02/22/2019 13:42 EST | Updated 02/22/2019 13:42 EST

Stephen Lecce Turned His Back On Student Unions, Former Presidents Say

The MPP, who served as Western USC president himself, is being called out by his successors.

Progressive Conservative MPP Stephen Lecce, right, attends question period at the Ontario legislature in Toronto on July 31, 2018.

TORONTO — A former student union president who now sits as an Ontario MPP says he supports his government's policy that critics say could decimate student groups.

Past presidents of Western University Students' Council (USC), which Stephen Lecce led in the 2008/2009 school year, want the Progressive Conservative to talk his colleagues down on their changes to student fees.

The Ontario government announced in January it would end the mandatory fees that fund student unions and their services, which include food banks, dental and health insurance and transit passes. Each student can now opt out of the fees, rather than deciding in a referendum which fees should apply to all students.

"I think it's a huge blow to the sustainability and autonomy of student governments," Pat Whelan, who was Western USC president in the 2013/2014 year, told HuffPost Canada in an interview.

He and 25 other past presidents sent Lecce a letter asking him to talk to his fellow PCs about their "unexpected and disappointing" decision.

Lecce defends Student Choice Initiative

Lecce, who has said his job as USC president led to his former job in the prime minister's office, told HuffPost he's seen the letter. He agreed to an interview but later cancelled. In a statement sent by email, he defended the government's choice.

"Students and their families all across this province make great sacrifices to pursue post-secondary education. For them, every dollar counts," Lecce said.

"On top of previously rising tuition rates, additional compulsory student fees have been added year after year, forcing students to pay upwards of $2,000 for campus capital and service costs that they may not need or use."

More from HuffPost Canada:

Whelan said they haven't heard back from Lecce.

Of all people, he should know how much good student unions do for their members, Whelan said.

"He understands that value, he understands the power of students coming together and voting in referendums. He's seen it all first hand."

He said mandatory fees fund services that students might think they'll never need, like sexual assault support centres. It's unbelievable that the government doesn't understand that, he said, especially when one of its own members used to be USC president.

I couldn't believe what I was reading.Pat Whelan

Whelan said he was in shock when he saw an email that went out to PC supporters decrying student unions' "crazy Marxist nonsense," which was signed by Premier Doug Ford. Some co-signers of his letter are PC party donors, he said, and they were insulted by that line.

"I was kind of blown away, to be honest. I couldn't believe what I was reading, mostly because Stephen Lecce is a member of the government," Whelan said.

"They certainly know that being involved in a student government does not make you Marxist, nor does it make you any ideology. It makes you somebody who wants to give back to their community."

Earlier on HuffPost: