Comment contributors assess the policies, issues, and events that have touched the U of T community the most in 2018, namely: the approved university-mandated leave of absence policy; the election of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government; U of T’s tri-campus smoking ban following Canada’s cannabis legalization; the Toronto municipal elections; and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU)–University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) split.

The need for fairer mental health policy

Underneath the overwhelming mass of ‘U of Tears’ and depression memes on the internet lies a deeper mental health problem in institutions that purport to promote self-care. With the implementation of the controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy in the 2018–2019 academic year comes concerns from the U of T community about discrimination and the lack of support for those struggling with their mental health.

Thanks to the policy, the university can force students to enter into a leave of absence if the university deems that their mental health affects their ability to complete their studies or if it considers them harmful to themselves and others. While this policy serves as an improvement from the punitive Code of Student Conduct, the students are receiving less and less control over their own bodies — a hot 2018 topic in itself.

Although some student groups were consulted, little effort was made to speak to the students who would be most affected by the policy. Only when the Ontario Human Rights Commission wrote an open letter to the Chair of Governing Council did any changes occur, resulting in a delay to the vote and a revised policy.

This policy emphasizes what many students believe to be true: that the university doesn’t care about their voices or opinions. While the initial intention of the policy is to support students, it can inadvertently push students away from seeking the help they need. Student voices should have been better heard and listened to.

Despite claiming to be a “boundless” university, it appears that some students are more shackled than before. U of T promised an update on mental health, and it is our duty to ourselves and our peers to keep the university accountable. We must push for a fair solution that addresses growing concerns about mental health, supports distressed students, and keeps the community safe.

Belicia Chevolleau is a third-year Communication, Culture, Information & Technology student at UTM.

New government, new controversies

Last year, the Progressive Conservatives (PC) formed a new provincial government. Subsequently, provincial politics quickly leapt into the student spotlight this past semester, especially with the introduction of two controversial PC policies on free speech and minimum wage.

One of the most disturbing fallouts from Premier Doug Ford’s free speech policy concerns the UTSU — and your dental plan. Because the UTSU, at the behest of a vote at its AGM, refused to participate in the implementation of the policy, the organization could potentially be subject to partial or complete funding cuts. This decision could spell disaster for students, who rely on perks like dental and travel insurance — not to mention free vegan breakfasts — provided by the union.   

The UTSU will likely come to regret the decision. The free speech doctrine proposed by Ford is sound, but it’ll be credible only if Ford ensures two things. Firstly, that students can protest — respectfully — without fear of persecution. Secondly, that views contrary to his are awarded the same level of protection and respect. After all, Ford has a history of supporting ‘free speech’ only when it lines up with his ideology.

The free speech policy may be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. In order to oppose improper or illogical arguments — and not just blowhorn them away — controversial views must be given a platform. Only after hearing what’s being proposed can students consider and pick these arguments apart. Suppressing or straw-manning one side of the debate simply motivates that side to entrench themselves even further, preventing dialogue or reform.

Elsewhere, Ford’s repeal of the planned minimum wage hike to $15 an hour to also attracted criticism on campus — for good reason.

As it stands, Ontario has the second-highest minimum wage in Canada, trailing only Alberta. But as a Varsity op-ed pointed out, Ontario universities have the most expensive tuition fees of any province and living costs in Toronto are the highest of any city in Canada.

Upping the minimum wage wouldn’t be as catastrophic as business-owners make it out to be: the original increase to $14 an hour wasn’t the “job killer” critics prophesied it would be, and the provincial unemployment rate still hovers under the national average of six per cent.  

Phasing in an increase would put money into the pockets of some of the people who need it most: students. Left without it, students will continue to struggle to pay for their needs, whether they be textbooks, groceries, or a brand-new dental plan.

Ted Fraser is a third-year International Relations student at Victoria College.

The curiously-timed smoking ban

U of T’s announcement in November that smoking of all kinds would be banned on all three campuses, as of January 1, was a major decision in 2018. The policy was finally approved by Governing Council in December. According to U of T, “the main motivation for this policy is to have healthier campuses.”

But the timing of the change is difficult to ignore. The announcement arrived in students’ inboxes the very same week that the legalization of cannabis came into effect. For that reason, it is apparent that the university was motivated by a desire to prevent students from smoking cannabis on school property, rather than a sudden new concern about the adverse effects of smoking.

