In January 2019, the Ontario provincial government made significant changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), including drastically reducing the availability of grants to low-income students and slashing the six-month grace period for paying back student loans following graduation. In an apparent effort to lure students into a false sense of security, the government proposed a 10% reduction to tuition. This 10% cut is underwhelming to say the least, especially compared to the losses in OSAP grant funding. Students who are expecting to graduate soon will likely face major setbacks as they are forced to start paying back loans immediately.

The government also announced the Student Choice Initiative which offers the option for students to opt out of “non-essential” ancillary and levy fees. This includes student unions, on-campus groups and services, and more.

In response, widespread action was taken across Ontario in protest of these changes. Students across the province rallied and marched for student rights, including the right for equal opportunities and equitable funding.

The Peterborough March for Student Rights took place on February 4, in front of Dave Smith’s Progressive Conservative MPP Action Centre. The rally was hosted by Peterborough Students United and Peterborough Coalition Against Cuts to Education. Over 50 students and community members attended.

Despite being hosted outside of his office, Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) for Peterborough-Kawartha Dave Smith was not in attendance. He instead took to Twitter to post the following notice:

February 4, 2019

I’d like to thank you for taking the initiative to express your views with respect to the direction that Ontario is heading. It is always encouraging to see people take an active interest in helping to shape the decisions that will have an impact on the entire province.

I’m afraid that due to government business that was scheduled for me well in advance of your event, I find myself away from the riding until Thursday February 7th.

Although there have been 2 delegations from members of your group who have come and presented at different budget consultations in January, as well as a delegation from some of your group that has met with me just last week, I am more than happy to schedule another meeting with representatives to continue to listen to your concerns and welcome any ideas that you may have to help find the best possible solution for the people of Ontario.

Lindsay Yates, Vice President of Campaigns and Equity for the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) and founder of the Peterborough Coalition Against Cuts to Education, attended the meetings that MPP Smith mentioned in his statement.

“He was very argumentative and condescending,” she said of her January 30 meeting with Smith. “He listened to us but only so that he could interrupt us, tell us we don’t know what we are talking about, or that we were too worried about the worst case scenario.”

Yates also noted that Smith has expressed on multiple occasions his belief that international students do not contribute to Canada or Ontario’s economy. As a result, he had little to offer when asked about international students’ tuition ineligibility for the 10% tuition cut proposed by the provincial government.

Photo by Leina Amatsuji-Berry.

Leaders from the affected communities spoke at the rally.

Ethel Nalule, TCSA Vice President of Health and Wellness, spoke from her personal experiences as a student with chronic illness.

“My plans for after university are to hopefully get into med school, because I don’t like our medical system and how our current doctors treat us. I want to be a doctor, a better doctor who passionately cares for her patients and listens,” Nalule said. “But how can I do that, while paying back debt?”

The VP of Health and Wellness also expressed her concern about the Student Choice Initiative, which may leave student groups, services and initiatives unable to provide for the student body.

“In second year I made sure to use all the resources and services on campus that were beneficial for me. It was also a hard year [like my first year] but I excelled. One of the many resources I reached out to was Rebound, a levy that partners first- and second-year students with a third- or fourth-year in their program,” she explained.

“My Rebound guide, Neeshali, went out and beyond to help me succeed. She helped me find techniques for my memory; she answered questions I had; she helped me time manage my classes, and being sick, her help made my year so much better. Students who paid into this levy that may have not accessed it helped me and so many more, and I don’t know what I would have done without Rebound.”

Nalule was followed by Ankit Tripathi, secretary for the Trent International Students Association (TISA).

“Yes, democracy! That is how we decided we wanted our levies. That is how we decided we wanted the services that we did,” said Tripathi, referring to the Student Choice Initiative. The Student Choice Initiative overrides the democratic processes of student unions, which facilitate the funding and defunding of student groups and services.

Tripathi noted that international students add $8 billion to the province’s economy, but may see increases to already astronomical tuition rates to make up for revenue lost from tuition cuts for domestic students.

He also expressed empathy for domestic students, asking, “For my friends that are Canadian and Indigenous, why should your parents’ income decide whether or not education is accessible to you?”

The proposed changes to OSAP reduce students’ eligibility for the program, and particularly the Ontario Student Grant, by changing the student’s net family income threshold and the age at which students become independent from their family.

Tyler Burns, President of both the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1320 and the Peterborough and District Labour Council, expressed solidarity with those at the rally though the province amended their initial announcement to include transit as an “essential service” to be charged to students within the Student Choice Initiative framework.

“Here’s Dave’s letter saying he’ll catch you later,” Burns said, proceeding to rip a paper copy of MPP Smith’s statement regarding the rally in half.

Students are invited to text “FIGHT” to 555888 to opt into updates from the Peterborough Coalition Against Cuts to Education. A petition for maintaining the levy system at Trent University can also be found here.