From financial accountability to conflicts regarding free speech, the 2016–2017 year was eventful for a number of reasons. We asked four writers to reflect on the lessons we can learn from the year and to discuss how those teachings ought to shape university affairs, community affairs, and student governance.
Lesson 1: Indigenous reconciliation should be a campus-wide priority
With reconciliation on many Canadians’ minds, how to remedy wrongs committed against Indigenous peoples has become a hot-button issue for political institutions.
U of T’s response to the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to create the University of Toronto Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee. Made up of Indigenous students, staff, elders, and faculty, the committee responded to the TRC’s 34 Calls to Action by generating a detailed report, outlining ways in which past and present issues concerning Indigenous peoples could be remedied.
The university has since announced that it will be hiring a Director of Indigenous Initiatives, matching $1.5 million in funding for the creation of Indigenous spaces on campus, and creating 40 new faculty and staff positions for Indigenous persons.
While it is encouraging that the university appears to be acting on the Calls to Action, many students seem disinterested. Though many are active in diverse social justice causes on campus, fewer appear to take interest in reconciling with Canada’s first peoples.
I’ve observed this myself as an Indigenous Studies student, with scarce or dwindling turnout in my courses; the location of one course, ABS201, was changed three times over the course of the year to accommodate for the steadily shrinking number of students.
In the coming year, students must be vocal about Indigenous issues and celebrate victories like the university aiming to fulfill the TRC’s Calls to Action. Without the voice of the student body, much of the progress being made is at risk of being lost to apathy.
Ross Johnston is a second-year student at University College studying Political Science and Indigenous Studies.
Lesson 2: Conflicts like the Peterson controversy demand compromise and dialogue
This year, the federal government’s introduction of Bill C-16, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity, erupted into bitter, divisive controversy on campus.
Whereas some individuals argued that the legislation was necessary to protect trans and non-binary people, others claimed that it compromised the right to free speech by criminalizing the refusal to use certain gender pronouns.
This is only the most recent example of a broader debate surrounding the concept of ‘political correctness’ on campuses. The way that some are presenting the debate makes it seem as if one must either be in favor of equity or free speech.
Furthermore, what has made this so divisive is that each side has different priorities. The anti-Peterson side is concerned with removing systematic discrimination, but negates the potential impacts that overbroad provisions may have on open discussion.
On the other hand, Peterson’s supporters are concerned with protecting free speech, but have not proposed any solutions to the concerns about discrimination against trans and non-binary students that their opponents are concerned about.
This is not a novel debate, and the conflict is far from over. Moving forward, both sides need to understand the validity of each other’s concerns. It is through understanding and compromise that the university can be both an inclusive place and a centre for free and open dialogue.
Sam Routley is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science, History, and Philosophy.
Lesson 3: Now more than ever, we need to hold student leaders accountable
With respect to the responsibility and accountability of campus leaders, this year has been hit and miss.
Firstly, a controversy regarding Islamophobic actions by past and present members of the St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU) arose late last year when incriminating Snapchat videos surfaced. SMCSU went on to dissolve as a result of ongoing conflicts and allegations of financial mismanagement.
Had these concerns not come to light, there are reasons to believe that the University of St. Michael’s College (SMC) and SMCSU may not have worked adequately to prevent Islamophobia at the college; it was even revealed that both SMCSU and the SMC administration had prior knowledge of the videos before they were leaked.
More recently, the “No Excuse for Abuse” campaign organized a protest against Nicholas Grant’s unopposed candidacy for New College Student Council President; 79 per cent of students ultimately voted “no” to Grant, meaning that nominations will reopen. Grant has denied all allegations against him, and in an interview with The Varsity, criticized the “toxic and personal nature of [the] attacks.”
Given how closely linked candidates are to the student body, it is important to have conversations like the ones that occurred at SMC and New College this year.
It would be inappropriate for students to hold power when they are subject to serious allegations like those brought by the “No Excuse for Abuse” campaign. Likewise, arguably Islamophobic student leaders should not be tasked with representing Muslim students. We should keep these things in mind when choosing our student representatives in the future.
Avneet Sharma is a second-year student at Trinity College studying English and Cinema Studies.
Lesson 4: Positivity and respect should trump campus drama
If we think of our lives at U of T as television shows, we can derive that each year has its various ups and downs, all of which creates opportunity for reflection. More often than not, the dilemmas showcased on campus are a reflection of larger real-world dilemmas, albeit with a narrower scope.
I’m in my third season — and oh, what a season it was. We saw self-proclaimed outsiders enter the political sphere. We saw a group of students espouse debates over censorship and free speech. Moreover, we have seen instances of racism and homophobia at one of the most diverse universities in Canada.
Not everyone deals with plot twists in the same way — and regrettably, plot twists can turn us into mean and petty individuals.
I can see why: these events motivate us largely because they reflect causes that we think are worth fighting for. One thing that we all must realize while undergoing these trials is that we must respect one another and rise above difficulties. Our lives are not episodes of Degrassi — at least, they don’t have to be if we tackle them with the right clout.
Haseeb Hassaan is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science.