“Taking stock”

University of Toronto president Meric Gertler discusses sexual violence on campus, government funding, Student Commons

“Taking stock”

Set against a backdrop of rapid growth at the Mississauga and Scarborough campuses, sweeping changes to flat fee policy, a contentious University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) election, and the election of new mayors in Mississauga and Toronto, Meric Gertler assumed office as the sixteenth president of the University of Toronto during a period of unprecedented change.

As he closes in on 500 days in office, The Varsity sat down with Gertler to discuss the year gone by and plans for the year ahead.

The Varsity: You’ve now been president for over a year. At your installation address, you named leveraging location, strengthening international partnerships, and reinventing undergraduate education as priorities for the university’s future. Can you tell me about the progress you’ve made towards accomplishing those goals?

Meric Gertler: The first one, leveraging our location, is one where I think there’s certainly a lot to report. We’ve focused on a couple of things. First of all, trying to build a stronger, friendlier relationship with the city around us. That’s city with a lower case “c,” and city with an upper case “C.” So the lower case “c” is neighbourhood associations that are adjacent to our campuses, community-based organizations that can benefit from collaboration with the university, and individual citizens who might want to set foot on one of our campuses take part in, if not our educational programs, at least events that we have on campus. We’ve had some really great events where we’ve welcomed the city in. I think one of my highlights was the tribute and celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life several days after he passed, where we opened up Convocation Hall and ended up having 800 people show up. We welcomed members of the South African diaspora, the premier came, the lieutenant-governor came. We had students and faculty from Africa speaking, as well as members of the community. We had a personal video from Desmond Tutu, sent for the occasion. We had given him an honorary degree from this institution several years before, so he knows us well. So that’s a great example of using some of our fantastic spaces for the benefit of the city.



At a time when no one was doing anything, we thought, ‘We have the space. We have the kind of convening power.’ So that’s one real highlight. In terms of city with an upper case “C,” the City of Toronto and the City of Mississauga are our two host cities. We’ve enjoyed a great relationship with Mississauga for many years, with Hazel McCallion and now with Bonnie Crombie, the new mayor, who is an alumna of U of T. That relationship will continue to flourish. And similarly, although we are not physically in Brampton, Linda Jeffery, another U of T alumna, is also already reaching out to us to establish a stronger relationship. So on the western side of the [Greater Toronto Area], things are going really well.

The City of Toronto has been a work in progress. We’ve had our ups and downs with them over the years. But there’s been a real warming of relations there, starting with councillor Adam Vaughan before he moved into federal politics, where we were able to re-establish a great working relationship with him and the neighbourhood liaison committee that we has, that represents the neighbourhood associations around the St. George campus. I’ve met with Joe Cressy, the new councillor for that area, on his very first day in office. So we’ve established a very good working relationship. I’ve also established a ritual of annual meetings with the heads of all the residence associations around our St. George campus. They were here — I think it was last January — and we’ve just set up a meeting for them to return for another conversation. We also have a great relationship with councillor Wong-Tam, who’s our other downtown councillor here.

Similarly, with our councillor at Scarborough. There are all kinds of good reasons for working well with the city. We plan to leverage them as much as we can. I’ve been talking to Jennifer Keesmaat, the chief planner for the City of Toronto, about ways that we can engage students and faculty to engage on city planning issues where they need some help — where they don’t have the research capacity or expertise that we have, and we can actually engage students and faculty very successfully working in partnership with the City.

Just last night, I had dinner with the new mayor, John Tory, along with my counterparts at York [University], Ryerson [University], and OCAD [Ontario College of Art and Design], to talk about ways that the universities can work with the city more closely. While I’m at it, I might as well mention that I took the initiative to convene a meeting of the four university presidents on a regular basis. So I hosted the first of those meetings at Massey College last spring. Since then, we’ve had two more dinners — one hosted by Sara Diamond from OCAD. Last night’s dinner was hosted by Sheldon Levy at Ryerson. The next one will be hosted by Mamdouh Shoukri at York.

The idea is ‘How can the four universities work together to help address challenges that all four of us face based on the fact that we’re here in Toronto?’ So we have encouraged our faculty and students at all four universities to come together around transportation as a big issue. So many thousands of our students, our faculty, and our staff commute to and from our campuses every day, and their daily lives are so deeply affected by the state of the transportation system in this city, and indeed the region. We all recognize that we have an interest in improving the status quo. We are going to be encouraging them to work together to study student transportation patterns on a daily basis. They’ll do a survey of the behaviour of students, and collect a fantastic database that they can use to inform public policy decisions so that we can make the case for better transit to the Scarborough campus and better connections to this campus as well. So those are some examples on the first priority. Obviously, as a cities guy, I can talk about this for the next five days and not run out of material.

On the international front, our goal is really to find ways to create even more opportunities for our faculty and our students through international partnerships and other international activities. I’m a firm believer that international experience is an important element of a student’s education. You learn so much from travelling and interacting with people in other places, other societies, other cultures, other traditions. So we want to do everything we can to make it as easy as possible for more and more students to have that experience. It’s challenging for financial reasons. It’s challenging also because many of our students have multiple responsibilities here in Toronto. They live at home; they have responsibilities at home. They work part-time, and it’s hard for them to step away from their part-time positions for a summer, or a full-year is even more difficult. So we have to find ever more creative ways to do that. I like the approach that [the Faculty of] Arts & Science has taken with International Course Modules. That’s kind of a shorter, more intense, less expensive option to provide a first taste of international experience for students. I know that the dean of Arts & Science is keen to grow that as much as possible.

Another way to create international opportunities is through partnerships with other really good universities in other parts of the world. There, I think we’ve been focusing on deepening the partnerships with institutions that we think are particularly well-suited to be our partners. They are great universities. Typically, they are in other great cities around the world. I’ve spent some time travelling this year to visit some of these institutions — most recently Sao Paulo in Brazil, and the University of Sao Paulo is arguably Latin America’s best university, and is rapidly rising. We have already very strong connections… The four areas that we focused on are global cities, international relations, neuroscience, and oncology. Those are the four for the Sao Paulo agreement. Each of the agreements that we strike with different institutions will focus on different areas. I’ll be going to India next week visiting IIT [Indian Institute of Technology] Bombay, taking four faculty members with me to talk about urban issues and research. In this case, the four faculty are coming from engineering, and there too we’re going to try to create opportunities for faculty and students to work in partnership with colleagues in Bombay on areas of common interest. The Sao Paulo trip was a bigger delegation; there were 15 faculty who went on that, and a very broad range of disciplines that were represented. We know from experience there is tremendous experience in partnering with U of T abroad. We’ve seen it in Latin America. We’re seeing it in Asia, as well — in East Asia, China in particular, but also in places like Singapore.

So our challenge, and it’s a nice challenge to have, is to figure out who we really want to partner with. We can’t partner with everybody — at least not to the same extent – so one of my goals for the coming year is to instigate a conversation around the university about ‘What kinds of partners do we really want to interact with, and what are the criteria that we would use to pick?’ That’s a university-wide conversation that we like to have.



