U of T student unions sign open letter against Ford government

UTSU, UTGSU, UTMSU joined by 75 student unions across Canada

U of T student unions sign open letter against Ford government

Seventy-five student unions across Canada have signed an open letter to Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) Merrilee Fullerton condemning the government’s recent changes to postsecondary education funding.

The letter, first released by Carleton University’s student newspaper The Charlatan on January 29, calls on Ford and Fullerton to reverse the decision mandating Ontario universities to develop an “opt-out” system for “non-essential” student fees. It also calls the changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program “disappointing” and a “firm step backwards.”

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) are among the signatories.

The letter compares the government’s decision to implement an opt-out option on incidental fees — a policy that Fullerton labelled the “Student Choice Initiative” —  as similar to if taxpayers were allowed to opt out of paying for services like a police force and public libraries.

The student unions write that the Student Choice Initiative puts on-campus services funded by incidental fees at risk, specifically services such as “health and dental plans, peer-to-peer support, on-campus press, support services like food banks and more.”

“Students will be less safe, more vulnerable to failure and less able to gain the skills and work-related experience they’ll need to find jobs after graduation.”

The unions also expressed concern about how the Student Choice Initiative would affect mental health and sexual assault support services, as well as on-campus jobs.

The letter ends with the student unions calling on the Ford government to reverse the mandate and to consult with student associations, labour unions, and institutions on how the initiative will create a less prepared workforce and one “saddled with debt.”

“By making postsecondary less accessible to middle and low-income families, and by jeopardizing student experience on campus, your government is actively standing in the way of growing that workforce.”

UTSU President Anne Boucher confirmed to The Varsity that the UTSU had joined with the other Canadian student unions in the letter.

“We wanted to show a level of solidarity with the other groups across Ontario,” wrote Boucher.

The University of British Columbia’s Alma Mater Society, the University of Manitoba Students’ Union, and the University of New Brunswick Student Union are also among the student associations that signed the letter.

The Varsity has reached out to the UTMSU and the UTGSU for comment.

Op-ed: January 29 — remember and resist

Two years after Québec City, Islamophobia still thrives at U of T and beyond

Op-ed: January 29 — remember and resist

Rebellion comes in many different forms. Sometimes, even your identity feels like an act of defiance. That is what it feels like to be a Muslim, two years after a white supremacist opened fire on innocent Muslims as they quietly prayed in a Québec City mosque.

That to be a minority means to be subject to the influence and judgement of the dominant culture is not new. Any marginalized person growing up in the West can attest to the experience. As we mature, we realize that society entices us, both openly and subliminally, to assimilate our culture, values, beliefs and desires, lest we be faced with ostracization. 

Being openly and unapologetically Muslim is increasingly portrayed as antithetical to Western culture, including in Canada. In Ontario, hate crimes against Muslims went up by 207 per cent in 2017. In Québec, the Coalition Avenir Québec majority government that was elected in October aims to ban people working in the public sector from wearing religious symbols, a move openly fuelled by opposition to Muslim religious attire.

Even Toronto, a world-class bastion of multiculturalism, is not an exception to this trend. Last October, white nationalist mayoral candidate and U of T alum Faith Goldy, whom Premier Ford spent three days refusing to denounce, horrifically managed to place third in the municipal elections. She trounced every other ‘long-shot’ candidate by more than 10,000 votes each, even though she did not have access to any of the public debates.

In November, The Varsity reported that members of the U of T Muslim Students’ Association were receiving unexpected visits from law enforcement and national security agencies, including at their homes, who requested to talk to them about confidential matters. While potentially important for security, this practice tends to otherize communities and make them feel unfairly targeted if not exercised tactfully.

And just days ago, the Associated Press reported that researchers working at the Citizen Lab, a U of T-based cybersecurity watchdog group, were approached by suspicious undercover agents masquerading as investors twice in the past two months. In particular, one researcher was asked questions including “Do you pray?” and “Do you hate Israel?” over an upscale breakfast meeting.

The targeted researchers believe that these agents were sent to try to convince them to make statements compromising their neutrality and commitment to fairness and justice. The underlying assumption here is clear: the more one practices Islam, the more malevolent and biased they will appear to intelligence agencies, the public, employers, institutions, or others the potential blackmail would be addressed to.

Then, a false equivalency is drawn by the line of questioning that suggests a more religious Muslim is more likely to “hate Israel” a broad statement that very few people, Muslim or not, will agree with. In the same way that Islam and terrorism are equated, Islam and political hostility are ominously being equated here.

