Published Mar 13, 2019Earlier this year, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the Student Choice Initiative, deeming certain university services essential and others — like student unions, campus newspapers and radio, support centres and clubs — non-essential. The switch allows students to opt out of contributing fees, thus potentially cutting funding to those aforementioned non-essential services under the guise of a "tuition decrease."
But a number of organizations and artists are speaking out against the Progressive Conservative's move, including Bry Webb of Constantines.
Webb has drafted an open letter in response to the provincial government's move, particularly criticizing the effect the Student Choice Initiative will have on campus and community radio.
In it, he touchingly details how the University of Western Ontario's CHRW saved his life as a 20-year-old student, spurred him to form Constantines and led him to eventually return to a job in community radio.
As for the action he is urging Ontarians to take against Ford's move, Webb suggests signing petitions, going to rallies, writing your MPPs and to "fight like hell against this provincial government until they're gone."
Read his full message, which contains information on how to reach your MPPs (and himself) directly, below.
I am writing to you in the Winter of 2019 with love and desperation in equal measure. Please know that I have never and will never take the attention and support that anyone has given this band over the last twenty years for granted. And I hope you understand that the last thing I would want to do is to exploit your generosity, care and ongoing interest in what we're up to toward objectionable ends. That said, I hope you'll bear with me here. I have to ask your input on something that is incredibly important to me and I hope you'll stick with me a moment so I can make my case.
When I was twenty years old, I was suffering depression without knowing that I was suffering depression. I had not yet been diagnosed. I was in school — privileged to be in school studying language, poetry and sociology — but I was consumed by the belief that I had absolutely nothing to offer the world, and that I could do no good in the face of all of the evil I was seeing externally and identifying internally.
Unfortunately, when external and internal forces have combined to produce spells of depression in my mind and life, my first instinct has always been to close off, to shut down, and to isolate myself from other people. This, in psychiatric technical terms, is what's known as a bad move. But I didn't know that at the time. I was lost, without any sense of self, purpose or hope. I was suicidal, and nobody knew it because the last thing I wanted to do was talk to anyone.
This is not a lead up to me asking you to give money to mental health support services (but please give as much money as you possibly can to mental health support services). This is the story of what saved me at that moment in my life.
In 1997, I was invited to fill-in for a friend's radio show at CHRW, the Campus/Community Radio Station in London, Ontario. On a campus dominated by fraternity culture and the Ivey School of Business, CHRW was a pocket of odd, music-obsessed, community-minded folks, with a massive library of underground music I had never heard, and a broadcast schedule full of eclectic, knowledgeable, and dedicated DJs. It was a hidden space where people were encouraged to be creative, active and outspoken. It operated 24/7 on a shoestring budget, fueled by love and community engagement. I eventually held a job as CHRW's Music Director for two years. I was paid very little, but I spent almost every free moment there because it was the beginning of feeling like my life had some meaning again. I was helping people hear music and ideas that were wildly underrepresented in commercial media. I could do this.
Everything changed for me over the course of those two years. The perspectives I was introduced to shaped my worldview far more than anything I had been paying to study in school. The music I found out about in that space directly inspired me to start writing new music, and to try and get a band together. It was from my desk at CHRW that I reached out to my old high-school bandmate Doug MacGregor about getting together to start playing again. It was from there that I first wrote to Dallas Wehrle and Steve Lambke, and coordinated the first Constantines rehearsals, the recording of our first demo tape, and making our first album, all through connections I had made through involvement with this Campus/Community Radio Station. I can tell you with absolute certainty that The Constantines would not exist had I not gotten involved with this strange, counter-cultural community outlet. The plain truth is that had I not found this space at that particular moment of intense vulnerability, I would not currently exist.
