This article has been updated.
March 26, 2019 @ 11 p.m.

The comments made by the president of the Middle Eastern Student Association were incorrect and have been removed.

On Wednesday, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) led students on a march around the UTM campus in protest of the recent changes made by the Ontario government, including the cuts to OSAP funds and the Student Choice Initiative. 

The Canadian Federation of Students—Ontario (CFS-O)’s campaign, called We The Students, hosted a Province-Wide Student Walk Out that invited students’ unions across Ontario to protest in solitary on Wednesday, March 20th at 12:00 p.m. Sixteen students’ unions joined the cause, including the unions at the U of T St. George campus, Ryerson University, York University and Seneca College.

The We The Students campaign states: “The Ford government has levelled an unprecedented attack on our independent, democratic students’ unions. The changes to OSAP Ford wants to make will mean more debt for students. The cuts to college and university budgets will mean larger class sizes, more deferred maintenance and even greater exploitation of workers on campus.”

At 12:00 p.m., students gathered at the Students’ Centre to hear UTMSU members and student organization representatives comment on the recent government changes and how they will affect tuition fees, student organizations, and free expression on campus.

The UTMSU then led the walk out through most of the instructional buildings on campus where students were encouraged to join the protest. In the IB building, the UTMSU provided the Twitter account for Sheref Sabawy, the Member of Parliament for Mississauga—Erin Mills, and urged students to take to Twitter to show their disappointment toward Sabawy’s negligence in representing UTM students.

The walk out ended in the Davis Building where UTMSU President Felipe Negata, the president of UTMSU, read out loud a list of demands to UTM’s Principal Ulrich Krull. The list stated the following demands:

1. UTM administration must sign on to a joint letter along with the UTMSU in speaking out against the cuts to OSAP, grants and the Student Choice Initiative.

2. The UTM administration speak to Governing Council and discuss the impacts of the student choice initiative to the thousands of students who depend on the UTMSU.

3. Committing to attending a townhall hosted by the UTMSU dedicated to student groups and preserving our autonomy.

4. Sign the petition that we will send to the government

Principal Krull signed the demand with, “UTM will work to support UTMSU, Ulrich Krull.”

“I can help deliver your message,” said Principal Krull. “That’s what I’m committing to, that we at UTM will work to support the UTMSU. On a personal level, I very much support the students’ union. This is a part of the life of the campus […] How can an academic, who stands in front of students in a lecture, understand what the life of a student is? There’s no way to do that. You need to be able to speak to the administration and you have voted in a tremendously powerful, very effective student union executive.”

Regarding the first of the four demands Principal Krull responded, “I cannot sign on behalf of the University of Toronto. Anything that goes public, for example to the government, that would be under the signature of either the president or Governing Council. But I can sign on the basis of supporting you and the initiative to get this heard by the president and by Governing Council.”

According to Krull, the government has yet to release concrete details on what will happen with the Student Choice Initiative. “We have a fairly good sense of what is now going to be opt-in and opt-out. But we do not yet have the formal decree from the government of what this thing will look like in its final structure.”

“One of the issues associated with the Student Choice Initiative is that students have the option to opt-out, continued Krull. “That’s what this is all about. If […] it had been in any other commercial type activity, we would all expect that to be the case. If you do not want to buy something, you are not forced to buy it.”

“My responsibility, like yours, is to convince students that what is being done by the UTMSU is important. Whether it’s the food bank, whether its representation in the newspaper, whether it’s representation in the administration. These are all critical factors in terms of how we run this institution and the cultural factors that make it successful.”

Principal Krull proposed that, in order to counteract the Student Choice Initiative, UTM students must ensure a large majority of students will be shown the value of student services and will opt-in.

Regarding the fourth demand, Principal Krull stated he cannot sign a petition that uses “the type of language and the type of text [that] starts demanding free tuition, that’s beyond what we’re talking about here.” But Principal Krull amended that “if [the petition] is focused on the impact of what’s happening with OSAP and what’s happening in terms of student choice […] I’m happy to sign as an individual not representing the university.”

Felipe Nagata, the president of UTMSU, also spoke to The Medium about the importance of protesting, the set-up of the walk out, and mediums of free speech. 

“I think it’s important to have these kinds of actions just to show that it’s not the president of the UTMSU who’s speaking for the people” said Negata. “We are hearing the voice of the people. Student organizing is so powerful in so many ways. It empowers the group so we can fight back.”

Regarding possible negative responses about the walk out protest, Nagata said, “We’ve never had this big of an action at UTM. So, I think that yes, class is important, but the student initiative is also important since it will be affecting the whole student body.”

“I think it is very valid for us to step out of class for a walk. I think it is very valid for us to defend our rights,” continued Negata.

The UTMSU also emailed professors beforehand to invite them to the walk out and to let them know that students might step out of class in support of the protest. “We’re all in this together. Professors, teaching assistants, and the university will all be affected by these changes.”

With his experience as Vice President of Campus Life in 2017, Nagata surmised “that a protest should be fun. There is this misconception and stigma with protesting that’s almost like I don’t want to do it because it’s going to be violent or it’s going to be negative. But it doesn’t have to be. We were chanting things that we want to see but we weren’t offending anybody, and we weren’t like making strong demands that would affect people’s life in negative ways.”

“It’s such a vibe that brings people together and that’s how I look at actions. That’s my vision for it.”

Regarding the Twitter initiative, the UTMSU proposed to students in the middle of the walk out, Nagata stated, “Twitter is the most effective when it comes to politics in Canada. The twitter action actually came from a meeting we had with Sheref Sabawy, the MP representative of UTM. At some points he was understanding of the Student Choice Initiative, but he was completely against the OSAP changes. He also didn’t understand much about what the Student Choice Initiative entailed.”

“So, it was very frustrating that a person who represents the biggest university in Mississauga didn’t know about this issue and didn’t stand for the students in his riding. The Twitter action is a way to bring student issues to his attention.”