Conditional funding censors scientists

"Stand Up for Science" rallies highlight federal government's dubious attitude towards academic freedom

Conditional funding censors scientists

On Monday, September 16, protestors filled the south side of Queen’s Park to petition the Canadian government for evidence-based decision making on scientific research funding. Similar “Stand up For Science” rallies, organized by a group called Evidence for Democracy, took place in 17 cities across Canada this past week.

The rallies aim to bring attention to both the federal government’s policies concerning scientific research funding as well as the alleged censorship of scientists working in areas of research that conflict with the government’s political priorities. Evidence for Democracy argues that the government’s actions are holding Canadian science, and therefore the public, back.

The Stand Up for Science campaign has particular relevance for the University of Toronto, beyond the geographical proximity of the rallies’ Toronto chapter to the St. George campus. U of T is Canada’s largest research university, and receives hundreds of millions of dollars every year in research funding from various levels of government.

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

U of T is so committed to its reputation for research that some students have argued in recent years that faculty members unduly focus on their own areas of study at the expense of teaching and student interaction. U of T president David Naylor has called for government funding to be tied to the university’s research output instead of its enrolment numbers — a move that would make research key to the university’s financial future and even more central to its purpose.

Evidence for Democracy “advocates for the transparent use of science and evidence in public policy and government decision-making” at a time when “governments can be tempted to make decisions based on ideology or political convenience.” Students — and, more generally, the Canadian public — should be concerned that their elected representatives are putting ideological or political concerns before the well-being and prosperity of the people.

The federal government is shifting funding priorities for scientific research away from successful, evidence-based projects that contribute to our health and safety, and diverting that money into industry partnerships. Last year, the government announced its intention to shift from its traditional scientific funding mechanism, the National Research Council, toward a new initiative called the Engage Grants Program. This transition takes grant money that had previously been earmarked for “basic research and discovery science” and allocates it towards research and development projects operating through industry in partnership with the government.

The government has defunded projects like the Experimental Lakes Area in Kenora District, Ontario — which contributes important research to the study of freshwater ecosystems — much to the disappointment of the international scientific community. Other research programs committed to crime prevention, public health, and the environment have also had their funding revoked in favour of more profitable and commercially viable disciplines like petroleum engineering.

Research capitalization — the commercialization of discoveries and technologies for profit — has been an increasing focus of Canadian universities as government funding has been cut, particularly in Ontario. New initiatives from U of T programs like the Institute of Optical Science, the Impact Centre, and TechnoLABS focus on converting ideas into businesses.

While economic successes have often been a side-benefit of outstanding research, focusing every penny of Canada’s research funding on industry partnerships that have clear economic objectives is deeply misguided. First, some research does not and should not serve the immediate interest of industry. Most pertinently, research into the effects of industry on our environment and global climate is vitally important to Canada’s public interest, but would never come from an industry partnership.

Moreover, the premise of industry-driven research is different from the premise of scientific research. Industry invests money in projects that have a perceptible, profitable objective. Scientists, on the other hand, see knowledge as an end in itself, while focusing on investigations that are likely to benefit the public. The wisdom of this approach has been proved time and time again as countless discoveries of great importance have resulted from simply inquiring into the unknown. By choosing to restrict all publicly funded research in this country to projects where an economic goal is in sight, the government has stifled all research that doesn’t serve an economic purpose and given up on real science altogether. This approach is shortsighted, narrow-minded, self-serving, and dangerous.

Industry-focused funding is not, however, the only concerning trend. Evidence for Democracy is also protesting against what they have called “government muzzling” of scientists. They are rightly concerned that the government is enforcing silence on scientists who receive funding for their projects. Researchers whose projects are funded through government grants are restricted from speaking to the press and public regarding the details of their work, and run the risk of losing their funding if they transgress.

By preventing scientists from discussing their research, the Canadian government is shaping science in this country along ideological lines. Ottawa’s recent decision-making reveals a strong preference for economic interests over the public interest. International investment in Canadian science will now be based on our ability to troubleshoot industry rather than on our capacity to solve problems that the whole world is facing, such as climate change.

It is bad enough that Ottawa is shepherding Canadian scientists away from projects whose value is supported by evidence; to also limit the amount of information these researchers can share with the public is censorship, and should not be acceptable in a modern democratic society. A well-educated and well-informed electorate is vital to a healthy democracy. This makes institutions like U of T critically important, but they can only fulfill their roles when researchers can tell the facts as they see them, both in classrooms and in public. The party in power censoring science that does not support its policies should be a nightmare to all Canadians.

