Ford government’s Student Choice Initiative quashed in Ontario court

Student groups celebrate victory, with apprehension toward decision’s uncertain consequences

Ford government’s Student Choice Initiative quashed in Ontario court

On November 21, the Divisional Court of Ontario unanimously ruled in favour of the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–O) and the York Federation of Students (YFS) in a legal challenge that repealed the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI).

The SCI — which took effect at the beginning of the 2019–2020 academic year — was a controversial directive from the province’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities (MCU) that allowed postsecondary students to opt out of certain incidental fees deemed “non-essential.”

While student groups have been celebrating their victory over the Ford government in court, the specifics of the SCI’s demise remain in legal ambiguity.

Substantial funding changes for student groups

The SCI was created by the provincial government to direct colleges and universities to allow students to opt out of “non-essential” incidental fees, with guidelines for “essential” fees laid out by the province.

“Students are adults and we are treating them as such by giving them the freedom to clearly see where their fees are currently being allocated,” announced then-Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton at a press conference on January 17.

The policy was part of a broader set of sweeping changes to postsecondary education, including to domestic tuition and the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).

Despite multiple student associations organizing marches, and critics opposing the policy, the province went forward with its directive to universities and colleges, and categorized fees as “essential” and “non-essential.” The opt-out policy’s guidelines were officially released in March, and were implemented at the start of the 2019–2020 academic year.

During its Annual General Meeting in October, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) revealed the opt-out rates for specific fees, and noted that it saw an average opt-out rate of 23.6 per cent. Substantial funding changes were made to student aid, clubs funding, and orientation as a result. The SCI also had an impact on other student groups, including college student societies, levy-funded groups, and campus media — including The Varsity.

The success of legal resistance

In their application for judicial review that was filed on May 24, the CFS–O and the YFS claimed that the MCU lacked the legal authority to implement the SCI, and was also in breach of procedural fairness as it failed to consult with or adequately notify student groups.

On October 11, Honourable Justices Harriet Saches, David Corbett, and Lise Favreau heard arguments from the applicants, the CFS–O and YFS; the province; and two intervenors: the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) in favour of the CFS–O and YFS; and B’Nai Brith of Canada League for Human Rights, in favour of the government.

The Divisional Court of Ontario concluded on November 21 that “Ontario does not control [the relationships of student associations and universities] directly or indirectly.” It went on to note that the province’s cabinet and ministry had no authority to interfere in the internal affairs of student associations.

The court ruled that the application of certiorari — an appeal of legislation and court decisions — was granted and revoked the SCI.

Responses to the ruling

“I’m ecstatic about this,” said MPP for Spadina–Fort York, and the Ontario New Democratic Party’s postsecondary critic, Chris Glover, in an interview with The Varsity. Glover has been a vocal advocate against the SCI since its announcement. He joined CFS–O National Representative Kayla Weiler and YFS President Fatima Babiker at a press conference on November 22, announcing the end of the SCI.

“You cannot just undermine the legal rights of students and their unions and the services that they provide on campus,” said Glover. He also expressed his belief that the language of the court’s decision would impede any attempt by the province to reinstate a similar mandate. “So, this is a landmark decision.”

Glover also called on the Ford government to pay student groups the fees that were lost in the first opt-out period for the fall 2019 term.

CFS–O Chairperson Felipe Nagata is celebrating alongside Glover and his colleagues. Despite the CFS fee having one of the highest opt-out rates that the UTSU reported, Nagata is dedicated to a collective union: “Victories like this one today just show how much strength in numbers that we have.”

Michael Mostyn, CEO of the intervenor group B’nai Brith Canada, lamented the government’s loss in court and promised to intervene again if the government decides to appeal the decision: “There may also be a legislative solution to ensuring that Jewish students are no longer obligated to self-discriminate against themselves through mandatory student union dues, and we will be sharing our further thoughts in this regard with the Government of Ontario.”

In the past, B’nai Brith has criticized student groups, including the CFS, for supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Israel movement, which it calls anti-Semitic. B’nai Brith also led an opt-out campaign against the CFS under the SCI.

