Recently, Ontario’s Doug Ford government proposed regressive changes to post-secondary education that will burden students with more debt and reduce student unions’ capacity to organize and provide essential services to students.
Students throughout Ontario and Canada know that the “Student Choice Initiative” is an attempt to destroy opposition and progressive thinking through legislated union busting. Students’ unions in our country have long been the voice of positive and progressive change, pushing for policy that benefits not only post-secondary students but society as a whole. Students’ unions were at the forefront of the peace movement, pro-choice movement, anti-apartheid movements, and more recently $15 & Fairness in Ontario and beyond.
It is the voices that are most silenced in broader society that often find support in union-run counseling centres, LGBTQ* clubs and societies, advocacy programs, awareness campaigns, health and dental plans, and campus food banks.
Student unions have a strong history of holding governments and administrations accountable in making our campuses accessible, affordable, and safer places to pursue higher education. Successive governments in Newfoundland and Labrador, regardless of the party flag, have prided themselves on continuing the legacy started by Joey Smallwood of having the most accessible post-secondary education in the nation. However, these successes are never guaranteed from year to year, it is the students studying in this province who tirelessly call on the government to remember their commitments and support our collective future through investments in post-secondary education.
Students’ unions will not always get it right; in fact, it is in the nitty-gritty of the debate that we learn the most. Yet, the right to disagree, to challenge, to question, to critique, to grow, is an essential part of student organizing and our democracy. Students’ unions across the country do not just appear; they have been forged through years of meticulous democratic practices of referenda, student led votes, and evolving practices of transparency that guide every new executive, council, and board of directors. Generations of students have worked to protect the rights of their fellow and future colleagues to make the conditions for the next class better, and the next, and the next. However, it all can be lost with the tabling of a budget, or, in the case of Ontario’s harmful ‘Students Choice Initiative,’ the stroke of a pen. And it is not until we have lost the voice of the students, that we will realize how silent progress can become.
So whether or not you agree with every decision a students’ union makes — you have benefited from their impact.
We need to protect the tenants of students’ right to protest, to collectively organize, to challenge inequality even if it means being uncomfortable. Members of the House of Assembly, many of whom had their introduction to political organizing as students elected to their students’ unions must create legislation to protect the rights of students to organize, offer services, and push progress for all in this province. Newfoundland and Labrador has a heritage of accessible education and rejecting the status quo offered by the rest of Canada.
In this era of Ford and Trump-esque threats to collective organizing, we need our province to uphold this tradition of doing things differently even more.
We are all the students.
Chairperson, Canadian Federation of Students-NL