By: Alex Bryant
Many students at McMaster University are furious over the recent changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program. Our student unions, which are some of the best tools we have to collectively resist changes like these, are also under attack.
The Ontario government will soon deem some ancillary fees “unnecessary.” Given the extreme cost of education at Ontario colleges and universities, students are likely to feel strong-armed into opting out of these fees.
While student-run groups and services funded through direct ancillary fees play an important role in students’ lives, we should expect the government to use this framework to attack student unions by making union dues optional.
Legislation in Quebec and British Columbia protects some student unions from attacks of this kind, but no such legislation exists in Ontario. Students must collectively resist this attack on student unions but also recognize that defending the existence of these organizations does not require defending the actions of current or past student leaders.
This government has its sights set on student unions because our organizations have for decades played a key role in fights for change at the governmental, institutional and community level. This is not because our unions are over-run with political reactionaries, but because the work of student unions naturally cultivates political community between students of differing backgrounds.
When we join union-based clubs or benefit from related services, we also have the opportunity to critically engage with our peers over shared struggles and recognize our ability to overcome these struggles together. When we allocate union resources to student-led projects, we choose to build a community where everyone can have enough food to eat, openly love who they want to love, safely walk alone at night and relax by having a great party.
This critical recognition of our shared experience is also the basis of student unions’ advocacy for students’ diverse interests, and as central locations for organized opposition to the origins of our shared struggles — tuition fees, for example — alongside others outside of our campus community.
Unfortunately, conservative politicians tend to defend the grounds for the struggles we face by protecting the interests of those who benefit most from the status quo. Hence why conservative politicians and campus conservatives have long attacked student unions and related groups.
Long after students choose to found their unions, the processes of direct democracy of the general assemblies and referenda used to set union due rates, and members’ participation in the allocation of this funding through votes on budgets and representative bodies, reflect that student unions are fundamentally for students and our interests.
We may wish voter turnout were required to be higher, disagree with some of the campaigns and policies adopted by the organizations our union funds, or something similar. We should hold fast to these legitimate criticisms, engage with our peers about them and demand change where those leading our unions have genuinely failed us.
If our demands are ignored, we may rightfully escalate our actions until they are implemented just as we will do with the provincial government. However, criticizing the work of our unions and related organizations is importantly different from attempting to eliminate these organizations, which is what the provincial government seeks.
Hoping finally to accomplish their thinly-veiled goal of destroying student organizing, the provincial government has even abused our critical examination of our peers’ work in order to support an existential threat to our unions.
I've heard from so many students who are tired of paying excessive fees, only to see them wasted and abused.
That's why we're giving students the power to choose to pay for the campus services they actually use.https://t.co/XYC8G4jaZ0
— Doug Ford (@fordnation) January 26, 2019
We must forcefully resist this rhetoric and this attack. We must protect our student organizations as a whole by keeping in the foreground their foundational importance to our ability to organize, and by doubling-down on our commitment to support the collection of union dues.
Especially under the current government, students across Ontario must work together to become educated about the struggles facing our peers, build skills, organize, resist and stand in solidarity with others doing the same — student unions continue to be one of our best tools for doing so.
On Jan 17, the provincial government announced plans to change the Ontario Student Assistance Program and cut tuition by 10 per cent.
The OSAP changes include requiring students to take out a loan when receiving an Ontario Student Grant, lowering the threshold to receive financial assistance, and eliminating the six-month interest-free period after graduation.
On Jan. 31, more than 75 student associations across Canada released an open letter demanding the government reverse the changes to OSAP.
Students at McMaster are also being affected by the changes, with more than 17,000 full-time students having applied for OSAP.
Many students are concerned about the shift in financial assistance towards loans instead of non-repayable grants.
First-year social sciences student Bryce Lawrence does not get money from her parents for tuition and says she would not be able to go to school without receiving grants and loans through OSAP.
This past year, Lawrence qualified to receive a higher proportion of grants compared to loans. Going forward, she will receive more money in loans and less in grants.
“The 10 per cent tuition decrease is nothing compared to the amount that we are not going to be getting anymore and it is going to be harder for a lot of students,” Lawrence said.
During the school year, Lawrence works three days a week, with the money going directly to basic expenses like groceries, gas and her phone bill.
“I worked hard in high school to get here and I need that money to get myself through it so that in the future I can get myself a good career that will help support a family,” Lawrence said.
Looking forward to next year, Lawrence says the money she gets from OSAP probably will not be enough to cover additional costs on top of tuition.
“It’s just frustrating,” She added. “It is going be weird not having the amount of money I need. Literally nothing is free in school. It is so expensive, and once the money goes into my tuition, I will not have enough to pay for my textbooks and stuff.”
