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In the Spotlight: U of T students on exchange in Hong Kong

Two U of T students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong describe escalating violence, evacuation

In the Spotlight: U of T students on exchange in Hong Kong

Following months of ongoing unrest in Hong Kong, two U of T students on exchange at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) told The Varsity that their time abroad was marked with fear of riot police and confusion. It ultimately culminated in a quick exit after U of T issued a notice to evacuate, 11 days before large protests were predicted for Hong Kong’s elections on November 24.

In the crossfire

From the beginning, Emily* and Julia* were concerned about the protests as they escalated in the months leading up to their exchange period, which began in September. August saw unrest spread to Hong Kong International Airport; however, despite multiple peers dropping out, the two went forward with their exchange to CUHK.

To their surprise, the streets were relatively calm — Julia elaborated, “Of course there were protests, but they were always very organized. They were on weekends usually because everyone worked during the weekdays.”

However, everything changed on October 4, when Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam used emergency powers leftover from British colonial rule to impose an anti-mask law that sparked an escalation in the protests. This was in response to rising clashes between protestors and police three days earlier, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China under the Chinese Communist Party, resulting in the first protestor being shot by police.

“When the mask law was enacted, you really felt a different energy in the air. People were furious,” Emily said while recounting how clashes between protestors and riot police were beginning to affect aspects of daily life, like access to public transportation.

Protests cascaded over the following weeks in response to the anti-mask law. Ultimately, from November 2–8 — a time period which saw a pro-Beijing lawmaker stabbed and Chow Tsz-Lok, 22, becoming the first confirmed person to die in connection to the protests — violence, again, engulfed the city, particularly at universities. “Anytime we tried to get out, the police would try to shine their lights into our buildings, and they were shooting tear gas into the walkways,” Julia elaborated.

Siege of CUHK

On November 12, riot police began their siege of CUHK, which was justified on claims of weapons being amassed by protestors. Emily and Julia were off-campus; however, the next day, they received notice from CUHK that their semester was over. The day after that, U of T sent them one of the four emails they received while abroad, telling them to evacuate immediately and by November 21 at the latest, which was three days before elections in Hong Kong.

“I think that was to avoid the elections; they were afraid more stuff would happen on the 24, and then after that we pretty much booked our tickets the day of,” said Emily, who, along with Julia, said that CUHK maintained a better line of communication than U of T. Both institutions discouraged them from joining the protests.

“[U of T] didn’t contact us at all until a month into our exchange and they basically never checked in on how we were doing,” Emily said. “I think [contact from U of T was] just informational emails. It was never reaching out to you specifically and checking in to see if you’re okay.” Emily also said that once the siege happened, U of T checked in, but didn’t feel like her safety was being treated like the main concern: “A lot of it… was like: ‘Oh, your safety is of utmost importance, but also, you’ve got to finish school; you’ve got to fulfill your requirements.’”

Earlier this month, U of T cancelled its Summer Abroad program for 2020, noting that it “[has] been in continual contact with registered U of T students in [Hong Kong] throughout the summer and fall.”

Both Emily and Julia acknowledged that U of T was limited in what it could do, but maintained that CUHK’s constant contact with them helped to keep them safe: “They added us to a Facebook page and…  there were constant updates on [Mass Transit Railway] closings, protests, avoiding areas,” said Julia. Following the siege and the end of the semester, CUHK reached out to both to check in on their well-being, in contrast to U of T’s initial contact in October.

The two said that their time in Hong Kong is inseparable from the escalating violence that they witnessed, noting that they mainly feared riot police, not protestors.

“It’s difficult for me to remove… our feelings for CUHK and our experience in Hong Kong from our political beliefs,” said Emily. “Obviously we never felt threatened by the protesters at all. They were really just ordinary people, a lot of people that we knew, who were just speaking out for their rights.”

*Names have been changed due to fear of retribution

SCSU AGM 2019: Controversial motion to limit executive terms voted down

Questions on whether motion would remove president from office, procedural confusion dominate meeting

SCSU AGM 2019: Controversial motion to limit executive terms voted down

The 2019 Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) Annual General Meeting (AGM) on November 27 got off to an exciting start with the introduction of two emergency motions. It ended anticlimactically when a room booking issue meant the meeting could not be extended beyond 9:00 pm, thus leaving many items unaddressed.

