The University of St. Michael’s College (USMC) administration had knowledge of the widely-circulated Snapchat videos taken by then Vice-President of the union Kevin Vando and labelled as Islamophobic at least two weeks before they were circulated on social media, The Varsity has learned.
The videos were recorded by Vando at a house party hosted by former Vice-President Joseph Crimi. They show former SMCSU Councillor Sara Gonsalves singing “Would you be my Muslim boy?” to the tune of “American boy” by Estelle, and later reading from a book titled “Islam for Dummies.” These videos prompted widespread public backlash and resulted in the leave of absence and later resignation of Vando.
According to a December 6 comment left by Ammara Wasim — the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) Vice President of Communications — on the group’s Facebook post about the events, SMCSU enacted mandatory equity training for its executives “because the MSA reached out to [the USMC] administration two weeks ago. They did not casually make that decision over the weekend while the videos were being circulated.” Wasim went on, saying that, “The St.Mike’s administration has already sat down and discussed this incident a week prior to the video leaks. The MSA has been trying to get in personal contact or receive a statement from St.Michaels college and general administration at UofT.”
Vando’s letter of resignation from SMCSU was presented to the SMCSU council on December 5. The Varsity has obtained a copy of the letter, in which he places much of the blame for the mishandling of the situation on SMCSU President Zachary Nixon, who has also since resigned.
The letter claims that Nixon first approached Vando on November 25 about a complaint brought to U of T and referred to the SMC admin about the videos. It states that Nixon had a meeting with the USMC administration on Friday, November 25. Vando was unable to attend, and the meeting was not pushed to the following Monday despite his request to be present, Vando wrote.
According to Vando’s letter, Nixon “advised me that I would have to issue an apology, disassociate with [former SMCSU Vice President Joseph] Crimi and Sara [Gonsalves] on social media, and council would have to attend sensitivity training. I was assured that the situation was ‘handled.’” Vando claims that he tried to meet with Nixon throughout the next week to draft a statement, but was put off and told by Nixon on December 2 to “relax” — the videos were leaked on the internet the same day.
In the wake of the leak, Vando announced a leave of absence on December 3. “Four hours after my statement was posted, I was called by Zach and notified that a leave of absence would not suffice, and that I would have to resign,” or face an impending impeachment being arranged by members of SMCSU. Vando claims that Nixon only gave him 10 minutes to resign or face public denouncement. “I made the decision, although haste, to resign,” Vando writes in the letter.
SMCSU released a public statement condemning the videos on December 4. Vando claims that, had he been present at the meeting with Nixon and the USMC administration, the situation could have been better managed. “Had I been present at the meetings a week ago, this situation could have been remedied. Had I had a chance to present what truly happened at that party, this situation could’ve been less severe … It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life, being handled and told that everything was fine, and was going to be fine, when I was well aware that it would not.”
Althea Blackburn-Evans, Director of Media Relations at U of T, confirmed to The Varsity that the complaint to the central administration came to the Multi-Faith Centre, which then “referred the matter to the Vice-Provost, Students office, and they then reached out immediately to the leadership at St. Michael’s” on the issue. “This group is within the jurisdiction of St. Michael’s, and how they address it will be up to them to confirm,” she said.
Blackburn-Evans says that the university administration is “united with the president and principal at St. Michael’s in our concerns about this issue, and the Vice-Provost, Students office worked closely with them as they addressed it.”
On December 8, SMCSU council members voted to prorogue the union’s activities until early 2017.
Stefan Slovak, Director of Communications, Events and Outreach at USMC, formally declined The Varsity’s request for comment on this issue.
Wasim, Vando, Nixon, and the MSA could not be reached for comment.