However, the UTGSU, the other intervener, called the decision a “historic victory not just for the UTGSU, but for students across the province and for the student movement broadly.” Branden Rizzuto, former Finance Comissioner of the UTGSU, writing on behalf of the UTGSU’s Legal Ad-Hoc Committee, agreed with the court’s ruling and recognized the SCI as an “attack on the democratic autonomy of Ontario student associations.”

“We don’t know the ramifications of this decision”

Other unions have expressed similar sentiments of relief at the court’s decision, although with some hesitation. UTSU President Joshua Bowman wrote that the union will continue to operate as if the ruling had not happened, and explained that this is “because we don’t know the ramifications of this decision, and because it is apparent that the university doesn’t either.”

Apprehensive of the court’s decision and action that could still be taken by the province — such as an appeal to the decision or legislation to enact similar policies — Bowman is skeptical of the real impacts of the SCI being overturned. “The underlying message of this decision is that the provincial government does not have the authority to circumvent student unions and university governance structures through ministerial action,” wrote Bowman. “This decision has not led to us being consulted further, or even being communicated with further.”

In response to the announcements in court, U of T preferred not to comment until a later date. “The University is aware of the decision of the Divisional Court and is evaluating the technical impact. There will be an update next week,” wrote a university spokesperson to The Varsity.

An MCU spokesperson also deferred commenting on the decision, writing to The Varsity that it is “currently reviewing the decision… We will have more to say on this at a later date.”

—With files from Hannah Carty.

Social Justice Education caucus breaks off from OISE Graduate Students’ Association

Dissociation the result of UTGSU investigation into constitutional violations of OISE GSA

Social Justice Education caucus breaks off from OISE Graduate Students’ Association

The Social Justice Education (SJE) Student Caucus has decided to break away from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Graduate Students’ Association (OISE GSA), following findings of constitutional violations. The SJE Student Caucus is now a course union under the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), which recognized the caucus on October 29.

The SJE course union represents students at the Department of SJE, which is part of OISE.

Dissociation of the association

The UTGSU Executive Committee confirmed to The Varsity that “The SJE Student Caucus reached out to inquire about all possibilities for their fellow members in early October.”

Nolan Fontaine, the SJE Student Caucus’ Internal Coordinator, explained in an interview that the dissociation followed an online referendum among SJE students. The referendum, which occurred that month, showed that a majority of voters wanted to form their own course union with the UTGSU, according to Fontaine.

When asked about the motivation behind the dissociation, Fontaine said that the conclusions of the UTGSU’s investigatory committee that examined the matter were “pretty glaring in terms of constitutional violations.”

The committee found 20 constitutional violations in the OISE GSA’s April elections. As a result, the UTGSU General Council voted to de-affiliate the OISE GSA from the UTGSU in a meeting on September 27.

According to the UTGSU’s documentation, “the OISE GSA executives individually submitted [their] resignations as of October 1st, 2019.”

What does this mean for Social Justice Education students?

In an email to The Varsity, the UTGSU Executive Committee wrote that the “SJE Caucus, like all other course unions, is eligible to receive funding [from the UTGSU] in the form of a head grant.” Head grants are funds distributed by the UTGSU to its recognized course unions and are paid by the annual fees collected from graduate students.

It continued, “[The SJE course union] will also be represented on the UTGSU General Council/Board-of-Directors; the SJE course union will have three seats (votes) on the board of directors as per UTGSU Bylaw.” Fontaine noted that an additional advantage for the SJE Caucus following this move was increased autonomy for its group. However, he said that he is not personally opposed to the OISE GSA.

“Course unions and departmental student associations are more of a community for a lot of students,” he remarked. “For us to just turn our backs, just on the actions of… a few [executives], doesn’t help the greater [student body] from a utilitarianist sense.”

“We really just want to move forward [with a] clean slate, and really see [to the needs of our] students and constituents.”