Second-year political science student Zack Anderson said the elimination of the six-month interest-free period is especially harmful.
“It is already stressful enough once I do graduate to try and find a stable income, but I always kind of knew that that six-month cushion was going to be there for me and now that rug’s been pulled out from under me,” he said.
Anderson has relied heavily on OSAP. However, even with OSAP, Anderson still struggles to cover school and living costs beyond just tuition.
This year, he was forced to take a reduced course load and work three jobs to pay for tuition and living costs.
Over the summer, Anderson was working 70-hour weeks to save up for school.
“I have had to take out loans off the bank, I have maxed out credit cards before, done all these kinds of things to try to survive and you take it day by day, week by week,” Anderson said.
While there have yet to be any announcements since Jan. 17, the Ford government’s plans are expected to be in place for the 2019-2020 academic year.
On Feb 1, the Hamilton Student Mobilization Network, a local activist group, hosted a rally at Gore Park in downtown Hamilton to protest the government’s proposed changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program.
The event featured various speakers including Angie Perez, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3096, and Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto.
“Students have gone to strike for less,” HSMN organizers said at the event.
— The Silhouette (@theSilhouette) February 1, 2019
Beyond the issue of OSAP, various speakers advocated for completely free tuition. All stressed the need to support grassroots student activism.
The protest downtown followed a protest in the McMaster University Student Centre on Jan. 31, where the HSMN called out the McMaster Students Union for failing to advocate for the student body effectively.
Multiple musicians and poets were also featured at the two-hour long rally, performing pieces on the issues of capitalism and gentrification.
Hudson stresses the power of students, pointing to the success of Quebec student organizers.
— The Silhouette (@theSilhouette) February 1, 2019
“It is a strong sense of solidarity, a strong sense of agitation, and a strong sense of annoyance,” one protester said when asked why he attended the rally.
After an hour of speakers and performers, the protest took to marching on the streets, stopping traffic around the downtown area.
The HSMN was launched in the first few weeks following the government’s announcement on Jan 17.
The organization strives to equip activists to mobilize against shared struggles and is mostly run by students and workers from McMaster University and Mohawk College who had already been organizing separately.
“We started having conversations about what it would look like if we came together on campus across campuses across the city and really bolstered a more cohesive body of resistance,” a HSMN organizer and McMaster student said.
Though the rally was centred on the changes to OSAP, the HSMN is also focused on the adverse effects that cutting tuition and student fees will have.
The student organizer pointed out that McMaster is set to lose $22 million in funding next year, with no additional funding from the government to offset the loss.
“We are looking at suffering quality of education given that there will probably be increases of class sizes. We are looking at part-time staff, faculty associate professors being made vulnerable, anyone that really does not have security or stability of tenure or status in the organization,” they said.
“There are a lot of communities being affected by this, not just students on OSAP,” they added.
Nonetheless, changes to OSAP will not make it easier to afford tuition anyway, according to the student organizer.
“The tuition cuts are very misleading,” they said. “If you cannot afford the tuition even with it reduced, you are still taking out higher loans, which means higher debts, higher interest rates, and in the long run, it is going to cost more.”
The HSMN is also very concerned that the option for students to opt-out of certain student fees will jeopardize some student services.
“We need to really come together as a community and realize that services we do not use today we might need tomorrow. We need to support services for each other and recognize that student fees help build a stronger, healthier community,” the student organizer said.
For the HSMN, the rally represents only the first step in what they hope will be sustained student mobilization and advocacy.
“It represents an entry point for a lot of students to mobilize around these changes and we are going to be having a sustained campaign,” they said.
The HSMN has not released any other planned actions to the public at this point.
By: Abi Sudharshan
On Feb 3 at 5 p.m, the McMaster Students Union Student Representative Assembly convened for the second time since the Ontario government announced major changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program and tuition framework.
In the first portion of the meeting, MSU president Ikram Farah took to the floor to address the issue. According to Farah, by the end of this week, the MSU and university administration expect to see the release of an exact breakdown of affected ancillary fees.
Farah says this expected announcement will guide the MSU’s response moving forward.
During the delegation, Farah highlighted the MSU’s current campaign to mobilize students through promoting an understanding of the effects that these changes will have on McMaster students.
Ikram encouraged the assembly disseminate information regarding the impact and importance of MSU-funded services.
Stephanie Bertolo, MSU vice president (Education) noted a modest victory thus far: initially removed, transit passes have been re-included in the list of mandatory fees under the Ontario government’s student choice initiative.