U of T’s scientific community has historically been the site of life-saving and world-changing discoveries: Best and Banting were the first to extract insulin, making life with diabetes a possibility for future generations. The world’s first artificial pacemaker was created by scientists at the institute named for Banting. Canada has helped stretch the understanding of our universe by contributing the Canadarm to the International Space Station project. We must not allow this legacy to falter, with our best and brightest forced to serve industrial interests, and to serve in silence. To be of any value, research funding in our university and across the country must come with no strings attached.

We’re #1: the system behind the rankings

U of T has been rising in one prominent international ranking and falling in another for years. We ask why

We’re #1: the system behind the rankings

In the latest annual Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings report, the University of Toronto climbed two spots, from 19 to 17. Some senior university administrators have expressed uncertainty about the accuracy and comprehensiveness of university ranking systems. The Varsity asked a number of experts to discuss their take on the metrics and methodologies behind two of the most prominent rankings: QS World University Rankings, and Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE).

In an interview with The Varsity, U of T president David Naylor cautioned that while U of T’s strength in ranking tables is encouraging, students should take these rankings with a grain of salt: “It’s obviously very hard to boil institutions as complex as universities down to a single number,” he said. McGill University’s principal, Suzanne Fortier, expressed similar concerns. “These aren’t very accurate scientific studies, so the margin of error is big,” she said.

While U of T has steadily climbed QS tables for the past four years, the opposite trend is apparent in THE tables. “This doesn’t reflect the fact that we’re getting better or worse, it reflects the fact that two different ranking agencies use two different sets of measures,” said Naylor. He stated that inconsistency across different ranking schemes, due to their varying metrics, is part of what makes them difficult to interpret. QS and THE collaborated until 2010, when THE made a dramatic change in its ranking scheme, choosing to partner instead with Thomson Reuters. “We moved from six weak indicators to 13 more balanced and comprehensive indicators,” Phil Baty, THE editor at large and rankings editor, told The Varsity.

 

Measures of Teaching and Learning Environment

Some ranking systems use the ratio of students to faculty members as a proxy for measuring the quality of a university’s teaching and learning environment. Naylor expressed suspicion about this proxy, stating that longer-term measures, such as the degree to which students value their university education several years after graduating, are a far better measure of teaching excellence than student–faculty ratio. This ratio accounts for 20 per cent of the overall score in QS, and 4.5 per cent of the overall score in THE. The latter system uses a number of other measures to make up the total 30 per cent weight of this category, including an academic reputation survey and the ratio of doctorate to bachelor’s degrees.

QS rankings

Ben Sowter, head of research at QS, acknowledged that the proxy is not ideal: “Teaching quality, from our viewpoint, is about more than having a charismatic lecturer. It is about the environment, and a key part of that is access to academic support. I think student–faculty ratio is reasonable proxy measure for this. That is not to say that I am satisfied with it though. We would consider other measures on the provision that they are globally available, sufficiently discerning, and not too responsive to external influences,” he said.

Baty expressed that in his view, a heterogeneous approach to measuring teaching quality is essential. “A staff–faculty ratio is an exceptionally crude instrument for judging teaching quality — does the number of waiters in a restaurant tell you how good the food is? It fails to take into account a whole range of issues, like the balance between intimate personal tutorials and large lectures, major variations in student-faculty ratios by subject area, and the data is exceptionally easy to manipulate depending on how you count your faculty,” he said.

 

Co-dependent measures can generate a Catch-22

The ratio of citations per faculty member accounts for 20 per cent of the overall score in QS, and 30 per cent of the overall score in THE. This measure is meant to capture the influence of a university’s research output.

THE rankings

Due to U of T’s high number of undergraduates, there is a large portion of faculty members whose primary activity is teaching, rather than research. At a Governing Council meeting in June, Naylor stated that the way U of T counts its faculty may put it in a Catch-22 situation. “If we don’t count all the faculty, we have a high student-faculty ratio, which is taken as a proxy for educational excellence in some of the ranking systems. If we count all of them, then publications per faculty member fall dramatically, and we lose again,” Naylor said.

Sowter stated that QS is aware of this situation, and expressed that there is an ongoing effort to refine the system’s data collection approach. However, he stated that there are significant limitations in the availability of data  that are specific enough to properly refine this metric, especially in developing countries. Baty stated that this scenario is another reason that the THE system does not heavily weight student-faculty ratio, and emphasized the importance of a balanced range of indicators.

 

Concerns about Canada’s egalitarian funding model

Baty foreshadowed a future drop in rankings for Canadian universities, citing an overly egalitarian approach to funding as the main factor. He claims that while the Canadian government generally allocates funding to universities equally, other countries have been investing heavily into specific universities in order to gain a competitive edge in rankings.

