Since May 2022, I have been chairing The Varsity’s Equity Board, which informs the paper’s reporting, outreach, and editorial practices. As a Pakistani woman and an international student at U of T, I don’t take this privilege lightly. People like me don’t easily make it to such positions. A small town Pakistani girl doesn’t usually get to influence and make decisions at a 143-year old Canadian newspaper.
My mere presence at The Varsity is a sign of the work that numerous people before me have done. In Volume 140, Ibnul and Ori created The Varsity’s Equity Guide, which continues to inform our practices, style guide, and reporting. Kathryn and Ibnul created the first ever Equity Board as an experiment in Volume 141, the 2020–2021 academic year. In Volume 142, Tahmeed took over as chair of the board and continued its efforts to diversify our reporting. Since then, the board has continued to evolve, and I am honoured to have continued this work.
Our masthead elects members of the board at the start of summer, fall, and winter terms. At any given time, there are at least seven members of masthead on the board, including The Varsity’s editor-in-chief and the Equity Board chair. Equity Board members are not paid for this work; board membership is entirely voluntary.
Over the years, Equity Board members have worked on a number of initiatives that have informed The Varsity’s coverage in meaningful ways. Since its inception, the Equity Board’s primary purpose has been to revise the Equity Guide and expand its scope. The board also works to inform how we put together our equity-themed issues: Black History Month and Indigenous Issue.
The Indigenous Issue
This year, the Equity Board conducted outreach and planning for The Varsity’s first ever Indigenous Issue, comprised of content about and by Indigenous communities. Admittedly, this year’s Indigenous Issue being our first one is rather disappointing considering that The Varsity has been around for 143 years. In the Letter from the Editors that we published in that issue, we wrote that we need to approach Indigenous reporting in a way that respects and understands Indigenous contributors and sources.
However, in the weeks that followed after this issue’s publication, we were informed of a huge error that we had made. During the editing and production processes, due to a miscommunication, The Varsity published material without an Indigenous contributor’s consent. The online version of the article has since been taken down from our website.
We also asked Indigenous contributors for sources of Traditional Knowledge they included in articles they wrote for us; our fact-checking processes require that we ask contributors for an external source backing up any factual statements. We don’t ask for sources when people write about their own personal and cultural experiences, and demands of proof for Traditional Knowledge are harmful to Indigenous peoples because such requirements do not consider the differences between Indigenous record keeping and its colonial versions. Asking an Indigenous writer to produce evidence recorded in Eurocentric media has been a tactic of Indigenous erasure for centuries. It was hugely problematic that we contributed to that history during the production of an Indigenous-themed issue.
Through an internal investigation, we identified training gaps and miscommunication between editors that had contributed to the situation. We also realized that no official Varsity document says that we wouldn’t need proof of such information.
At this point, the only way forward is accepting our mistakes, apologizing for them, and ensuring that they don’t ever happen again at The Varsity. The Equity Board has committed to working on a few internal documents for future Varsity editors that will inform their decisions and practices, including a document that will contain guidelines for how Varsity editors should work with Indigenous contributors. We hope that having concrete directions in writing will help reduce the training gaps we came across this year. The current board plans on finalizing these documents before the volume ends on April 30.
Future of the Equity Board
Over the past few years, it became clear that the people we have on masthead inform the stories we cover. This means that the more diverse our newsroom, the more expansive our coverage gets. I have had the honour of working with some incredible people on the Equity Board who brought their unique experiences to informing The Varsity’s decisions.
Jadine and Artie have remained on the board in advisory positions throughout the year. Thanks to Caroline, Andrea, Marta, Maya, Mekhi, Talha, Jessica, and Vurjeet for dedicating their time and energy to the Equity Board this year. Because of the work I saw these people do this year, I am very optimistic about the future of the Equity Board. I am sure that next year’s masthead will continue to build on the work that we laid the foundations for.
As a century-old institution that hasn’t had the most diverse masthead until recently, The Varsity has made and continues to make mistakes. This year, one of my biggest priorities was ensuring that we apologized when we made mistakes and harmed a marginalized person or group. Yes, it is the bare minimum. But admittedly, it takes a lot of work for an organization to apologize and ensure that it won’t make the same mistake again. By explicitly publishing the ways we harmed Indigenous contributors this volume, I hope we can set a precedent for future Varsity mastheads and ensure they are not scared of apologizing when they make mistakes.
I am incredibly lucky that I got to play a part in bringing our issues to stands and our articles to the website. Thank you to our contributors, sources, and readers for letting us do this work. Thank you for giving us the space to make mistakes, holding us accountable, and letting us do better.
I hope I am leaving this board and the paper in a better place than when I first showed up at The Varsity newsroom as a little first-year student. Chairing the Equity Board has been the biggest honour of my life.