Students and Steelworkers march against poverty
by Scott Neigh
SUDBURY, Ont. — 150 post-secondary students, joined by dozens of striking members of Steelworkers Local 6500 and community supporters, marched in Sudbury Nov. 5 demanding a poverty-free Ontario and reduced tuition fees. The march was part of a provincial “day of action” organized by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).
Ontario has the highest post-secondary tuition fees in the country. CFS publications state that more than 70% of all new jobs require post-secondary education while the youth unemployment rate has topped 18%.
Rafiq Rahemtulla, vice president of the Graduate Student Association at Laurentian University, said Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government is reviewing tuition with the intent of introducing a new comprehensive policy in 2010.
Rahemtulla said students have the goal of "Making it political suicide for any member of the provincial legislature to vote for a plan that includes a tuition increase." He also called for a living wage for all Ontarians and a broad poverty reduction strategy.
Laurentian Labour Studies teacher John Peters spoke for the Sudbury and District Labour Council saying that 90% of jobs typically held by workers under age 25 in Sudbury pay less than $20,000 a year.
The protest was supported by a number of groups in the broader Sudbury community, including the City of Greater Sudbury — the first municipality to endorse the day of action. Also present were dozens of Steelworkers who have been on strike against giant mining company Vale Inco since July.
Tod McGee is an undergraduate student in Environmental Earth Science. His brother is currently on the Vale Inco picket line and his father is a Steelworker retiree. For him it is a matter of course for workers and students to support each other. He said, "It’s the spirit of the community to band together and demand what you think is right. There are certain rights that people have — education should be free."
Speakers often raised the infamous case of Sudbury resident Kimberly Rogers, who committed suicide while under house arrest for "welfare fraud" in 2001. When Rogers began attending community college students were permitted to receive both a student loan and social assistance. The rules were changed by the Conservatives in 1996 and it was made illegal. Rogers was not informed of this change and was arrested when it was discovered that she was still receiving both. Very few recommendations made by the official inquest into Rogers’ death on reforms to social welfare policy have been implemented.
Amanda Laroque, an undergraduate student in Women’s Studies and English, said she was participating in the march because, "I’m really in debt. And I care about everybody else behind me [in the march] who is in debt." She noted the march was smaller than last year, perhaps because of the cold weather, but said, "I’m hoping it’ll cause waves so eventually it will lead to change."
Post-secondary education is increasingly important to get a job, but is difficult to complete without incurring significant debt. According to Sociology and Labour Studies professor Kaili Beck this means that in the journey towards building financially secure futures. "We’re starting our youth off in this society about twenty miles back from where our parents started.”
Beck says that some people will be kept out of the classroom entirely, "High tuition fees means students that would have been great contributors, great thinkers, won’t be there." She notes the impact is particularly harsh for groups who are more likely to experience poverty and discrimination in employment, such as indigenous people, people of colour, people with disabilities, and women.
Scott Neigh is a writer, activist, and parent who lives in Sudbury, Ontario. For more of his writing, visit http://scottneigh.blogspot.com