On the final one — undergraduate education and the idea of re-inventing or re-imagining it —what I’ve been trying to do is to provoke a conversation around the university about what an undergraduate education is for. What is the role of the university in that regard? There’s a lot of talk these days about the need to produce students who are job-ready, to focus their development on very specific skills, rather than taking a step back and thinking deeply about the kind of competencies that we really should be developing in our students — not just for their first job but for a lifelong career or set of careers. A lifetime of success. And what I’ve been trying to argue is that this is not the time to be throwing out the traditional liberal arts model of undergraduate education — a model of education based on breadth. Indeed, it’s a time to renew our model and rejuvenate it, and think creatively about how we develop the capacities that we think our students should have when they live here: the ability to communicate well, the ability to think creatively and critically, the ability to appraise other peoples’ arguments in a sceptical way, the ability to assemble your own arguments effectively, marshalling both qualitative and quantitative forms of evidence, the ability to work successfully in groups. These kinds of skills that, no matter what field you end up working in, or whether you go into graduate work or professional schools, or straight into the world or work, these will serve you well.

What I’ve been trying to do, through discussion of these three priorities — and particularly that last priority — is to try to stimulate discussion and debate around the different divisions of the university on all three campuses. Ultimately, it’s up to the provost, working with deans and faculty members and students, to lead the way in thinking about how we rethink undergraduate education in a way that, on the one hand, serves the long-term needs of our students, while at the same time recognizing that the challenging economic circumstances of today, and the difficulty in the job market, and helping launch our students effectively and successfully once they are getting ready to leave.

TV: Going back to the transit piece, Toronto mayor John Tory announced a 10 cent hike in Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) fares. Do you think the university plays in role in facilitating transport for students?

MG: That’s a great question. This is a very recent decision by the new mayor, so we’ll be gathering information on what potential actions the university can take. But we have indeed been advocating very strongly with the TTC directly to improve service, particularly to our Scarborough campus, which has been poorly served. We want to engage directly in debates about plans for new transit infrastructure in that quadrant of the city, and to make sure the decisions that they make recognize the scale of the development that has already taken place there — let alone plans for the future with 12,000 students at UTSC and another 5,000 at Centennial [College], which is right at the same campus, and the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, which is a huge magnet.

In fact, I did talk to the mayor about this last night at our dinner. He visited that campus recently — the first time, probably, in twenty years — and was amazed by what he saw. This kind of establishment of a dialogue and encouraging leaders like him to visit our campuses and meet with students is really critical to ensuring that whatever transit policy decisions come out of City Hall are student-friendly and university-friendly.

TV: Do you see a direct shuttle coming from the Scarborough campus to the St. George campus at any point in the future?

MG: Jill Matus, our vice-provost for students and first-entry divisions, has been investigating this issue… She has been looking at all of the issues there. Ironically, because Scarborough is in the City of Toronto and because the TTC has a legislative monopoly on public transit services within the City of Toronto, it has created a bit of an impediment for us in terms of establishing a university-sponsored shuttle between the two campuses. That has been the issue that has been our biggest stumbling block.

It’s why we have a shuttle to UTM, but not to UTSC. UTM is in a different municipality. Professor Matus has been investigating the opportunities and options that might exist… It is clearly something that seems like a good idea to everyone involved. If there’s any way we could make it happen, we would make it happen, without running afoul of the law.

TV: Do you see a different dynamic working with Tory versus the previous mayor, Rob Ford?

MG: Mr. Tory seems very open to meeting with university leadership on a regular basis. The first conversation that the four of us had with him yesterday was very cordial. He was very engaged. He expressed real interest in our needs and our challenges, and a real willingness to work together to solve mutual problems and to seize opportunities. I’m quite encouraged. It’s early days yet, but I’m quite encouraged by what I’ve seen so far.

TV: There’s been a lot of discussion across North America regarding sexual violence on postsecondary campuses. In November, the University of Toronto announced the Advisory Committee to the President and Provost on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence. However, a petition yesterday highlighted student concerns, calling for the university to “[r]eview all relevant policies and procedures and, in light of this review, develop a clear and comprehensive sexual violence policy.” Can you talk a bit about the steps the university is taking to combat sexual violence?

MG: We recognize this as a very serious issue, and we recognize that our overriding responsibility is to do everything we can to provide a safe environment that is conducive to learning by all members of our community — whatever gender they may be, whatever sexual orientation they may have, and any other characteristics, social or otherwise, that differentiate one from another.

That is a bedrock value of this institution that has always guided us. To that end, when these recent events hit the media, our first response was to have the provost issue a statement that acknowledges our responsibility in this area, that reminds members of the community that we do have a variety of existing channels and support services available to students if they do find themselves in a situation where they feel they need help.



We listed those very clearly, so it was an opportunity to collate these and to put them all in one place. We’re very proud of the services that we have on offer, and the policies and procedures in place to deal with such events, should they occur.

Nevertheless, whenever something like this happens at another institution, whether it’s in Canada or elsewhere, it’s a good opportunity for us to take stock and look at our own practices and ask ourselves: “Are we doing the best that we can? Can we learn from other places’ experiences, and incorporate that lesson or those lessons into how we do things?”

That is really the reason for this new group that has been announced. It’s a chance for us to take stock, looking systematically across all of our practices, all of our policies, across all of our campuses, to make sure that what we do is the absolute best-in-class. We will, of course, run that review process in a way that is very open and provides ample opportunities for all members of the university community to contribute their wisdom and perspective to this discussion. We want this to be as inclusive and as open as possible. We want everybody to feel ownership of whatever recommendations come out of this exercise. That’s our intention.

TV: As it stands right now, do you think current resources are adequate for dealing with incidents of sexual violence?

MG: Too early to say. All I can say is that our student life operation is a very high quality operation. It is recognized partly because of the scale of this place — the fact that we have experience here that smaller universities may not encounter as frequently in terms of variety and number, which creates a valuable experience base and learning opportunities for our dedicated staff. We believe that the current offering of services is very strong in that regard, but we want to make sure that is the case, and that’s why we’re undertaking this review.

TV: At various times over the past decade, the University of Toronto Faculty Association — and past-president George Luste, in particular — has expressed concern over the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation’s (UTAM) handling of pension and endowment funds. Do you think current oversight of that subsidiary, and its overall performance, is adequate?

MG: I think that the system we have in place has improved a lot since the dark days of the last financial crisis, when the university experienced a setback. Lots of other institutions experienced setbacks, but I think the scale of our losses was large relative to other places. It triggered a review by my predecessor, David Naylor, of the existing structures and practices in place, culminating in a report that was from a committee chaired by former chancellor Hal Jackman, which made some very astute observations and recommendations. It led to the creation of something called the Investment Advisory Committee (IAC), which is a volunteer committee of very senior investment professionals drawn from the Toronto investment community.



We’re lucky to be situated in one of the world’s true centres for not just financial services, but particularly for the prudent management of long-term investments — pension funds and related vehicles. We drew on that community to pull together this advisory committee, which includes people like David Denison, who has previously been with the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and people from the Ontario Teachers’ Fund as well, and other seasoned investment professionals, all of whom are working as volunteers to provide advice through the president to the pension committee and UTAM leadership — working with us to help define the broad investment parameters and philosophies that shape UTAM’s decisions.

Since the establishment of the IAC, and the introduction of these new practices, the results have been considerably better. You have to remember that when you compare our results to other institutions, each institution has its own defined appetite for risk, and this is a conversation that takes place around the table of the Pension Committee and the Business Board of the university. That is important to keep in mind — our appetite for risk is lower than other institutions, in part because of the past experiences that we have had. Our goal has been to maximize returns on pension funds as well as our endowment fund, subject to a certain tolerance for risk.

