The U of T administration did not send a copy of the university-mandated leave of absence policy to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) before it was slated to be approved by the University Affairs Board (UAB) on January 30, despite the commission’s expressed interest in receiving a copy of the new draft.
Documents obtained by The Varsity, released through a freedom of information request, outline communications between university staff and lawyers at the OHRC about the policy as far back as December 6, 2017.
The university also did not inform the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) of the commission’s involvement despite explicitly informing the commission that it would inform student groups at the meeting.
The contentious policy would have allowed the university to place students on a mandatory leave of absence if their mental health issues negatively impacted their studies, or if they posed a dangerous risk to themselves or others. The policy received significant backlash from the community before it was eventually pulled from the governance cycle in late January.
Reema Khawja, OHRC Legal Counsel, reached out to Archana Sridhar, Assistant Provost at the Office of the Vice-President and Provost, in an email on December 13. “We encourage you to thoroughly consult and seek legal advice as you develop the next draft,” reads the email. “The OHRC will continue to monitor the developments, and we look forward to receiving a copy of the next draft of the policy before it enters the governance path for approval.”
However, the OHRC did not receive a copy of the draft until it was made public on the online agenda of the Academic Board of Governing Council before the board’s January 25 meeting.
In addition, the commission did not have any correspondence with U of T between Khawja’s email and January 29. It was, at that point, one day before the policy was set to go before the UAB, when OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane sent a letter to Claire Kennedy, Chair of Governing Council, recommending that the policy “not be approved in its current form” and requesting a delay on voting on the policy.
“I can tell you that the draft policy was made publicly available to everyone to review before it went through governance,” said Elizabeth Church, Interim Director of Media Relations at U of T. When pressed on whether a copy was sent explicitly to the commission, Church repeated the same response.
The UTSU was also unaware of the university administration’s communications with the human rights commission, despite Sridhar explicitly promising to inform student groups. In a December 15 email to Khawja, Sridhar wrote, “We appreciated your time for an informal meeting about the draft University-Mandated Leave Policy at the University of Toronto. It was helpful to hear your thoughtful feedback, and we will share that we have met informally with OHRC staff about the proposed policy when we meet with student groups in the weeks to come.”
However, students were not informed about the meeting. Mathias Memmel, President of the UTSU, said that the union “didn’t know that the OHRC was involved until the UAB meeting.”
Church said that in the consultations with student groups on campus, the university did not necessarily share whom they had spoken with in regard to the draft policy.
“We held many meetings with individuals, one-on-one meetings and also with groups to discuss the policy,” said Church. “In those meetings we discussed the feedback that we’ve received from internal and external consultations. In those conversations we did not necessarily identify the source of specific feedback.”
According to communications obtained by The Varsity, the university corresponded with the commission as early as December 6, when Anthony Gray, Director of Strategic Research at the Office of the President of U of T, connected Sridhar with Mandhane. In an email the same day, Mandhane requested that Sridhar meet with Khawja to hear the OHRC’s concerns about the policy. Sridhar and Khawja eventually met on December 13.
Initially slated to be voted upon late last semester, criticism from students and other members of the university community prompted U of T to delay the vote for two months. The policy was eventually withdrawn, with Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh announcing the university’s intention to rework it and reintroduce it at a later, unspecified date.
That date may be in the near future. At the March 6 UAB meeting, Welsh noted that the revised draft of the policy was in the final stage of internal review, and that the university administration would reintroduce it “shortly.” Welsh also mentioned U of T’s commitment to make the revised document available to the public prior to the governance process, and that it would notify the OHRC once it is posted online.