In January 2019, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the Student “Choice” Initiative (SCI). This ‘Initiative’ removes collective membership dues for student-run groups and organizations and makes fees that students have voted on through democratic referenda optional. The result is a reduction in the ability of students’ unions to represent and provide services for their members.

The Student Choice Initiative is alarming for many reasons. Firstly, it is a poorly disguised attempt at muzzling students’ unions and organizations that have been critical of Ford and his government. Secondly, it will defund a number of student services, with services that cater to equity-seeking groups and lower-income students being especially as risk.

We spoke to the coordinators of student service centres in post-secondary institutions in Ontario about how Ford’s policy could affect them and the work they do. Interview answers have been edited for clarity.

Michelle Pettis is the full-time coordinator at the George Brown College Community Action Centre (CAC).

What is the Community Action Centre?

 The Community Action Centre is a safe(r) space open to all students who care about issues of equity and each other. It can sort of be broken down into three pillars.

We offer COMMUNITY. We offer ACTION. And we offer CENTRES. We house three alternative community centres which contain spaces to sit, study and socialize.

We host events programmed by and for students; including skill-based workshops, discussion groups, field trips and socials – centered around peer and equity building.

The centre also organizes campaigns consisting of strategies and capacity building that empower students’ civic engagement, self-advocacy, and responsibility beyond the classroom on issues important to students as identified by them. For example, in areas of student parent supports, mental health & wellness, harm reduction, consent, ending gender-based violence, campaigns against anti-black racism, workers’ rights, etc.  

We provide peer Support as well as Health & Sexual Health Supplies including menstrual products, sexual health resources (condoms, dental dams, lubes, pregnancy tests).

We also provide a community cupboard of tea, coffee and snacks to get folks through the day as well as board games, wellness widgets and books and zines in our alternative library.

Last but not least, we also assists students with job training and hire some of them into leadership positions.

What is your role as the centre’s coordinator?

I am a full-time staff with the Student Association, George Brown College. My role as the community centre coordinator includes capacity building of student staff and all things coordination related. This includes delivering on the centre’s mission, values/principles/vision, budgeting, running community centre operations, etc.  

Do you have an estimated number of how many students use your services?

We don’t keep track of students who use our services. This is rooted in a principle of not wanting the space to feel like other spaces in the school or society where there is the feeling of being tracked or documented.

We are open to all. Our purpose is to serve traditionally underrepresented and marginalized students. This includes prioritizing 6 current equity groups: Black students; First Nations, Inuit, Metis students; students with Disabilities; International/Racialized students; LGBTQ students; and Women & Trans students. Interestingly, these underrepresented and marginalized communities ultimately make up the majority of students at George Brown College.

However, the number of students accessing our services is on the rise. This is partly due to the success we’ve achieved as a community centre. But it is also simultaneously based on the decline of equity support services available elsewhere and the rise of students experiencing increased barriers to education. The demand is complex and unending.

What do you think your centre symbolizes for students who use your services?

 I think the Centre symbolizes dignity for students. It’s a space for students to access support judgement-free and with dignity and compassion. It’s a space for students to see their identities reflected in the programming. It’s a space for students with diverse struggles to see themselves validated.

We believe that everyone has value and that we all have something to teach and learn. As an intersectional space, students are able to learn from each other and step into their full selves. We hear from students all the time about how they wish their experiences in the classroom or at the jobs could be like the CAC. It symbolizes how much is possible when we think of dignity and compassion first.

What does Ford’s Student Choice Initiative mean to you, in terms of the work you do with the centre?

The Student Choice Initiative is a set-back. This year, the CAC celebrates its fifth year of operation. So many have worked so hard and contributed so much to get us to a point where students can access the space in ways that work for them. We want to sustain and build on our success. The SCI jeopardizes our financial sustainability especially considering more students are using our services. It risks existing services and threatens our plans of expanding into new areas. 

Students have already democratically decided on which services to support and the SCI invalidates this. This is counter to the lessons we want for students. The SCI paternalizes students and assumes they do not know the issues important to them. It burdens already burdened students by putting the weighty emotional toll on them to decide what has value. It’s manipulative. Through this initiative, Doug Ford is asking students in need to make the call between supporting a service that benefits everyone in the long-term versus immediately saving a few dollars in order to eat that week. This is demoralizing.

The SCI will decrease students’ access to quality education. It is essential services – like newspapers, like clubs, like events, like equity groups, that help students break social isolation, and step into their identities and skills. The relationships built, and life lessons learned outside of the classroom is what helps students participate in the classroom with confidence. These complementary experiences are central to the academic experience. These experiences strengthen the classroom. And the SCI threatens all of this.

What are your thoughts on the future of the centre once the Student Choice Initiative comes into action?

One word: unclear.

Everyday, we are fuelled by seeing the impact of our work. Students coming to this space to disclose past traumas, practising coming out to their families, feeling safe here with their preferred name and gender, as a space where the apples from our community cupboard is all they’ve eaten all day… These brave spaces are invisible to others.

The SCI forces students to predict their future. This is unfair. You don’t always know you need the food bank – until you do. You don’t know you need LGTBQ support – until you do. You don’t know you need sexual assault supports – until you do – until your friends do.  

We can’t allow these spaces to be erased.

Under the Student Choice Initiative, services like those provided by the George Brown College Community Action Centre will become optional. This could force them to change their mandate, restrict their scope of service or even shut down. You can do something to stop this. Visit cfsontario.ca/action for more details.