UTMSU Vice-President External Atif Abdullah at the UTSU AGM 2018. ANDY TAKAGI/THE VARSITY

If you’re a student at a postsecondary institution in Ontario, you are bound to know what just happened with the recent announcements by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative (PC) government, especially as it pertains to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).

Last year, it was estimated that over 400,000 students in Ontario use OSAP to attend school. Students at U of T know how expensive it is firsthand and how much government assistance is essential to access education.

As a disclaimer, I must note I abhor all political parties, and I choose to voice my concerns based only on policies that affect me and the students that I represent. And I can’t say that I was a full believer in the Liberal changes to OSAP in 2016.

I am a student who heavily depends on loans, and my family does not make enough to support me and my two other siblings who also attend postsecondary institutions. We don’t qualify for the “free tuition” grant because my dad makes $65,000 a year, but nonetheless, some of the grants helped us through.

But with the Ford government announcing major changes to student assistance, including cuts to funding for students, I am one of the students who will only walk out with more debt, like thousands of others at U of T.

When I joined the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) a few weeks after my orientation week, I found a place where I can be a part of something bigger. I began volunteering and pretty soon applied for a part-time position in the union, where I began to engage students and help with event planning. Now, as an executive, I can see a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into representing over 14,000 students and providing them with campaigns, services, and events that work for them.

There is so much at stake as students now see the low level of support for students from a government whose platform was supposed to be “for the people.” I ask the question: are they really?

I read a recent Varsity Comment piece on how the UTM Campus Conservatives are somehow the “official opposition to the UTMSU.” The writer went after issues between UTM’s student newspaper The Medium and the UTMSU, seemingly failing — or choosing not to — understand that both parties have addressed their recent behaviour, instead loosely clinging on to misguided attacks in a desperate cry for attention.  

After scratching my head from reading the piece and coming to the conclusion that some people enjoy altering reality under the guise of pretending to care, I began reading old articles about student organizations and how student unions lobbied the government in the past.

I came across an article in The Charlatan, Carleton University’s student newspaper, from March 2009. It exposed how the Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association allegedly led meetings and trainings for Campus Conservatives to take over their student unions. Leaked documents from a workshop at the University of Waterloo on WikiLeaks showed how Conservative students were told to create front clubs like “Campus Coalition for Liberty” to defend free speech agendas and  lobby for funds

Reading this, I felt immediately that history was simply repeating itself. It’s not unheard of for Conservative chapters on campuses to wish to remove political activism from student union organizing.

What we see is that Doug Ford and the PC government’s agenda with the “Student Choice Initiative” is precisely meant to attack student organizing and autonomy. Why? Because the government fears student unions and student organizations when we become political. We create platforms for students to assemble, to organize, and to challenge. Whether university administrations or governments, student unions have been there to fight those that stand in the way of student interests.

Students should always demand to see better from their student unions. I was lucky enough to join my union and feel inspired by the work and leadership of the executive when I was in first year. Victories are important, and I saw them in abundance over the 2016–2017 academic year. Student unions must always work to build on strong advocacy efforts to achieve a better and more inclusive campus environment.

For instance, the UTMSU got rid of the $35 exam remark fee, introduced free menstrual products on campus — becoming the first U of T campus to do so — extended the credit/no credit policy to the last day of classes, successfully lobbied for a direct transit line from Brampton to UTM, and brought in gender-neutral washrooms on campus. This was a student union at work.

Last month, the UTMSU saw a huge victory with our course retake policy being approved by Governing Council, one that was seven years in the making. This was achieved by the student union remaining true to its objectives for fairness in academic policies. Thinking and believing that students deserve more and better is the essence of being political, and must be how we reach those goals.

Some of our goals are lofty, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be achieved. We must yearn for better. Our lives are inherently political because there are decisions being made for us. If being political is how we win, then student unions must stay political. If they aren’t, students must organize and make them that way.

Atif Abdullah is a third-year Computer Science student at UTM. He is the Vice-President External of the UTMSU.

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