Expression Against Oppression events give voice to marginalized students

Two week series of events raise awareness about mental health, LGBT students

Expression Against Oppression events give voice to marginalized students

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) held a series of events over the past two weeks to raise awareness of marginalized voices on campus. The semi-annual Expression Against Oppression (XAO) was hosted by the Social Justice and Equity commission — one of five divisions within the UTSU — which is responsible for the planning and execution of six anti-oppression events spanning from October 21 to 30.

Yolen Bollo-Kamara, vice-president, equity of the UTSU, discussed XAO’s significance to the university. “The main idea for XAO is to try and cover as many different issues as we can,” she said. “Although the kinds of events vary each year, we are usually always able to do a Night of Expression, which is the one that really brings all of the events together.”

This year’s Night of Expression took place on Thursday October 24. According to Bollo-Kamara, it attracted spoken word and rap sets, along with a drag performance. “Everybody was very supportive, and it was definitely our largest crowd — although different events draw different people. We do look at the popularity of each event in determining what issues to cover, and we also encourage multiple student organizations to get involved with our events.”

This year’s XAO was held in conjunction with many different student groups that worked to not only enable a variety of perspectives, but to draw additional interest beyond social justice and equity. Each event collaborated with one other organization, including the African Students’ Association (ASA), Health and Wellness, LGBTOUT, Brazilian Culture in Canada (BRAZUCA), and the Community Safety Office.

The first week started with a women’s self-defence workshop, followed by VisibiliTEA, an evening of tea and crafts, along with a discussion surrounding the implications of queer women’s visibility on campus. The second week included a Brazilian martial arts workshop, a film screening, and a five-dollar lunch.

The film screening of Venus Noire told the story of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman infamously exhibited in a 19th century freak show in Europe because of her “exotic and unique” sexual features, such as her large buttocks and elongated labia. The film chronicled Baartman’s life as she struggled for independence in a newly abolitionist society. The screening was coordinated by Bollo-Kamara and ASA president Vanessa Jev, who was inspired to share the matter after seeing the film in her French culture studies class.

“I immediately thought the film was very controversial, yet representative of black culture in the media these days,” said Jev, “When you think about it, Sarah Baartman was the first video vixen. You really get to see the inner struggle from her perspective and how everything seems to defeat her. The film asks you to ask tough questions of yourself: is she really complicit? She is being exploited but is being given money at the same time for exposing her body. The movie really speaks to modern day issues.”

Third-year life sciences student Olayinka Sanusi, a member of the ASA, agreed that the film encouraged a critical reflection of racial inequity: “Looking at her body in a sexual manner is oppression, and it’s important that this was a real event in history. I like the fact that I can come to these kinds of events on campus and learn to further express myself by talking about the common problems my community faces.”

Another highlight of this semester’s events was the five dollar lunch at Hart House, which focused on raising mental health awareness on campus. The UTSU partnered with U of T’s Health and Wellness Centre, as well as other related student groups, for a resource fair that aimed to provide support and information on mental health issues. In the hall outside the lunch, many students had the opportunity to engage with representatives from student associations such as Peers are Here, Powerful Minds at U of T, Active Minds at U of T, and Let’s Talk Health.

The lunch itself attracted many students who hadn’t heard of the XAO event itself, but showed interest in the presentations at the front of the Great Hall. “The lunch is a great price and it will definitely attract lots of people to find out about new activities and groups on campus,” said Tracey Zhao, a third-year economics student.

The main goal of this semester’s XAO events was to eliminate the stigma surrounding various social issues, and to foster a more inclusive environment both on and off campus.

Russia’s deep internal divide

Political differences are to blame for civil rights issues, but is an Olympic boycott the right approach?

Russia’s deep internal divide

The initial reaction of many in the West to Russian President Vladimir Putin signing laws to ban homosexual propaganda was outrage. Soon thereafter, many began to talk about boycotting the upcoming Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. To do so would be the height of foolishness and serve only to further the cause of illiberalism in Russia.

Russia has become increasingly polarized between an emerging urban elite — whose values can easily be recognized in Canada — and a more rural traditional population  for whom conservative mores hold far greater sway.

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

When Putin was first elected, he was welcomed by all as the answer to the chaos of Boris Yeltsin’s administration. As time has gone on, the West has become increasingly frustrated with Putin’s hard-line defense of Russian interests internationally. Meanwhile, Russia’s more liberal middle classes have become more and more frustrated by the corruption in Russian society.

Putin has therefore come to rely increasingly on an unsophisticated rural class for popular support. Putin’s cultivation of an ultra-masculine image for himself is clearly an effort to appeal to this class. Whether driving a truck across Siberia or shooting tigers, Putin constantly attempts to portray himself as a defender of traditional Russian culture and values against the United States.

Western intervention and commentary has continually irked both Putin and his conservative political base. The passage of the Magnitsky Act by the United States Congress, designed to bring the corruption and lack of justice in Russia to light, appears to that country’s conservatives as an attempt by a recent enemy to meddle in Russia’s affairs. Meanwhile, efforts in the West to brand Putin as a tin pot dictator, along the lines of Muammar Gaddafi or Kim Jong-un, and efforts by the U.S. to encourage dissent within Russia have threatened the continued survival of Putin’s government. Forced by this challenge to shore up support while increasingly seeing the US as against him, Putin has had to fight tooth and nail against America’s efforts.

