Student groups take Ontario to court over Student Choice Initiative

In court documents obtained by The Journal, CFS-O says Minister Fullerton “acted unlawfully” on Student Choice Initiative directives

Premier Doug Ford’s government announced sweeping changes to post-secondary education policy in Ontario late last year.

On May 24, the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O) filed an application for Judicial Review at the Superior Court seeking to quash the Ford government’s proposed Student Choice Initiative (SCI).

Announced in January, the SCI would make most post-secondary student fees non-essential and give students the choice to opt out of them. A narrow slate of fees the province deems “essential” would remain mandatory.

The CFS—a national student association representing over 500,000 students from more than 60 post-secondary institutions—has been vocal in its opposition to the policy. The York Federation of Students is also a party to the suit.

At a press conference on May 28, Kayla Weiler, the national executive representative for CFS-O, questioned the province’s legal authority to impose the policy, saying they are doing so “in bad faith.”

She told reporters the lawsuit is aimed at pushing the Ford government for a complete repeal of the SCI. “If this government was truly for the students, they would respect our autonomy and repeal the Student Choice Initiative,” she said. 

 

The CFS-O’s application for Judicial Review, obtained by The Journal on Wednesday, says Merrilee Fullerton, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, “acted unlawfully” when the ministry designated “democratically-determined fees” as non-essential.

The application requests a judge hear the case on an “expedited basis” in an attempt to get a ruling or a temporary injunction before the fall semester begins in September.

It also requests a judge issue a declaration that the Minister, Merrilee Fullerton, breached procedural fairness for “failing to notify and consult” relevant stakeholders in the sector before announcing the policy.

The CFS-O states repeatedly in its application the fees collected by universities and administered by student governments are “democratically determined” through campus referenda.

“Without any legislative authority or mandate, the Minister’s Directives purport to supersede long-standing agreements between student associations and university and college administrations,” the application read.

The application explains that fees determined through student referenda have never been subject to regulation from the province.

“In previous protocols that imposed conditions on institution ancillary fees, the Minister expressly excluded ‘existing and future fees established by student governments, including those resulting from referenda sponsored by them,’” the application read.

“Until the [Student Choice Initiative], the Province has at all times respected the democratic autonomy of student associations.”

The application claims Minister Fullerton’s April 3 directive misclassified democratically-determined fees as “ancillary fees”—which have traditionally been distinct from fees established by student referenda.



Ancillary fees are imposed by institutions themselves to fund activities like athletics, health, and career services.

The CFS-O called the misclassification a “fundamental departure” from long-standing practices.

The application also cites a fundraising email sent to supporters by the Ford government which said, “I think we all know what kind of crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to. So, we fixed that.”

CFS-O said the sentiment shows Minister Fullerton’s “animus” toward student associations. It also cites the email as evidence that the catalyst for the policy “was not to protect ‘student choice.’”

AMS, University respond

In a written statement to The Journal, Auston Pierce, AMS president, said the SCI “negatively impacts all members of the [Society].”

“The AMS was forced to make significant reductions in areas of our programming that we feel are fundamental in pursuing our goal of representing Queen's undergraduates and facilitating their success,” he said.

While unable to comment on the lawsuit’s specifics, Pierce said students are “better positioned to determine which fees should be mandatory and opt-outable at [Queen’s] than any official at Queen’s Park.”

He added the Society’s referendum system for establishing and maintaining fees prior to the SCI was “superior” in serving student needs.

In an email statement to The Journal, Tom Harris, interim provost and vice-principal (Academic) wrote, “It would be inappropriate for the administration to comment on any activity in which it is not directly involved."

This story is developing and will be updated.

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