Vice-President Kevin Vando of the St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU) has announced his imminent resignation. The union is facing criticism after two Snapchat videos involving Vando and former SMCSU Councillor Sara Gonsalves that are making the rounds on social media have been called Islamophobic.
In one of the videos, Gonsalves is seen reading from the book Islam for Dummies, and in another, she can be heard singing, “would you be my Muslim boy” to the tune of Estelle’s “American Boy.”
The videos were reportedly recorded by Vando at the house of Joseph Crimi, who served as SMCSU’s Vice-President last year and was celebrating his birthday on November 19.
Current and former SMCSU councillors and executives were among the attendees. The Snapchat filter on the video reads, “SMCSU PRESENTS: JOSEPH CRIMI’S 22ND BIRTHDAY.”
Crimi has denied any direct involvement with the behaviour shown in the videos, insisting that his ties to the actions do not go beyond his name being on the Snapchat filter used.
“I am very upset about this video and the things being portrayed,” Crimi told The Varsity. “Although this was my birthday, I definitely do not condone the actions of these guests, and having served as a student leader for four years I am very upset (as are my parents) that I am being portrayed in such a discriminatory and hateful light, which in reality I am not.”
Crimi urged students to be more vigilant with what is posted on social media and apologized for the incident: “Today, people need to be more aware of what they post on Snapchat and Facebook, and should be very concerned and careful in how they act. We life [sic] in a world and go to a university in which discrimination is absolutely intolerable. I am sorry to all those offended by the content in the videos.”
The videos were originally posted to Twitter on December 2 by an anonymous account with the handle @Utsgstudent. It was subsequently shared on Facebook by Zeinab Aidid, a fourth-year student at U of T. Aidid’s post has over 1,300 reactions and over 800 shares.
When asked of her motivation for sharing the video, Aidid replied that she wanted to create a dialogue and hoped that the video would incite change.
“We want the University of Toronto to actively be trying to be a safe space for Muslim students,” she said. “We the Muslim students on this campus demand that these changes be made.”
The Muslim Students’ Association at UTSG issued a statement on Facebook condemning the video. The group says that it has spoken with the St. Michael’s College administration, the Multi-faith Centre, and the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office.
“This incident should provoke tangible steps going forward to ensure that student leaders on campus, and particularly at St. Michael’s College, receive the necessary training and become well-equipped to interact with students of various backgrounds,” a part of the statement reads. “All members of the University of Toronto community should reflect on how their actions can directly or indirectly negatively impact, make uncomfortable or alienate their fellow students.”
The Varsity reached out to Gonsalves, who apologized for her involvement in the incident.
“I’m very sorry that one lapse in judgement has caused offence to so many and that my actions have been taken out of context,” she wrote in an email. “Most people do not realize that I come from a family of many colours, cultures and religions. There was no malice or ill intent because I am in no way, shape or form against Islam or any religion. I do not condone racism of any kind and I unequivocally apologize if this captures me in that light. Moving forward, my heart and my actions will always demonstrate kindness and my genuine belief is that we are all the same.”
Vando had been Vice-President of SMCSU for two weeks, taking office on November 16 following the resignation of Jessica Afonso. He confirmed his involvement in the incident with a public Facebook post, wherein he expressed his apologies and took responsibility for his involvement in these videos. The statement is no longer publicly available on Facebook.
Vando stated that he grew up in a Muslim household and that the party was not a SMCSU-sanctioned event.“I will be taking a leave of absence from SMCSU and I am more than willing to work with the parties involved to remedy the situation,” read a portion of Vando’s statement. “This will never happen again, and I hope that we can win back your support once again.”
In a statement dated December 4, the University of Toronto Students’ Union condemned SMCSU for “appointing an executive that engages in islamophobic and racist practices.”
“As a Students’ Union, its representatives should be respectful, tolerant, and inclusive of all its members, including those that are Muslim,” the statement continues. “Representatives of St. Michael’s College Students’ Union should be actively condemning the racist behaviour that is present in those films.”
On the same day, SMCSU issued a statement on the matter, reiterating that the party was not sponsored by the union and confirming Vando’s resignation.
SMCSU’s statement reads: “The video footage publicized was filmed at a private off-campus function and was in no way sponsored by the St. Michael’s College Student Union. The video features a Geo-Filter that reads ‘SMCSU Presents’, a common monicker [sic] used for many of our events. We would like to clarify that SMCSU does not have a Snapchat Geo-Filter and that our official handle was not used on the evening in question. This specific Geo-Filter was not created by a member of our council and our identity was inappropriately used without our knowledge or consent.”
SMCSU also announced the introduction of compulsory equity training for council members: “Over the next few weeks we intend to listen to members of our community in an ongoing process of needed renewal and healing. As always, our doors will be open and we encourage anyone to visit the SMCSU Office to share and discuss their concerns with us. Moving forward, we are going to ensure that the St. Michael’s College Student Union is equipped to adequately respond to concerns like these, and all of our council members will be attending a mandatory comprehensive equity training program.”
SMCSU President Zachary Nixon also offered his personal thoughts on the incident in an email to The Varsity.
“I would like to express my deep personal regret to those effected [sic] by the recently posted Snapchat videos. They do not depict an accurate representation of our community at the University of St. Michael’s College. Further, I hope to put in place mechanisms that hold our Council accountable in situations where their conduct does not reflect the mission and values of our organization,” he said. “The healing process will take time, and I will work diligently to lead efforts for SMCSU to regain the respect, and trust of our students.”
University of St. Michael’s College President David Mulroney also weighed in on the controversy.
“We regret the offensive nature of the videos. We have been working hard to address aspects of student culture that run counter to the values of this institution,” he said. “Our work continues. We deeply regret any pain caused by such insensitive behavior.”
In an email Vando sent to SMCSU Council members that was obtained by The Varsity, he said that his resignation was not yet official and that it needed to be voted on by council. According to the SMCSU constitution, a resignation needs to be approved by the Council with a two-thirds majority.
“If council elects a new VP before my official resignation, you will be going against your own constitution, and that will be another issue and headache that you will have to deal with,” reads Vando’s email to SMCSU Council members. Vando clarified to The Varsity that his resignation “is definitely still happening.”
“By issue and headache I mean that there are council members who want to follow due diligence in regards to our constitution, and I don’t want them to be negatively affected,” he continued.
Nixon told The Varsity that SMCSU council members will convene on Monday to vote on Vando’s resignation.