Members only had time to debate one motion, which proposed preventing executives from serving more than one term — a rule which could have potentially removed current President Chemi Lhamo from her position had it not been voted down. Other motions, including ones that called for solidarity with Hong Kong, implementing online voting, and discussing SCSU pay were all left unaddressed.

Electoral Equity Act

The Electoral Equity Act, which sought to limit the number of terms executives could serve in their undergraduate degree to one, proved to be a controversial motion.

After it was moved, long lines formed behind both microphones, and a member motioned to call the question, which would immediately stop the debate and trigger an automatic vote on the motion.

A member who opposed the call to question, however, was found to be using another individual’s voting card, which had 25 proxy votes. This prompted calls for a revote wherein the opposition still prevailed. The question was not called, and discussion on the act continued.

In the discussion that followed, a member pointed out that the language of the motion, which specifies that it take effect “immediately,” might call into question the legitimacy of Lhamo’s position, since she served as Vice-President Equity in the previous academic year. After another member successfully called the question, the membership voted down the motion.

In an interview after the meeting, the mover of the motion, Annie Sahagian, explained that the intention was not to remove Lhamo from office. Referencing this interpretation of the motion, she said, “I was going to amend that.” However, there was not enough time to do so as the question was called.

The intended aim of the Electoral Equity Act was to encourage “student engagement, involvement and participation within SCSU,” explained Sahagian.

Sahagian is the sister of Carly Sahagian, the current Vice-President Academics and University Affairs. However, both parties say they did not collaborate on the motion, pointing out that this motion would prevent Carly from running for another term as well. Carly, along with Vice-President External Chaman Bukhari, were the only two executives to vote in favour of the motion. Vice-President Operations Ray Alibux abstained from voting, and the remaining three executives, including Lhamo, voted against the motion.

Emergency motion on Hong Kong protests

Shortly after the meeting was called to order and before the discussion on the Electoral Equity Act, Lhamo proposed an emergency motion be added to the end of the agenda. The motion, entitled “Student Solidarity for Hong Kong,” included resolutions to work with U of T to research “harassment within academic institutions of students who speak out against injustices” and to investigate “the pressure on students who are being instructed, manipulated or coerced into taking action by foreign influences.”

Lhamo told The Varsity that the investigation aspect of the motion seeks to protect international Chinese students from pressures by foreign influences, which she claimed the university was hesitant to do. The motion also calls for the SCSU to create a Lennon Wall on campus.

Lhamo also hopes this motion goes beyond the protests in Hong Kong, recalling the threats she faced and continues to receive, many with anti-Tibet sentiments since she is a vocal supporter of Tibetan sovereignty. She noted that she never received a report explaining the threats she faced, despite announcements that police had begun inquiries.

“I would hate to see that universities and external entities behave the way they did with me to any other students.”

Procedural hiccups

The night’s agenda saw two emergency motions, several re-arrangements, and an obscure order from Robert’s Rules. These hiccups were cut short at 9:00 pm, despite attempts to extend the meeting to 11:00 pm.

Alibux introduced the second emergency motion of the night, following Lhamo’s Hong Kong motion, which would commit the union to implement online voting. Alibux’s motivation to the chair for this being an emergency was two-fold: the climate crisis and a previous miscommunication within the team that prevented this motion from going onto the agenda.

The chair ruled against him, citing the timeliness required for an emergency motion, at which point Alibux challenged the chair, with the membership voting in his favour to contravene the chair’s ruling and allow the motion onto the agenda.

The agenda’s re-arrangement was crucial in deciding the few motions that the membership would get to debate during the AGM — members raced to add new orders to the motions until the question was called and the agenda for the night was passed. The AGM saw the membership address one member-submitted motion — Sahagian’s — before being brought to an abrupt end by a member calling for the order of the day, requiring the membership to conform to the agenda, which meant that the meeting was over at 9:00 pm. Despite Alibux’s attempt to challenge the chair’s ruling in this matter, the room had only been booked until 9:00 pm, and the meeting could not be extended.

Among the motions that weren’t addressed at the meeting were pay bumps for executives, pay for SCSU board directors to attend meetings, and a motion alleging that the union is undermining its commitments to the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) Israel movement — one which cited an Israeli flag in Bukhari’s office as an example of such action from within the union.