Naylor echoed Baty’s concerns in his presentation about university rankings to the Governing Council in June. He argued that investing into research flagship institutions is critical for catalyzing research and innovation, as well as for attracting both domestic and international talent. “All over the world, you see strategic investments being made by other jurisdictions to ensure that they have a set of institutions that are in that category. So far, what’s been happening in Canada is not aligned in any way, shape, or form in that direction,” he said. For example, Naylor stated that U of T loses millions of dollars each year by paying for the cost of housing federal research grants. He argued that the federal government does not account for these costs, and that the resulting financial deficit negatively affects undergraduate educational quality. “While it’s fantastic that QS says we’re 17th in the world, and we can all have a little brief victory dance about that, or not, depending on our frame of reference, we are still swimming against the tide in this country. And frankly, it’s shameful,” he said.

Sowter countered these views. “With Canada’s population spread over such a vast area, it would seem counter-intuitive to put all the focus on one or two universities”, he said. “From the standpoint of our ranking, Canada looks highly competitive and appears to be holding its ground much more robustly than the US. So I suppose I’ll have to disagree, it seems like Canada has a funding model that works for Canada.” He added that the achievements of universities are not solely a product of the efforts of  the universities themselves, but also of their academic, economic, and social environments.

 

Rankings and university funding priorities

Baty elaborated on the importance of university rankings in a broader context. He stressed that THE rankings provide useful data for both universities and governments. “They are trusted by governments as a national geo-political indicator, and are also used by university managers to help set strategy. The data can help them [universities] better understand where they are falling short, and could influence strategic decisions,” he said.

Sowter argued that ranking results should only be used in conjunction with other metrics to provide a comprehensive scope of where a university stands, and where it needs to go. He also stressed that university rankings should not bear heavy weight on university policy. “I hope they change nothing based on rankings. At least not in isolation. Universities need to remain true to their reason for being and not subvert their identity or mission priorities in pursuit of a ranking,” he said.

Naylor addressed this by emphasizing that high rankings are a product of effective administration, not the other way around. “We’re on an academic mission, and the rankings are a happy side effect of trying to stay on mission. To actually change a program or an academic decision to deal with a ranking seems incomprehensible to me. If someone’s doing it, they’re either extremely rich as an institution, or very silly,” he said.

 

With files from The McGill Tribune.

From Tibet to Toronto

Tibetan identity politics and the movement for independence in Toronto

From Tibet to Toronto

Nawang’s* decision to come to Canada was made in the hope of securing a better future for herself and her children. Before she arrived, however, she endured a decade of moving between India and Nepal as a political refugee.

At 15, she set out on foot from Lhasa in Tibet, trekking for over three weeks through the high passes of the Himalayas with a group of strangers, leaving her family behind to escape into Nepal with the help of a paid agent.

Map Throw

India presented a faith-based calling as the 14th Dalai Lama­ — Tenzin Gyatso — the spiritual leader of Tibetans — has lived there in exile for most of his life: “Every single day I dreamed of going to India and visiting the Dalai Lama.”

“The first night, I thought I was going to die,” she recalled, referring to her fear of falling through the ice while crossing a semi-frozen river, or of being spotted by floodlights from a soldier’s outposts. In spite of her anxieties, she soon joined the large community of Tibetan refugees straddling India and Nepal.

For many older Tibetans, Nawang’s ordeal is similar to their own tales of displacement. For younger Tibetan-Canadians, her story is reminiscent of their own families’ struggles, inspiring them to become involved with the Tibetan independence movement.

Urgyen Badheytsang, national director of Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) Canada, notes that many Tibetan youth grow up listening to these stories. His grandfather was imprisoned and tortured for taking part in the original Tibetan resistance in 1959; his father was shot in the leg while throwing rocks at Chinese troops during unrest in Tibet in 1989 and jailed, during which time he witnessed a monk get shot in the head. “You already know about everything that’s happening in Tibet, about the repression, and then you hear about your own father and grandfather who suffered at the hands of the Chinese government and it’s not anymore a story, it’s something that’s real, it’s something that’s affected your own relatives.”

 

A flourishing community 

Tenzin Thabkhae, Lhamo Kyi, Youdon Khangsar, and Tenzin Wangmo. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

Tenzin Thabkhae, Lhamo Kyi, Youdon Khangsar, and Tenzin Wangmo. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

Most Tibetans in Toronto reside in Parkdale and High Park. An array of tiny Tibetan shop windows lie west of Lansdowne Avenue at Queen Street West. A glance into restaurants Tsampa Café and Tibet Kitchen reveal chatty Tibetan families eating momos (dumplings stuffed with beef or chicken and served with a spicy paste made out of red chilies and plenty of garlic).

The Tibetan community in Toronto has more than doubled since 1999. Roughly 5,000 Tibetans now reside in Canada, the majority of whom live in Toronto. Toronto is home to the second largest Tibetan settlement in North America.

