The Breakdown: U of T’s rise and fall among university rankings

The methodology behind the university’s global ranking

The Breakdown: U of T’s rise and fall among university rankings

U of T has been ranked the world’s 18th best university by Times Higher Education (THE) and 29th by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) — all while remaining the top university in Canada for both publications’ 2020 university rankings. The jump from the 21st to 18th spot on the THE ranking system and the decline from 28th to 29th on the QS system raises questions regarding the methodology behind university rankings. Why has U of T risen in one and declined in the other? 


THE and QS look at some of the same factors when deciding the overall ranking of universities worldwide. However, the biggest difference arises in the system used to weigh each category. 

The THE ranking places a 30 per cent emphasis on teaching, 30 per cent on research, 30 per cent on citations, 7.5 per cent on international outcome, and 2.5 per cent on industry income. 

The QS breakdown follows a different path: 40 per cent is allocated to academic reputation, 10 per cent for employer reputation, 20 per cent for faculty-student ratio, 20 per cent for citations per faculty, 5 per cent for international faculty ratio, and 5 per cent international student ratio. 

The most pronounced difference between the two ranking systems is the score that U of T received for the category of citations. THE calculates total citations, while QS calculates citations per faculty. While THE awarded a score of 93.6, U of T received nearly half that score from QS, a 43.9. 

This disparity occurred due to the process by which citations per faculty is calculated. QS recognizes that different departments, such as natural sciences and medicine, tend to get more citations than arts and humanities departments. Therefore, after 2015, it adjusted its calculation by weighing five subjects — Arts & Humanities, Engineering & Technology, Life Sciences & Medicine, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences & Management — equally and attributing a 20 per cent weight to each subject area. 

Following this change, from 2015 to 2016, U of T’s rankings dropped significantly in the QS system, from 20th to 34th. During this same time period, U of T remained consistent on the THE rankings, and even jumped up a spot from 20 to 19. 

In addition, the ratio of students to faculty members has a 20 per cent weighting in the QS ranking. THE considers this category to fall under the umbrella of “teaching” and only ascribes it a 4.5 per cent weighting. 

Criticism of ranking systems 

A qualitative factor that is constantly left out of popular ranking systems is student life and student satisfaction. The 2020 Maclean’s student satisfaction survey of Canadian undergraduates saw U of T failing to even crack the top 19.  

However, Maclean’s itself faced criticism in 2006 when 11 Canadian universities declined to provide direct information to the magazine — citing their dissatisfaction with Maclean’s methodology as the cause for the boycott. 

In a 2013 Varsity article, David Naylor, former U of T president, touched on another failing of the ranking system. He talks about a ‘catch-22’ situation, whereby universities who increase their citations per faculty score see a decrease in their faculty to student ratio score. 

These various methodologies highlight concerns with ranking — particularly just how subjective they can be in measuring a university’s value. There is no widely agreed set or system of variables, calling into question how much stock should be put into such lists. 

Hotline provides legal support for students visited by CSIS, RCMP

“Legal education is a kind of education, and that’s what we’re providing,” says Institute of Islamic Studies Director

Hotline provides legal support for students visited by CSIS, RCMP

The Institute of Islamic Studies (IIS) at U of T has created a student support hotline that provides legal advice for U of T students who have been visited by organizations such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

The National Security Student Support Hotline is a collaboration between the Downtown Legal Services clinic, the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, and the IIS.

The project was created after stories emerged in the past year about former Muslim Students’ Association executives across Canada being visited by CSIS. 

“For a number of years it’s come to mine and a number of people’s attention at universities across Canada [that] since 9/11… students at universities are often approached by field agents for a conversation,” said Anver Emon, a Professor of Law and History and the Director of the IIS.

CSIS is a civilian intelligence service that covers a broad range of issues. Unlike the RCMP, it does not seek information related to ongoing criminal investigations. “In the case of CSIS…  knowing what your rights are, knowing the legal landscape and knowing what you should do is not straight forward,” said Emon.

In a previous interview with The Varsity, John Townsend, Head of Public Relations for CSIS, said that, “when CSIS seeks cooperation or assistance from Canadians, we emphasize that discussions are voluntary. CSIS ensures our approach is lawful, ethical, necessary, and proportionate.”

Emon said that anecdotal evidence from lawyers who had dealt with these cases suggested it was not uncommon for CSIS agents to say to interviewees who considered seeking legal advice that, “If you’re going to get a lawyer, that just makes you look guilty.”