UTMSU AGM 2019: Funding cuts, campus initiatives, policies in discussion

President Atif Abdullah passes motion to increase activism on OSAP cuts

UTMSU AGM 2019: Funding cuts, campus initiatives, policies in discussion

Funding cuts from the provincial government and ideas on how to resist them took centre stage at the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union’s (UTMSU) Annual General Meeting (AGM) on November 27 in the Maanjiwe nendamowinan building. It was the union’s first AGM after splitting from the University of Toronto Students’ Union last year.

Presidential address

“I actually realized that we had quite a long year full of ups and downs, and a lot of different things happened, some positive, unfortunately some negative as well,” said UTMSU President Atif Abdullah, beginning his address. “I say that because there were many challenges that deeply affected our community here,” he added, going on to talk about the cuts to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and the mental health crisis.

He discussed several policies and initiatives that the UTMSU has worked on in the past year, including the course retake policy that was implemented in May and the pilot implementation of self-assigned sick notes over the summer. According to Abdullah, a new printing service that will allow students to print from their personal devices will become available next semester.

Some UTMSU-run initiatives, like the Food Centre and the Duck Stop, which is the convenience store on campus, have been well-received by the UTM community. According to Abdullah, the Food Centre serves over 150 students per month, and the Duck Stop has sold over 77,000 items in the past year.

Abdullah also submitted a motion to the agenda which was dubbed the “Student Action Motion.” It proposed that the UTMSU explore options for increasing activism regarding the cuts to OSAP, including “rallies, marches, sit-ins and strikes.” Abdullah called a walk-out earlier in the year a success, with “historic numbers for UTM.” While speaking on the motion, he commented that the UTMSU wants to hear the thoughts of its membership before going forward with any forms of protest. The motion passed. 

Abdullah spoke at the UTM Campus Council on November 20 concerning the mental health crisis. During the meeting, Abdullah brought up recommendations on behalf of the UTMSU. These included conducting a review of campus police’s policies for dealing with mental health crises, and addressing the long wait times for students to access mental health resources on campus.

Financial statements

According to the financial statements, the cost of orientation doubled from last year, due to inviting Tory Lanez for a concert in September 2018. The costs associated with the Blind Duck Pub also increased, as renovations in the Temporary Food Court continued throughout 2018 and 2019. The Blind Duck Pub was also open for longer hours to accommodate students during construction.

Starting in September, full-time UTM students received health and dental care through Green Shield Canada. “Now that UTM students are in charge of their own health and dental plan, at the end of this first year we can actually look at some of the records and track what usage students have been doing, and based on that, we can either increase some of the benefits and offset that by decreasing what students actually don’t need and don’t want to use,” said Abdullah in an interview with The Varsity. He went on to call the new health and dental plan “a positive change.”

Vice-President Internal Sara Malhotra submitted the motion to approve Yale and Partners LLC as the auditors for the UTMSU and the Blind Duck Pub. The motion was seconded and passed.

Member-submitted motions

There were two member-submitted motions. The first moved to offer billiard tables for free instead of $1.75. The motion was amended to have the cost absorbed by the Blind Duck, and passed. The second motion proposed to have the Blind Duck open on weekends. The motion was amended to move that the UTMSU explore the possibility of keeping it open on weekends, and it passed as well. 

Recent criticisms

Two days before the UTMSU’s AGM, an editorial was published in The Medium criticizing the union for having close ties to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), alleging that this relationship compromises the UTMSU’s autonomy.

“Do we support a lot of the work that CFS does? Yes, because it is for students and it’s a benefit for students — fighting for accessible tuition [and] against the Student Choice Initiative… [are things] that… we see eye-to-eye with the CFS in,” said Abdullah.

“However, it doesn’t mean that we don’t criticize the CFS or [consider] where it could do better because everyone can do better.”

The UTMSU’s current Executive Director, Nour Alideeb, served as chairperson for CFS–Ontario for the past two years, a fact the editorial scrutinized. It also criticized her hiring, as she is married to the previous UTMSU executive director, presenting it as an example of “nepotism.” Abdullah defended Alideeb, noting that she was hired for her experience, particularly for progressive initiatives that she helped pass and her track record in building relationships with the administration.