Youdon Khangsar, a fifth-year student, co-founded the U of T chapter of SFT. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

Youdon Khangsar, a fifth-year student, co-founded the U of T chapter of SFT. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

Lawyer Connie Nakatsu has represented several Tibetan refugee claimants since 1997. She explains that a growing awareness about refugee claims has put Canada on the map for Tibetans.

Tenzin Tsundue, a fifth-year U of T student, came to Canada with her family in 2007 as part of this wave of Tibetan immigrants. Along with Youdon Khangsar, a fifth-year student, she started the U of T chapter of SFT in her first year.

Khangsar observed, “When I started university here, I found people didn’t even know about Tibet. How can people get involved politically if they haven’t even heard of the country? They have to know about the culture at least, they have to be able to distinguish the Tibetan identity. That’s really important.” In October 2011, Khangsar created the Tibetan Renaissance Association, to promote Tibetan culture in a setting devoid of the political overtones of groups like SFT.

Despite the healthy influx of Tibetans to Toronto, some youth not born in Canada are concerned about the preservation of their language. Tenzin Thabkhae, a second-year engineering student born to Tibetan refugee parents in India, explains that Tibetans face identity issues: “Some Tibetan youth have trouble speaking Tibetan and are therefore uncomfortable to speak with other Tibetans.”

LHAMO KYI/THE VARSITY

LHAMO KYI CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

Nakatsu noted: “There was already an issue with [Tibetans] being in India and Nepal, so they were already straddling two cultures as it was, and now what they’re coming to is a third one, so that creates a different set of problems.”

Badheytsang, however, remarked that people should not be alarmed. “I don’t think people are losing their culture. Right now, we have so many youth who might not necessarily have the best grasp of the language but are so involved. They are very passionate about the cause, and might actually know more about the real geopolitical scene than the older generation.”

A compelling sign that the once nascent community is thriving is the Gangjong Choedenling (Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre, or TCCC), which opened its doors in the west end on October 17, 2007. Tibetan children receive weekend language instruction here in addition to classes on Buddhism and yoga.

The facility includes a large auditorium; a well-stocked library with books on Gandhi, Buddhism, and other eclectic genres; classroom with whiteboards which have the Tibetan alphabet scribbled on them; and, often, the unmistakable fragrance of Tibetan food being prepared. The TCCC has evolved into an indispensable hub for the community­ — itself an indicator that the community has come a long way since the 1970s, back when Tibetans formed the smallest immigrant group in the country.

 

Wake-up call 

Timeline

In the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in August 2008, anti-China demonstrations and protests were held in cities around the world. Images from inside Tibet show Tibetan demonstrators facing off with Chinese authorities. In Ottawa, Badheytsang and four others from SFT chained themselves to the gate of the Chinese Embassy to draw media attention to the Tibet issue: “For me that was the marker. I had decided then that I was ready to throw away everything … to support the Tibetan cause and help our movement go forward. Ever since, everything else has seemed obvious. If you’re willing to go to jail for Tibet then you’re also willing to do a lot of the organizing and behind-the-scenes work.”

Like Badheytsang, Tibetan youth across the country were restless to make the movement their own, with the incidents of 2008 serving as a wake-up call. The demonstrations brought out the activist in students like Tsundue, who quickly became a regional coordinator for SFT.

Tenzin Thabkhae, a second-year engineering student born to Tibetan refugee parents in India.

Tenzin Thabkhae, a second-year engineering student born to Tibetan refugee parents in India. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

Badheytsang notes: “I would say that there’s been a lot more consistency now than before. Before it would have to be a trigger event…Now we have the Lhakar movement.”

“Lhakar,” meaning “White Wednesday,” is a Tibetan self-reliance movement begun after 2008. Every Wednesday, an increasing number of Tibetans both inside and outside of Tibet make a special effort to wear traditional clothes, speak Tibetan, eat Tibetan food, and shop at Tibetan businesses in order to support the Tibetan community.

In Toronto, students have been observing Lhakar for almost two years now. On Wednesdays, it is common for Tibetan students to be seen wearing chupa, traditional Tibetan clothing. On the first Lhakar of September, SFT performed a freeze flash mob in downtown Toronto, urging world leaders at the Russian G20 summit to focus on Tibet.

In February 2009, footage of a monk in Tibet dousing himself in kerosene and setting himself abalze as an extreme form of protest, denouncing China’s treatment of Tibetans, shook the community. Tenzin Wangmo, a Tibetan student intern at the TCCC, notes: “We definitely need more international pressure on the Tibetan issue… More than 100 Tibetans from within Tibet and from outside have self-immolated, yet it seems their voices have been lost.”

MP David Sweet, whose successful motion to make the Dalai Lama an honourary citizen of Canada, adopted unanimously by the House of Commons in 2006, is one of the most vocal critics of China’s human rights record in Tibet on Parliament Hill.

