Photo C/O Sandy Shaw’s Constituency Office 

Sandy Shaw, the Member of Provincial Parliament for Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas, has returned home from a stint at Queen’s Park. Before the winter break, the Conservatives drove Bill 124 through the House on Nov. 8, a move that has been widely criticized.

“It’s been a long week of fighting for hardworking people in the province of Ontario,” said Shaw.

As a member of the New Democratic Party and the representative for the riding in which McMaster sits, Shaw knows student issues are important for her constituents. According to Shaw, Bill 124 was just the latest in a series of Conservative attacks on students’ funding, freedom and future.

Bill 124, also known as the “Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act,” limits wage increases for public sector employees to one per cent per year, among other things. This does not keep up with inflation in the province, which fluctuates between 1.5 and 2.5 per cent yearly.

In a press release, Ontario Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy explained the rationale behind the Bill.

“The legislation would allow for reasonable wage increases, while protecting the province’s front-line services, restoring the province’s financial position and respecting taxpayer dollars,” he said.

However, the Bill has also been criticized for its effects on workers.

“Bill 124 . . . caps the wages of a million workers of families in the province of Ontario. At the same time, this government is giving themselves promotions and raises,” said Shaw.

“Bill 124 . . . caps the wages of a million workers of families in the province of Ontario. At the same time, this government is giving themselves promotions and raises,” said Shaw.

Despite the pushback from Shaw and the NDP, the Conservative government sought to pass the Bill.

Although Bill 124 was announced in early June, soon after, the provincial government entered an extended summer recess ending in late October. As a result, despite the intense controversy surrounding the Bill, the debate period lasted for less than two weeks. Shaw was concerned the Bill had been passed too quickly.

“I personally did not support this exceptionally long break. I mean, there’s a lot of work that we need to get done in the province. And this is a government that doesn’t take the time to study legislation, to get legislation right,” said Shaw.

Unions across Ontario have launched complaints against the Bill, including the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Ontario Nurses Association.

According to Shaw, the Act will impact the most vulnerable workers in the province, many of whom are women and marginalized community members. The Act also has specific impacts for McMaster; it caps the wage increases of McMaster teaching and research assistants at one per cent, despite efforts by the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3906, the union representing McMaster teaching and research assistants, to increase wages.

“Students need to be recognized for what they are, which is contributors to the province, contributors to their communities, and that they are struggling under all kinds of burdens imposed by this government … it’s just cruel and heartless,” said Shaw.

“Students need to be recognized for what they are, which is contributors to the province, contributors to their communities, and that they are struggling under all kinds of burdens imposed by this government … it’s just cruel and heartless,” said Shaw.

The provincial government is defending the one per cent wage cap by citing the province’s need to balance its budget. Shaw disagrees.

“Essentially what they’re saying is [that] the deficit is the fault of frontline workers in the province of Ontario, [that] it’s their responsibility to fix the deficit … And so the reason I think the break was so … wrong [is] because when we came back after five months, the government ran this legislation through the house in two weeks,” said Shaw.

Shaw views the province’s actions as an all-out attack on students. Bill 124 was preceded by budget cuts for schools at both the elementary and post-secondary levels, which include the now unlawful Student Choice Initiative and reduced funding for the Ontario Student Assistance Program.

“In what world does this make sense? In what world does it make sense that students that struggle just to pay this increasing tuition burden, that students [that] struggle with part time, precarious, low-wage, minimum wage jobs, if they can find them at all, now are losing jobs [where] they can earn money on campus,” said Shaw, referring to the SCI and other Conservative education policies that impact education.

Announced on Jan. 17, 2019, the SCI gave post-secondary students the opportunity to opt out of “non-essential” student fees, which included and thereby endangered on-campus organizations and student media. In response, the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario and the York Federation of Students took the directive to court, labeling the SCI as unlawful and criticizing the unjust procedure that led to its passing.

The Divisional Court of Ontario ruled in favour of CFS-O and YFS on Nov. 21, 2019, stating that the bargaining process between autonomous universities and student unions did not fall within the jurisdiction of the provincial government.

But where do we go from here? Shaw says that we all have to play our part. While Shaw is on the house floor holding the government accountable, students can lend their voices too.

“Students have shown, historically, time and time again, that when they mobilize, that when they speak up, that’s powerful. And this is a government that does not want to hear powerful voices. They want to shut down debate. They want to shut down dialogue,” said Shaw.

While mobilization may be possible, McMaster students have diverse political views, as does the rest of the province. Despite differences, there is one thing that all students may have in common.

“Every student I’ve ever met is concerned also about the world in which they’re going to graduate into,” said Shaw.

For Shaw and the NDP, slashing student services isn’t a solution for balancing provincial budgets. As she returns to the legislature, Shaw pledges to fight for student interests, aiming to ensure that the world we graduate into is one where the needs of vulnerable workers are prioritized.

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