Editor’s Note (December 4, 3:48 pm): This article has been updated to correct that orientation expenses rose from inviting Tory Lanez for a concert in September 2018, not Sean Paul in 2019. 

U of T professors, faculty sign open letter calling for written apology on UTM handcuffing

Letter calls for immediate end to handcuffing practice, repeals of mandated leave policy

U of T professors, faculty sign open letter calling for written apology on UTM handcuffing

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

An open letter drafted by Beverly Bain, a lecturer at the Women & Gender Studies Institute at UTM, and Vannina Sztainbok, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Justice Education, was sent to multiple university administrators on Tuesday. The letter, which was signed by over 130 professors, faculty members, and students, calls on the university to issue a written apology to Natalia Espinosa, the UTM student who was handcuffed by campus police earlier this semester.

Background

On October 2, Espinosa, a third-year student, sought help at the Health & Counselling Centre (HCC) for suicidal ideation. She was accompanied by her friend and fellow U of T student, Anita Mozaffari, who had been the one to urge Espinosa to seek support. After drafting a safety plan with a nurse — which involved Espinosa staying the night with Mozaffari — the nurse informed Espinosa that, per U of T protocol, campus police would have to speak with her for 10–15 minutes before she could leave.

During her talk with two campus police constables, Espinosa revealed that she had previously intended to die by suicide and that a specific location was involved in her plan. The officers then told her that they would have to transport her to a hospital because her plan included a real location.

Although Espinosa was willing to go to a hospital with them, the two officers maintained that they needed to handcuff her, which caused Espinosa to suffer a number of panic attacks in the ensuing hours.

When this incident initially came to light, a number of U of T campus groups released statements condemning the actions of campus police and called on the university to amend its policies. Vice-Provost, Students Sandy Welsh also fielded a number of questions on the matter during a University Affairs Board meeting on November 13.

A university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Varsity that although U of T’s existing policies are in line with local law enforcement, “U of T is reviewing its police practices in this respect.”

Open letter

The document, entitled, “Open Letter Calling For End To Handcuffing Of Students,” amassed over 130 signatures from U of T community members in the five days between November 21, when the letter began circulating, and November 26. At that time, it was sent to U of T President Meric Gertler, Acting Vice-President and Principal at UTM Ian Orchard, and Vice-Principal, Academic and Dean of UTM Amrita Daniere.

The open letter, which was created and mainly signed by U of T professors and faculty members, cites their concerns with referring their students to U of T’s mental health services in light of this incident.

The letter reads: “As faculty and staff, we are trained to refer students to services, including the HCCs. Now, we have to seriously consider whether such a referral could lead to further harm. This leaves us, but more importantly students, bereft of options.”

The main demands include a written apology for Espinosa and compensation sent to her “for the trauma she experienced.” A number of policy changes were also proposed, such as excluding campus police from mental health situations by halting the practice of arresting and handcuffing students — instead, using other means to transport students to hospitals.

It also suggested ending the practice of encouraging invigilators to involve law enforcement when dealing with “difficult” students, repealing the university-mandated leave of absence policy, and hiring mental health professionals who are experienced in providing support to marginalized people. Finally, the authors suggested including student consultation throughout the reform process.

The authors of this letter are concerned with how issues of mental health are particularly pressing for those at an ‘intersection.’ They note that “Black students and students of colour who are female on all three of our campuses” are especially vulnerable in seeking mental health support.

When asked about the open letter, a U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity, stating “We have received the letter and will respond directly to the faculty members who have raised concerns.”

In conversation with Beverly Bain

Bain, one of the principal authors of the open letter, sat down with The Varsity to talk about her motivations behind advocating for Espinosa and for better mental health support at U of T.

Mozaffari, Espinosa’s friend who accompanied her that day to the HCC, is one of Bain’s students. When the handcuffing incident initially happened, both went to her for guidance. Since then, as this event has become more well-known, a number of other students have talked to Bain about experiences similar to Espinosa’s.

“This is not an isolated event,” said Bain, claiming that she is aware of five other similar incidents, with three students having already spoken to her about their experience.