“And that’s a problem for those of us who are law professors and lawyers who value education, who value the recognition that knowing what our rights are is part of what makes us citizens of this country or residents,” Emon said.

“It is against CSIS policy for CSIS employees to discourage anyone from seeking legal advice,” said CSIS’s Townsend.

Students who call the hotline will be asked to make a brief report about their encounter. The IIS, who manages the call centre, will then connect the student to a volunteer lawyer. From there, the lawyer and the student will form an attorney-client relationship, where the IIS no longer plays a role. 

“There’s a number of factors that go into any sort of conversation, which is why the lawyer-client relationship… was the best vehicle to maximize the educational possibility of this program,” said Emon.

Emon emphasized that Muslim students have only been the most recent group to be targeted by CSIS. “We know that this kind of practice has been existing for many years or decades. A while ago, Latin American students were approached by CSIS. We heard that our Sikh students in the past had been questioned, Tamil students have been subject to this, so there is a history.”

“This is a hotline for any U of T student regardless of religion, race, gender, identity, politics.”

Varsity Blues athletes represented Canada at Summer Universiade

Blues athletes competed in international competitions, including swimming, gymnastics, basketball

Varsity Blues athletes represented Canada at Summer Universiade

U of T’s Varsity Blues sent 13 athletes and four coaches to represent Team Canada at the Summer Universiade, a biennial international university sports competition, with two U of T athletes bringing home a medal.

This year’s event was held between July 3 and July 14 in Naples, Italy, where athletes competed in various sports including fencing, swimming, water polo, volleyball, and others. U of T also had two non-Varsity athletes in the games, with Elaena Dick competing in diving and Justina Yeung competing in table tennis. 

Michèle Bélanger, who is going into her 40th season as the Varsity Blues women’s basketball head coach, was Team Canada’s head coach during the games. She spoke to The Varsity before heading off to Italy and expressed her excitement for the games: “I think we have some really great athletes on the team that will provide us with speed and agility and I think we can really perform well on the international court,” she said. 

Bélanger was the head coach of Team Canada once before in 1997, and served as an assistant in 2013 and 2015. “We did really well, I was really pleased. I’m looking forward to the same kind of experience in the summer,” she continued.

Canada earned a total of one gold, one silver, and four bronze medals, with U of T swimmers Hannah Genich and Ainsley McMurray helping Canada secure the bronze medal in 4×100 metre medley relay.

Genich swam the butterfly leg, while McMurray swam freestyle. Rachael Jaffe held down the net for Canada’s water polo team, leading them to first in their group, a victory over the Americans in the quarterfinals, and a fourth-place overall finish. Track and field runner Lucia Stafford finished fifth in the women’s 1500 metre run, and just 20 minutes later, helped Canada’s 4×400 metre team finish fifth in their race.

Bélanger’s women’s basketball team lost all three games in the group stage and lost by one point to Slovakia in the quarterfinals for the bottom half in the tournament. However, they had a strong finish for their campaign with back-to-back wins against Argentina and Mexico, ending at the 13th place in the tournament.

The myth of the post-racial society

Why Canada cannot afford to forget reality

The myth of the post-racial society

The myth

In a recent interview that set the internet ablaze, actor Liam Neeson recounted how, upon hearing that his friend had been sexually assaulted by a Black person, he proceeded to stalk the town with a weapon, hoping some “Black bastard” would provoke him so that he could kill them. Neil Price, Associate Dean at Humber College, wrote in The Globe and Mail that Neeson’s remarks destroyed the “poisonous and persistent idea that we live in a postracial society.” But what does Price mean by post-racial, and why is it so poisonous?

The esteemed civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote in a 2017 article, “Race to the Bottom,” that post-racialism could be defined as a “veritable orgy of self-congratulation” that uses markers of racial progress to place racism “decisively in the past.” An American herself, Crenshaw used the rhetoric around Barack Obama’s presidency to demonstrate her point. With the election of Obama, she says, liberals and conservatives alike touted the repeal of the “painful, violent legacy of white supremacy… in one miraculous fell swoop.” However, this claim was quickly and forcefully rebuked by the election of Donald Trump, whose policies targeting both racialized immigrants and American citizens have exposed Obama-era claims of racial harmony as a façade. In Canada’s case, we have never elected a prime minister who identifies as a person of colour and acts as the “photographic negative” of leaders like Trump. Yet Price is a Canadian writer writing for a Canadian outlet, suggesting that he believes that the fallacies of the post-racial society are applicable to this country too.