Putin seeks to maintain his position in power, while gaining international support for himself and for Russia as an influential force in world affairs. While the liberal classes in Russia will not support Putin regardless of his actions, Russia’s rural conservatives are only likely to care about issues of traditional morality when they are forced to pay attention, such as following the recent arrest of the band Pussy Riot for playing offensive music in a church, or the recent talk of boycotting the Sochi Olympics. Like Putin, the conservatives are interested in furthering Russia’s respectability and influence in the world.

Canada has a special role to play; while the conservative base upon which Putin depends still harbors deep suspicions about the United States and many Western European countries, Canada and Russia have many shared interests. The Arctic, for instance, has become a new battleground in international diplomacy. By working to reach accords with Russia on issues like Arctic sovereignty and access to the newly opening Northeast and Northwest Passages, ordinary Russians can begin to see the West as a partner to work with and learn from, rather than as an enemy to oppose. While the recent news out of Russia is deeply disturbing and should be addressed, walking away from the Olympic games is not the best way for the West to demonstrate its dissatisfaction. Boycotting the games would be perceived as a Western affront to traditional Russian morals. The West could accomplish more by focusing on what they have in common with Russia to bring the country forward, rather than denying the opportunity to have conversation.

 

Jeffrey Schulman is a first-year student at Trinity College.

In good faith

Exploring interfaith dialogue on campus and the importance of forgiveness

In good faith

Although U of T is an academic institution, spirituality plays an important role in the lives of many of its students. Accordingly, attempting to accommodate the spiritual and religious needs of students is an important value at the university. U of T hosts a number of faith communities including Aboriginal spiritual groups, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, and more. With such a variety of backgrounds coming to the institution, meeting the needs of every spiritual background becomes a challenge.

This concern is relatively novel; the university has a strong history of Christian presence on campus, exemplified by its historically Christian colleges. In the late 90s, a group of students, with the support of the Students’ Administrative Council — the precursor to the University of Toronto Students’ Union — approached Simcoe Hall, contending that Christian students were privileged on campus, while students of other faiths were not given similar access to freedom of religion.

Multi-Faith Centre director Richard Chambers

Multi-Faith Centre director Richard Chambers. AARON TAN/THE VARSITY

The university was hesitant to respond to these criticisms, due to the trend of increasing secularization in society and at the school. Following ten years of contemplation and discussion, the Multi-Faith Centre (MFC) was established as the solution to this issue. The building of the centre was contested by the Secular Alliance as compromising the secular nature of the university.

Richard Chambers, director of the MFC, points out that the philosophy of the centre accounted for Canada’s emphasis on the tenet of multiculturalism: “Canadian society is a secular society, in the sense that religion is not given any privilege in society… In English-speaking Canada though, there is an understanding about the freedom of religious expression in civil society… The university realized [that] it should actually be educating students to be able to go out and navigate that religious diversity in society, and in fact, there’s a great ready-made classroom in the experience of U of T.”

 

Multi-Faith Space
Muffin Madness is a popular event hosted at the Multi-Faith Centre. AARON TAN/THE VARSITY

Muffin Madness is a popular event hosted at the Multi-Faith Centre. AARON TAN/THE VARSITY

The MFC was opened in 2006 on this basis, and has since served as a hub for interfaith dialogue and faith-based activities on campus, coupled with new multi-faith space in other campus buildings. Multi-faith space refers to flexible, bookable spaces designed to both accommodate various faiths and to encourage dialogue between students of different backgrounds.

Sonya Krause, former co-chair of Faiths Act — a student group dedicated to preventing deaths from malaria through interfaith action — describes how her group used multi-faith space: “Faiths Act used the MFC for meeting and event space and… the administration for help in planning events and dealing with the larger U of T administration. We also attended Muffin Madness at the MFC to recruit and to network with other faith-based clubs to collaborate on events.”

Fareedah Abdulqadir of the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) concurs that her favourite weekly activity is the popular “Muffin Madness,” a casual weekly interfaith drop-in, but adds that her group also uses the space for prayer, meetings, and social events.

While groups use multi-faith space for their own operations, interfaith dialogue, such as “Muffin Madness,” also takes place there. Along with social activities, interfaith activities are often related to social justice.

“Interfaith dialogue at the University of Toronto doesn’t all look like one might imagine in terms of a formal dialogue, with three people sitting around a table talking about what prayer looks like,” Chambers describes. “A lot of our programming is around social justice and community service work, because we find that there is a cohort of students interested in … theological questions, but more students are interested in making a difference for good in the world, and they’re motivated … by their beliefs.”

Multi

In multi-faith space, interfaith dialogue in the form of a social justice project is often paired with a discussion of faith-based motivations for participating. “Muslim students will reference the Qur’an; Jewish students may reference the Torah; Christian students may reference the Bible; secular students may talk about their own values … but we find that interfaith dialogue at the university often revolves around really hands-on projects about making a difference in the world. At the end of the day, it’s about mutual respect and understanding,”  says Chambers.