With that in mind, we have seen UTAM perform very well… That exceeded not only the kinds of returns that a similarly structured passive investment portfolio would have earned, but also exceeds the returns that the university requires in terms of being able to meet its needs — generate a payout that is sufficient to pay the endowment obligations and responsibilities that we have. We think that UTAM’s performance has improved quite significantly, and quite steadily over that time period. We are appraising it regularly, and keeping a very close eye on how it performs. The IAC has been very, very helpful in that regard.

TV: Do you see a return to the investment structure that existed before 2000?

MG: One always has to ask “Are we doing things in the best possible way?” Not becoming complacent — we need to make sure we employ what we feel are the best practices in the industry. At this point, there is no compelling rationale for changing, but we will always be keeping a close eye on that question.

TV: Ontario has consistently had the lowest per-student funding of any Canadian province during the last two decades. This creates many issues for the university. How does the university balance the need to fill provincial funding gaps, while keeping the university as accessible as possible for both domestic and international students?

MG: You’re quite right. This is one of our biggest challenges, and is something else that I talked about in my installation address, right at the opening moment. It continues to be a pressing challenge for us. We’ve made a little bit of progress in the past year. The province has negotiated Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMA) with each university and each college in the provincial system.

Those agreements, now that they are struck, are supposed to be templates to guide future resource allocation decisions by Queen’s Park. Step one is in place; we are waiting to see whether subsequent steps unfold in the way we hope they will. The good news is that our Strategic Mandate Agreement acknowledges the quality of the University of Toronto and its flagship status within the Ontario system, while other universities may have been encouraged to narrow their range of offerings. We said in our Strategic Mandate Agreements that one of the truly distinctive things about the University of Toronto is that it is so strong in so many fields, and it really is — if there was one institution that had legitimate claim to being truly comprehensive in its offerings, it’s U of T. That very breadth should be recognized and enshrined in the SMA document, and it has been.

One of the things that is really remarkable about this place is how good we are in so many different disciplines. There are very few universities around the world that are as strong as we are in humanities, but also in medicine, and also in engineering and other professions. That is a distinctive quality that we thought had to be recognized. So that’s the good news. Whether there will be more good news down the road in terms of funding that comes from Ontario in ways that acknowledge our role as a comprehensive university, and as a research-intensive university, remains to be seen.

That research intensiveness is another really distinctive part of our mission and our identity. It’s one of the reasons why students come here — to be able to work with world-leading scholars in all of these different fields. We want that to remain true for a long, long time. But research is expensive, and it is not fully supported by — particularly, the federal government, which is the primary source of research funding. So we have a double challenge in that regard. Our undergraduate mission is not funded at a level that we think is appropriate from the provincial government, and at the same time we would like to see more research support coming from the federal government… There have been some positive developments there in the past year, with the establishment of the Canada First Excellence Research Fund, in particular, which is designed to allocate additional research funds to those universities and those research groups in those universities that are at the top of their game and are globally competitive. It stands to reason that U of T should do well in that kind of program, and we are in the process of putting in our first application for those funds.

President Gertler can be found on Instagram at @uoftpres. MALLIKA MAKKAR/THE VARSITY

President Gertler can be found on Instagram at @uoftpres. MALLIKA MAKKAR/THE VARSITY

So again, there is some good news at the federal level, as well… We have a set of very strong policies in place that lead us to augment provincial programs and federal programs for student aid through our own resources. Last year, we spent $165 million on student aid — above and beyond what comes from the Ontario government through OSAP, and through federal grants, loans, and tax credits, to make good on our commitment to students that they should not be denied access for resources related to financial need. That is a commitment that has been made available to domestic students. We have not extended the same guarantee to international students. It’s a more challenging environment for us because we get no grant support at all from Ontario for international students — either undergraduate or graduate.

There’s a very small amount of support for graduate students. A very, very small number are eligible for OGS [Ontario Graduate Scholarship] awards and these Trillium scholarships, but they are very small in number relative to our size. Most of our international students are not supported by provincial money. So it is challenging for us to ensure access for those students. We are offering some scholarship support for international students. That’s been a decision made by individual faculties — the extent to which they are able to do that. We are trying to raise more funds for scholarship support, in general, as part of our Boundless campaign. Some of that is targeted towards international students, and we are hopeful that we can succeed.

I think it is incredibly important for all kinds of reasons for the University of Toronto to have a strong influx of international students. It enriches the learning experience of everyone. It allows us to draw from a global pool of talent, and ensure that our student body is as strong as possible. We have every reason to encourage more of them to come.

TV: At various times over the past few years, both provincial and federal governments have talked about attracting more international students and getting a larger international student population in Canada. Have there been any discussions about per-student grants for international students?

MG: There’s been more discussion of that at the graduate level than at the undergraduate level. The federal government does have Vanier scholarships, which are open to international students. Those are still relatively small in number, and we’d certainly like to see more of that. We’d like to see the province of Ontario provide some support as well, particularly at the graduate level, where we feel the most acute pressure from our departments. Our faculty want to be able to work with the best students from across Canada and around the world. They’re frustrated that we receive so many applications every year from fantastic graduate students who want to come to U of T from outside of Canada, to work with our faculty, and yet we can’t afford to bring them in. We tend to provide support for doctoral students or doctoral-stream students, rather than them pay their way. Because we get no grant support from the Ontario government, the cost of bringing in these students is quite high. We, among other universities, have been advocating for greater provincial support in that regard. Given the fiscal climate in Ontario right now, it’s kind of discouraging. But that doesn’t mean that we should stop trying.

TV: There’s been a lot of discussion lately about international student representation on Governing Council. That’s largely out of the university’s hands, but have you had any discussions at the provincial level regarding changing that?

MG: We have. We’re quite concerned. As the proportion of our enrollment that is comprised of international students has grown over the last several years, we’ve recognized that there is a disconnect between the scale of their presence on campus and the opportunities that they have to voice their perspectives in our governance system.

The good news is that they are indeed welcome to, and encouraged to, get involved in faculty councils and various committees on Governing Council, but the University of Toronto Act does prohibit non-Canadian citizens from participating. By the way, this is not just students. The same applies to faculty and staff and alumni governors and LGIC [Lieutenant-Governor-in-Council] governors.

Our preference is to see the citizenship restriction lifted for all categories of members so that, whether you’re a student governor or a faculty governor or an alumni governor, citizenship is irrelevant.

I understand that the act was written at a time when nationalism was a bigger concern, perhaps than it is today. But I think everyone recognizes that we would be better off if those citizenship restrictions were not in place. So we are beginning a discussion with the provincial government to see if there is some way that we can change that. There are seven other universities in Ontario, so far as we can tell, that have similar citizenship requirements or restrictions, and we are consulting with them as well to see if they are similarly concerned. We probably have the highest international proportion of any other university in Ontario, but there are several others that have seen their international student enrolment grow significantly in the past few years, so I would be surprised if it wasn’t an issue at some of those other universities in Ontario.

TV: Are you optimistic about those discussions?

MG: I am because I think it’s hard to come up with a rationale for why one should limit participation and democratic representation on the basis of citizenship. International students, if they’re undergraduates, spend the same four years here that domestic students do. They pay more fees than domestic students do. It seems only logical and reasonable that they should have full rights of participation. I do feel that when we have the full discussion at Queen’s Park that there will be a sympathetic hearing. But it’s still early days. We are, though, very determined to see that discussion through.

TV: The Towards 2030 plan calls for, among other things, higher tuition fees, more partnerships with corporations, and a higher proportion of graduate students at the St. George campus, with the focus on undergraduate education shifting to UTM and UTSC. Do you plan to stay the course with the Towards 2030 plan during your time in office?