She disagrees with the rationale behind U of T’s policy to handcuff students transported to hospitals. Mark Overton, Dean of Student Affairs at UTM, explained to The Varsity that these measures are in place to protect the safety of all those involved, both the student and the officer.

“If anything, [handcuffing students] heightens their anxiety, because it criminalizes them,” Bain said. She went on to add that “these students are not violent, there’s nothing to de-escalate. What creates escalation is putting them in handcuffs because then they panic and then they get upset.”

Bain hopes to see trained mental health professionals dealing with these issues, rather than campus police.

“In the case of [Espinosa], and all of the other cases, these students said to me that the campus police, they were really cruel. They were not at all supportive, they were not kind.”

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.

Three new pedestrian crossovers proposed for Queen’s Park

Final decision to be made on December 17 by City Council

Three new pedestrian crossovers proposed for Queen’s Park

Students trying to cross Queen’s Park may be able to walk with more security as Toronto’s Transportation Services (TS) has proposed three new pedestrian crossovers at popular jaywalking spots. If the measures receive final approval on December 17 from City Council, construction is estimated to begin during the summer of 2021.

Following consultations, the university proposed crossings at areas around Queen’s Park where pedestrians naturally tend to cross. The points of interest were an area at the north roadway of Queen’s Park on Queen’s Park Crescent East; a point on Queen’s Park Crescent West, south of Hoskin Avenue; and a point on Queen’s Park Crescent West, slightly north of the south leg. The study was conducted in April by the TTC, where it observed pedestrian traffic in those three areas during the busiest eight-hour period of weekdays.

The study found that all but the third noted area of concern justified installing a pedestrian crossover, since they had high pedestrian volume and consistent pedestrian delay. Queen’s Park Crescent West, south of Hoskin Avenue, had the highest amount of pedestrian crossings, with 1,323 crossings in the eight-hour period.

Based on these findings, TS recommended installing crossovers in all areas, despite none of the areas meeting all of the standards for pedestrian crossings, as Queen’s Park has nearby driveways and turning movements, alongside three lanes of one-way traffic on both Queen’s Park Crescent East and West. The areas are also in close proximity to other pedestrian crossovers and driveways.

A 2017 investigation by The Varsity found four major road accidents around Queen’s Park in a 10-year period.

Should City Council give final approval during the December 17 meeting, the time between approval and activation would be around 18 months, according to the city. “Traffic control signal installation could be reasonably expected during the summer of 2021,” wrote a city spokesperson in an email to The Varsity. The cost would be about $360,000, depending on the availability of funding.

A report by TS cited U of T traffic as the main reason for requesting the crossings, to improve connectivity and safety. U of T constitutes a “distinct region of urban parkland in the city’s downtown core,” according to the report, which also cited the Ontario Legislative Building, which is built on Queen’s Park, along with its numerous historical monuments as reasons for the new crossovers.

The crossings at Queen’s Park are part of a larger effort by U of T to make the campus more friendly to pedestrians, according to Christine Burke, Director of Campus & Facilities Planning.

“The university proposed these new crossings and we’re very pleased they are moving forward,” wrote Burke in an email to The Varsity. “From consultations, we learned that these crossings are all natural routes for pedestrians, including people travelling back and forth from the University of St. Michael’s College and Victoria University on the east side of Queen’s Park.”

Protestors call for climate action with Black Friday strike

Fridays for Future Toronto chapter organizes march ahead of United Nations Climate Change Conference

Protestors call for climate action with Black Friday strike

On Black Friday, Canada’s biggest shopping day of the year, hundreds of climate protestors took to the streets as a part of the Fridays for Future movement for action in response to the climate crisis, gathering in front of Queen’s Park for a rally before marching to City Hall. The strike also comes a few days before the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25). Leaders will meet on December 2 in Spain to submit climate action plans ahead of the 2020 deadline, in accordance with the 2015 Paris Agreement.

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

“We are striking today, on Black Friday, because we want to call out the system that forces us to live unsustainable lives. Because many of us don’t have the time, the money, or the option to live another way,” said Fridays for Future Toronto Chapter Head Allie Rougeot to the crowd. In her speech, she affirmed Fridays for Future’s commitment to Indigenous sovereignty and called on political leaders to take drastic climate action at the COP25 conference.

