Thousands of students chanted “Fuck Doug Ford” as they marched through the snow from Yonge-Dundas Square to Queen’s Park on Friday, January 25, protesting the provincial government’s recently announced changes to postsecondary education.
The march, which was organized by student groups and labour unions — including the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–O) and the Ontario branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) — amassed in front of the Ontario legislature building amid neon posters and chants, including, “The students united will never be defeated.”
The changes announced by the Ford government on January 17 would reduce domestic tuition rates by 10 per cent, eliminate the six-month interest-free grace period on Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) loans, shift provincial funding for students from mainly grant-based to loan-based, and make certain student incidental fees optional in an opt-out system.
Students join from across the province to protest
Speakers emphasized the diversity of the students in attendance, who came from all over the province to protest both their personal concerns over the Ford government’s plan and their overarching concerns for student life at colleges and universities.
Among them, U of T students echoed the anger of all students at the protest. Max Xi, a computer science, psychology, and linguistics student at U of T, attended the rally because he believes that student leadership can build a more vibrant campus, also saying that the mental health resources that could be cut have helped him in university.
Xi believes that the changes to student groups and student life will “further worsen the… atmosphere of U of T as a very isolating and overly academic… depressing place.”
For criminology and sociolegal studies student Allie McMillan, the 10 per cent cut to domestic tuition is the most damaging of the announced changes as it “completely disregards accessibility and equity.”
“I think by making the 10 per cent cut, [Ford] is fully just proving that he only cares about the upper class and those who are already able to attain an education without the help of the government,” she said.
Political science student Hamid Mohamed said that, as a recipient of OSAP grants and someone directly impacted by the changes to the grant and loan structure, he is protesting “because [Ford] hasn’t consulted with us and it affects the very livelihood of our campus institutions.”
He added that, in particular, student unions are a necessary check on the university administration and they are now at risk of having their funding cut.
Andrew Gallant, a political science, criminology, and sociology student, believes that the announced changes are anti-democratic.
“It doesn’t make any sense. I do understand why these sorts of cuts have to be made, but I think that the way that they have been implemented has been poor,” he said.
Speakers rally students, decry Ford government changes
“They have woken up a monster,” said Felipe Nagata, President of the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union and incoming Chairperson of the CFS–O. Nagata led the chants at the front of the march and also gave a speech at Queen’s Park while surrounded by a mass of students.
“We’re not going to stop until free tuition is here, we’re not going to stop until education is accessible, and we’re not going to stop until every single student and every single person has access to education regardless of their gender or their race or their background or their abilities,” said Nagata.
Jacob Landau, the Director of Operations for March for Our Education and a political science student at U of T, was the first person to speak at Queen’s Park. March for Our Education is a student advocacy group that was created last year in protest of Ford’s policies.
Landau said that the issues uniting the protesters transcend party lines, as evidenced by the diverse political affiliations of the speakers at the rally. “They all know that it is not a political issue. This is about education. This is about our kids, and this is about our future as a province,” he said.
Chair of CUPE 3902 Jess Taylor — the labour union representing contract academic workers at U of T — also spoke on stage at Queen’s Park, saying, “It’s not just our academic workers, it’s also our support workers, our service workers. Everybody working and studying on campus across Ontario. Many of our members rely on OSAP to get their education.”
Nour Alideeb, the outgoing CFS–O Chairperson and a part-time sixth-year student at UTM studying economics, biology, and women and gender studies, heralded the need for a defence of student democracy against the changes.
“The announcements we heard last week are nothing short of an attack on students. Student democracy is under attack because this government is afraid of us,” said Alideeb. “We are the watchdogs. We are the ones that hold this government and our local administrations accountable.”
Hamilton Centre MPP Andrea Horwath, the Leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Leader of the Official Opposition in Ontario, solidified her support for the student movement at the rally as she stood on stage flanked by local NDP MPPs.
Smiling as the crowd broke out into “Fuck Doug Ford” chants, she jokingly chastised the protesters for using “unparliamentary language,” but said that she understood where the students were coming from.
“I am here to say that New Democrats are standing with you and against Doug Ford. And we are here to say no to charging more interest on student loans. No to his callous cuts to OSAP. And hell no to his attacks on student unions.”
Alideeb, in an interview with The Varsity, also emphasized free postsecondary education as the ultimate goal for accessible education.
“The [CFS] has, since its existence in 1981, advocated for free and accessible postsecondary education… I think the first thing we need to prioritize is low-income students, and then make our way to ensure that everyone has free postsecondary education,” she said.
Crysta Montiel, a third-year student student studying philosophy at U of T who organized the march along with another student, channelled similar ideas in her speech.
“Under the Conservative government, post-grads will be straddled with mountains of accumulated debt,” she said. “It’s a paradox because we’re unable to find a job to pay it all. And the only way to break the cycle is to have free education for all.”