MG: There have been several opportunities for the university to revisit the Towards 2030 plan. One was in the exercise that came to be known as The View from 2012. This was led by former provost Cheryl Misak. At the time, there seemed to be a pretty strong consensus that the kinds of broad goals that were outlined in the 2030 plan were still widely accepted. There seemed to be pretty strong support. The next opportunity came along when the presidential search committee was struck, and went about its business consulting widely around the university on all matter of things related to the future direction of the university and its current state. They too reported that they found remarkably strong consensus around the 2030 goals, which, at the highest level, talk about advancing the university’s status as one of the world’s leading research-performing institutions, accentuating our status as a leading research-intensive, undergraduate education centre; one of the world’s largest and best centres for graduate education, as well. These were core to our mission as an institution. I think there continues to be strong support for increasing the ratio of graduate to undergraduate students across the institution, most markedly at the St. George campus.

The same is also occurring, perhaps more slowly, at UTM and UTSC. The difference is, of course, both UTM and UTSC have considerable scope to grow their undergraduate enrolments, and have experienced a lot of growth even since 2030 was struck. We now have close to 14,000 students at UTM and 12,000 at UTSC. We are constrained on the St. George campus by physical realities. It’s hard to expand. Moreover, one can ask the question ‘Should a single university campus ever get any larger than the one that we have now, and remain manageable and able to offer a great experience to students?’ My take on that would be that we should be focusing on making the campus that we have as good as possible, in terms of its physical environment and in terms of the experience that we offer to our students — both undergraduate and graduate.

Of course, we have the same goals at UTM and UTSC. So there is continued demand for spaces and for students enrolling at our two newer campuses. There is a continuing demand for access-to-university within the GTA. It remains one of the few markets for higher education in Canada that continues to grow, thanks to immigration and thanks to higher postsecondary participation rates, in particular. There is a set of conditions conducive to further growth on those two campuses — particularly at the undergraduate level, but at the same time, UTM and UTSC have both developed some very distinctive, high-quality, professional master’s programs, and in the case of UTSC, even a PhD program in environmental science. They are evolving into more like comprehensive standalone universities in their own right, and yet they continue to derive tremendous growth from their relationship with the other parts of the U of T system.

The kind of future that 2030 imagined, where UTM and UTSC become increasingly differentiated within the tri-campus system, and become increasingly autonomous, is happening, and yet at the same time, that future included continued association with the University of Toronto. The fact that a faculty member that’s hired at UTM and UTSC can become, simultaneously, a member of that campus and a tri-campus graduate department in their field, is a tremendous asset when they’re recruiting. It helps UTM and UTSC attract fantastic faculty. I can tell you, having looked at tenure files that have come from those two campuses this past year: they are hiring absolutely amazing faculty. So that tri-campus system that we have — that identity and those connections — continue to matter and help UTM and UTSC go from strength-to-strength. So, in that regard, I think the kind of vision that was laid out in 2030 is unfolding in the way that we expected it to. I think that’s a good thing.

TV: Most students on the St. George campus can agree that student space is a big issue. Over the past five years, the Student Commons has been a big topic of discussion. Do you see any timeline for breaking ground on that facility?

MG: It’s hard to forecast a specific timeline, but I can tell you that no one wants to see that Student Commons built more badly than I do, or than the provost does, or than the chair of Governing Council does. We are doing everything we can to move that process along in a more expeditious way. We are focusing on a draft operating agreement that had been devised through negotiations with the UTSU several years ago. That has been a point of contention for many members of the student community on the St. George campus, and there have been concerns about the way that the management of the Student Commons would be structured.

We are trying to find a way to revisit those terms and agree on some revisions that would end up with a structure that people could be satisfied with; that would allow for an appropriate representation of all the student groups on the St. George campus that are dues collecting, and that have a rightful place in the governance of that Commons. That’s what we’re focusing on now. We certainly hope that it will lead to progress so that we can see this thing get started. We really want to see it built.

A condensed version of this article appeared in print on Monday, January 26. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The price of an education

Five U of T students discuss the cost of living in one of North America’s most expensive cities

The price of an education

Attending university in Canada’s largest city can quickly become expensive. At the University of Toronto, undergraduate tuition starts at $6,000 for domestic students, setting aside $1,000 for incidental and ancillary fees, and textbooks, which can cost upwards of $1,000 per year.

Living away from home adds significantly to the cost. According to the Rent Board of Canada, the average rent in Toronto is $1,224 a month for a one bedroom apartment, and $1,487 for a two-bedroom. The cheapest internet service plan offered by Rogers costs $54.99 per month, while Bell Mobility’s cheapest cell phone plan starts at $45.

Many students also have to balance a busy school schedule with part-time or full-time jobs to make ends meet. Currently, the average hourly wage for the nearly 870,000 workers in Ontario aged 15 to 24 is $13.72 — just a few dollars above the general minimum wage of $11 per hour.

The Varsity spoke with six U of T students to get their stories of financial survival.



Carla, 21
Majoring in International Relations and History with a minor in French
Year of study: Fourth
Course load: Five

The Varsity: How is your tuition paid?
Carla: I pay my own tuition.

TV: What is your monthly rent?
C: I live at home, so I don’t pay anything.

TV: Do you work, and how much do you make?
C: Yes. I make about $250-300 per month. In the summers, I work full-time as a lifeguard so I get paid quite well — almost double the minimum [wage]. In previous years, I worked more because of lower course loads.

TV: Do you have any debt or loans?
C: I don’t have too much. I think by the time I graduate, I’ll have about $6,000.

TV: How much do you receive from your parents each month?
C: They do help me. For example, they pay for my Metropass, and they paid for tutoring I took.

TV: Aside from rent, what do you spend and splurge on?
C: Does travel count? I [splurge] on traveling. I’m going back to Edinburgh for reading week.

TV: Do you have any financial advice for fellow students?
C: Looking back, I would have started working earlier. I didn’t work in high school, which, if I did, would have been beneficial and lowered my debt even further.
I do think it is important to track your money, which I try to do — making sure I know where my money is going, how much I am spending on coffee, or on going out for lunch, or whatever it is, has helped me stay on track in terms of financing.



Tom, 20
Specializing in Sexual Diversity Studies
Year of study: Second
Course load: Six

The Varsity: How is your tuition paid?
Tom: My parents pay.

TV: Monthly rent?
T: $640.

TV: Do you work, and how much do you make?
T: Only over the summer. I make $3,000 as a receptionist at a retirement home.

TV: Do you have any debt or loans?
T: No.
TV: How much do you receive from your parents each month?
T: It equals about $800. But I have the money I make working, as well, because I live with my parents during the summer and I don’t spend anything.

TV: Aside from rent, what do you spend and splurge on?
T: I spend it on my hair, my phone, makeup, general toiletries. I don’t actually buy clothes as much as I used to. When I was in high school, I bought a lot of clothes and I still have a lot of them.
I like to get my hair done. If I waste money in a consistent way, it is on my hair.

TV: Do you have any financial advice for fellow students?
T: Eat in as much as you can because it saves money. Also… drink in — it is way cheaper.



Adam, 38
PhD, Experimental Cosmology
Course load: Six

The Varsity: How is your tuition paid?
Adam: I get paid through the Physics Department with a grant, which covers my tuition and living, to a certain degree.

TV: What is the grant for a PhD student?
A: There are different categories, but the one I am in is about $28,000. Take out the eight and-a half thousand of tuition and it is even less.