“We are demanding that in Spain, they do their jobs of protecting us and working for us.”

One theme of the strike was criticizing the Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC) investment in fossil fuels, with marchers placing “Divest RBC” stickers on the storefront of the bank as they passed by it. Volunteers stood in front of the bank holding a banner that read, “Canada’s #1 Fossil Bank. Divest Now!”

In an interview with The Varsity, Rougeot reflected on the Black Friday strike, held over two months after the Global Climate Strike in Toronto, which saw the participation of around 15,000 people. “The turnout is definitely smaller [this time], but we expected a smaller turnout. What I really like is how much mightier it is.”

She described the central tenets of the strike and Fridays for Future as “a just transition for workers, Indigenous rights, and marginalized communities being included and us fighting for them.”

Rougeot, a U of T student, criticized the university’s “horrific” investment in fossil fuels. “As much as I want to be proud of my school, I will never be proud of my school until they divest.”

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Similar to the Global Climate Strikes that took place in September, young people were particularly represented in this strike, with groups of middle- and high-school students striking together. Dunbarton High School student Devin Mathura commented on his presence at the strike with a large group of classmates: “We have to enforce the fight for climate change and [the fight] to declare a climate emergency by not going to school because why should we get an education when there’s not going to be a future for us?”

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Seventeen-year-old climate activist Abonti Nur Ahmed spoke at the rally, criticizing the elitism of the climate movement. “I don’t remember the last time someone asked me how it was affecting my community and how it’s affecting the people that I know,” Ahmed said to the crowd.

In an interview with The Varsity, Ahmed said that the community she was representing was a politically disenfranchised one: “They don’t know how to fight for their own rights.” Her speech advocated for intersectionality in the climate movement, which she defines as not putting the blame on individuals, but rather understanding that systemic change needs to come before placing any burdens on already marginalized communities.

She hopes to inspire people to learn about intersectionality for themselves. “When I was speaking, the only thing that was in the back of my mind [was]: ‘I hope that people hear what I say and decide to go look up what intersectional climate change means,’ because I can say everything I want, but it has to start with the person’s passion.”

What’s next for the Student Choice Initiative? Downtown Legal Services’ perspective on court decision

U of T closes online portal, uncertain future for SCI

What’s next for the Student Choice Initiative? Downtown Legal Services’ perspective on court decision

On November 21, the Divisional Court of Ontario struck down the Student Choice Initiative (SCI), leaving postsecondary institutions and student associations uncertain about how to proceed. Downtown Legal Services (DLS) Executive Director Lisa Cirillo told The Varsity that any plans by the province to repeal the decision or introduce legislation will be difficult.

While stakeholder groups struggle to make sense of the future, U of T has removed its incidental fee opt-out portal online as it “evaluate[s] the technical impact of the Divisional Court’s decision,” wrote a university spokesperson. The Ministry of Colleges and Universities (MCU) wrote to The Varsity that it “is currently reviewing the decision.”

Background of the SCI

In January, the SCI was announced as a provincial mandate to Ontario universities and colleges that opt-out options be provided for certain incidental fees that were deemed “non-essential,” with the government outlining the criteria for mandatory fees. In May, the York Federation of Students (YFS) and the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–O) launched a legal challenge against the SCI, requesting that the court quash the initiative.

Following a court hearing in October, the Honourable Justices Harriet Sachs, David Corbett, and Lise Favreau ruled in favour of the YFS and the CFS–O, finding that the province was acting illegally by interfering in the relationship between postsecondary institutions and student associations.

Downtown Legal Services on the effects of decision

DLS is a legal aid clinic that is partially funded by student levies; it felt the effects of the SCI first hand. At its Annual General Meeting earlier this year, the University of Toronto Students’ Union announced that DLS had 19 per cent of students opt out of its fees.

Cirillo believes that while the government has the ability to appeal the decision or use the legislature to expand the powers of the province, the path ahead will be difficult for the province. “The court has laid out really firmly: this is the territory of universities and student unions within the universities, and we don’t believe that you can encroach on that.”

Recapping the court’s decision and the arguments presented by both sides, Cirillo said: “The court granted the application on the basis of the first [argument], they said that these directives were illegal and inconsistent with the legislative schemes… And they found they didn’t have to go to the other two arguments because they could decide the case on the basis of the first one.”

