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Doug Ford’s measure allowing Ontario students to opt out of fees for ‘non-essential services’ struck down

Ontario’s Divisional Court has unanimously ruled to quash a measure by the government of Ontario Premier Doug Ford allowing post-secondary students to opt out of paying for services deemed “non-essential.”

Those services include student-led programs such as clubs, campus newspapers, food banks and other support services, as well as the provision of part-time jobs.

“Today the Ontario Divisional Court has confirmed what students already knew: the Student Choice Initiative is unlawful, and the Ford government acted beyond their authority,” Kayla Weiler, Ontario representative of the Canadian Federation of Students, said in a news release Thursday evening.

“Doug Ford’s attempt to wipe out students’ unions under the guise of giving students ‘choice’ has been exposed for what it really was: an attempt to silence his opposition.”

A representative for the Ministry of Colleges and Universities said it is currently reviewing the decision and “will have more to say on this at a later date.”

A spokesperson for Ontario’s attorney general also declined to comment, saying doing so would be “inappropriate” during the appeal period.

Province’s directives ‘not authorized by law’

The so-called Student Choice Initiative, announced in January, sparked concern over the future of campus newspapers, food banks and other services. Some fees remained mandatory, such as for walk-safe programs, health and counselling, athletics and recreation, and academic support.

Last spring, the Canadian Federation of Students along with the York Federation of Students launched a court challenge against the decision, arguing it unfairly targeted student unions. Court heard that the move was a politically motivated attack that threatened the autonomy of universities.

The student groups pointed in their legal challenge to a Progressive Conservative fundraising email from Premier Doug Ford, in which he bemoaned what he called “crazy Marxist nonsense” from student unions and said he “fixed that” by making student union fees optional.

Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Merrilee Fullerton said at the time that the initiative was created to make sure that students had more control over how they spend their money.

In its decision, the court called the autonomy of universities “fundamental to the academic freedom that is their hallmark,” saying the directives by the province are “not authorized by law and are inconsistent with the autonomy granted universities, bedrock principles on which Ontario universities have been governed for more than 100 years.”

“There is no statutory authority authorizing Cabinet or the Minister to interfere in the internal affairs of these student associations,” the decision said of university and college student unions.

The court also pointed to a lack in explanation behind why certain fees were deemed essential — for example, those for athletics — and others not.

News of the decision was met with relief by several campus newspapers.

The Queen’s Journal is tremendously relieved and excited to hear about the court’s unanimous decision,” said editors Meredith Wilson-Smith and Iain Sherriff-Scott at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

“This means that, barring a successful appeal, next September, every Queen’s student will pay the Journal’s mandatory fee — and ensure its 147 years of strong, autonomous and ethical reporting and role as Queen’s de facto journalism school continue on campus.”

CBC

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