In a speech to the House of Commons on February 14, Sweet said: “Tibetans today live under such oppressive conditions that so threaten their culture, environment, religious freedom and human rights that we have seen, shockingly, over 100 Tibetans lighting themselves on fire in protest. We call on the leaders of China to meet in earnest with the leaders of the Tibetan government in exile to discuss the Dalai Lama’s third way for human rights and democratic, regional, cultural, and environmental autonomy for Tibetans within China.”

Tenzin Wangmo, a Tibetan student intern at the TCCC. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

Tenzin Wangmo, a Tibetan student intern at the TCCC. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

Sweet also chairs the Parliamentary Friends of Tibet internship program, geared towards young Tibetan-Canadians. Six Tibetans from across Canada took part in the 2013 program in its fourth year running. Interns worked in the offices of various MPs, learning about the parliamentary system and simultaneously representing Tibetan culture on the Hill. This year, the interns shared a lighter moment with parliamentarians, away from the humdrum of sombre politics, by hosting a lunch reception where they personally cooked momos and made Tibetan butter tea for MPs.

“Interning at Parliament really solidified my belief in governmental and non-governmental organizations. It was so inspiring to see so many people work so hard to help others. At the end of the internship, I felt proud and connected to my community, and was much more inspired to work towards the Tibetan cause and also to help others,” said Wangmo, who interned at MP Peggy Nash’s office as part of the program.

 

Long road to reconciliation

Map

The Mosaic Institute’s conference, New Beginnings, Young Canadians: Peace Dialogue on China & Tibet, held on September 11 in Toronto, provided an opportunity for youth from both Chinese and Tibetan communities to come together.

Dr. Losang Rabgey, co-founder and executive director of Machik, an organization working to strengthen communities on the Tibetan plateau, urged everyone to put aside disbelief to make connections between the two communities: “When we have only a rights-based discourse as a framework for understanding Tibet and China, it creates a bipolar scenario.” Though rights are an important issue, people also need to encounter one another and explore new opportunities to work together.

A protestor holding the Tibetan flag at National Uprising Day. ANTHONY LAMA/THE VARSITY

A protestor holding the Tibetan flag at National Uprising Day. ANTHONY LAMA/THE VARSITY

Michael Li, a Chinese-Canadian and a recent U of T graduate, found the event very engaging: “In 2008, I was surprised by the scale of the protests. I occasionally found myself getting rather angry in response to them because I did feel that the community I feel that I’m a part of was not being portrayed in a fair light.”

He also acknowledged the importance of dialogue: “I realized that I didn’t know anyone personally from Tibet, I didn’t know what they actually thought. Studying politics, you realize that there are things people say in perspectives that are put forward that don’t actually represent what people think. That is why I attended this session.”

Other Chinese-Canadian students at the event felt that the older Chinese generations’ opinions on Tibet as a mystified, backward hinterland were outdated and misrepresentative. They expressed a desire to understand the genuine grievances of Tibetans. “There are lots of Chinese people who actually sympathize with the Tibet issue,” acknowledges Tsundue, adding that, “First and foremost Tibetans are fighting for the freedom of human rights.”

Nawang, who left her parents and extended family behind in Tibet, is hopeful: “We are always patient. We have hope. Tibetan people are always hoping.”

*Name changed. 

Exploring Little Tibet

Tibetan eats and shops in the growing neighborhood and throughout the city

Exploring Little Tibet

Hart House student groups object to cost-cutting measures

Warden Bruce Kidd presented balanced budget this year, despite rejection of student fee increase last February

Hart House student groups object to cost-cutting measures

Hart House has finally eliminated a deficit of nearly $1 million. However, cuts caused by deficit reductions are adversely affecting student clubs. Last February, Hart House requested a 5.2 per cent fee increase from the Council on Student Services (COSS), which regulates increases to student fees. The University of Toronto Students’ Union-led COSS, which is dominated by student representatives, to reject the fee increase. They cited concerns that students were already responsible for paying a significant amount of Hart House funding.

Earlier last year, Hart House programming was cut by 18 per cent, causing the many student groups that Hart House supports to tighten their budgets.

Last year, Bruce Kidd, warden of Hart House, told The Varsity that he hoped to increase the use of Hart House by outside parties, as a means to raise revenue. He said that this would not heavily influence student groups who need to book space, and that outside parties tend to book space several months in advance, whereas student groups tend to book only a few weeks in advance. Thus their booking timelines do not interfere with one another.

Kidd stated: “While Hart House had to struggle with a planned deficit in 2012-2013, through cost trimming, aggressive revenue generation, and the good fortune of a milder winter (that significantly reduced heating costs), we managed to bring the financial year to a close without a deficit.  We have a balanced budget planned for the current (2013–2014) fiscal year.”