The Varsity has reached out to the OISE GSA for comment.

New Liberal cabinet includes U of T law professor, University–Rosedale MP

New additions and old positions: Anita Anand, Chrystia Freeland round out Trudeau’s ministers

New Liberal cabinet includes U of T law professor, University–Rosedale MP

On November 20, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his new cabinet, welcomed a U of T law professor into the ministerial ranks, and resurrected the title of Deputy Prime Minister for University–Rosedale MP Chrystia Freeland. Freeland, whose riding includes UTSG, is also charged with the office of the minister of intergovernmental affairs. Newly elected Oakville MP and U of T law professor Anita Anand was also named the minister of public services and procurement.

Freeland and Anand are among the 18 women who make up half of Trudeau’s cabinet, in continuation of the prime minister’s 2015 commitment to gender parity; Trudeau himself tips the balance with 19 men.

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs

Freeland is the first to serve as deputy prime minister since Anne McLellan under former Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2006. The title was first used in Canada by Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, in 1977.

While the role comes with no formal duties, deputy prime ministers have historically answered questions on behalf of the prime minister during Question Period, and almost all deputy prime ministers have held other ministerial positions.

How much power Freeland will hold and where that power will lie will depend on Trudeau’s vision for the role, which will not be clear until her mandate letters are released. Freeland did affirm in an interview with CTV News that she “did not take on this job to be a spokesmodel.”

Unlike vice presidents in the United States, deputy prime ministers do not automatically become the head of the government in the event that the prime minister dies or resigns. However, in the cabinet’s order of precedent for succession, Freeland is now second, outranked only by the prime minister.

Freeland, who previously held the foreign affairs portfolio, has also been named Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs. This role will have her overseeing the federal government’s relations with the 13 provincial and territorial governments of Canada.

Anita Anand, Minister of Public Services and Procurement

Anand is not only new to cabinet, but also to parliament. Her political career began this past October after she was elected federal MP for the riding of Oakville. Anand’s new role as minister of public services and procurement will have her overseeing the internal administration of the federal government as its principal banker, including oversight of the controversial Phoenix pay system which processes payroll for federal employees.

Minister Anand is a U of T Faculty of Law professor and is cross-appointed to the Rotman School of Management and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She is currently on leave from the university to attend to her new positions.

For the past two decades, Anand has been a legal academic specializing in capital market regulation, corporate governance, and the rights of investors. Besides being an award-winning scholar, Anand has also provided expert consultation to the Ontario government through a number of committees.

She is the first Hindu person to be appointed as a Canadian minister.

Cabinet by the numbers

While gender parity remains a constant from 2015, this cabinet sees the largest share of Ontario and Québec ministers, at 78 per cent, since 1965, according to CBC News. 17 ministers hail from Ontario ridings — including Freeland and Anand — and 11 from Québec, for a combined total of 28 out of 36 ministers coming from just two provinces. While Ontario and Québec are the most populous of the provinces and territories, their share only makes up just over 61 per cent of Canada’s overall population, meaning that they are overrepresented in cabinet.

14 cabinet ministers from 2015 have notably not maintained their positions in the new 2019 cabinet. Among them, six ministers resigned, four were removed, two lost their ridings, and two were moved to different appointments within the government.

U of T cancels Summer Abroad program in Hong Kong

University cites students’ safety as reason for cancellation, in contact with 20 students in Hong Kong

U of T cancels Summer Abroad program in Hong Kong

The University of Toronto has cancelled its Hong Kong Summer Abroad program for this summer, amidst growing protests, especially on university campuses. In the past month, there have been significant conflicts between police and protestors at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The university is also in contact with 20 students who are currently registered to study in Hong Kong.

“The safety of our students is a top priority,” wrote a university spokesperson in an email to The Varsity. “We have been carefully monitoring the situation in Hong Kong, and after much consideration, we have decided to cancel the summer abroad program in Hong Kong this year.” U of T is partnered with the Chinese University of Hong Kong for its Summer Abroad and exchange programs.