University of Toronto professor and postcolonial scholar Sherene H. Razack undoubtedly agrees. Dialing in on the Canadian identity, Razack argued in “Stealing the Pain of Others” that, through the consumption of media about Canada’s peacekeeping role in the Rwandan genocide, Canada reaffirmed itself as a humanitarian nation, a “compassionate middle power who is largely uninvolved in the brutalities of the world.” In this way, “the pain and suffering of Black people can become sources of moral authority and pleasure, obscuring in the process our own participation in the violence that is done to them.” For example, why does Canada’s support for the Catholic Church, which participated in and abetted the Rwandan genocide, go unquestioned by many Canadians?

While Razack used international examples to explain how Canada forms its mild-mannered identity, I believe her argument fits nicely within Canada’s domestic affairs as well, particularly with regard to the country’s relationship with Black history. Fitting, considering February is coming to a swift conclusion.

What we don’t talk about when we talk about Black history

Consider the narrative of the Underground Railroad. A remarkable feat to be sure  over 30,000 slaves from the American South fled to Upper Canada under the guidance of several leaders including Harriet Tubman in the mid-1800s. But what does it mean to understand this story as foundational to this country’s national history? Portrayed as the destination for fleeing slaves, Canada imagines itself as a safe haven for the persecuted and the enslaved. Not only are racism and slavery relegated to the past, they are conceptualized as geographically separate from Canadian borders.

More recently, consider the new Canadian $10 bill, featuring civil rights activist Viola Desmond. There’s nothing inherently problematic about celebrating Desmond; her act of protest in a Nova Scotian segregated movie theatre deserves to be recognized. However, the ways in which Desmond and her immortalization on the $10 bill are talked about are very characteristic of the “orgy of self-congratulation” that Crenshaw described.

At the new bill’s reveal, Minister of Finance Bill Morneau commented on the importance of Desmond’s pursuit of beauty school. Despite the apparently “hard to believe” fact that beauty schools did not admit Black students, considering this was already the ’30s and ’40s, Desmond shone in a time when “the deck was doubly stacked against Viola, because of both gender and the colour of her skin” — as if women of colour today do not face similar intersectional barriers. To his credit, Morneau acknowledged that “though we’ve come a long way… we do still have a ways to go in our country.”

In a speech marking the beginning of this year’s Black History Month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shared similar sentiments, saying that “Canada is a country built on diversity… a place where everyone is equal,” even though “the struggle for equality continues.” In the same speech, Trudeau said that “Black Canadians face discrimination and systemic racism, and that’s not right,” asserting that his government is making sure that “every Canadian has an equal opportunity and equal chance at success.”

The Trudeau government’s treatment of Indigenous communities across the country makes it difficult to take this commitment to racial justice seriously. The most recent example that has reached media attention is the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s standoff against TransCanada, in which Indigenous people and supporters gathered in the Unist’ot’en camp to prevent employees of the pipeline company from accessing the road and bridge that runs through their territory. In December, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police entered the Nation’s Gidimt’en camp, arresting 14 people while enforcing a court injunction to stop the Wet’suwet’en from preventing workers from gaining access necessary for the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

The treatment of former cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould further demonstrates the lack of consideration that the Trudeau government is putting into reconciliation efforts heading into the federal election this fall. An Indigenous member of the First Nations Summit task force in British Columbia criticized the federal government for this and much more. “The prime minister has said on numerous occasions that there was no relationship more important to him than that between himself and Indigenous peoples of his country,” she said. “There are so many things… that are giving rise to questions… as to whether those words ring hollow, whether his promises ring hollow, because that’s what it’s starting to look like.”

This notion can perhaps be best summed up in the following: Trudeau’s appeal to the dreams of Indigenous people and other racialized Canadians, embodied in his Indigenous raven tattoo, blissfully ignores the criticisms of Robert Davidson, the Haida artist who inspired this very tattoo. Following the Trudeau government’s approval of the Pacific NorthWest liquefied natural gas terminal near Lelu Island, Davidson said that Trudeau “presents himself as an ally… with our ink on his body. We feel he’s stabbed us in the back.” The project threatened one of British Columbia’s largest salmon runs, and one of Haida’s most critical resources. The project has since been cancelled, citing untoward market conditions.