On a more personal scale, macroaggressions targeting individual students are still rampant. Consider U of T News stories describing incidents of hijab pulling, name calling, and unwanted spotlighting. Microaggressions — more subtle, sometimes unintentional acts of marginalization — are also still common. The sad truth of the matter is that, in many ways, nothing is changing. In fact, statistics only show it getting worse.

We would be wise not to miss the underlying disease as we try to keep up with reporting the symptoms. Putting it all together, a wider societal issue becomes clear: a deep-rooted, structurally-reinforced, broad-strokes characterization of an entire religion as one that just “will not mix” with the rest — a characterization that has been shown to be flatly untrue, time and time again.

Nonetheless, whether in Québec, Ontario, or right here at U of T, Islamophobia is thriving. It is a pervasive and persistent stain on the Western psyche, baked in by constant exposure to media, politics, and other influencers of sociocultural norms and values. As a Muslim, it can be dizzying to have your values perpetually interrogated and your identity called into question. The easiest thing to do in this situation would be to give in and join the chorus that claims that the way you live your life is regressive.

But to be Muslim these days is to hold true to the core beliefs of our faith in the face of a society that would rather we didn’t. While most people are accepting, kind, and well-meaning, structural, institutional, and cultural ideologies are beasts that have hardly changed in decades — and we see examples of this daily.

It is these wider structures that we as changemakers aim to address. That is why many equity-seeking communities, including the LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous, and Muslim communities, continue to make strides in civic engagement, protesting and demanding their rights to ensure that their perspectives are represented.

This is also why institutions like U of T need to send the message that diversity and inclusion are catalysts for excellence both as a university and as a society. At U of T and beyond, we must continue to support celebrations of culture and minority excellence. Slowly but surely, we can develop new narratives for ourselves and our children. 

Zahra Billoo pointedly referenced multiple descriptions of Islamophobia in her article for HuffPost, describing Islamophobia as a force that seeks to marginalize and exclude Muslims from a country’s “social, political, and civil life.” Its goal, she argues, is to oppress Muslims to the point of disengagement, thereby eliminating them from the narrative of what it means to be a part of this nation.

In my view, then, the ultimate resistance is to simultaneously be a Muslim and a bold, proud Canadian — to assert myself as an integral thread in the fabric of the national identity, without compromising my personal identity. To contribute to social, political, and civic discourse, and not rest until I’ve had a positive impact on the lives of my fellow Canadians — all while catching my prayers, giving to charity, and fasting in Ramadan.

This is how I honour the lives of my fellow Muslim Canadians, who were shot and killed on what still feels like yesterday. 

I resist. 

Imaan Javeed is a student in the Doctor of Medicine program at the Faculty of Medicine (FoM). He is a Diversity Program Assistant for the FoM’s Diversity and Inclusion Office.

Campus Police warn of threat against Hart House

Police looking for suspect, increasing security presence

Campus Police warn of threat against Hart House

Campus Police are warning the U of T community about a recent online threat that references a potential action against Hart House.

According to the community alert released today at 12:00 pm, Campus Police suspect a man by the name of Bojan Landekic.

He is described as male, Caucasian, approximately 40 years old, and 175 centimetres tall. He has a slim build, brown eyes, shaved head, and is partially blind.

Campus Police says that he has trespassed on University of Toronto property.

Officers will be patrolling throughout Hart House and the surrounding areas, and there will be an increased security presence.

Toronto Police are also involved in the investigation.

If you see this person, do not approach him but contact Campus Police immediately at 416-978-2222.

Opinion: Non-essential fee opt-out would spell disaster for student societies

Student fees constitute substantial portion of most student groups’ operating budgets

Opinion: Non-essential fee opt-out would spell disaster for student societies

Alongside proposed changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program and tuition fees, the Ford government has announced the Student Choice Initiative (SCI), which would allow students to opt out of fees outside of “essential campus health and safety initiatives.” With these changes, student societies across U of T could face significant declines in revenue that would hinder their ability to continue their basic operations.

While the kinds of services to be designated non-essential will be determined by universities, we can still speculate as to which services could face significant decreases in revenue, should students opt out of paying their fees.

University-operated services are almost certain to be marked essential. Kinesiology & Physical Education is responsible for the gyms and playing fields on campus, as well as a variety of sport programs. Hart House operates its titular facility, from which a number of student organizations operate. UTM and UTSC students pay dramatically reduced fees for these two programs, but also pay for athletic fees on their campuses. Student Services provides Accessibility Services, Health Services, Career Services, and a wide variety of other similar services.