 

Campus Chaplains

Campus chaplains are tasked with fostering interfaith dialogue on campus as well as serving the spiritual needs of students. They meet monthly to discuss spiritual issues and events on campus.

Ecumenical chaplain Reverend Ralph Wushke comments, “As a chaplain, my role is in one sense religious and spiritual care and supporting spiritual lives of students, and at the same time I see it as building inter-religious harmony and respect… I believe firmly that when people of different faiths come together and share experiences that are based on their faith, each partner comes into a deeper understanding of their own faith.”

Chaplains

In contrast to some students’ concerns that participating in interfaith dialogue is a threat to their own faith commitments, the campus chaplains contend that students often find these dialogues enriching and that participating in them serves to reinforce their own beliefs.

Jewish chaplain Rabbi Aaron Katchen sees equipping students for interfaith dialogue as a critical point in the process: “By conversation, we better understand each other. We also better understand ourselves … but it also has to come from a place of knowledge. I try and work with the students … to help them better understand what does their tradition and history have to say, so first of all when they show up at the table, they have something to say. That’s not just people speaking at them … it’s helping build up a relationship of meaning.”

 

“A good, sincere conversation”
A student enjoying the Multi-Faith Centre. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

A student enjoying the Multi-Faith Centre. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

Many students who have participated in interfaith dialogue on campus contend that the practice builds strong bonds among people of different faiths and strengthens their own self-understanding.

Gianni Castiglione, president of the U of T Secular Alliance (UTSA), recalls: “The UTSA has participated in multiple productive interfaith dialogues, yet the one that sticks out in my own mind was a debate/seminar we helped host on human nature. There were three speakers — one Catholic, a Sikh, and a clinical psychologist who was the UTSA’s representative… There were several occasions in which the views shared both content and outlook… During these moments, there was a palpable realization in the audience and among the speakers that these geographically and culturally separate worldviews had arrived at similar conclusions, carrying with it very interesting and deep implications.”

Jacob Liao of the Light House Christian Community worked on the Common Ground Project, a Canadian civic engagement initiative of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW) with support from Citizen and Immigration Canada: “…because we have worked together for the past year, there was just an overflow of heartfelt sharing and deep respect for one another’s beliefs and traditions. The best dialogue is not that of a panel of distinguished guest speakers… but the genuine expression of the self through one’s life and one’s giving.”

Some other examples of programming include group gardening at the Ecology and Spirituality Garden at New College, participating in the Great Canadian Shoreline Clean Up, the Tzedakah-Sadaqah Project of bringing Jewish and Muslim students together to work at a soup kitchen, and Religious Diversity Dialogue Certificate Training.

Scarborough

Qu(e)erying Religion, a program for queer students of faith, has included presentations by interfaith queer couples, spiritual leaders of different religions discussing and reclaiming relevant scripture with queer students, and social outings such as Hart House Theatre productions.

Abdulqadir describes: “Interfaith dialogue to me is any attempt to engage sincerely with a person or group of another faith with the explicit understanding that the purpose of the interaction is to engage our different sacred traditions. This doesn’t have to be in a formal program or with recognized institutions. It could just be a good, sincere conversation with a fellow student.”

 

The Role of Forgiveness

This year, Hart House — in combination with the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office (ARDCO), Hillel of Toronto, Ask Big Questions, and the Multi-Faith Centre — is presenting a series entitled Wounds into Wisdom — The Practice of Forgiveness: In Pursuit of Reconciliation and Justice.

Sandra Carnegie-Douglas, anti-racism and cultural diversity officer, notes that the program is not entirely focused on interfaith dialogue, but also on individual and structural forgiveness: “There is a broad diversity of faith and ethical clubs on campus and interfaith dialogue can provide a space for the clubs to participate in open dialogue and engage with their multiple identities, across differences on complex issues and themes that are, at times, conflicting. The Wounds into Wisdom program is not specifically designed as an interfaith dialogue, however, we anticipate that it will appeal to faith and ethical communities, together with the broadly diverse constituencies that make up the
U of T community.”

Numbers

Forgiveness nonetheless plays an important role in interfaith dialogue, such as when sensitive political issues arise in conversation. In Canada, the example of residential schools is pertinent; although sending Aboriginal children to residential schools was government policy, the schools themselves were Christian. These schools are now associated with a legacy of abuse and trauma. Addressing these deep divides and bringing victims and perpetrators, as well as their later generations,  together is a difficult challenge in interfaith dialogue.

The Forgiveness series brings historical injustices such as this, as well as the Holocaust and the internment of Japanese Canadians to the forefront. Carnegie-Douglas describes: “In planning this year’s program, we interpreted forgiveness to include the related concepts of restorative justice, apology, redress, and reparation to incorporate stories that range from the interpersonal to historical injustices.” The F-Word photography project is particularly engaging in addressing these tensions, as it contains anecdotal examples of interfaith dialogue and forgiveness in extreme circumstances.

Carnegie-Douglas acknowledges the difficulty of engaging in these dialogues: “Conversations on race, faith, and cultural diversity (areas of focus for the ARCDO) are often met with silence and resistance. Enabling spaces for open dialogue helps to break down the silence, promote understanding, and build community.”