The situation escalated earlier last week when police stormed the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in a siege on protestors, leaving hundreds of people trapped inside for days. Students from universities all over the world have left the city as the conflict continues. Other universities across Canada, including the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Calgary, have recommended that their exchange students vacate Hong Kong. UBC announced that 20 of its 31 students studying abroad in Hong Kong have left the city, and that more have plans to leave.

A university spokesperson wrote that “We have been in continual contact with registered U of T students in [Hong Kong] throughout the summer and fall,” noting that U of T has 20 students registered in Hong Kong. “We have worked with each student and their partner organization to ensure their safe transition back to U of T and the completion of their fall semester.”

Hogan Lam, an organizer with the U of T Hong Kong Extradition Law Awareness Group (UTHKELAG), expressed ambivalence about the cancellation. “To be honest, I don’t know whether it’s a good decision according to the current situation in Hong Kong right now,” said Lam. “I personally [think] it is a pity because I feel like learning in Hong Kong is so different from learning from any other places, because it’s a really unique city.”

UTHKELAG has also released an open letter asking the university to take action on the situation in Hong Kong, as part of its continued activism efforts, including a hunger strike and multiple sit-ins.

The letter’s demands include condemning the Hong Kong police force, assisting university members in Hong Kong, and contacting the Chinese University of Hong Kong to ensure measures are in place to stop conflicts from happening at the university in the future.

The Breakdown: Hart House celebrates 100th anniversary

Yearlong celebration to highlight student centre and U of T staple

The Breakdown: Hart House celebrates 100th anniversary

This year, November 11 marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of Hart House, one of the oldest student centres in North America. A yearlong series of events and exhibits has been dedicated to the milestone’s celebration, including a fundraising gala, concerts, and fairs, along with new historical and artistic exhibits throughout the building that highlight its history.

Key celebrations

Hart House kicked off the celebrations on November 12 with the Gala of the Century. The gala unveiled the Hart House Centennial Art Commission, which is a sculptural piece by Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore and Cuban-born artist Osvaldo Yero. The piece, titled waabidiziiyan doopwining, meaning “to see yourself at the table,” is intended to recognize the history of Indigenous peoples. Upcoming events include a series of concerts featuring the Hart House Jazz Ensemble, among others.

“The Hart House 100th Anniversary Advisory Committee was set up over a year ago and we have students involvement at the strategic planning level since the beginning,” wrote Davina Chan, Senior Director of Marketing, Communications and Information Services at Hart House. “We plan each of the events with the lens of ensuring the regular operations of what Hart House offers remains uninterrupted.”

History of Hart House

Hart House was commissioned by the prominent Massey family as a gift to U of T, with the aim to build a student centre for non-academic student communities and activities. Vincent Massey named the building after his grandfather, Hart Massey. The building’s construction began in 1911, and it opened officially on November 11, 1919. During World War I, it was used for trench warfare drills. Students enlisted in the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps used a set designed by Lawren Harris to look like a war-torn Belgian village for rifle practice — Harris later became a famous Canadian landscape artist.

It continues to host a number of student-run clubs and events throughout the year. Hart House debates have hosted generations of U of T alumni to debate issues like the notwithstanding clause, and has hosted speakers such as John F. Kennedy, Margaret Atwood, and Noam Chomsky.

The place of women at Hart House

Until 1972, women were not admitted as full members — as Vincent Massey’s donation specified that the building not allow women, which was not changed until his death. In 1954, women were allowed to enter after 3:00 pm, and later a women’s washroom and women’s entrance were added.

In 1957, when future US president John F. Kennedy debated Stephen Lewis, female students were not allowed to attend. This incited a protest of Hart House’s exclusion of women, and some women even attempted to enter disguised as men. When security saw their nail polish, they were removed, and joined the protests.

“We heard your concerns”: UTSG adjusts adverse weather closure policy

Administration responds to student outrage, outlines efforts to announce closures by 6:30 am

“We heard your concerns”: UTSG adjusts adverse weather closure policy

On October 31, U of T’s Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr and Vice-President, Human Resources & Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat released a memo outlining new adjustments to its adverse weather closure policy, which commits to notifying students of closures and cancellations by 6:30 am through the communications department of each campus.

