Making a difference together
In late 2017, Ontario experienced its longest college labour dispute when the Ontario Public Service Employees Union went on strike.
Representatives from the student associations of multiple colleges penned an open letter to members of provincial parliament, speaking on behalf of their respective student bodies.
One of these representatives was Nicola Lau, president of the Seneca Student Federation at the time. She led 2,000 students in a protest that gained attention from media outlets such as Global News and CBC — a fact with which she introduces herself in the Facebook description of “OSAP CUT 2019”, a group she created on Sept. 7, 2019 as a means of reaching out to students severely affected by the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) cuts.
Too bad your cuts to #onpse & #osapcuts will make it impossible for many students to experience the great opportunities offered by @McMasterU and other institutions across the province. Your funding changes in 2020 will make it even worse. #cutshurtkids #handsoffmyeducation
— AJ (@MacGirl2002) August 10, 2019
The provincial government announced their planned OSAP cuts in January 2019; this constituted the end of reduced tuition for low-income students and a change in the guidelines for OSAP grant and loan eligibility. In response, student advocacy organizations such as the Students for Ontario, March for our Education and the Ontario Student Action network hosted a march toward Queen’s Park, with student activists and MPPs expressing their intolerance for consequences stemming from OSAP cuts.
When the OSAP changes came into effect in the summer of 2019, another wave of outrage emerged across Ontario as students reported that their OSAP estimates were much lower than previous years. This led to an additional round of protests from several Ontario universities, with some taking to social media to show their frustration.
Lau, now a second year Health and Aging student at McMaster, points out that the protests have since trickled into near non-existence. She feels that the level of outrage has faded into a quiet reaction, a change that she does not believe adequately represents the struggles that students continue to experience every day as a result of the cuts.
“I think that the problem is that when Doug Ford came out last year [with the OSAP cuts], a lot of people were really angry, right? A lot of people were like, ‘Okay, I need to stand up right now. We have to do something about it.’ But quickly, all these actions and things just stopped,” said Lau.
As a student impacted by OSAP cuts herself, Lau is determined to provide a platform for students to voice their concerns. She started “OSAP CUT 2019” with the hope of raising awareness until she has gathered people for a protest similar to what she did as president of the Seneca Student Federation.
Since the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, the Facebook group has amassed more than 100 members. Most members are students who cannot afford textbooks and school supplies or are on the verge of dropping out because they are no longer financially equipped to continue. The Facebook group has also attracted concerned parents, who are worried about their childrens’ future post-secondary experiences as the full extent of the OSAP cuts gradually become clearer.
Lau is particularly disappointed with what she perceives to be the lack of action on behalf of McMaster students and the McMaster Students Union.
“Why is McMaster, such a big school, not caring about [the OSAP cuts]? Why are we not having protests? I don’t get what they [the MSU] is doing. I don’t get what they’re doing with our student money,” said Lau.
However, Shemar Hackett, vice-president (Education) of the MSU, says that students have indeed reached out to the MSU with concerns about OSAP cuts. As a member of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) steering committee, he has also encouraged McMaster’s participation in OUSA’s letter writing campaign, an initiative that calls for students to write letters to Premier Ford’s office to highlight how the cuts have affected them thus far.
“Students aren’t always aware of the issues that involve them, and what they can do about it,” said Hackett, when asked about the student-led advocacy scene in McMaster.
Financial accessibility is one of Hackett’s priorities for the school year, according to his year plan. Much of this, according to Hackett, revolves around gathering as a student community and lobbying for change.
Despite the overlap between her intentions and the MSU’s, Lau questions what has really changed. She does not believe that change is happening quickly enough, she noted that students are beginning to struggle with juggling multiple part-time jobs in order to stay in school and other students having to scavenge rent money on top of their academic responsibilities.
Lau fears it might soon be too late to change the new status quo.
As a response, she has taken it upon herself, as well as the many others involved in her Facebook group, to form a voice on behalf of all those affected by the OSAP cuts. Lau hopes for the group to continue growing and, through its growth, to persuade the government to listen to them before it is too late.
In the group’s Facebook description, Lau writes, “Let’s not [let] these politicians change what will not even affect them … Let’s make a difference together.”