Chambers brings up the example of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a point of contention between Jewish and Muslim students. He uses the strategy of acknowledging the obvious differences in the room while trying to direct the focus onto collective activity, such as charitable projects. The Multi-Faith Centre offers conflict resolution for when such dialogue becomes hostile, but Chambers notes that he has only had to intervene a handful of times. Admitting the different perspectives of students of different faiths serves to create an atmosphere of respect in interfaith dialogue that allows for a productive conversation to ensue. Students of different backgrounds need to be able to bring their unique viewpoints into the dialogue without fear of backlash.

Mississauga

Rev. Wushke notes that forgiveness can be a source of common ground for students of different faiths, since it is incorporated into the doctrine of many spiritual groups.

Rabbi Katchen, who is involved with the Forgiveness project through Hillel, comments: “…Forgiveness is really about a human experience… Each of us come to it in very different ways… One of the goals of the Forgiveness project is not about saying that forgiveness is always the answer, that forgiveness is always the stated goal, or that we all forgive in the same way… but rather, it’s something we all struggle through as part of interacting as
humans — and that’s all interfaith dialogue is. It’s about humans coming together, and we’re including our religious self in that conversation, as opposed to leaving it at the door.”

U of T has a number of faith-based clubs and student organizations. We talked to students involved with some of them about why interfaith dialogue matters.

The Question: Should academics be expected to censor their personal biases?

The Question: Should academics be expected to censor their personal biases?
Rally attendees festooned the statue of Northrop Frye outside Victoria College. DENIS OSIPOV/THE VARSITY

Rally attendees festooned the statue of Northrop Frye outside Victoria College. DENIS OSIPOV/THE VARSITY

 

Gilmour’s comments not a signal to ban professors’ opinions from classroom

The recent backlash that resulted from an interview that lecturer David Gilmour gave two weeks ago has raised some important questions about whether educators should share their opinions or keep their personal feelings to themselves. While the Gilmour scandal is a reminder that words should be chosen carefully, it should not be considered a sign that intellectuals’ personal opinions should be left out of the classroom.

To some extent, all course syllabi are representative of the tastes or opinions of the professors who created them. Gaining insight into the logic behind text choices and teaching perspectives is valuable; professors’ opinions can contextualize course material and often make a course more interesting. That being said, setting a syllabus is a privilege, and it comes with responsibility. Perhaps Gilmour’s comments provoked an inflamed response not because of what he said, but how he chose to phrase it. He stated that he only teaches works of authors he truly loves, since those are the works he teaches best. Instead of leaving it at that, a  relatively unprovocative statement, he chose to further characterize his choice on the basis of gender, age, race, and sexual orientation — referring to authors that do not resonate with him in terms that could easily be perceived as discriminatory. The descriptive language that Gilmour chose was inflammatory, but his initial rationale makes sense — he teaches what he does because it is what he teaches best.

Professors should not be forced to teach subjects they have no personal interest in. If Gilmour is not passionate about female authors, then it stands to reason that his class would not be the best setting in which to be educated on them. In many ways, Gilmour’s syllabus is the product of him playing to his strengths and admitting his weaknesses.

As a female student who took David Gilmour’s first-year seminar, I enjoyed the course. Professor Gilmour actively gave his opinions and explained the choices of works through personal anecdotes and, in doing so, made the class intriguing, aggravating, and amusing. It did not matter whether you hated or loved his comments, he welcomed opinions and arguments from all of his students, even if they clashed with his own.

The courses that Gilmour teaches do not profess to be all-encompassing samples of literary greatness, and would probably be more appropriately titled: “The World According to Gilmour.” For those who cannot reconcile the value of education with the personality of the professor, the good news is that Gilmour teaches two half-year elective courses — which makes opting-out of the Gilmour experience easy for most. For those who do choose his courses, they provide a unique, albeit sometimes exacerbating, educational experience.

Exposure to conflicting opinions is part of education, and — as Margaret Atwood stated in response to the scandal — “Universities are places where many things are taught, and where free expression of opinion is encouraged.” All professors, David Gilmour included, should be free to respectfully give their personal opinions, as long as we as students remain free to express ours.

Samantha Relich is a third-year student studying criminology and political science. 

 

David Gilmour scandal reveals holes in the university’s hiring policies

As I scrolled through my Twitter timeline the other day, one thing became abundantly clear: people are really mad at David Gilmour. Quoted in a Hazlitt interview, Gilmour said: “I’m not interested in teaching books by women”, and later, that: “If you want women writers, go down the hall.” He also spoke of his dislike for Canadian and Chinese authors, which naturally narrows down his syllabus to: “…Guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”

I currently study at Victoria College, where Gilmour is a lecturer, and have had many friends go through his classes. They speak highly of him, saying that he is quirky and brilliant — he did win the Governor General’s Literary Award, after all.

I am not angry with what Gilmour had to say, and I do not think he is racist or sexist. In his defense he just: “teach[es] the people that [he] truly, truly love[s].” I do, however, think that if there is an issue here, it is the matter of equity in the classroom.

