Premier Doug Ford said some protesting students "should have their mouths washed out with soap" after one swore at him as they interrupted the legislature Tuesday to rally against cuts to post-secondary education fees.
"You're a f***ing cracker, you know that," one of the students heckled as Ford looked up at the gallery during proceedings. "You can kiss my a**"
Students protested inside and outside the chambers to urge Ford to retreat from education reforms that include the removal of mandatory fees that fund student unions and independent newspapers, among other things.
Inside the legislature, a handful of students interrupted the daily question period with chants of “No cuts, no fees, tuition should be free."
The rally call began as New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Howarth posed a question to the premier about changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) that would eliminate free tuition grants for students from low-income families; cancel a six-month interest-free period on student loans after graduation; and cut tuition fees by 10 per cent.
The Jan. 17 proposals were part of a new funding framework for Ontario’s post-secondary education system that critics say will throw students further into debt. It includes a policy called the 'student choice initiative' to allow students to opt-out of fees that pay for such services as campus newspapers, food banks and breakfast programs, student employment opportunities and sexual healthcare services.
The premier smiled, and responded to Howarth's question with a reaction to the students. "Here’s an example of indoctrination, what we just saw up there," he said, adding that the students "should have their mouths washed out with soap.”
Just a week ago, Ford signed an email sent to Ontario Progressive supporters soliciting donations, in which he defended cuts to the OSAP that said: "I think we all know what kind of crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to. So, we fixed that. Student union fees are now opt-in."
The student protesters in the gallery are "gonna be good socialists," the premier remarked.
Moments after the students in the legislature were removed by security, the chamber was filled with the echoes of drums coming from the dozens of students gathering the Queen's Park grounds outside.
“The Marxists are coming for you!” an NDP member yelled at Ford.
Negative opposition from stakeholders to the OSAP proposal has been widespread, including virtually all elected student union leaders and campus clubs, student newspapers, the Canadian Federation of Students, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, the College Student Alliance, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, the Ontario Federation of Labour, the Canadian University Press, and more.
Conservatives say students were 'out of line'
Some Opposition members expressed outrage at the premier's comments, with several joining the protest outside to sign a student petition. "The people have the right to be here and show their displeasure at the government's behaviour and policy agenda so if the premier responds in the way that we saw today, that's his inability of maintaining a dignified presence in the (legislature) and he's going to have to figure out how to fix that," Horwath told reporters outside the legislature.
Ford's comments were "completely inappropriate," Green Party leader and MPP Mike Schreiner told National Observer.
"Here we have a government that is cutting funding to post- secondary education, that is making university more expensive, particularly for students from low, modest and middle-incomes and is attacking student democracy and student services," Schreiner said. "From all the student groups I'm talking with, they're seeing the government's actions as an attack on students and an attack on education."
Several Conservative MPPs defended the premier, saying it was the students who were "out of line."
Government House Leader Todd Smith told reporters that students have the right to protest but "there's a way to do it and way not to do it, and that was, I think, the way not to do it in a place like the legislature."
Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario's minister of training, colleges and universities, said the students have a right to protest outside but "here in the chamber, it is very important that we respect people's rights and respect the processes."
Fullerton told reporters outside the legislature that she had "no plans" to meet the students gathered outside but wanted them to understand that the proposed changes to OSAP were a way to "put dollars back in the pockets of students."
"We want to make sure students have freedom of choice, that they are empowered in making that choice over their finances," she said, noting that the 10 per cent cut would add up to $450 million in tuition relief and make for "easier, clearer" OSAP policy.
"We've done this for the benefit of students...In many ways this is going to assist in terms of streamlining and making our processes more efficient," she said. She had met with many students "during this process, during the campaign, after the election," and heard regularly from students by emails and letters.
"I'd like to know which students she's consulted," Schreiner said, adding that the students he had met with hadn't been consulted.
The outrage extended beyond the legislature. Deb Matthews, the former Liberal minister of advanced education and skills development, tweeted that she was "gobsmacked" by the Conservative responses to OSAP in the legislature.
Watching Question Period at Ontario legislature, and am gobsmacked at the answers from @fordnation and @DrFullertonMPP . Either they do not understand what they have done to #OSAP, or they are outright lying. There is no other explanation. Truly shameful. #onpoli #saveOSAP— Deb Matthews (@Deb_Matthews) February 19, 2019
"Either they do not understand what they have done to #OSAP, or they are outright lying," she wrote. "There is no explanation. Truly shameful."