On December 2, Snapchat videos were leaked that displayed former St. Michael’s College Students’ Union (SMCSU) Vice-President Kevin Vando and former SMCSU Councillor Sara Gonsalves partaking in jokes at the expense of Muslims at U of T. The videos were taken at a birthday party for former SMCSU Vice-President Joseph Crimi, and ensuing outrage from students prompted responses from campus groups condemning the actions of the individuals in the videos.
I am a Muslim student attending St. Michael’s College, and while criticizing my faith is fair game, being reduced to a party joke is insulting and should be done to no religion. That said, while Muslim communities on campus are rightfully outraged by the behaviour of those pictured in the videos, SMCSU can take concrete steps to remedy the situation.
It is frustrating that those who are most guilty have not shown appropriate remorse. In his resignation post on Facebook, Vando stated that he grew up in a Muslim household — as if this excused him from blame — and that his actions were not a reflection of his views on Islam. At the following SMCSU meeting, Vando submitted a formal resignation letter addressed to the council. This letter was a huge disappointment; instead of recognizing and apologizing for his actions, he resorted to lambasting former SMCSU President Zachary Nixon, blaming him for how he handled the situation.
Crimi seemed equally unapologetic; in his statement, he seemed angry that he was being blamed for what happened instead of taking responsibility. Since he hosted the party at which this incident happened, it would be expected that he own up to his role in it. Gonsalves, who was at the centre of these videos, similarly deflected blame, stating, “I did not bring the book to the party. Other people checked out the book, and for some reason the focus seems to only be on me.”
The actions taken by Vando, Crimi, and Gonsalves raise suspicions of insincerity. The appropriate response would have been to first own up to their actions. Blaming someone else or making excuses is a sign of immaturity.
Admittedly, in line with Vando’s criticism, Nixon should have responded more quickly by releasing a statement, issuing impeachment proceedings against Vando, and pursuing sensitivity training. Yet, Nixon also has gone out of his way to reconcile with the Muslim community at St. Mike’s — along with a few other SMCSU council members, he personally called Muslim students to apologize. I appreciated receiving one of these calls myself.
To further the actions already taken, SMCSU should aim to make St. Mike’s as inclusive as possible. Beyond ensuring that events are inclusive — including by catering to dietary restrictions and running accessible programming — SMCSU should reach out to the Muslim Students’ Association, first with an apology, and then as part of an inquiry into how SMCSU can change the negative perception that many Muslim students now have of it.
It is a tough time to be Muslim in this world; the rise of right wing nationalism and the consequent scapegoating of Muslims has only marginalized us further. At the same time, the SMCSU Snapchat incident should not overshadow more serious instances of Islamophobia. It is unwise to equivocate this event with physical and verbal violence. Keep in mind that a Muslim student was spat on and harassed in front of Robarts in November of 2015.
Muslims also ought to recognize that sometimes such actions are the result of ignorant perceptions of our faith. If we are to go out of our way to degrade and vilify SMCSU without emphasizing education and progress, it is only going to hurt us in the long run. We need organizations like SMCSU, an organization fundamentally run by students, for students. The more allies we have in the fight against more violent forms of Islamophobia, the better.
St. Michael’s College has become my home, and I want every student that SMCSU governs to feel the same way. Had this incident taken place when I was applying to university, I am sad to say that I would not have chosen to attend this college at all. Fortunately, the Muslim community is forgiving; at Vando’s resignation meeting, a group of Muslim students came with cookies and a card with a message of forgiveness and compassion.
At first I was angry, but anger can only get you so far — in light of what is happening around the world, instances of ignorance are only going to be more frequent. The only way to stop division is to show compassion and love to everyone that you can. SMCSU ought to heed this incident as a call for action towards inclusivity at the college. Meanwhile, I ask that my fellow Muslims try to forgive SMCSU and move on.
Haseeb Hassaan is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science.