Last year, the aforementioned services levied about $840, just over half of an average Arts & Science student’s levy. It’s hard to imagine the university designating any of these services as non-essential, as they are critical for maintaining campus facilities and providing basic services to students. Furthermore, and on a more cynical note, the university will be experiencing a revenue shortfall with the proposed 10 per cent tuition cuts for certain domestic students, so why would it give students the opportunity to opt out of additional sources of revenue?

As the largest student-run political bodies on campus, student unions seem likely to fall under the category of “organizations [students may] not support” targeted by the SCI. The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and other campus unions make up the bulk of the remaining fees for Arts & Science students. Through these unions, students pay about $330 for health and dental benefits, out of which they can already opt out.

Assuming that these are classified as non-essential, the UTSU and the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union’s fees currently represent 94 per cent of a UTM student’s non-essential fees, while the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union fees represent 91 per cent of a UTSC student’s non-essential fees. The percentage that the UTSU’s levy comprises of a UTSG student’s non-essential fees varies according to their college, and ranges between 17 to 63 per cent.

Fees for college student societies — which include college-specific student unions — vary dramatically, with Trinity College and Victoria College collecting yearly fees over $400 per student while other colleges average about $70. Colleges’ unique student societies would also likely be categorized as non-essential by the provincial government.

So what does a large-scale opt-out look like? Since the SCI has no real precedent, it’s hard to estimate how many students would actually choose to opt out of fees, or which organizations they would choose to continue financially supporting. While students can already refund levies to some organizations, the majority do not opt out — whether they are unaware of the option, or feel that it is too much of a hassle to do so.

With the SCI, there is certainly some incentive to opt out — the average Arts & Science student at UTSG could save $450 should they opt out of all fees that might presumably be deemed non-essential, out of $1,500 in total incidental fees. If most students opt out, then student unions and societies would be forced to come up with new revenue sources and slash services.

Let’s use the UTSU as an example in a worst-case scenario and make some predictions using its 2017–2018 actuals about a revised budget. In 2017–2018, student fees — including optional Health and Dental fees — represented $17.9 million, or around 95.3 per cent, of the UTSU’s overall revenue.

What kind of measures would need to be taken if it all disappeared? In 2017–2018, the union had a net income of around $409,000, but had its levy been opt-out, it could have had a net loss of $1.4 million instead. What’s more, if UTM students vote for the UTMSU to separate from the UTSU, an additional source of revenue would be lost.

While it is unlikely that all students currently paying the UTSU’s levy would actually opt out of paying were the option available, one would expect the UTSU — and other student societies — to take preemptive action to guard against potentially significant decreases to revenue if their services are deemed non-essential by U of T.

The UTSU could stop funding clubs entirely, which, in 2017–2018, would have saved it approximately $241,000. Removing all financial assistance programs saves another $101,000. Payroll cuts, decreases in advocacy and government work, and debt could potentially bridge the remainder, assuming the UTSU can maintain its current revenue sources. Even with all these drastic — and improbable — measures, the union would still struggle to break even on potential losses.

All of this is not to mention the capital costs involved in the Student Commons project. Continuous delays mean the union have been unable to charge an operating levy, which would have generated approximately $250,000 in revenue in 2018–2019. Based on these projections, had the Student Commons opened last September, the UTSU estimates that it would have yielded a net income of around -$47,000. Without student fees, this would have been around -$778,000. Although this is a worst case scenario, students opting out of the Student Commons make it increasingly likely that the union could have to default on the project, meaning that the U of T administration would seize control of the building.

The UTSU, with its operating surplus last academic year and alternative sources of revenue, is already in a far better position than most smaller student societies, but even then, an opt-out option would lead to significant financial struggle. Without incidental fees, most student societies will have difficulty carrying out their basic functions, and it is not difficult to envision many of them ceasing to operate altogether.

U of T can already feel lonely and isolating — if the student societies that bring us together fall apart thanks to the SCI, we will all feel even less connected.

UTM, UTSC closed for the morning due to weather

UTSG fully open

UTM, UTSC closed for the morning due to weather

Following yesterday’s class cancellations on all three U of T campuses, UTM and UTSC will remain closed for the morning, while UTSG has returned to being fully open.

UTM will be closed until at least 12:00 pm today. All classes, tutorials, labs, tests, and other course-related activities are cancelled. In addition, all university buildings are closed. UTM will post an update by 10:00 am in case the campus does not reopen.

UTSC will be closed until 10:00 am today, after which all academic activities will resume as scheduled. Non-essential staff should report to work when campus opens.