This incident has brought to light hiring practices which do not seem conducive to the university’s own human rights’ equity policy, which supposedly “acknowledges that it conducts its teaching, research and other activities in the context of a richly diverse society.” Gilmour’s class does not acknowledge this, and the way he was hired — with a blank check for curriculum development — does not either.

Ironically, U of T is hell-bent on requiring students to fulfill “breadth requirements,” categorized mandatory classes which lead students back into the perils of math in the hope of making them more well-rounded. You would think the university would aim for the same thing regarding the diversity of opinion within the classroom: a balanced perspective of a topic.

It seems Gilmour has also forgotten about the diplomacy required of public figures like himself. His apology interview in the National Post was frankly a disaster, as he said he “Normally… actually wouldn’t” and he doesn’t, “…want [his] teaching reputation besmirched.” Amusingly, he noted that he would not “…want people not buying [his] book because they think that’s the position [he] hold[s] in the world.”

The negative light being shone on the U of T community as a whole, due to Gilmour’s actions, is upsetting. Ours is a campus where a premium is placed on equity and fairness, two values David Gilmour seemed to forget during his interview. However, the university should take something positive out of this situation and review its hiring practices in order to provide students with not only a good education, but a tolerant one — filled with different perspectives. Students will always be more engaged in a class taught by someone interesting, someone they can relate to. David Gilmour just did what he was hired to do, but then why was David Gilmour hired in the first place?

Max Stern is a second-year student studying both peace, conflict, and justice studies and Canadian studies.

 

Censorship in academia: is there no room for different opinions?

The recent controversy surrounding David Gilmour, an author and lecturer at Victoria College, has a number of people fuming over comments he made in an interview with Hazlitt magazine. In the world of academia, scholars are expected to spend years developing informed opinions, so it is strange that Gilmour is being reprimanded for explaining his choice of readings for his syllabus. What is even stranger is that he has not said anything overtly discriminatory.

In the interview transcript, he is recorded saying: “…when I was given this job, I said I would teach only the people that I truly, truly love. And, unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women.” In response, some in the literary world — as well as students across campus — have characterized his remarks as being both racist and sexist.

Consider this: perhaps none of the authors Gilmour enjoys teaching are Chinese because he was never taught about any of them. With a degree in French literature, it is not hard to imagine that Gilmour has probably never learned anything about Chinese writing. How many of us, regardless of our love for diversity and literature, have a favourite piece of writing from every single racial and ethnic group in this world? Yet nobody would accuse someone of being a racist for not appreciating literature from any specific culture.

As for the alleged sexism, Gilmour never implied that female writers were inferior or incapable of producing great writing. In fact, he stated that he loves and appreciates Virginia Woolf. Gilmour’s preference for male authors is hardly suspicious; we all enjoy characters and authors we can relate to.

At one of the more contentious points of the interview, Gilmour says: “What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys…Real guy-guys.” In response to accusations of homophobia, Gilmour has explained that he spoke in jest and that without context, print articles misrepresent his comments. After all, he teaches  Truman Capote. In fact, even the “serious, heterosexual guys” Gilmour loves are not what most people would consider to represent the epitome of masculinity. For instance, he teaches Raymond Carver, whose stories focus on the realities of love and relationships. Exploring sensitive and emotional topics does not follow the overt, traditional masculinity Gilmour appears to be championing in the interview.

The only real mistake that Gilmour made during the interview was not choosing his words more carefully. Yes, he said that he teaches only the “best,” which implies that only white, straight men can produce top-notch work. But literature is subjective. What Gilmour, you, or I believe to be the “best” could be considered a piece of overrated garbage to another.

Gilmour and other academics are not obliged to suppress their personal opinions in public — short of outright bigotry — indeed, they should be encouraged to share their perspectives. After all, academia is supposed to be based on competing ideas.

Sophie Zhou is a second-year student studying English, history, and literary studies.

Lecturer “not interested” in teaching works of queer, female, or Chinese writers

David Gilmour’s comments draw criticism from administration, students’ union

Lecturer “not interested” in teaching works of queer, female, or Chinese writers

David Gilmour has come under fire in the past few days following an interview with Hazlitt, in which he indicated his preference for teaching the works of heterosexual male authors. The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) has criticized both Gilmour and the U of T administration’s response to the ongoing controversy. Gilmour is a sessional instructor at U of T.

“I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women,” said Gilmour in the Hazlitt interview.

In an email to The Varsity, Yollen Bollo-Kamara, the union’s vice-president, equity, stated: “David Gilmour’s comments were absolutely offensive and unconscionable. The University should take immediate action to ensure that concerns of hundreds of members of the university community are adequately addressed. We all have the right to a safe, inclusive learning environment.”

Scott Prudham, president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association, joined a number of university figures in distancing themselves from Gilmour’s statements: “These comments fail in the most fundamental way to respect and reflect the great cultural and intellectual diversity of this institution, this community, and the Faculty Association itself. While Mr. Gilmour may well choose the books he wants to teach based on his expertise as a teacher and a writer, one would hope he would choose his words more carefully in both capacities, not least out of respect for his colleagues and his students.”

