In the face of bitter wind, freezing temperatures and a seemingly chilly reception from the provincial government, Ontario’s students marched en masse in the National Day of Action, forming a 3,000-strong crowd at Queen’s Park as testament to their commitment to fighting rising tuition fees.
While the freezing students could be seen warming their hands on the cups of hot soup given out, the crowd was animated more by their passion for the economic issues they had come to rally around.
“I’m cold, but I feel great, because we’re definitely doing this for a good cause. We all have debts to pay off, and we’re all trying to contribute to the future,” said Ackisha Williams, a first-year student at York. “I will go through the cold as long as it pays off.”
First-year U of T student Carrie Ngo believes that tuition fees in Ontario should be lowered back to 2004 levels in order to compare more favourably with tuition averages in Alberta and Quebec.
This sentiment was echoed by many of the students in attendance, and was typical of many students’ responses to the Ontario government’s “Reaching Higher” plan, which stands to increase tuition fees by more than 30 per cent in the coming years.
“As an international student, my tuition fees are ridiculously high. I’d be quite content just to pay Canadian tuition,” said first-year student Gregory Mazzola.
He was impressed by the crowd. “There’s a lot of people who are really passionate about this.”
Some students, however, were less convinced about the prospects for change. Gabriel Rempre, a second-year student at Glendon College, did not see the Day of Action as a watershed event.
“I know that this protest will not be enough to stop McGuinty’s government from increasing the fees, but this is the first step.”
The event featured many notable speakers, who pumped up the crowd’s energy with a string of frenetic speeches delivered in rapid-fire succession.
Speakers ranged from rapper Kardinal Offishall, a York grad, to Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton, who reiterated his party’s commitment to a tuition freeze.
Hampton emphasized that the current government could prioritize their funding.
“There is a surplus at the provincial level. It is a matter of allocating this to fund students’ education. The McGuinty government doesn’t want to do that.”
Organizers of the event from the Canadian Federation of Students indicated their disappointment at Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s spurning of the invitation extended to him.
In a telephone press conference with student reporters, Chris Bentley, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, defended the McGuinty government’s record.
“We delivered on our commitment,” he said in the conference call. “We committed to a two-year tuition freeze, and there has been a freeze. But we did more than that. We invested $6.2 billion to improve the quality of post-secondary education.”
Bentley mentioned plans to get more money from the federal government in next year’s budget, and emphasized the need to improve the quality of education through investment.
“We found a system that was in need of improvement, and we invested the money needed to make those improvements,” he affirmed.
Responding to concerns about whether the fee hikes would limit access to education, Bentley noted that both the number and value of OSAP grants for post-secondary education have increased after having been frozen for years despite mounting tuition fees.
Bentley was unfazed when MPPs from the NDP called on him to cut tuition fees.
“The NDP only talks about freezing tuition, but when they had the chance, they increased tuition fees by 50 per cent.”
Instead, said Bentley, raising the calibre and capacity of universities is a provincial priority.
“What I want students to know is that there is more space available for students who will be coming in the next few years, and there will a higher quality of education available when they get there. We decided that the students must also make the investment,” he said. Professors at York greatly encouraged their students to go to the protest. In fact, many York university professors cancelled classes, and some even participated in the protest. Professors from other universities supported the event by complying with the academic amnesty that was given to students, excusing them for missed classes and allowing them to hand in assignments or take tests at an alternate time.
For protestors, goals varied from free or much cheaper education, to having tuition fees tied to match inflation.
One group was upset altogether about “this crazy communist protest.” Angered by SAC and CFS’s use of student money, this small group formed a minority against the sea of purple tuition freeze signs.
“A tuition freeze will lower the quality of education,” accused Trinity tubthumper Gabe De Roche. “When spending student fees there should have been a debate on the issue. There wasn’t.”
Fearing the group would provoke conflicts with the other protestors, police asked them not to join the march. After a couple minutes of standing around, the anti-protesters gave up and went to get lunch.
Perhaps owing to the officers’ dutiful intervention, no fights broke out, though a few protestors chided the anti-protest group. One student yelled, “There’s like ten of you!” at the group before they departed.
A student at Osgoode Hall wanted to make it clear that the anti-protesters held “a minority point of view.” The student felt that the anti-protesters should not be representing themselves as being from Trinity, since others at Trinity may not share their opinion.
Challenging their argument that tuition fees have to go up because of inflation, he brandished a flyer pointing out that tuition fees had increased faster than the national rate of inflation.
Though most protestors at the protest were polarized in one camp or another, some came touting their own solutions to the tuition fee issue.
“Tax the fuckin’ banks!” exclaimed one York firebrand.