By Jennifer La Grassa and Anna Wassermann
Students against Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s free speech mandate have a new group in their corner following the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) semi-annual general meeting on Wednesday night.
Members passed a motion requesting that the RSU formally oppose the Ford government’s mandate, and support students who refuse to participate in its implementation.
The motion was moved by Ryerson student and Socialist Fightback Club member Olivia Pape, who said she worried that Ryerson’s freedom of expression policy could affect her group — and other student groups’ — right to protest on campus.
“We were worried that [our group] could potentially get defunded, that [the policy] could get our activists suspended or expelled, and we wanted to call on the RSU,” said Pape. “It’s really the job of the RSU to defend the rights of students, so I think that this is the perfect place for us to bring this up; this is the organ of campus democracy apparently, so it’s very important.”
On Aug. 30, Ford said Ontario universities and colleges will face funding cuts if they don’t submit a free speech policy by Jan. 1, 2019.
In response to the mandate, Ryerson proposed an update to its statement on freedom of expression, saying that while it will sometimes be divided over ethical and social obligations, it’s not the university’s role to censor speech.
The proposed statement has ruffled feathers, particularly among on-campus student equity groups. But members at the RSU meeting say they’re hopeful the motion will provide additional support for students fighting back.
“I think it’s good that the RSU is supporting equity staff and student groups protesting against hate speech on campus because there’s some scary stuff going on,” said Kimberley Vaz, a fourth-year Ryerson social work student.
Vaz said she worries the freedom of expression policy will hinder her ability to protect pro-choice students on campus. If the statement is approved, students who obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to express their views could face punishment from their institution.
“If we’re potentially being targeted for legal action for protecting students, that’s really scary,” said Vaz. “That [could] impact your academic career, your future career.”
Looking to protect students, Pape’s motion included a resolution for the RSU to demand that Ryerson administration refuse to implement any policy that would restrict the right for students to protest on campus.
David Jardine, a fourth-year computer science student, said he’s happy with the motion, suggesting that the RSU’s formal and public opposition to Ford’s free speech mandate could be the difference-maker for a lot of students.
“I think when a vice-president of the students’ union is vocal about an issue, that makes a huge difference on campus and can make a huge difference for people who are negatively affected by legislation,” said Jardine.
The resolution to reject Ford’s free speech mandate gained significant traction at the general meeting, but it wasn’t the only issue supported by the RSU.
A motion was passed to increase the 2018-2019 career development grant, which financially supports students struggling through an unpaid internship, from $15,000 to $35,000.
Additionally, members passed a motion for the RSU to advocate for a “dedicated study day” in-between the last day of classes and final exams, for undergraduate students.
Not passed were a number of motions challenging the RU-Pass referendum. RSU president Ram Ganesh said his group doesn’t have the jurisdiction to revisit the election, which was run by the Board of Governors.
In response to controversy surrounding the emergency student grant funds — students were allegedly told they could receive more money if they paid the funds back to the issuer — Ganesh said the group is “in the middle of an investigation.”
Reflecting on the meeting, Pape said she hopes to see the same initiative by the RSU to move forward with her motion.
“I’d like to see what they can do, I’d like to see if they follow through,” said Pape. “I’m hopeful that this does lead to Ryerson defying Ford and it’s a continuation of the student movement here because I think that’s what we need against Ford.”