The memo follows widespread student outrage toward the school’s approach to weather-related closures and cancellations last winter — in particular, delayed notices to students and late closures relative to other universities in the Toronto area, as well as uncleared sidewalks. U of T reassures its students that it “will continue to listen to [the] community” as new information brings about opportunities for new policy and improvements.

Key changes to UTSG’s weather closure policy

The memo highlighted that the university will not only coordinate with other schools, but also with multiple transit systems when deciding whether to close the UTSG campus or not. In particular, U of T has committed to monitor the GO Train service and surrounding highways for closures and delays.

“We know that many members of our community face extended commute times to our campuses, especially in bad weather,” wrote U of T spokesperson Elizabeth Church to The Varsity. “For that reason, efforts will be made to announce any cancellations or closures by 6:30am.”

Updates will be posted to each campus’ homepage and on social media. The university also reminded students that updates can be accessed from the new U of T alert system. Students can subscribe to the system and receive information on cancellations and closures through email or text message.

Campus closures and commuter students

In 2015, U of T participated in a study that focused on student transportation across 10 university and colleges called StudentMoveTO. “The population for postsecondary students is always underrepresented,” said Khandker Nurul Habib, an associate professor in the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering at U of T and a co-applicant at StudentMoveTO, “because of very narrow population growth, and a significant portion of the student population lives in dorms and apartments, they are basically missed in terms of representation in regional household surveys.”

According to Habib, almost all participating schools allowed the study to access the entirety of its student population for random sampling, however, he claims that U of T only provided a limited sample.

“This survey is bold,” Habib said, “[it gives] a snapshot of your life… so it gives us information to do a lot of statistical exercises.”

“[This] can explain peoples and students’ reactions to different transportation systems.”

Comparing to other universities

U of T’s closure policy statement on its website notes that the school makes closure decisions with information from “University Operations and Real Estate Partnerships, Environment Canada, TTC, city and provincial police, and other relevant agencies and institutions, including [Toronto District School Board], Ryerson University, George Brown College and Sheridan College.”

Ryerson University decides campus and class closures through an internal assessment of weather conditions done by the director of integrated risk management advising the school’s vice-president, administration and finance, who, alongside the president to the provost and vice-president academic, will delegate the final decision.

OCAD University’s website claims that its weather policy is dependent on the school’s president or designate’s decision. George Brown’s website has no mention of its internal decision making procedure.

Mixed reactions from student groups over U of T’s mental health task force

Criticisms about lack of diverse student representation

Mixed reactions from student groups over U of T’s mental health task force

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

U of T’s Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health wrapped up its months-long consultation period on November 25, leaving mixed reviews from student groups that participated. The consultations touched on numerous topics, including student representation, the academic climate at U of T, and the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP).

Background

The task force was formed on March 28 as part of President Gertler’s action plan to address student mental health and wellness, following two student deaths by suicide on campus between January and March of 2019. Throughout the summer and fall, the task force has been engaging in its outreach process to review U of T’s current services relating to mental health and potential new solutions. 

Earlier this month, the task force released a draft summary of the themes that arose during its consultations, and is scheduled to provide its recommendations to U of T in December.

In addition to reaching out to individual community members through online forms and in-person feedback sessions, the task force highlighted a number of student organizations that it would consult with. The Varsity contacted these groups to hear about their experiences.

Most interviewed student groups had positive feedback to share along with their criticisms, including feeling validated during consultations. The Innis College Student Society and the St. Michael’s College Student Union had only positive feedback to report.

Concerns about representation

The UofT Mental Health Policy Council (MHPC), a newly created mental health advocacy group on campus, wrote to The Varsity that “the Task Force’s structure and mandate make it a poor [representation] of student interests.” The MHPC also took issue with the prioritization of professional and academic experience above the lived experiences of applicants for the four student representative positions on the task force.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Vice-President, Operations, Arjun Kaul, wrote to The Varsity explaining that the union “took the time to criticize their non-student-led model” when meeting with the task force. Kaul also noted that no changes to the task force’s structure were made following the UTSU’s suggestions.

