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.
Paul Bahnam is the outgoing coordinator of the University of Windsor’s Food Pantry.
What services does your centre provide?
We offer bread, fresh fruits and vegetables as well as non-perishable items to our students. We also offer hygiene products, and during the winter, we distribute warm clothes to our students. Additionally, we provide resources to support students with budgeting and finding employment.
What is your role as the Food Pantry’s coordinator?
I manage volunteers and build relationships with other local food banks, run fundraisers on and off campus, do outreach to inform incoming and current students about our service, run initiatives to break the stigma against using a food bank, organize and sort incoming donations, listen to what students want and make changes accordingly, and, of course, go shopping for food.
How many students use your services?
Approximately 110 students per week.
What do you think your centre symbolizes for students who use your services?
It symbolizes food security and peace of mind. It reminds students that that we are always here to support them if they don’t have the means to support themselves.
What does Ford’s ‘Student Choice Initiative’ mean for the work you do in the centre?
The Student Choice Initiative puts us in a very precarious position and threatens how we will support the students in the future. As the coordinator, this is very heartbreaking. I see how many students come to the food bank everyday, hungry and in need of food and I cannot imagine turning students away one day because I no longer have anything to offer them.
What are your thoughts on the future of the centre once the Student Choice Initiative comes into action?
The policy is particularly scary because it means that if enough students opt out, we will no longer have a food bank or maybe even a student union anymore. A particular concern of mine is that many of the students using our service are international graduate students. I think the potential impact of Ford’s announcement regarding the 10% tuition cuts for domestic students will likely make life harder for those international students seeking aid through the Food Pantry if we no longer have food to provide and they are burdened with higher tuition fees.
Under the Student Choice Initiative, services like those provided by the University of Windsor Food Pantry 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.