Nevertheless, those adverse effects are real. The risks associated with smoking cigarettes are very well-known, and students who choose to do so anyway are not likely to stop just because they may have to trek to Bloor Street or Queen’s Park to do so even if the university provides access to “smoking-cessation programs” as it has promised. The effects of secondhand smoke, however, can be serious as well. I’m not particularly bothered that others choose to smoke, but limiting exposure to second-hand smoke seems like a reasonable extension of the university’s commitment to student health.

On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that this policy can be strictly enforced. For one thing, the ban will not apply to federated colleges, and it’s not clear that all the colleges will choose to implement bans. Perhaps more importantly, U of T is closely integrated with the rest of the city, and people are constantly passing through some with cigarettes in hand.

So let’s be honest: while ostensibly intended to protect student health, it is perfectly obvious that this policy is rooted in an attempt to stop students from smoking cannabis on campus. But whether or not this change will have any actual impact toward either of those goals remains to be seen.

Zach Rosen is a third-year History and Philosophy student at Trinity College. He is an Associate Comment Editor for The Varsity.

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Toronto’s municipal elections

Our city’s elections this past fall had a turbulent start, with Premier Doug Ford winning a legal battle that cut the size of the Toronto city council from 47 to 25 members. This ploy allegedly meant increased efficiency and lower costs, though the truth in this promise has been repeatedly called into question. More importantly, it belittled the voices of candidates and voters and ultimately infringed on their freedom of expression.  

Nevertheless, Torontonians overcame and common sense ultimately prevailed. Incumbent mayor John Tory won with a comfortable 63 per cent lead over challenger Jennifer Keesmaat. Heading a non-partisan approach to politics, Tory plans on tackling the housing market, the transit system, and gun violence in the city.

Tory is a proven leader, known to unite councillors of all stripes to make progress on issues like the Scarborough subway extension and regulation of ridesharing companies. I have the utmost confidence in Tory’s ability to continue to lead Toronto this year.

I also hope that Tory’s inclusive approach will enable him to adopt the many potential benefits of Keesmaat’s platform. Her rent-to-own program, plans for removal of the eastern parts of the Gardiner expressway, and tough stance on transparency in city agencies would greatly benefit the city.

I particularly hope that Tory is able to adopt Keesmaat’s uncompromising commitment to affordable housing. The current housing market signals difficulties to come for students seeking housing near the university, and relief may be a long time coming.

Some losses were easier to take than others. U of T alum and white nationalist Faith Goldy’s controversial campaign landed her in third for the race for mayor. Her campaign featured promises such as “[evacuating] all illegal migrants from Toronto’s shelter system by bus to the Prime Minister’s official residence” and totally banning all facial coverings.

It was no wonder that she was quickly accused of xenophobia and white supremacy. Her loss, while expected, may nevertheless mark a concerning shift in mindset among some Toronto residents, and a smear on U of T’s reputation.

Though tremulous, the election’s results were a breath of relief for many. Transit and housing being at the forefront of the election indicate that help is coming for student communities, but the sideline extremism is worrisome.   

Ori Gilboa is a first-year Humanities student at Victoria College.

A sound split: the UTSU–UTMSU relationship

In terms of student politics, one of the biggest events of the past year was the formal separation of the UTMSU from the UTSU. The former will now enjoy full financial and governmental independence from the latter.

The UTSU ought to be called the St. George Students’ Union because that is the campus that they best represent. It inevitably overshadowed the UTMSU with its superior resources and organizational capacity. It is simply the former’s sheer size, representing more than 45,000 students, that ensured the underrepresentation of the UTMSU’s 13,000 students.

Although the two could be said to share the same broader problems facing students, such as rising tuition rates and mental health, that does not justify an unfair relationship. Nor does it ensure a more effective use of time and resources. Simply put, the UTSU and UTSMU represent different campuses each with different voices, problems, and dynamics. These, in many cases, are scenarios that the other cannot fully understand. It seems best, therefore, that each organization directs its resources severally to its own individual needs.

However, this does not preclude informal or one-time partnerships on areas of shared concern. It also does not mean that the two should form a toxic or mean-spirited relationship, but instead see and respect each other as two distinct entities.

Sam Routley is a fourth-year Political Science, Philosophy, and History student. He is The Varsity’s UTSG Campus Politics Columnist.