TV: Do you work, and how much do you make?
A: You have TA [Teaching Assistant] options available, which a lot of the times aren’t very different than regular part-time work, but as far as having a second job there really isn’t time. A PhD is considered to be a full-time job times two, basically.

TV: Monthly rent?
A: $750, plus Internet and phone and things like that.

TV: Do you have any debt or loans?
A: For my undergrad, I got OSAP throughout, so I am sitting somewhere around $50,000. But I have no new ones taken out.

TV: Aside from rent, what do you spend and splurge on?
A: Splurging? Not too much. Sometimes I go out to dinner; maybe I’ll buy a used video game or something. Splurging is kind of a ridiculous thought, really.

TV: Do you have any financial advice for fellow students?
A: The obvious advice is to know how much money, or at least close to how much money, you’ll have. That includes rent and food and things like that. Don’t splurge. Only spend money that you have, not what you think you are going to have — because you might not get it.



David, 20
Exchange student studying Computer Science
Year of study: Third
Course Load: Three

The Varsity: How is your tuition paid?
David: My parents, but I am from France so it is very cheap [there] — only a few hundred Euros.

TV: Do you work, and how much do you make?
D: I usually make 1,000 Euros.

TV: Monthly rent?
D: It used to be $680 when I lived at Tartu [College], but I have moved, and now it is $800.
TV: How much do you receive from your parents each month?
D: The $800 for rent, plus $400 to live.

TV: What do you splurge on?
D: Just eating, travelling, and partying.

TV: Do you have any debts or loans?
D: Yes, I have received 1,000 Euros for the whole year, but that is only because I am studying abroad. Usually, I don’t get anything.

TV: Do you have any financial advice for fellow students?
D: No



Beatrice, 21
Majoring in Human Biology and Religious Education, with a minor in Human Geography
Year of study: Fourth
Course load: Six

The Varsity: How is your tuition paid?
Beatrice: For the entire tuition of my bachelors degree, I would say 75 per cent of it was mine [and] 25 per cent of it my parents.
I’ve been saving for my education since I was 10. I saved about $35,000. At New Year’s or Christmas, when you are young and cute, your family tends to give you a lot of money.

I also started working when I was 15. In high school, I’d work three or four jobs in the summer and that earned a lot. Not much of a social life though, so that kind of sucks.

TV: Monthly rent?
B: I actually live with my parents. They do get a majority of my pay cheque, and that goes towards the rent, but they cover most of the rent and support me. I help out.

TV: Do you work, and how much do you make?
B: I work at Red Lobster. The gross income would be approximately $7,000 a year, but per month it does range.

TV: Do you have any debt or loans?

B: I finance my education with OSAP, but the great thing with OSAP is there is a portion you don’t have to pay back, which for me is about $800 a year.

So I’ll have approximately $37,000 in debt when I graduate, but I have approximately $35,000 that I haven’t spent available to pay it off. So I’m a little bit short, but it is not that bad.

TV: Aside from rent, what do you spend and splurge on?
B: I splurge sometimes — mostly on food. But I have a frugal way of spending with food, so unless there is a deal going on I won’t go for it. For example, at Hart House, there is a Wednesday $5 lunch deal once a month, and it is a full course!

TV: Any financial advice for fellow students?
B: If you’re younger, I would say start saving as early as you can. But if you are in a situation now where you need to make money fast, work summers. If you’re not going to do extra courses or go abroad, or if you don’t have the finances for it, I would say work.

Names changed. All interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Renewed Student Commons push met with skepticism

Delayed project still faces scrutiny from divisional societies

Renewed Student Commons push met with skepticism

While the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design prepares to set up camp at historic 1 Spadina Crescent, the fate of its old home at 230 College Street remains a pertinent question on students’ minds.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) has renewed its efforts to promote the construction of the Student Commons, slated to be built at 230 College Street since 2010.

The Student Commons is intended as a multi-use space, with facilities available for students to work on projects, study, and relax, among other activities. However, the Student Commons Agreement has gone through a series of delays, and precedes most current students’ arrival at the University of Toronto.

The Commons Project is funded by a student levy, and has been since the fall of 2008 following a 2007 referendum. For the 2014 — 2015 year, full-time undergraduate students at the St. George campus pay $8.20 in both the Fall and Winter sessions for a line item called “UTSU — Student Commons”.

According to Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of media relations at U of T, the levy funds are being “held in a distinct restricted account by the University.”

The six-year levy funds have yet to be put to use.

Inaction on the Student Commons is partly due to ongoing turbulence involving the UTSU and divisional societies. Many of these student groups agree that there is a need for increased community space on St. George campus. Yet, controversy continues over how the student space will be run, given the current unstable state of student politics on the campus.

Campaigns for the Commons

The UTSU has recently launched a number of awareness initiatives detailing the features of the proposed Student Commons space. The new website studentcommons.ca features a floorplan of the building and highlights unique features such as rehearsal and workshop space and a rooftop garden. The website also boasts of ample space for clubs, meeting rooms, a food court, a Bikechain location, and space for service groups.

The UTSU has been advertising the new website through posters and other materials on the St. George campus, found primarily in Sidney Smith. Yolen Bollo-Kamara, president of the UTSU, says that the awareness efforts will help students understand the history and significance of the Student Commons.

She says that the Commons should have been operational in 2009, two years after the referendum that approved the project.

“At that time, the University promised to build the building within two years. Since then, the University has refused to forward over the funds [to the UTSU] and has been collecting interest — contrary to government policy,” Bollo-Kamara says.

Once Governing Council approves the agreement, the UTSU estimates that construction will take approximately one year. This means that, by the time the Commons is operational, many students who paid the levy will never be able to take advantage of the space that they funded.

Politics and pushback

The ongoing conflict over how the space will be run is the primary barrier to progress on the Student Commons. According to the Student Commons Agreement, the UTSU will have management and operational responsibility over the commons, which presents a problem for many student societies.

Others have expressed concerns over student representation on management and operations committees. Since the UTSU currently represents students at both UTM and St. George, it is possible that the management of the Commons could be partially handed down to students who have not paid the levy.

This is a chief concern for Connor Anear and Tina Saban, co-heads of Trinity College. “[W]e believe that the operating committee of the Student Commons should be entirely made up of St. George students, as only St. George students have been paying fees towards the Commons,” they write in a joint statement. “[W]e [also] believe that the Commons should be run by a majority of at-large committee members and a minority of UTSU executive members,” they continue.

Bollo-Kamara says that the Commons will be run by the UTSU, its subsidiary clubs and service groups and St. George students.

According to Blackburn-Evans, the volatile relationship between certain divisional societies and the UTSU contributed to the administration’s decision to hold off on approving the Student Commons Agreement.

Blackburn-Evans says that the plebiscites conducted by VUSAC, Trinity College, and the Engineering Society (EngSoc) to divert fees away from the UTSU were particularly concerning.

“Because the Student Commons Agreement is a long-term agreement — lasting for up to 50 years — concerns had been voiced by some governors and others about entering into it when internal disputes were occurring among the student societies, in particular with respect to UTSU’s relations with divisional student societies,” she says.

For Bollo-Kamara, disagreements between the student union and divisional societies are a normal part of the democratic process and not a good reason to delay the Student Commons’ construction.

“I want to say very clearly: this building, pushed largely by and for clubs, should not be used as leverage to force the students’ union to make changes to its internal structure that will benefit the political goals of the university undemocratically,” Bollo-Kamara says.

The executive committee recently passed a resolution that the Student Commons Agreement would not be placed on the agenda of the December 11 Governing Council meeting, and would instead be deferred to a future meeting, in order for U of T counsel to consult UTSU’s counsel.

