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Opposition to Ontario’s Bill 166 gains momentum

The legislation would give the minister of education unprecedented powers over university policies, according to new coalition.


May 16, 2024 – Update: The Strengthening Accountability and Student Supports Act has passed in the Ontario provincial legislature.

University professors, staff and stakeholders, including a grassroots faculty-led coalition, are mounting pressure against the Ford government over legislation they say threatens university autonomy and constitutes a level of political interference never seen before in Ontario.

Bill 166, or the Strengthening Accountability and Student Supports Act, would give the minister of colleges and universities sweeping authority over campus anti-racism and mental health policies. The provincial government said the legislation is intended to support student mental health and safety, and to ensure postsecondary institutions are an “inclusive place for all.” The bill, which was debated on Monday, would also grant Colleges and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop power to specify the topics these policies would address.

Defending the bill in April, Minister Dunlop said that incidents of racism and hate on campuses have been escalating since the conflict between Israel and Hamas started on Oct. 7. “While postsecondary institutions have taken actions to address these incidents, it is clear that a broader, more proactive approach is needed,” she said.

If a university or college were not to comply with the minister’s directive, the minister could take unspecified “steps” to ensure the content and implementation of the policies. Universities will also be required to provide information, at the directive of the minister, on how tuition money is being spent, as “students and families should know the costs associated with attending a college or university,” reads the bill.

Opposition to the bill has been mounting since it was first tabled in late February. The Coalition Against Political Interference in Public Research and Education in Ontario, comprised of faculty, staff and students, launched a petition that has been signed by more than 2,200 Ontarians to date. The letter states that “instead of advancing student mental health and anti-racism on campuses, this bill stymies both and opens the door to a degree of political interference that would shatter the integrity of Ontario’s postsecondary institutions.”

On May 6, representatives of the coalition staged a symbolic reading of the letter in front of Queen’s Park while a group of MPPs from all opposition parties presented the group’s petition on the house floor.

In a statement to University Affairs, a spokesperson for the minister of colleges and universities insisted the bill “does not undermine the independence of Ontario universities and would not facilitate political interference in postsecondary education environments.” They also noted that any ministerial directives on anti-hate policies would be in line with institutions’ obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Honor Brabazon, a coalition member and associate professor at St. Jerome’s University, affiliated with the University of Waterloo, said that the lack of specificity is a major concern. “In the areas of policy around mental health and racism, there’s nothing to suggest what the limitations on that will be. There’s nothing to say it won’t include what legislators are doing in the U.S., where certain topics aren’t allowed.”

In particular, the bill lists anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia among the topics of anti-hate policy directives. The list raises several questions according to Dr. Brabazon. “It doesn’t include anything about misogyny or transphobia, which are the roots of a violent attack on a faculty member less than a year ago,” she said. “Are all kinds of racism going to be addressed? Is research going to be the root of how they’re addressed? Is it going to be based on systematic expert consultation… or on what is politically expedient in the moment?”

Noting that universities already have mental health and anti-racism policies in place, the coalition also fears that the government will ignore decades of best practices and research in mental health and equity, and that provincial directives could endanger the work already being done on university campuses by trained professionals.

Among the signatories of the petition are 350 experts in mental health and anti-racism. Clarice Kuhling, a psychotherapist and contract faculty member at Wilfrid Laurier University, said she feels a “professional obligation” to speak out against Bill 166. “The bill shows no awareness of the standards in the field and no indication that the government will consult anyone with any training before dictating policy. There is no accountability,” she said. “The bill is very dangerous for students.”

Another cause for concern, according to Ontario university stakeholders, is that there isn’t any additional funding for universities tied to the bill. Nigmendra Narain, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, said that by creating additional and even duplicate work without providing funding, the legislation would take away from resource-strapped institutions.

“If these issues are important, which they are, this is not the right way to go,” he said. “Where is the money to do any of this in a government-manufactured crisis of squeezing and underfunding universities and colleges?”

In February, the Ford government announced $1.3 billion in funding for postsecondary institutions, less than half of what an expert panel deemed necessary for the sector, while 12 Ontario universities are projecting deficits this year.

“It seems like just another power grab,” said Eve Haque, a professor and research chair at York University specializing in race/racism, language and academic freedom. “This government won’t fund universities but wants to control them.”

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