ford’s agenda has been struck down by the courts – costing Ontarians hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills,” Del Duca said, referring to a series of heated court battles over PC legislation.

“Doug Ford was never interested in lowering tuition costs for students, he only wanted to punish student unions. His attempt to do that has now failed.”

Former Premier Kathleen Wynne and her Liberals lost their majority and nearly all their seats at Queen’s Park when the PC’s swept to victory and the New Democrats clinched the remaining left-leaning vote.

“The Ford [government]’s cut first, think later approach to government suffers another blow — this time in a legal challenge over the so-called student choice initiative,” Mike Schreiner, Ontario’s only Green member of provincial parliament and a vocal Ford critic, told The Avro Post in a statement.

“I want to thank students from across the province, especially University of Guelph students, who have reached out to my office for help in opposing the SCI,” Schreiner, who was elected in June 2018, added.

“Your hard work to stand up for student democracy and university autonomy paid off in court today.”

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