“The government had no legal basis to issue this directive, but I think it leaves us in such an interesting place because the universities and colleges had to comply,” Cirillo said. “[But] they’ve all created this enormous new electronic registration infrastructure that provides opportunities to opt out.”

On what quashing the directive will entail, Cirillo says that universities, independent from the government, could continue to open their opt-out portals, but whether that would be the case is up to the institutions themselves.

Cirillo points out a particular passage that summarizes the court’s answer to the province’s argument that the SCI couldn’t be struck down by the courts: “Neither argument justifies exempting the impugned directives from judicial review for legality. To hold otherwise would undercut the supremacy of the legislature and open the door for government by executive decree, a proposition repugnant to the core principles of parliamentary democracy.”

2019 Schmidt Science Fellow Dr. Ina Anreiter discusses behavioural genetics research

U of T researcher recognized for her work modifying fruit fly foraging behaviours

2019 Schmidt Science Fellow Dr. Ina Anreiter discusses behavioural genetics research

Dr. Ina Anreiter from the University of Toronto was selected as a 2019 Schmidt Science Fellow for her research in behavioural genetics in April in New York.

The Schmidt Science Fellowship is a prestigious program that brings some of the best emerging scientists in the world together, and equips them with new skills to make a positive change in society. Candidates are chosen for their exceptional performance during PhD studies and strong intellectual curiosity to broaden the scope of their future research.

Each fellow, including Anreiter, will complete a year-long postdoctoral placement in a different field than their PhD topic to promote interdisciplinary thinking.

Anreiter’s work as a PhD candidate

Anreiter completed her PhD in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at U of T, and was supervised by Dr. Marla Sokolowski. As part of her studies, Anreiter wanted to understand how genetics and environment could influence behaviours. She studied this by looking at the foraging gene of two strains of fruit flies with distinct foraging behaviours: the rovers and the sitters.

The rovers are more active and are usually willing to travel farther for food, while the sitters are less active and tend to travel shorter distances to forage.

“When the food is in the middle of the arena, you have a trade-off of safety versus getting to the food,” explained Anreiter in an interview with The Varsity. “So you can see this difference in rovers and sitters… It’s a circular arena, food is distributed in the middle, and you can see that sitters tend to hug the edges, while rovers are much more exploratory.”

An earlier paper published in 2017 by Anreiter and her colleagues described how they were able to genetically engineer the foraging gene to transform sitters into rovers.

Challenges along the way

Anreiter had to overcome multiple challenges to accomplish what she has. “The way that our publishing system works is very positive-result-oriented. It’s very hard to publish negative results, and there are many arguments to be made,” she remarked.

“We ended up publishing this really nice story about this one epigenetic regulator that regulates individual differences, but that wasn’t the only regulator that we looked at,” she continued. Epigenetic engineering makes modifications to an organism by altering which genes are expressed, rather than directly changing the DNA sequence itself.

However, her research team looked at many other regulators that did not show a positive result. “So there’s a lot of work that goes into this project that is never published because the results are not positive,” she elaborated.

She further acknowledged the challenges that she experienced as a PhD student, but she advised students to not get discouraged when a project seems to come to a dead end.

“It’s not the end of your PhD; it’s not the end of your research. You just change gears a little bit and continue with something new,” she concluded.

Next steps for future research

Anreiter’s work opens up many possibilities for future research in epigenetics. One of the significant findings in this study was that the effect of epigenetic regulators is dependent on the strain of fruit flies. In other words, “You have an interaction where the epigenetic modification is dependent on a genetic difference, and that’s an interaction which… when I started my PhD, [people] weren’t looking at,” she said.

“And that applies not only to fruit flies, not only to feeding behaviour, but applies broadly to animal research.”

Currently, Anreiter has undertaken a project in computer science, where she aims to develop a new computation mechanism to examine epigenetics modifications in RNA as a required component of the Schmidt Science Fellowship.

Offering advice to undergraduates about graduate studies, “Don’t do grad school because you are just not sure what you want to do, because grad school can be really, really tough,” she remarked. “But it is also really rewarding in my experience.”

“If you are excited about research, if you are excited about science, it is a really cool environment where you can really have the freedom of developing you own interests.”