Blackburn-Evans expressed optimism about the resolution. “The University is hopeful that these discussions will lead to a positive outcome,” she said.

A long time coming

According to Bob Parry, president of the New College Student Council, the Student Commons project is very important to New College students, while the politics of how it happens is less so.

“[As] long as New College students can enjoy the space and are getting their money’s worth, I will be happy,” he says.

Even Teresa Nguyen who, as president of the EngSoc, has been a vocal opponent of the UTSU, is eager for the Commons plan to come to fruition. “Although the Engineering Society is looking forward to the space that the Centre of Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship provides, I think it could be very interesting and quite beneficial to have a space where students from all disciplines and programs collaborate,” she says.

Nguyen says that it is important that the management committee structure issue be resolved prior to opening the building. “Once it’s built, there’d be too [much] pressure to make a swift decision which could result in a decision that lacks foresight,” she says.

For Victoria College students, however, the same eagerness for a unified student space may not be present. According to DeBues, the recent opening of the Goldring Student Centre at Victoria College renders the Student Commons initiative redundant for most students at the college. “If anything, students are not happy seeing their funds go into a project they aren’t getting anything out of,” he says.

Victoria College students who graduated before the opening of the Goldring Centre were reimbursed their student levies. No equivalent plan has been released regarding the Student Commons.

“Hybrid” Board of Directors proposal in the works

Union has six months to transition following Notice of Deficiency

“Hybrid” Board of Directors proposal in the works

With Wednesday’s joint board proposal meeting, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board of Directors structure saga continues to captivate students at the university’s St. George campus.

Ryan Gomes, Engineering director and the Engineering Society’s (EngSoc) vice president, academic, and Natalie Petra, a University College (UC) student, co-chaired an open meeting on January 21 in order to begin work on a new proposal. Students from UTM, colleges, professional faculties, and student societies, were invited to attend.

Last semester, the UTSU proposed a board structure that member voted down at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) in late October 2014. In the wake of the structure’s defeat, the UTSU is racing against the clock to hammer out a new proposal that will represent all members while being legally compliant.

Such structural reform is necessary since the UTSU is in the midst of transferring from the Canada Corporations Act (CCA), which is being dissolved, to the Canada Not-For-Profit Corporations Act (CNCA). This transition requires the UTSU to submit new bylaws which govern the structure of the Board of Directors. If the membership does not pass these bylaws, the UTSU would fail to comply with the CNCA and could be dissolved following an injunction.


The UTSU requested its transition from the CCA to the CNCA on October 14, 2014, three days before the deadline. This request was denied and a Notice of Deficiency dated December 1, 2014 was issued.

A Notice of Deficiency states the issues that caused the request to be refused, as well as the deadline to file a new request — six months from when the notice is issued. Once the union has made the transition, it has until October 14, 2015, to hold an AGM at which at least two-thirds of the membership must approve new bylaws. If the UTSU fails to transition, Corporations Canada confirmed that the union would likely be pending dissolution.

In a phone call with Corporations Canada on January 20, The Varsity confirmed that the UTSU’s transition request was declined for two reasons. Corporations Canada said that the number of directors listed in the Articles of Continuance — documents necessary to make the transition — did not correspond with the Corporations Canada’s records.

Corporations Canada also said that the description of membership classes was improperly filed.

Yolen Bollo-Kamara, UTSU president, echoed the information from Corporations Canada. She said that the union needs to clarify what the current minimum number of directors on the board is, including when there are vacancies, and whether or not the UTSU has classes of membership, which it does not.

Some students alleged that Bollo-Kamara only informed them of the Notice of Deficiency at the January 21 meeting, despite the notice being dated December 1.

“[The] UTSU should have disclosed this immediately,” says Rowan DeBues, president of the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council. “I do not know why they would want to hide such an important development that is imperative to the survival and running of the Union.”

Tina Saban and Connor Anear, co-heads of Trinity College, stated that they have been working diligently to develop a plan for transitioning. “We believe that the membership deserves to know this crucial piece of information about the status of our union. This is yet another example of UTSU not operating in an open manner,” reads a joint statement.

“We’ve been providing regular updates to the Board of Directors as we receive information, and this will be included on the agenda at next week’s Board meeting. I am confident that the membership will be able to pass such a structure before the deadline to do so,” says Bollo-Kamara.


Among the criticisms of the previous proposal was that constituency directors would have addressed specific equity-based issues, with college and faculty representation granted through a committee.

The challenge of how the Board of Directors should address equity issues whilst maintaining representation for divisions such as colleges, faculties, UTM, and clubs, as well as the size of the board itself, were all discussed at the meeting.

The result was a tentative framework which Gomes and Petra have dubbed a “Hybrid Proposal.” According to the co-chairs, this model would define the Arts & Science Colleges, Professional Faculties, and UTM as three unique classes of membership of the faculty.

Since the CNCA mandates that all members of each class have the right to vote for the representatives of other classes, the meeting attendees tried to think of ways to restrict voting to individual colleges and faculties while remaining legally compliant.

At the meeting, those present agreed that internally organized elections run by the UTSU’s Chief Returning Officer should take place at individual divisions, with the winners of those elections to be acclaimed and voted in at an AGM as per the CNCA.

“Thus, while all members within a class can vote for all directorships available, they would effectively only be voting to acclaim candidates from all colleges or professional faculties. We felt that this was a fair way to reflect individual constituencies while also recognizing that directors within a class do not solely answer to their direct constituents, and do share collective class and community interests,” said Gomes and Petra in a joint statement.
The “Hybrid Proposal” also includes provisions for equity issues. Candidates for these positions are set to run in university-wide elections similar to how the UTSU Executive Committee is currently elected.

Under this proposal, there would be a combination of individually titled directorships and at-large positions, designed to reflect entrenched issues while allowing for alternative ways for students to connect with their representatives. This model also serves to limit the size of the board.


Teresa Nguyen, EngSoc president, did not attend the meeting in person. In a statement circulated before the meeting, Nguyen “commended the efforts in which students put in to [sic] improving their student environment and campus life.” The statement also clarified that EngSoc’s position is to support representational structures that increase engineers’ representation and transparency.

“It was beneficial for us to meet and to discuss the board. It wasn’t necessarily productive in that we didn’t come up with a board structure that was finalized, but it was a necessary process,” says Angelo Mateo, a student attending on Trinity College’s behalf.

Mateo advocated for college representation to remain on the board at all costs. “Trinity’s stance has always been that college representation must remain on the board and that representation of college communities remain exclusive within their own constituency. If other communities influence each the vote, it doesn’t remain representative democracy,” Mateo stated.

He added that Trinity College believes equity positions on the board are important. “Trinity’s position is that equity needs to be coupled with democratic representation of the colleges.”

Dalia Hashim, vice president, external, of the Muslim Students’ Association attended the majority of the meeting and felt that it was productive. Hashim voiced her support for representation of clubs and minority groups on the board.

“A lot of college members do not identify with their college or even know the council that runs their college,” Hashim says.

“[Students] do however identify with different groups or clubs on campus. I think it is important for people to realize that clubs do provide services to members in a manner that colleges do not (and perhaps can’t),” she adds.
Gomes and Petra said that they were pleased with the meeting. “To have pretty much everyone in the room (including the UTSU) agree on a model worth pursuing was hugely positive,” they say. “It really showed the power of compromise, and the ability of University of Toronto students to come together and work towards a collective goal.”