Despite Kidd’s assurances, some student leaders say that there were definitely changes that made running their programming significantly more difficult than it had been in the past. The booking of space, which was in part dedicated to non-student groups, made the usual procedures of student clubs much more difficult than they normally would be.

A major change made during the past year was that all musical clubs at Hart House were asked to move their meetings to Monday evenings. There are six musical groups currently operating out of Hart House, meaning that it is now almost impossible for a student to be involved in more than one. Elizabeth Laushway, executive secretary of the Hart House Chorus, spoke with The Varsity stating, “The decision to move all of the musical groups to Mondays was made so that they would have more room to book external events on other nights, and it’s made Hart House less accessible, since people now have to choose between the half a dozen musical groups we have and, realistically, only commit to one.” Laushway feels that this kind of rescheduling of student groups to accommodate outside parties is unfair to students, who should be prioritized. “I’ve known people who are musically inclined in more than one way and who have had to choose between between say the Jazz Choir and the Hart House Chorus,” she said.

Karthy Chin, member of the Literary and Library Committee didn’t find that her committee was affected by the cuts instituted last year, as most of their events are held within the Hart House Library, a space dedicated to their use. “It was a real problem for other clubs who needed to book space though,” noted Chin, “only certain rooms could be booked on certain dates and there were a lot of problems getting the space that was needed.”

Kidd explained that funds had to be diverted to pay for the upkeep of Hart House itself. He went on to say that the building is in desperate need of maintenance work, with the existing heating, wiring, and plumbing dating back 100 years. Hart House commissioned a team led by Baird Samson Neuert to conduct a study and will advise  on how to renew the infrastructure of the historic building in a green and sustainable fashion. Kidd stated that once the plans have been finalized, a major fundraising campaign will be launched that will hopefully cover the cost of the necessary maintenance.

Louis Tsilivis, secretary of the Hart House Debate Committee, feels that more can be done to support the student groups at Hart House, but that the fault for lack of funding fell not with Kidd, but the UTSU’s February decision not to increase Hart House’s budget. “Clubs and committees at Hart House are really feeling the strain of the UTSU’s decision not to increase the ancillary fee, as Hart House requested. Warden Kidd has been doing a laudable job of trying to manage the difficult position that he has been put in, and trying to ensure that student programming is not affected adversely by this,” said Tsilivis.

Munib Sajjad, president of the UTSU, took issue with Tsilivis’ characterization, expressing surprise at being the only union targeted: “Both the Graduate Students’ Union and the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students at the University of Toronto, the Scarborough Campus representative and the Mississauga Campus representative voted against increasing the fee” he said, adding that Hart House did receive a cost of living fee increase last year. Ultimately, Sajjad said: “We believe that Hart House does wonderful work creating community on campus and work well with Hart House throughout the year on numerous initiatives.”

Friends of Kensington raised over $23,000 to study impact of Walmart

Ongoing $120,000 fundraising campaign is designed to combat RioCan’s appeal challenging one-year freeze on development

Friends of Kensington raised over $23,000 to study impact of Walmart

The battle between RioCan and the Kensington Market community over plans for a new retail complex in the area continues, with RioCan appealing to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) against the one-year construction freeze imposed by City Council.

In May, RioCan revealed plans to build a three-storey retail complex on the corner of Bathurst Street and Nassau Street, located on the edge of Kensington Market. The proposed building will include three levels, two of which will be occupied by Walmart, as well as an underground parking lot. RioCan’s proposal was immediately met with significant opposition from residents all over Toronto, most of which were specifically concerned with the negative impact a “big-box” retailer like Walmart would have on small businesses, residents, and the culture of the unique Toronto neighbourhood.

Following the strong response from the community, city councillors Mike Layton and Adam Vaughan proposed an interim control bylaw on Bathurst Street, extending from Dupont Street down to Queen Street West, on July 19. The control will prevent any new retail developments for one year. The proposal was passed by City Council, and as a result RioCan’s proposed retail complex has been put on hold as the city conducts studies of the area. However, RioCan announced earlier this week that they are appealing to the OMB, which has the power to overturn City Council’s decision.

Dominique Russell leads Friends of Kensington, a group dedicated to fighting the proposed development. She started a petition against RioCan’s proposal, which has gathered over 89,000 signatures. Russell characterized RioCan’s response to the by-law as not at all surprising: “RioCan’s appeal speaks so strongly that they just don’t care. They’ve said they’re listening and want to work with neighbours and businesses, but that has been proven to not be true,” she said. When it was announced that the area would be free from any retail developments for a year, many felt a sense of relief, she explains. “Some of our momentum was lost both over the summer and the assumption that it had been solved,” she explained.