Scarborough Campus Students’ Union President Chemi Lhamo wrote that there is no representation of UTSC in the student members of the task force, even though it has its own nuances as a satellite campus. The student representatives on the task force are composed of two graduate students, an undergraduate student from UTM, and an undergraduate student from UTSG.

Of the student groups that responded to The Varsity’s request for comment, only the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union confirmed that student representatives from the task force were present at its consultation.

A spokesperson from U of T clarified that in order to ensure confidentiality and comfort of students at these consultations, Professor Bonnie Kirsh from the Department of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy, and Director of Critical Incidents, Safety, and Health Awareness for the Faculty of Arts & Science Caroline Rabbat, led the sessions. Kirsh and Rabbat then shared the feedback they received with other members of the task force.   

Harmful academic culture

Kaul believes that the draft summary of themes was “a good step,” however, he does not believe that the themes have put enough onus on U of T itself. Kaul cited the section in the themes document on culture at U of T and pointed out that the task force largely used language relating to students’ perception and beliefs about harmful academic culture.

“The reality is that there is an institutional rot at the heart of U of T’s academic system, not a simple problem with students’ perception,” wrote Kaul.

Morgan Watkins, President of the Students’ Law Society, wrote that “mental health needs should be a priority consideration in all university policy areas.” Watkins gave the example of taking a wider scope when it comes to mental wellness during exam times. That is, considering the structure of curricula from a mental health perspective could mean refraining from “automatically deferring to 100% exams” in the Faculty of Law, rather than simply providing extra resources during exam time.

Watkins asserted that this type of an approach to harmful academic culture focuses in on “structural barriers to addressing mental health & wellness on campus, rather than being reactionary.”

A U of T spokesperson noted that the draft summary of themes is still in the editing process and feedback from students will be taken into consideration.

University-mandated leave of absence policy

While Mental Wellness Commissioner on the University College Literary and Athletic Society, Aanya Bahl, did “appreciate the time… and attention to detail” in the draft summary of themes, she did not feel that students’ concerns in regard to the UMLAP were adequately presented. “[UMLAP] was only spoken about twice in the drafted list of themes… they’re not admitting that it’s the policy that needs to be changed,” Bahl told The Varsity.

One suggestion for the UMLAP that Bahl had was that the policy should enter into specifics about what supports they provide a student once they’re removed from study.

The U of T spokesperson informed The Varsity that university staff are working on an awareness campaign to counter misconceptions about the UMLAP.

Disclosure: Aanya Bahl writes for The Varsity‘s Science Section in Volume 140.

If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566

Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454

Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600

Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200

U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

Talking about wanting to die

Looking for a way to kill oneself

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain

Talking about being a burden to others

Increasing use of alcohol or drugs

Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly

Sleeping too little or too much

Withdrawing or feeling isolated

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Angelo Cavalluzzo on engineering the unexpected

Varsity Blues women’s soccer associate head coach discusses historic season, defying expectations, and the future of the game

Angelo Cavalluzzo on engineering the unexpected

It took two draws from two games on week two of the season for Angelo Cavalluzzo to realize that he had something special on his hands.

At first glance, the fact that the Varsity Blues women’s soccer team earned two points out of a possible six hardly seems worthy of excitement. Added to their return of three points from their first two games of the season the week prior, one would be forgiven for mulling over how Cavalluzzo, the associate head coach, could judge one win in four as evidence that something special was brewing. In fact, if you were to crunch the numbers, you would find that the team’s five-point haul from the opening four games was actually their worst start to a season since 2013.