Bollo-Kamara said that she is glad to see students engaged with the board structure issue, and she is looking forward to continuing these discussions at next week’s “What’s Missing?” townhall, organized by the UTSU.

The meeting is intended to serve as an opportunity for students to tell the union directly about what they want to see from their students’ union, and how they want to be represented.

Students, community groups decry TTC fare hike

Token prices to increase 10 cents to $2.80 starting March 1, 2015

Students, community groups decry TTC fare hike

Students and community groups alike are criticizing Toronto Mayor John Tory’s proposed increase to TTC fares.
As part of the hike, token prices will increase 10 cents to $2.80 starting March 1, 2015. The increase will not apply to the standard cash fare, which remains at $3.

Tory, who campaigned on a fare freeze, says the increase will be accompanied by expansions in TTC service, including the restoration of all-day, every-day bus service, the addition of two trains to the rush hour service on both the Bloor-Danforth and Yonge-University subway lines, and the purchase of 50 new buses.

Children 12 and under will also ride free starting March 1.

According to Tory, his goal is to restore services cut by previous mayor Rob Ford.

Overall, Tory says he plans to increase TTC funding by $95 million, of which a little more than half will be provided by the fare hike.

Bhani Wadhwa, a second-year commuter student, says she has no option but to accept the fare hike. “I do not have the option of not coming to school, so even if the fare [increases], I have no option but to accept and keep paying the fees,” she says.

Although Wadhwa says the fare hike will not stop her from attending classes, it may limit her ability to participate in extracurricular activities.

In a press release, TTCriders, a transit advocacy group, lauded the increased service and funding, but was critical of the fare hike. “We are disappointed to learn that Mayor Tory has reneged on his promise to freeze fares,” the release said.

Jessica Bell, TTCriders executive director, says that fares are moving in the wrong direction. “Funds need to be allocated for transit improvements and lowering the fare for all users,” says Bell.

Haris Yaqeen, a second-year commuter student, says increasing fares is unfair to postsecondary students. “Students have less income to spend for what employment they have, and also have high costs that are unique to them, so it is unfair that they must pay the same amount as adults,” Yaqeen says.

Alex Parent, a third-year commuter student, says he already pays $14 to commute from Mississauga to the St. George campus. For him, the already expensive fare takes away money he could be using on meals.

Since Parent’s journey takes him across cities in the Greater Toronto Area, he uses both a Presto card and cash fare. He says that the Presto cards are often not accepted at TTC locations, and that he would like to see better infrastructure implemented for Presto users.

Parent adds that post-secondary students often lack financial stability, and that special consideration should be given to them as a result.

Controversial UC Lit date auction cancelled

New charity, Central Neighbourhood House, withdraws

A date auction in aid of the Central Neighbourhood House, a settlement house in Toronto, was abruptly cancelled last week after the charity withdrew from the event.

The auction was organized by the University College Literary and Athletic Society’s (UC Lit) Equity & Outreach Commission and was originally intended to raise money for Walk With Me Canada Victim Services, a charity that provides resources and support to survivors of human trafficking.

After some University College (UC) students criticized the event, the UC Lit decided to change the charity and the UC community voted to support the Central Neighbourhood House instead.

A statement on the UC Lit’s Facebook page announced the cancellation of the event just a few hours before it was due to begin. The statement cited the charity’s withdrawal as the reason for the event’s cancellation.

“[Since] we do not have enough time to allow for our constituents to pick a new benefactor for the proceeds from this event, we have decided to cancel the event,” the statement read.

Eric Schwenger, president of the UC Lit, expressed his disappointment that the event did not take place. However, he says that the UC Lit plans to hold additional fundraisers in the coming weeks.

“[We] hope to benefit both of the charities we originally planned to work with. It is unfortunate that we had to cancel after the Equity Commission put so much work into planning,” Schwenger says.

“[It] was really [our] only choice: we couldn’t well hold a ‘charity date auction’ without having the secured involvement of a charity to begin with,” Schwenger says.

Despite the disappointment, Schwenger says that he is “immensely proud of the UC community for ensuring that all perspectives are considered when engaging in a potentially controversial endeavor such as the auction, and making sure that the Lit maintains its emphasis on prioritizing equity and inclusivity in all our events & other work.”

Students petition administration for sexual violence response

“Stop Sexual Violence U of T” calls for more inclusive process in development of policy on sexual violence

A student group is calling on the university administration to make a more rigorous effort to curb sexual violence on campus.

The petition, launched by “Stop Sexual Violence U of T,” comes in the wake of the formation of the new Advisory Committee to the President and Provost on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence.

According to the coalition, the committee lacks thorough representation from affected groups, particularly students.
The petition asks the president, provost and Advisory Committee to open a new selection process, draw feedback from a variety of students and student groups from all three University of Toronto campuses, improve resources and support services, ensure campus police are well-trained on issues of sexual violence, and review current policies and procedures.

Althea Blackburn-Evans, U of T director of media relations, says that, due to the large number of students looking to participate, not all interested parties were able to have representation on the committee. She emphasizes that interested individuals will have other opportunities to be heard.

“These individuals have been provided with an opportunity to make a submission to the committee. There will also be opportunities for individuals and groups to speak to the issue of sexual violence as the committee work moves ahead through consultation and focus groups,” says Blackburn-Evans, adding that the university is eager to have input relayed to the committee from all sources.

Celia Wandio, the undergraduate student who launched the petition, expressed concern about the lack of information on the Advisory Committee’s selection procedure.

“My impression of the selection process is that it is not thoroughly thought-out. It seems that the university started to feel pressure to do something as a result of media attention to the topic of sexual violence as well as student pressure, so they announced the launch of the Advisory Committee to quell discontent,” Wandio says.

Wandio became interested in the committee because of her summer job at the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children, an organization that works on issues related to violence against women and youth.

“Much of my job consisted of doing research for a recently launched discussion paper on campus sexual assault policies. In doing this research, I learned about the importance of clear sexual assault policies, and I also learned of the incompetence of U of T’s current approach to these issues,” Wandio says.

To Wandio, there is not enough student representation on the committee.

Najiba Ali Sardar, University of Toronto Students’ Union vice-president, equity, shares similar concerns.
“Representation matters, especially in this context. Racialized women, for instance, or Trans* women, are at higher rates of risk for sexual violence. We need those voices to help us… to protect all of our students as best as possible,” she says.

Wandio also expressed concern about the lack of an intersectional approach to addressing sexual assault. “[W]e have no indication that they have recognized the importance of including voices from groups that face disproportionate levels of sexual violence: not only women, but Indigenous women, racialized women, trans* people, international students, gay men or men ‘perceived’ as gay,” she says.

“I hate to sound cynical, but I can’t help but think the administration wants to do the least they can while still avoiding negative public attention,” Wandio adds.

As of press time, the petition has 328 signatures.

Around the block

Historical landmarks in Toronto reflect the origins of an evolving city

Around the block

A city is a patchwork of narratives. It is the juxtaposition of people and places — each with its own history — that shapes the metropolis around us. Toronto is an urban centre in the midst of rapid development and expansion — construction in the name of progress clogs the streets and cranes dot the skyline as you drive into the city. In constant flux, the city’s image develops more and more into a glass and steel metropolis. 

Tucked between the towering office buildings and new, impressive condo developments are smaller buildings composed of brick, dwarfed in comparison to their behemoth neighbours. Though not as clearly representative of the city’s identity as icons like the CN Tower and Honest Ed’s, these landmarks have left marks of their own on the city’s development. Dozens of them have been granted heritage status, while others have been torn down and replaced with newer, more functional structures.