The media scape has changed a lot over the last twenty years, but Campus/Community Radio has remained vital through adaptability, tireless community engagement, and a philosophical refusal to be corrupted by partisan sensationalism, rejection of the corporate exploitation of independent art and creative content, and support of voices and perspectives that mainstream, centralized media have actively buried. I returned to Campus/Community Radio nine years ago, and I have worked as the Programming Coordinator and Operations Coordinator at CFRU-FM in Guelph, ON, teaching people (from kindergarteners to senior citizens) how to bring their voices and perspectives to their community. It is one of the most socially, culturally, personally and politically meaningful things I have ever been a part of, and I love my job more than I ever thought possible.
Campuses and Communities NEED spaces like this. I'm not speaking only of the volunteer programmed radio stations that keep many regions from becoming local media deserts. I'm also talking about the social clubs and cultural organizations, LGBTQ advocacy and education centres, free legal counselling that protects students against crooked and abusive landlords, student unions that coordinate events to connect students and fight for lower tuition and institutional divestment from unethical business, activist groups like PIRGs, safe spaces for racialized people, Student Union facilitated food banks, and so much more. These are the spaces that support and connect individuals who are, in many cases, on their own for the first time in their lives, feeling isolated, disconnected and alone, and wondering if they have anything of value to contribute to their communities and world. The existence of all of these organizations and groups directly helps improve the mental (and often physical) health of students and community members. To lose any of them would be taking away the potential to save any student the way my life was saved by finding community radio.
For decades, College and University Student Unions have thankfully maintained democratic student referendums to ensure funding is available on an ongoing basis for organizations like this — and to empower students to decide collectively how funding that comes from their fees should be distributed. But…
RIGHT NOW, IN ONTARIO, DOUG FORD'S CONSERVATIVE GOVERNMENT HAS CREATED A POLICY WHICH WILL BYPASS EVERY STUDENT REFERENDUM, DECIMATE THE FUNDING OF MOST OF THESE ORGANIZATIONS, AND LIKELY DESTROY STUDENT UNIONS IN AN ASTOUNDINGLY UNDEMOCRATIC WAY. THEY'RE ALSO ELIMINATING FREE TUITION FOR LOW INCOME PEOPLE, AMONG OTHER CUTS.
Unsurprisingly, the Ford Conservatives have attempted to spin this policy as a way to save students money and give them more agency in the way their fees are distributed. This is misinformation. The option to opt-out of fees for specific clubs and organizations has always been available, as determined by referendums, but students have been required to do a little more research or engaging before pulling their $7 contribution from the radio station, for example. The Student Choice Initiative, as it has been dubitably named, is a targeted attack on services that speak out against unethical government action and benefit the most vulnerable people in these school communities. This is made clear in the following fundraising email that went out from the Ontario Conservatives shortly after these cuts were announced:
I have come back to social media after almost a year off, to ask you to not be swayed by the misinformation being dumped on us by the current Ontario government, and to help fight against their violent irresponsibility towards our communities. This is just one in a series of amoral actions by the Provincial Conservatives of late, including attacks on Midwives, millions of dollars cut from specialized school programs, a freeze on the hiring of new public school teachers, reduction of planned social assistance increases, millions in cuts to the Ontario Arts Council (most notably the Indigenous Culture Fund) and the dissolution of six health agencies and fourteen Local Health Integration Networks.
I am writing to you to ask you to sign any and all petitions against the Provincial Conservatives' attacks, go to the rallies where people are uniting against this administration, talk to everyone you know about what is going on here, WRITE DIRECTLY TO YOUR MPPs IMMEDIATELY, and please fight like hell against this provincial government until they're gone. We are surrounded by power without accountability, everywhere. The only hope is for us to be accountable to one another.
I will post about specific days of action and other initiatives in the coming weeks and months. There are petitions circulating through campuses and communities all over Ontario that need actual physical signatures, so keep an eye out and please sign. Email your local community radio station, -PIRG or Student Union to find out what you can do to help. For now, please take a moment to write your MPP a clear message expressing your concerns about these actions.
You can find out who your MPP is here:
Up-to-date links and further information:
If you want to talk to me directly about this, email bw (at) cfru.ca
March 12, 2019