Crunch the numbers a little further, however, and you’d realize that these two points are an exceptional exception to the norm. The draws, both at home, came against reigning national champions the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees and the powerhouse Queen’s University Gaels on September 7 and 8, respectively. Before that, the Blues had lost their previous four games against the Gee-Gees, with an aggregate score of 7–1. Their record against the Gaels was even worse, having lost all of their previous eight encounters, dating back to 2015 — including one in the week prior — with an aggregate 23–5 score.

Facing off against the Gee-Gees, the Blues conceded first, and all signs seemed to point to an impending implosion. However, Cavalluzzo made tactical tweaks that were instrumental in helping midfielder Miranda Badovinac to score the equalizer just eight minutes later. Aided by a superb performance from goalkeeper Vanna Staggolis, the Blues saw the game through to a 1–1 draw.

Against the Gaels the following day, the Blues conceded first once more. And then they conceded again. No problem for Cavalluzzo and his Blues team though, who clawed their way back, courtesy of a spirited performance and two more goals from Badovinac.

“Once that happened that weekend, I said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a chance against anybody,’” Cavalluzzo says. “Knowing [that the players] can do that in single games… Yeah, we can go on and do this again.”

And they certainly did.

Making history

Under Cavalluzzo’s management, the women’s soccer team reached the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Final Four for the first time since 2004, earned a silver medal in the OUA for the first time since 1990, reached the national U SPORTS level for the first time since 2013, and recorded their best-ever U SPORTS season, with a third-place finish in Victoria, British Columbia.

The Blues produced thrilling soccer throughout, making effective use of the wide areas through Badovinac on the right and Jenny Wolever on the left. Centre-forward Erin Kelly provided strong hold-up play and pressing as the Blues looked to defend on the front foot when they lost the ball. In the centre of the pitch, Captain Maddie MacKay regularly acted as a conduit between the defenders and forwards. In goal, Staggolis was an immovable barrier to opposition attacks, regularly pulling off vital saves.

The season confounded all expectations — even those that Cavalluzzo’s coaching staff and the players had initially set. The former had targeted an OUA quarterfinal place, which would entail the tall order of a top-two OUA East regular season finish in order to secure a bye, or finishing between third and sixth and winning the extra knockout OUA playoff game. Furthermore, the players had set the loftier target of reaching the OUA final four, which would require the added step of actually winning the quarterfinal.

“We did both,” he says. “And then we exceeded both.”

What makes the achievement even more impressive is that the Blues had lost their graduated star players Chelsea Cheung and Natasha Klasios prior to the start of the season. The team’s two top scorers in 2018, Cheung had scored seven goals in 16 games, while Klasios had netted six in 17.

Fortunately, they recruited wisely. The Blues added Badovinac from the University at Albany Great Danes, as well as the three-time OUA all-star and then-reigning OUA East player of the year, Wolever from the Queen’s Gaels. Cavalluzzo credits the experience both of them brought to the team as a boon to the Blues’ ultimate unprecedented success. Badovinac and Wolever both played 21 games in the season, scoring 13 and nine goals respectively.

He recounts the season’s story from the Varsity Pavilion, overlooking the stadium in which his team recorded four wins, one loss, and the aforementioned two draws during the regular season. He gestures out of the window toward the field below when he talks about his players, as if evoking their spirits. While the soccer season is over and the goal posts are no longer even on the field, Cavalluzzo gives the impression that this is still very much home.

“That group of players is a special group that I’ll never forget… This year, as my first year as [head] coach, for them to do that, for me, is special.”

The unexpected path

Cavalluzzo’s path to the Blues head coach role was an unexpected one, like many of his other career moves. Still only 26, Cavalluzzo played as a goalkeeper for the McMaster Marauders men’s soccer team while pursuing a degree in chemical engineering and bioengineering from 2011–2015. He earned four OUA medals, one silver U SPORTS medal, and a 2014 OUA All-Star place. He also had stints playing with the Toronto FC Academy and the semi-professional outfit, Niagara United, during this time.

After graduation, he worked as a goalkeeping coach at both McMaster and the Toronto FC Academy, following an invitation from their coach Luciano Lombardi.