Whether they have weathered the tide of expansion or have been replaced in the name of progress, some buildings are as integral to Toronto’s composition as the people that reside within them. We took a look into the rich histories of some of the significant buldings on and around campus to situate some of the landmarks students see every day in the evolving architectural tapestry of Toronto.


For those hurrying along Queen Street West in an attempt to avoid the sting of winter winds, this landmark can easily be overlooked. In the city’s west end a span of historical wall runs along the exterior of the property outside of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Though adorned with plaques outlining their historical significance, the walls themselves are unimpressive on first glance. Upon a closer look, the bricks quite literally tell a story. Many are imperfect, though the imperfections are not all a product of their age. Many have deliberate markings: words, phrases, and Xs gouged into the brick.



The walls and the messages inscribed upon them are the work of patients in what was once the Provincial Lunatic Asylum. Constructed in 1850, the large institution once occupied the lots of present day 999 and 1001 Queen Street West. The official address of the asylum was 999 — a number that came to be synonymous with insanity and mistreatment.

The walls themselves — once 16 feet high and surrounding the perimeter of the asylum — were the work of patients in fulfillment of the labour portion of their treatment. In 1850, theories about how best to treat the mentally ill were changing, largely moving toward a consensus on the value of “moral therapy.” This treatment advocated a strict daily regime that incorporated manual labour.

To afford for this type of treatment on a large scale, the province constructed a massive asylum — at the time of its completion, the Provincial Lunatic Asylum was the largest non-military public building in Canada.

Inscription on the wall at CAMH. SOFIA HABIB/THE VARSITY

Inscription on the wall at CAMH. SOFIA HABIB/THE VARSITY

Today, the only remaining components of the original structure are the walls.

The walls bear scars of those days of mistreatment, and today serve as a monument to the patients who existed behind them, intentionally hidden from the world. The walls hid the conditions of the institution, which were squalid — a product of over-crowding and inferior sanitation systems — conditions there led to the rapid spread of disease.

Over the course of the past several centuries, the Provincial Lunatic Asylum evolved, along with approaches to mental health. In the course of its transformation from the horrors and neglect of the past to the centre that resides on the land today, the institutions that have occupied the land have changed drastically in architectural style.



Although CAMH has carefully separated itself from the site’s questionable past, it is mindful of this dark history. Perhaps most symbolic of the dichotomy between past and present is the change from the original 999 Queen Street West address to the current 1001 Queen Street West address that CAMH now occupies.


Pausing at the corner of Spadina Avenue and College Street, the red façade of The Silver Dollar Room stands out against a spectrum of greys. The paint is chipped in some places, discoloured in others — saturated panels of red mark where bills were posted shielding the paint from the effects of the sun.

The Silver Dollar Room. EVAN LUKE/THE VARSITY

The Silver Dollar Room. EVAN LUKE/THE VARSITY

This windowless building is not an impressive spectacle in the traditional sense. To learn that it recently received a heritage site designation could easily be seen as surprising: there aren’t many music venues in the city that have earned such a protection, let alone one as seedy as The Silver Dollar Room. For students at the University of Toronto, the venue is probably most known for its iconic sign and its presence at the edge of campus on Spadina, just north of College.

Silver Dollar-Evan Luke-JEL_1248-2


Opened in 1958, the venue was conceived as an upscale lounge for the neighbouring Waverley Hotel. In the decade that followed, that image was dashed as the venues reputation deteriorated. After a brief stint as a strip club, it became a popular music spot. Many acts have graced the stage, from local Toronto artists to some of the biggest names in the industry, including Bob Dylan.  For more than 50 years, crowds of concert-goers packed into the venue night after night. This popularity opened its doors to a history of performances and a legacy as a Toronto landmark.

The iconic sign affixed to the front of the Silver Dollar has lit the College and Spadina streetscape in neon for half a century —  with the exception of 1992 when new owners briefly rebranded the venue.

Indeed, the resilience of The Silver Dollar Room is perhaps what sets it apart. It occupies prime real estate in a burgeoning city and has been threatened with the wrecking ball more than once. One recent building proposal suggested tearing down the venue and the neighbouring Waverly Hotel in order to create additional student housing.

Having recently been granted heritage status, the venue now has some additional protection against developers. Nevertheless, like many iconic Toronto landmarks, the future of The Silver Dollar Room remains uncertain in the face of the rapidly changing city.


Located at the corner of Harbord Street and St. George Steet, the grey, drab Ramsay Wright Laboratory building appears unremarkable. The most interesting aspect of the building is quite possibly the land that it occupies. Long before the building was constructed, this street corner was part of a small, well-groomed neighbourhood adjacent to a then much more compact University of Toronto campus. In those days, trees rose above many of the city’s buildings. Now, surrounded by towering structures of metal and steel, it’s hard to imagine that apartments were ever a novelty in the city. It was, however, on this site that Toronto’s first apartment building was erected.



Called the St. George Mansions, the building was completed in 1904 and consisted of 34 apartments with a combined maximum occupancy of 99 people. The units were marketed to wealthy Torontonians, and their construction marked an important shift in the city’s architectural developments.



Later, during World War II, the building was repurposed for the war effort; the mansions became the Trinity Barracks, the Toronto base for the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. During this period, the building fell into neglect. Evelyn Jamieson, a member of the corps, described the barracks as “cockroach palace.”  After the war, the building had become so dilapidated that it was torn down. The Ramsay Wright building eventually replaced it, erasing all signs of the landmark that once existed in its place.


Nestled north of the intersection of Yonge Street and Bloor Street  is an unassuming three-storey building. It is not particularly remarkable for its design — it is, essentially, a rectangle of red brick with a flat roof. From the outside, the building is little more than a bulky cube. The only compelling architectural feature is the two columns of bay windows adorning the front walls of the building that divide the monotony of brick. The windows are large, letting light in to illuminate the rooms.

Light would be of particular importance for some of the historical residents of this building. The Studio Building, located at 25 Severn Street, was once the studio space of The Group of Seven, perhaps Canada’s most well-known artists.

The building itself was constructed with art in mind and was intended to be a working studio space. The building contains six studios which have been inhabited, at one point or another, by some of the most recognized names in Canadian art history.

The purpose-built space was designated as a historical site in 2004, partly because it continues to represent a foundation of sorts for Canadian visual art and a meeting place for young artists who had a profound impact on the development and vision of Canadian art.


To many of us, the looming apartment building above G’s Fine Foods is not noteworthy, except maybe to comment on its generally unappealing, dated appearance

The building, now apartments, was once the home of an experimental initiative in cooperative living and alternative education. Rochdale College, established in 1964, was Canada’s first free university and a residence for the University of Toronto. The classes were student-run and degrees were not reputable: they could be obtained for a fee and the successful answering of a skill-testing question.



When Rochdale was established, the Bloor Street West and St. George Street area was a very different place; the now-affluent Yorkville was, at the time, a gathering point for hippies. The co-op became a haven for creative and unique minds — a collective for artistic and philosophical thinking.

Though borne out of good intentions, the co-op quickly spiralled out of control. A 1969 surplus of student housing at the university opened Rochdale’s doors to a more varied population. By the early 1970’s, the co-op had changed drastically. It became known as a crime hotspot and drug haven. In 1974, a riot broke out, which culminated in bonfires burning in the middle of Bloor Street.

In 1975, the co-op was forcefully closed. Remaining residents were carried out, and the doors were welded shut. The building remained vacant for many years.