Thousands of college and university students chanted slogans and marched through the streets of 14 Ontario cities Wednesday as part of a provincewide campaign calling on the Ontario government to slash tuition fees.
In Toronto, the protesters marched to the provincial legislature for a rally and blamed the government of Premier Dalton McGuinty for cancelling a tuition freeze in 2006 and allowing fees to rise as much as eight per cent annually.
“Dalton McGuinty has betrayed us time and time again,” Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario chairwoman Shelley Melanson told the students gathered at Queen’s Park outside the legislature.
“Students across Ontario are fed up with McGuinty simply paying lip service to accessibility. Today we are demanding concrete action to drop fees.”
Melanson noted that when McGuinty went to law school, tuition cost $700 a year, compared to the $20,000 it now costs at the University of Toronto.
Students also held similar rallies in Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Orillia, Ottawa, Peterborough, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Thunder Bay and Windsor.
The protesters cited Statistics Canada data released last month that indicated students in Ontario pay an average of more than $5,643 in tuition per year for an undergraduate arts program. That makes Ontario’s average fees the second-highest in Canada, behind Nova Scotia.
Jay Han, a second-year University of Toronto physiology student, said Ontario’s fees are too high and force students to take on part-time jobs to make ends meet.
“I think it’s a little bit too much for someone that wants to study at the same time as well,” Han said.
Crystie Doell, a University of Toronto biology student, said it’s difficult for medical students to find enough time for both studies and work.
“All you want to do is become a doctor and help other people, but we can’t even do that because we don’t have enough money,” Doell said. “It’s not fair.”
Federal NDP Leader Jack Layton and his wife, MP Olivia Chow, addressed the protesters along the march route from atop a flatbed truck.
“Right now, the barriers of tuition fees and student debt are standing in the way of your dreams,” Layton said. “Let’s lower those barriers.”
The march also featured a symbolic stop in front of the building housing the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.
Security officials at the legislature estimated the crowd size at about 3,000, while police estimated it could have been as high as 5,000.
John Milloy, the province’s minister of training, colleges and universities, insisted Ontario’s post-secondary funding approach is reasonable.
“What you’ve got to do is you’ve got to balance issues around fees,” Milloy said. “We have a framework in place, a very thoughtful framework that came about after two years of discussion.
“You’ve got to balance it with student assistance, and we have … a very generous student assistance program.”
Milloy met Wednesday evening with three representatives of the student federation about their concerns.
Melanson said the student group was “disappointed” with the meeting with Milloy.
“Minister Milloy didn’t bring any new information to the table,” Melanson said Wednesday night.
Melanson said the students plan to continue to press the government to listen to their concerns.
“We are quite confident that the only way we are really going to be able to change the minister’s mind is by having continued actions,” she said.
Last month, students submitted more than 50,000 petition signatures calling on the government to drop tuition fees and establish a new framework to increase Ontario’s per-student funding level to the national average.
-The Canadian Press