The SRA meeting also focused heavily on updates on the construction of the Student Activity Building, a four-story building that is projected to feature a grocery store, study spaces, a multi-faith prayer space and a nap room.
According to MSU vice president (Finance) Scott Robinson, the SAB has experienced a minor setback.
Quotes by companies regarding materials and services for the SAB came back much higher than the original 2016-17 projections.
The past four months have been spent negotiating to bring the project back within the parameters of the viable budget.
Initially, construction for the SAB was slated to begin in October.
Robinson reported that these decisions are to be solidified shortly and that the construction of this student space will begin construction in March 2019.
This will likely mean that the SAB is not in full operation by the fall of 2020 as promised.
Apart from these two primary items, much of the meeting was allotted to the opening and closing of seats on the MSU services, university affairs and elections committees.
Another message stressed the meeting was the importance of ensuring that the SRA maintains a respectful environment and allows all voices to flourish.
The next SRA meeting will held at 5 p.m. on Feb 24 in Room 111 of Gilmour Hall.
At Supercrawl this weekend, Hamilton photographer Jessie Golem brought an interactive, human face to the premature cancellation of the universal basic income pilot project through her photo exhibit Humans of Basic Income.
Ten portraits of individuals whose lives had been radically changed by the premature cancellation stood outside Centre 3 for Print and Media Arts on James Street North. Several recipients of the basic income pilot sat in front of the photo display, sharing with passersby their own personal experiences.
Universal basic income was introduced as an experimental pilot project by the provincial Liberal government in 2017 in order to sustainably reduce poverty. Four thousand eligible people from Hamilton, Brantford, Brant County, Thunder Bay and Lindsay received monthly basic income payments to help cover living expenses and improve quality of life.
Golem started the Humans of Basic Income project to humanize the issues associated with cancelling the project through the power of visual storytelling. Prior to this weekend’s exhibit, the photographs only existed online. Golem used Facebook and Twitter to share the photos.
Part of what made the Supercrawl exhibit unique was the ability to have face-to-face interactions with basic income recipients.
“[It’s about] taking what's a political issue and putting a human face to it and saying, well these are the people that are being affected,” Golem said.
The exhibit explores how basic income gave some people the freedom to pursue other passions and interests. Margie Goold, one of the volunteers at the exhibit, was able to take a digital camera course at Mohawk college, an opportunity she wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.
Basic income also allowed Hamilton resident Lance Dingman to pay for his prosthetic leg. This allowed him to save up funds for prosthetics that he will need in the not so distant future. Most importantly, basic income gave Dingman the autonomy to live his life as he chooses.
“Basic income for me has given me the life that I have been striving a long time [for], to make it better, to make it richer, to make it more independent for myself,” explained Dingman.
The original intention was to continue the project on an experimental basis for three years and then assess its effectiveness. However, the Ford government cancelled the pilot program in July and announced that payments will stop at the end of March.
Through the photographs and experiences being shared during the Supercrawl exhibit, the narrative is consistent. A premature cancellation of the pilot project threatens to uproot the lives that it had helped people to build for themselves.
Recipients made life-changing decisions based on the expectation of receiving monthly payments for the entirety of the pilot program. Scraping the income will lock individuals into leases they can’t afford and disrupt their studies at colleges and universities.
Furthermore, recipients that applied for other sources of financial support on the understanding that they would be receiving basic income payments, are now stuck in between assistance programs, with no certainty about where their financial support will come from.
Lynn Ridsdale, another volunteer at the exhibit, notes that high living costs in Hamilton made universal basic income even more important. In particular, basic income helped her to find suitable, accessible housing, despite the steadily increasing cost of rent in Hamilton.
As Hamilton’s arts scene attracts investment and development, living expenses rise and many can no longer afford to live in Hamilton. New cafes, galleries and condominiums wipe away the visual signs of poverty in the city, and the bustle of Supercrawl makes it easy to forget about the consequences that come alongside the city’s development.
#basicincome gives people stability and dignity.
Heartbreaking stories of what the loss of the program means.
Grateful to have heard from Jessie Golem yesterday, who started the Humans of Basic Income project @HumansBasic. pic.twitter.com/FVoHTDLeQ2
— Kevin (@KevinHLam) September 16, 2018
Golem hopes that the project will help continue the conversation about poverty.
“I don’t want this conversation to die down and just become another political issue…I want people to think about the conversation, think about what poverty looks like,” explained Golem.
The Humans of Basic Income exhibit brings Hamiltonians face to face with the reality of what it is like to navigate life in the city while experiencing poverty. The exhibit’s photographs, media reach and real-life interactions at Supercrawl have created a platform for Hamilton residents to share their experiences with the community at large.