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The press conference was held on Friday at Queen’s Park. Photo: Charlize Alcaraz/The Eyeopener

Divisional Court of Ontario rules policy ‘inconsistent’ with autonomous governance of universities

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and the York Federation of Students (YFS) took to the halls of Queen’s Park on Friday to celebrate the court ruling quashing the provincial government’s controversial Student Choice Initiative (SCI), saying the decision marked “a historic day for students.”  

The SCI, first announced in January and implemented in September, allows students to opt-out of a number of previously mandatory fees they paid with tuition, including funding for student unions, clubs, legal aid clinics, financial aid services, and student media. 

At the U of O, about one in four students opted-out of those fees in the fall semester, meaning campus groups received anywhere from around $8,000 to over $150,000 less in funding than in previous years.

First reported by the Varsity, in a unanimous ruling released Thursday three Divisional Court of Ontario judges deemed the policy unlawful, saying the SCI is “inconsistent” with the autonomous governance of universities. 

The CFS and YFS filed their legal challenge against the province back in May, arguing the province lacked the authority to implement the policy and acted with improper purpose in doing so. The court heard the case in October, where the CFS and the YFS were represented by Goldblatt Partners LLP.

Divisional Court of Ontario Ruling on Student Choice Initiative by Matt Gergyek on Scribd

“This was never about choice, it was always about the (Doug) Ford government trying to silence the exact bodies that hold them accountable and challenge them to do better,” said Kayla Weiler, Ontario representative for the CFS, at the Queen’s Park press conference.

“The court has reaffirmed what students have already known: That students’ unions belong to and are funded by students, and the government has no authority to interfere with students’ union’s affairs or democratic decisions taken by students,” Weiler added.

YFS president Fatima Babiker also spoke at the press conference. 

“This victory is not just for our two organizations but for every single student on our campuses, and every single student-run, levy-funded organization on our campuses,” said Babiker.

The province’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities has yet to respond to the ruling but said they are reviewing it. 

“We will have more to say on this at a later date,” said ministry spokesperson Ciara Byrne in a statement to the Fulcrum.

University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) advocacy commissioner Sam Schroeder said the decision marked “a good day for student unions.”

“We’re cautiously optimistic because the government could still appeal the decision,” said Schroeder in a statement to the Fulcrum. “And even if the court rules against them again, they could always put the SCI in legislation.”

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) called the ruling a “significant victory.”

“This ruling affirms that the principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom are fundamental to the functioning of Ontario’s universities and the rights of faculty and students,” Rahul Sapra, president of the OCUFA, said in a press release.

The National Campus and Community Radio Association (NCRA) said it was “thrilled” by the court ruling. 

“The SCI directly interfered with our campus stations’ ability to conduct the normal activities of supporting and training students across the province,” Barry Rooke, executive director of the NCRA, said in a press release. 

The U of O’s former undergraduate student union, the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa, was a part of the CFS.

Under their constitution, the UOSU cannot join the CFS.

The constitution blocks the UOSU from joining organizations where membership can’t be terminated by a Board of Directors vote or through a referendum “initiated and administered by the UOSU and governed by the Elections Code, in which only members are eligible to vote.”

More to come.

Editor’s Note (Nov. 25, 2019, 6:30 p.m.): Updated to clarify that under their constitution, the UOSU cannot join the CFS.