Angela Esterhammer, an English professor and principal of Victoria College, praised Gilmour’s professional pedigree, describing him as a part-time instructor who “brings his professional accomplishments as a Governor General’s Award-winning novelist and film critic to his teaching role.” Esterhammer outlined the fact that Gilmour has since apologized to students and staff, and that many people, including the Victoria College administration, have stated that they do not share Gilmour’s views.

Esterhammer concluded by defending the course offerings at U of T, which she described as “without parallel” for their range and diversity: ”David Gilmour’s seminar ‘Love, Sex, and Death in Short Fiction’ is an optional course that students may take at Victoria College. It is one among hundreds of course offerings in literature at the University of Toronto and its Colleges, which include survey courses as well as small, focused seminars. These course offerings are incredibly diverse as to culture, gender, form, period, content, and approach.”

Thursday morning, roughly 50 students attended a rally at Victoria to show their support.

Andrea Day and Miram Novick, two U of T graduate students who organized the rally, called on attendees to “show [our] support for the omission of unserious people like women, queer folks, and writers of colour (especially Chinese writers) from university syllabi.”

U of T issued a statement Thursday outlining their stance on Gilmour’s statements: “One might hope that, in a university environment, teachers would encourage respectful airing of differences of opinion, and that, by airing their own views in a respectful way, they would encourage students to examine critically their own beliefs as well as those of their teachers and classmates.”

The statement outlined the fact that Gilmour has repeatedly apologized for his statements, and that the university had heard from students, faculty, and staff who were “dismayed” by his statements. “The University and Victoria College will also ensure that students in his class are under no misapprehensions that Mr. Gilmour’s literary preferences may be translated into assumptions about their innate abilities,” it read.

This statement also drew harsh criticism from the students’ union. “We are very disappointed in the statement released by the University this evening,” said Bollo-Kamara, “It is frustrating that the University does not acknowledge the impact that Mr. Gilmour’s words may have on the large part of our population who are women, Chinese, or do not identify as heterosexual.”

 

With files from Kate McCullough.

Queer Orientation engages hundreds of students

First ever tri-campus event widely heralded as success

Queer Orientation engages hundreds of students

Over the past two weeks, students from all three University of Toronto campuses participated in the first ever Queer Orientation. With 16 organizations involved, hosting 39 events in total, Orientation reached hundreds of students. The University of Toronto Sexual & Gender Diversity Office (SGDO) played a lead role in the planning of the events, each of which highlighted a different angle of engaging with the university. Scott Clarke, program coordinator at the SGDO, explained how Queer Orientation was designed to help bring students who might not otherwise interact together. “The events are designed to bring first-year students, returning students, and grad students together,” he said.

 

Building community

LGBTQ and Allies in Science and Engineering (LGBTQASE) hosted their first event of the semester, an informal meet and greet during Queer Orientation in order to give students the opportunity to reconvene after the holidays. The mixer attracted around 20 people and included games, icebreakers, and refreshments. One participant, who requested anonymity, liked the “chilled out” atmosphere.

Teresa Hulinska, co-president of LGBTQASE, emphasized the importance of a more intimate space for queer and allied students to interact with each other, especially in comparison to the large number of students that participate in Frosh Week. “Providing a smaller space allows people who might feel uncomfortable in a large group to socialize with new people,” Hulinska said. The majority of attendees were first-years looking to become more involved in the queer community within the context of their academic interests.

Rainbow Trinity represents LGBTQ students in student government, and fosters community and discussion. It aims to create an open and equitable environment at Trinity College. It also organizes social events, the first of which was a barbeque last Monday, which approximately 90 students attended.

Although Rainbow Trinity has a barbeque every year, this is the first time that it has taken place under the banner of Queer Orientation. Rainwbow Trinity president Jordan May said that the aim of the casual social was “to create a welcoming atmosphere for all students, especially first-years. It’s a chance for them to get to know the upper-years, and to know that they can be comfortable with who they are and to express themselves.”

 

Facilitating discussion

Ally Night, organized by the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), was run as an informal discussion. Approximately 40 people joined the group over the course of the evening. Yolen Bollo-Kamara, UTSU’s vice-president, equity, said that “Ally Night plays an important role in Queer Orientation by connecting LGBTQ students and those who would like to learn more about the role of an ally. It’s especially important for allies to be able to listen and learn from their peers about how best to support them.” Bollo-Kamara was pleased with the turnout and the talk. “We had a great conversation,” she said.

The SGDO also sought to initiate a dialogue through the event “Queer Women on Campus,” which focused on helping women and trans attendees to meet, share experiences, find resources, and network. A student said “it’s often difficult for me to find other queer women and events like this help get me connected.” Kathy Mac, who organized Queer Women on Campus, said that the event was also a chance for the SGDO to gather feedback from participants, some of whom wanted to have a board game night in the future. Mac plans for more meetings throughout the year, with the activities reflecting the interests of the group.

 

Promoting education

The University of Toronto Sexual Education Centre (SEC) conducted a presentation on how to have safer sex, as well as an introduction to the resources that SEC offers, which are available to any U of T student free of charge. Although the event was poorly attended, executive director Jordan Lavoie was “happy to be a part of [Queer Orientation].” One of SEC’s goals as an organization is to educate students and encourage safe sexual practices. Commenting on the presentation’s relevance to the queer community, Lavoie said  “until you get to university, sex education doesn’t include information for non-heterosexuals.”