Soon after, he was invited to train with Toronto FC II, where unexpected starting goalkeeper injuries meant that Cavalluzzo was called into action and played in five games. At the end of the season, his solid performances convinced Toronto FC II to offer him a professional contract.

“It was unexpected — I think my whole life after school is kind of unexpected,” Cavalluzzo says. “When I graduated [from McMaster] I didn’t expect to be playing soccer. [I] expected to get an engineering job and that would be it.”

After securing his position as first-choice goalkeeper and making over 30 appearances across two years, Cavalluzzo ruptured his Achilles tendon in May 2018. Fans feared that he could miss the rest of the season — in actuality, that was his last game for the club.

Despite this, the following 12 months proved to be a whirlwind.

In August 2018, Lombardi, who was the Blues women’s soccer team head coach at the time, invited Cavalluzzo to join the Blues as an assistant coach. Three months after that, Cavalluzzo finally got his engineering job too, with engineering company AGI Danmare. Then, in April 2019, he was appointed as the Blues’ associate head coach, following Lombardi’s departure.

The rest, as they say, is history. Or, more accurately, the rest involved the creation of new history and new heights.

Onward and upward

This past season, the Blues were one win away from their first-ever OUA gold medal. At the U SPORTS level, they were two wins shy of their first-ever national gold medal — which begs the question: does Cavalluzzo believe the Blues can top what they achieved last season?

“It’s very clearly going to be our goal,” he says, before adding that the unpredictability of the OUA knockout stages means that nothing is certain.

“But obviously that’s going to be our goal — is to win an OUA gold and U SPORTS gold. And whether that happens next year, [the] year after, or four or five years from now, it’s already going to be our goal because seeing what we did last year, I think they’re going to be hungry for more. And knowing that [the players] can do it, they’re never going to lower their expectations. Whether that’s a blessing or a curse, I think it’s a very good thing.”

The task of improving upon an excellent season will be made tougher by the departure of key players Wolever and right-back Daniella Cipriano, who have both reached their eligibility cap. Goalkeeper Stephania Turyk and defender Marie Kuhn are also leaving, while the returns of fourth-year trio Mackay, Staggolis, and defender Anna Crone are yet to be confirmed.

Fortunately, Cavalluzzo now has nine months to prepare for next season, and his squad has already been bolstered with six new recruits, with more to come. This ambition, experience, and recruitment drive provides a good framework for the continued growth of the women’s soccer program.

Beyond the Blues

But what about the overall state of women’s soccer in Canada?

Cavalluzzo contemplates this question for a moment, before delving into a clear and frank assessment of the complex ecosystem.

He says that Canada’s women’s team has stagnated in recent years, and he hopes that last year’s launch of the professional Canadian Premier League for men will result in a similar enterprise to cultivate professional women soccer players. However, he’s also keenly aware of the financial obstacles obstructing such goals, especially given the protracted saga surrounding men’s soccer.

“How can we foster [women soccer players’] technical ability, that love of soccer and not let it fade away because they realize that, ‘Oof I can’t make a living out of this, I’m just going to stop and give up?’ And if you probably asked a survey of all university student athletes — and soccer specifically — how many continue to play [competitively] after university… I bet you that number’s a lot lower than anyone would want it to be.”

When asked about the role that Canadian universities’ women’s soccer programs play in contributing to this end goal, Cavalluzzo is quick to identify the structural barriers that exist.

“I think the environment we create for them is very, very good, but you have to look at it as: it is university and it’s a niche group of athletes that you’re going to get here because not everyone has the academics to get in,” he says. “That’s our reality. And we try and make the most out of it and to give student athletes the best experience they can. And if they want to go on and play soccer afterward, I have every intention of helping them do that.”

While Cavalluzzo’s goalkeeping career may have been cut short, his coaching revolution is just beginning. And based on the evidence of this past season, his players — past, present, and future — are in very safe hands.

Disclosure: Michael Teoh previously served as The Varsity’s Volume 138 Deputy Senior Copy Editor and Volume 139 Business Editor.