Students from schools across the GTA marched from City Hall to Queen’s Park on February 4 in protest of the provincial cuts to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). Similar protests also took place in Guelph, Ottawa, and the Kitchener-Waterloo area.
The march, hosted by Students for Ontario, March for our Education, and the Ontario Student Action Network, went north on University Avenue toward Queen’s Park, where organizers, student activists, and MPPs gathered to make speeches and rally the protesters.
One of the first speakers was Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario chairperson Nour Alideeb. She began by commending the many protesters for their efforts in pressuring the government on this issue.
Addressing the crowd, Alideeb said, “We are going to show them that OSAP cuts will not be tolerated, and we’re going to show them that our students, as individuals and as a collective, will not be silenced.”
She invited everyone in attendance to return to Queen’s Park on February 19 to welcome back the government when it is back in session.
“When I see you next, look around you. This group is going to double and it’s going to triple in size, because this government needs to remember that we are the students.”
First-year student activists for Students for Ontario, Le Nguyen and Tyler Riches, then got on stage to speak to the crowd.
“I am standing in front of you today as a proud female immigrant and the first person in my family to attend postsecondary education in Canada,” said Nguyen. “I, along with many, many low-income students in Ontario, receive free tuition thanks to the expansion of OSAP last year.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling my stories to get some pity looks. I’m telling my stories to show that students from disadvantaged backgrounds — like me — regardless of the barriers and struggles, we still have the strength and the determinism to study hard and contribute to the community, get accepted to one of the best institutions in the world, and ensure a better future for our children.”
Afterward, in an interview with The Varsity, Nguyen went into greater detail as to her motivations for attending and speaking at the march.
“Seeing the change from the Doug Ford government, seeing that students will no longer have free tuition, as well as student unions, student groups, and student newspapers being optional fees, I feel outraged because I feel that this is like a direct attack on students from minorities and students from low-income families,” she explained.
Riches dubbed the reaction to Ford’s cuts ‘the student movement.’
“We march for low-income students. We march for international students. We march for all students, and we march because education should not be gatekept by financial means. And we will not stop marching,” said Riches. “Make yourselves heard, and together, let’s show this Ontario government what ‘For the Students’ really means,” he proclaimed, to a chorus of cheers.
A number of MPPs from the New Democratic Party took to the stage to voice their support for Ontario students.
Marit Stiles, MPP for Davenport, spoke on the effects that the changes to OSAP might have on the student population.
“People are graduating with mountains of debt, and that means putting off important life milestones for years… Ontario’s economy suffers, while you put off buying a home or starting a family because all your income is going back to the government or the banks.”
While the remarks made by Stiles were met with cheers and applause, the crowd was split when members of the Liberal caucus went up to speak.
Marie-France Lalonde, MPP for Orleans, the first speaker from the Liberal Party, struggled to make herself heard over chants of “What’s disgusting? Union busting!”
Former Liberal MPP Yvan Baker tried to turn the attention back onto Ford, saying, “If we don’t stop Doug Ford, he will cut access to postsecondary education… So I congratulate you for being here. Let’s get out there. Let’s stop Doug Ford and let’s save OSAP.”
While his comments were met with cheers from parts of the crowd, booing and chanting persisted from others.
These chants were primarily led by members of Socialist Fightback, a Marxist organization with chapters in numerous Ontario universities. Marco La Grotta, an organizer and editor of the Fightback magazine, voiced his discontent with the Liberal Party on the issue of education.
“Well, the fact of the matter is that the increase in tuition, that happened under the Liberals. I mean, it’s skyrocketed over the last few years, the last few decades. And the Liberals were just as much responsible for that as the Tories are. So I honestly don’t believe that the Liberals are friends to students.”
La Grotta and Socialist Fightback were at the protest to stand in solidarity with working-class students and to encourage protesters to join a student strike. “What we really need is for a student strike, similar to what you saw in Québec in 2012. Really we need to use the leverage and power we have in order to force this government to back off.”