Professor Brenda Cossman, director of the Sexual Diversity Studies (SDS) centre, expressed her desire to see more promotion of the program during Queer Orientation. “There is an obvious partnership between the students in the program and the students who come to Queer Orientation events. Students should be more exposed to the academic and educational opportunities available to them,” Cossman said. In addition, the department is very interested in becoming more involved with planning Queer Orientation next year.

 

Casual fun

Hart House organized a button-making session, where participants could socialize without the pressure of a rigid agenda. “Button-making as a craft is one that I find to be comparatively more accessible than some other forms of creative relaxation,” said Day Milman, the program co-ordinator. “It’s a great outlet for stress, mental pressures, or just self-expression. Making your own button is your chance to customize your message to the world.”

Participants sitting and working on their buttons appeared to share Milman’s views. Dinaly Tran, a third-year student, said “what I like about this event is that it’s not issue-oriented. The previous events were great, but most of them were about tackling a certain subject or discussing a popular issue. I really like that this event doesn’t have any such agenda, that it allows the space to get to know other people in a more relaxed environment.”

Department members, Sexual Diversity Studies Students’ Union (SDSSU) representatives, students, and fellows were present at the SDS Launch Party on Thursday. The party was a rare opportunity for everyone associated with the program to come together. Jade Reid, a sexual diversities specialist student, had nothing but praise for the events. “People [at these events] are always very positive, the energy is always high, and the food is always good,” she said.

 

Looking forward

Clarke was pleased with the success of Queer Orientation. “We saw students really engaging in the events, hanging out after to chat, and making their experience Queer Orientation their own.” With regard to future plans, Clarke said that the precedent set this year was good, and that he hopes Queer Orientation next year will be an even greater success.

Students rally against David Gilmour at Vic

Support shown for women writers, queer writers, and writers of colour

Students rally against David Gilmour at Vic

David Gilmour’s comments in an interview with Hazlitt last Wednesday met with controversy and disapproval from some students. On Friday, the conflict escalated with a student-organized rally in front of the Northrop Frye statue at Victoria College. The location was chosen strategically. Gilmour teaches at Victoria College and was a student of Frye, who is said to be one of the most influential Canadian literary critics and theorists of the twentieth century. The rally, entitled “Serious Heterosexual Guys for Serious Literary Scholarship,” was organized largely over Facebook by two U of T graduate students, Andrea Day and Miriam Novick. The rally gained significant media attention. In the Facebook event for the rally, Day and Novick called the attendees to “show [our] support for the omission of unserious people like women, queer folks, and writers of colour (especially Chinese writers) from university syllabi.”

The rally consisted of the organizers, as well as members and students of the English department, reading out passages from novels by female, queer, and minority authors, all of whom Gilmour stated he was “not interested in teaching.” Anthony Oliveira, a PhD student in the English department, told The Varsity that he was “glad to be a part of an event where authors that Gilmour does not think are worth studying are being heard.” The protesters chanted “Gilmour, read more” throughout the rally, and encouraged the crowd of about 50 people to use social media to post about the protest. Major media outlets including CBC, City TV, and GlobalTV attended the event.

DENIS OSIPOV/THE VARSITY

DENIS OSIPOV/THE VARSITY

Day, a PhD student in the English department, told The Varsity that she and Novick decided to organize the rally largely for pedagogical reasons. “We were very frustrated with the idea that someone’s personal biases can direct not only what they teach but also their students’ experiences in a survey course. Late twentieth century short fiction is incredibly diverse, with plenty of people of colour, women, queer, and trans people. The idea that only white straight men have something to say in that avenue is very upsetting,” she said. Day added that she was impressed that the university called for collegiality, and that neither she nor Novick are asking for his job. She stressed that the controversy is not a result of a difference of opinions, but the blanket statements Gilmour has made. Other speakers at the rally were not as kind to Gilmour. Sundhya Walther, who is also a PhD student in the English department and spoke at the rally, thought that “Victoria College should seriously reconsider his employment, because Gilmour’s teaching philosophy is not something that can be solved by cosmetic gestures.” Krystyn Olmedo, a second-year classics student, compared Gilmour’s comments to something from “ancient times.”  Yolen Bollo-Kamara, the UTSU’s vice-president, equity, was present at the rally and expressed concern at the limited response from the university. “Gilmour’s comments essentially exclude a large portion of the university’s community,” she said.

Since the publication of Gilmour’s comments on Wednesday, he has issued an apology.

Trinity Western seeks to block enrollment of gay law students

Religious institutions enjoy special privilege over individual rights

Trinity Western seeks to block enrollment of gay law students

The Federation of Law Societies of Canada is considering whether to accredit the law school at Trinity Western University (TWU). TWU is a Christian school famous for a 2001 Supreme Court case in which the court controversially ruled that the British Columbia College of Teachers was wrong to reject the university’s application for certification of its teachers’ college. The university is once again facing opposition due to its Community Covenant — which forbids students from engaging in, among other things, homosexual intimacy. Leading the charge is prominent civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby, who argues that since the new law school will be inaccessible to gays and lesbians, accrediting TWU would  impose a “queer quota” — arbitrarily limiting the number of gay Canadian lawyers.