In July, Friends of Kensington started an online crowdfunding campaign through Projexity, a website similar to Kickstarter. The project intends to use the money towards third-party traffic and market studies, as well as legal representation costs. “The crowdfunding was a response to the concern that if the city and the OMB are relying entirely on Riocan’s evidence, then they are not necessarily going to get the most objective view.”

Russell went on to explain, “Communities have a disadvantage, so the crowdfunding is to counterbalance the money that Riocan has to throw at this and get these studies done. We looked at the initial studies and they don’t correspond to the realities of people that live there.” The campaign aims to raise $120,000, and as of Sunday, it has fundraised over $23,000. For Russell, the next step is to keep the issue in the public eye in the hope that it will “roll out a really strong and unified message that all these different parts of the city are against this.”

U of T students who reside in Kensington have also expressed their concerns regarding how a Walmart would impact the neighbourhood. Tom Mahoney, a fifth-year student who has lived in Kensington for two years, says, “Walmart is super-convenient, which is a benefit; but in terms of what it means to the area, I think it’s a travesty…[Kensington Market] gives a cultural heart to the city.”

Recent U of T graduate Norhan Haroun, who lives in Kensington, expressed a similar view, saying that while Walmart is convenient, it diminishes the unique character of neighbourhoods where stores are built: “They create this kind of generic feel to the area which you expect in every area they are located in.”

While some students would prefer to preserve the characteristic neighbourhood over convenience, fourth-year student Mrinalini Dayal thinks otherwise, “Despite going to Kensington Market regularly for groceries and eating out, I still see the advantages of opening a Walmart nearby. As a student, convenience is the most important thing for me.”

Rooming houses in Scarborough provide inexpensive, illegal, places for students to live

Growing student population, lack of residences and nearby housing leave students with few options

Rooming houses in Scarborough provide  inexpensive, illegal, places for students to live

Jessica Wang, Meera Mahendran, and Kumarasamy Kunanayaham were charged with operating an illegal rooming house near the UTSC campus in February. The three appeared in court on September 6. Their rooming house, located at 1280 Military Trail, was a specially renovated, 3,000 square-foot home that contained 12 bedrooms, two kitchens, and six bathrooms. Eleven students were found living there when it was officially shut down by Scarborough’s Municipal Licensing and Standards division.

 

Growing student population
NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

With less than 800 students living on-campus, but more than 10,000 taking classes, UTSC’s student population is dominated by commuters. Few apartment-style buildings near UTSC means that the majority of commuters have to live far from campus. The lack of options makes illegal rooming houses an appealing last resort for students who want cheap, nearby housing.

The problem of available housing will only worsen as the campus proceeds to increase its student body. Guled Arale, the Scarborough Campus Student Union’s vice-president external, said that the campus has grown “considerably” in the past couple of years. He explained that a new residence tower was being planned, but since the plans are “years down the road, there is a definite lack of options for our current students.” Arale admits that the creation of new residences will not be enough to stop illegal rooming houses. “It will be one way to address the problem, but there needs to be multiple things done, such as educating students and homeowners.”

Locals have complained about the state of Military Trail, and how the quality of the neighbourhood has decreased as more students began living around UTSC. “Some people think that the neighbourhood is changing too much, too fast,” explains Arale. However, he believes that students also have a right to complain, stating that “many students are being taken advantage of” by those who want to profit from rooming houses. To Arale, educating both students and homeowners about their “rights and expectations” is a necessary part of the solution. “The university needs to create cooperative links with the community to address these concerns.”

 

Illegal but inexpensive

Under Chapter 285 of the Toronto Municipal Code, rooming houses are illegal in Scarborough and North York. In the 1998 amalgamation, East York, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, York, and the former City of Toronto merged to form the current City of Toronto. The merger was not smooth, and the irregularities of Toronto’s rooming house laws are just a part of its problematic legacy.

Many students have chosen to live in the renovated bungalows and townhouses that line Military Trail, despite their illegal status. “Some students choose to do it because the price is right, and the accommodations are acceptable to their needs,” said Michelle Verbrugghe, director of the Student Housing and Residence Life Office. Although the conditions are enough for a student to live by, they have received very poor reviews from ex-boarders. “Compare them to the residences. We have a high duty of care, we have our own maintenance staff, and we’re very responsive.”

The office also helps students find off-campus housing, so Verbrugghe knows first-hand the troubles that students face when it comes to house-hunting firsthand. She wishes there were more options and different types of housing for students.

 

Student reaction varies

Some students are against the illegal status of rooming houses in Scarborough, and believe regulation to be a better option. “There’s clearly a market for cheap student housing, so why not capitalize on it?” said Henry Li, a third-year biology student. “That’s much better than cracking down on students who just want an affordable room.” He admits that the quality of life for those students who live in rooming houses is probably lower than their on-campus peers. Despite these concerns, he stressed that “these are the sacrifices we have to make for our degrees.”