Disturbingly, Ruby’s defense of equal rights has come under attack in the mainstream media. The National Post’s Jonathan Kay has accused Ruby of a “narrow-minded crusade” against TWU. He cites the 2001 ruling and denounces Ruby for trying “to get around this clear precedent with a new argument based on the claim that, if TWU’s law school is accredited, the legal industry as a whole would then effectively be imposing a “queer quota” on gay lawyers — despite the fact that Canada has almost two dozen other law schools, and that TWU’s 60 first-year law-school slots would comprise less than two per cent of the country’s incoming law-school cohort.”

Similarly, in the Vancouver Sun, Calgary lawyer John Carpay defends TWU’s code of conduct by suggesting that, in addition to homosexuality, it also bans adultery and premarital sex. “Nobody is required to abide by these rules, unless a person voluntarily submits to them,” he argues. “Any student, whether gay or straight, who does not wish to abide by TWU’s code of conduct is free to attend another university.”

It should be deeply distressing to Canadians that such confused commentary is informing public opinion on a topic as important as equal rights. As will be clear to any unbiased observer, Carpay’s argument misses the point; no one is arguing that TWU forces its code of conduct on the general public, or that homosexuality is the only thing proscribed by its covenant, or even that gays and lesbians will have no choice but to attend TWU. What is being objected to is that in order to attend TWU, gay and lesbian students will be forced to hide an integral part of their identities — which is an outrage in and of itself. If a proponent of an anti-semitic university were to protest that “nobody is required to take off his kippa, or tuck in his star of David necklace, or refrain from observing High Holidays unless he voluntarily chooses to attend our school,” or that “any student, whether Jew or Gentile, who does not wish to abide by our (anti-semitic) code of conduct is free to attend another university,” we would regard these arguments as below contempt.

Kay conveys a misunderstanding of equal rights; if there is a single space in a Canadian law school, medical school, barber’s college, or restaurant which is not available to all people, regardless of identity, it is a national disgrace — it does not matter how many other spaces in other institutions are available to these people. If a “whites only” law school were to open in Canada, would anyone care that we have “almost two-dozen other law schools” or that the first-year slots at this “whites only” school would “comprise less than two per cent of the country’s incoming law-school cohort?” Hardly. So why, when the institution seeking to discriminate is religiously-oriented, do such specious arguments appear in the mainstream press?

The Post’s Chris Selley outlines this argument in a recent column: “The mainstream reaction, if we discovered some hitherto unknown whites-only university in the B.C. interior,” he writes, “would be to shut the place down — not its law school, not its engineering faculty, the whole place.” Since there is “no moral difference between anti-gay discrimination and anti-black discrimination” he continues, “the only legal difference is that a religious freedom defense is far more likely in the first case than in the second.” Selley does, however, state that private universities should have the right to admit whomever they want.

If TWU was a secular institution ,there would be no debate about whether to accredit its law school. So the current issue clearly boils down to whether religious institutions should have special privileges to violate individual rights. Many people seem to think that they do, yet it is unclear how to justify this position. Canadian law is  inconsistent in this respect; for example, Rastafarians — for whom smoking marijuana is a spiritual act — have been flatly refused any exemption from Canada’s laws against doing so.

Marijuana is basically harmless, and any harm that it does cause is only to the person who smokes it. Accommodating Rastafarians in this respect would not violate anyone’s rights, yet the courts have decided that Rastafarians’ freedom of religious expression is not important enough to merit an exemption to an illiberal law. Christians, on the other hand, have been granted the right to discriminate against gays — refusing to sanctify marriages or rent our Christian facilities for such purposes. Gay citizens’ rights to equality have therefore been subordinated to others’ religious freedoms by the Supreme Court of Canada.

This radical disparity likely has less to do with any principle than with the ability of Canada’s numerous, well-funded Christian groups to lobby and agitate for their interests. This is a luxury which Rastafarians, a tiny minority, do not enjoy. Furthermore, organizations that claim that preventing them from discriminating against gays would restrict their freedom of religion tend to be conspicuously selective in this regard. As Kay admonishes, Christians “are under absolutely no obligation” to “‘read in’ pro-gay interpretations that serve to invalidate the plain meaning of Leviticus 18:22 or 20:13.” They are, however, apparently free to ignore Leviticus 15:19, which commands them to ostracize menstruating women.

Out of this bewildering mass of injunctions, institutions like TWU blithely disregard the majority, seize upon the one that infringes  upon LGBTQ rights, and insist that they must be allowed to follow it regardless of its effect on the rights of others — since they cannot freely practice their religion otherwise.

This is not a rights-based argument, it is threadbare sophistry. The fact that such reasoning is considered, and accepted, in Canadian law is evidence of the pervasive pro-religion, anti-gay bias that mars both our legal system, and our society in general.

 

Simon Capobianco is a third-year student in math and philosophy at the University of Toronto