Other students believe that rooming houses are illegal for a reason, and support the current law. “I know housing is necessary,” said Jen Wang, a first-year science student. “However, students should not sacrifice safety for a mere roof over their heads.” She heard that the landlords got rid of the fire alarms and CO2 detectors to evade inspections. “That is not only unsafe — that is simply dangerous.” Wang said that rooming houses might be a good option for students, but only if the houses are tightly regulated to prevent accidents.

Some, however, are unsympathetic to the problems of UTSC’s students. Aaron Perera, a third-year physiology student at the St. George campus, has to commute over an hour to get to U of T’s downtown campus from Ajax. “Between the buses, the GO, and the subway, I’m spent.” He stresses that the problem of commuting is not unique to Scarborough, and that sometimes it is necessary to choose far off-campus housing if it means saving money. “It’s a bit unfair, but it’s not enough to change the law just for us.”

Long waitlists and overworked staff: the state of mental health at U of T

GSU working with administration to improve system

Long waitlists and overworked staff: the state of mental health at U of T

Being a U of T student can be extremely stressful: endless readings, difficult tests, and the pressure of that seemingly omnipresent question: what’s next? Many stressed students seek support from the Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) office. CAPS, which is housed in the Koffler Student Services Centre, attempts to provide students with adequate resources to overcome mental health problems and successfully pursue their academic goals. Services include one-on-one counselling sessions, as well as group workshops that deal with topics like stress and time management. Their effectiveness, however, has been consistently criticized by student leaders, particularly due to long wait times for students.

“A major concern with CAPS is the sheer number of folks that need to utilize the services. They are in waiting lists forever, and when they need that service, they need it promptly. That is simply not happening now,” claims Brad Evoy, internal commissioner of the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU). Janine Robb, executive director of Health and Wellness Services at U of T, cited underfunding and “wasted appointments” as contributors to the delays. “We get students who make appointments and then don’t show up. Then we don’t have an opportunity to fill it in.”

Demand for mental help has increased as campaigns advocating destigamization of mental health have become more widespread across Canada and internationally. Next month, for example, U of T will be hosting a variety of workshops as part of mental health awareness month. In addition, Blue Space and Green Dot are permanent campaigns which aim to destigmatize mental distress and sexual assault respectively, while promoting an openly communicative atmosphere.

Still, U of T psychology professor John Vervaeke says that “There is such a stigmatization [around mental health]. We tend to give people the benefit of the doubt if there is a physical illness but there is a lot more suspicion surrounding mental issues, and a lot more resistance to accepting it.”

The intangible nature of mental distress, uncharacteristic of physical illness, is a major contributor to CAPS’ lack of accessibility. For example, to discern the student’s needs, a screening session via phone is necessary before counselling can take place. “There are two groups of people: the student who doesn’t have a mental health issue and is overwhelmed, and then there’s the student who does,” says Robb. “Everybody has this idea that their emotional experience needs to have an individual counselling session, and that’s not always the case.”

In some cases, those who end up receiving counselling need to wait a long time in between sessions and are unsatisfied with their services. Melissa Beauregard, former head of arts at Trinity College, cited these as the main reasons for not referring her students to CAPS. Instead, she led them to their dean of students, an alternative for undergraduates seeking help. Beauregard described the administration as “incredibly supportive.”

A student suffering from schizophrenia, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed similar sentiments: “In my case, there was a willingness to modify the curriculum and allow me to complete the course… U of T will find ways to still assist you in completing your year.” After disclosing his illness to professors, he found support and an openness to discuss his illness through academic work. “School fostered an environment where I could self-analyze and develop myself…it has been a maturing and healing process,” he says.

While mental health training for faculty is not currently mandatory at the university, it is something Robb hopes “will get traction” as more attention is brought to these issues.

But while some students’ perspective on CAPS remains bleak, the prospect for change does not. The GSU is taking proactive steps by forming a mental health committee that will work with the administration to mitigate these accessibility issues. “I’m very optimistic … so far we’ve had a positive response from Health and Wellness, who are willing to work closely with us to improve the system,” said Evoy

Robb listed the creation and expansion of various venues for students to get help, such as a drop-in counselling program at Hart House and New College, a student-run peer substance abuse program in New College, and a positive psychology workshop starting in January. In addition, there is an active effort to build strong partnerships at CAMH, so that students in need of extensive care “receive it at the right time and for the right amount.”

As for the criticisms, Robb says: “I could hire more counsellors, but I would still have a wait list because there will always be more [students needing help]. We need to promote health. Rather than being reactive, let’s be proactive.”