This dismissal of Indigenous rights and priorities is the exact same thing that the Liberal government should have been criticized for during its consultations for a new national anti-racism strategy last year. Rodriguez said that ‘systemic racism’ is “not a part” of his vocabulary, citing the fact that Canada “is not a racist society, wherever one lives.” Pressured by New Democratic Party MPs, Rodriguez eventually walked the statement back. Interestingly, multiculturalism critic Jenny Kwan said that the minister’s remarks were a “slap in the face of Indigenous peoples,” which is undoubtedly true.

His remarks were also a slap in the face to Black Canadians.

Black Canadians make up less than three per cent of the population but are overrepresented in the prison population at about nine per cent. Black students are also by and large being streamed into applied programs instead of academic ones in high school, and 42 per cent are suspended at least once by the time they finish high school, according to data from the Toronto District School Board. Despite the fact that the Black population of Toronto is just 8.3 per cent of the city’s, Black people accounted for 36.5 per cent of fatalities in encounters with Toronto police from 2000–2017.

On a broader level, the idea that Canada is immune to systemic racism is, of course, not true. A 2018 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found, unsurprisingly, that racialized workers are “significantly more likely to be concentrated in low-wage jobs and face persistent unemployment and earnings gaps compared to white employees” in Ontario. Additionally, racialized women were “25 per cent more likely to be working in occupations in the bottom half of the income distribution than white men.”

How are we doing?

So how is an institution like the University of Toronto dealing with such a reality?

To understand a bit about Black student experiences at U of T, I got in touch with Irene Duah-Kessie, a second-year graduate student in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program and Communications Officer for the Black Graduate Students Association (BGSA). “I believe every program at UofT can do more to acknowledge and integrate Black history, issues, and scholars into its curriculum,” Duah-Kessie wrote when asked about whether U of T adequately integrates Black history into its academics. “In my first-year as a UofT graduate student, it was quite challenging for me to find a space or people to discuss Black history and some of the issues I was facing specific to the Black student experience.”

Explaining how the BGSA fills those gaps, she said that it plays an “integral role in fostering a stronger support system” for Black graduate students at U of T. “As one of the few Black graduate students in my program, finding out about BGSA was super exciting for me because there was finally a space where I [could] meet people that look like me and understand my struggles with academia and life in general.”

However, Duah-Kessie cautioned that the prevalent academic and social gaps for Black students cannot be filled by groups like the BGSA alone as students can only do so much, but that the group is “a step in the right direction.” She elaborated that “there is still a need for more Black staff, faculty, and support services that address the unique needs of Black students. For instance, I remember wanting to speak with a counsellor of colour after my first year, but unfortunately there was only one available and he was restricted to only servicing students that belonged to a specific program.”

The university, she continued, “should be working closely with its Black students and the community at large to create more services and capacity building opportunities that reflect our needs and experiences. I see UofT taking strides to fill some of these gaps with the Black Faculty Working Groups, Black Student Application Program and the Community of Support Program in the Medicine Department; however, we still have a long way to go to make other Black students, faculty, and staff feel at home at UofT.”

Her previous work with First Nations House opened her eyes to potential models for bettering resources and opportunities for Black students on campus. “It was a great experience as I got to meet with many Indigenous students and staff on campus, where I learned about the various resources, workshops and events they have available to us. I think what stood out to me was their library filled with knowledge from Indigenous scholars, and I thought to myself how cool would it be to access a space at UofT with a library of Black and African-Canadian scholars.”

On Black History Month, Duah-Kessie said that “in a society where people of colour, particularly Black people, still face the challenges of living in a White supremacist world, I personally think that it is important to celebrate Black History Month… I see it as a month where we are able to remind one another of the accomplishments Black people have made to society in the face of systemic barriers.”

While designating February as the special month could limit conversations celebrating Black history, Duah-Kessie wants to have year-round conversations. However, she believes February is an important springboard for broader discussions. “Although some people may argue that Black History Month in February poses barriers on talking about Black history for the rest of the year, I like to think otherwise. I see it is as a month where we can come together in celebration of what our society can begin to look like if we are open and willing to embrace the past, just as much as we embrace the future.”

The myth revisited

Experiences like Duah-Kessie’s demonstrate the need for increasingly inclusive curricula at all levels of education going forward. Initiatives like the Toronto District School Board’s Africentric Alternative School is a great example. The school, which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, has a curriculum that focuses on “the perspectives, experiences and histories of people of African descent.” Children who attend the school say that their instructors “encourage us to love ourselves,” emphasizing the confidence they gain from attending the school.

U of T can learn a lot from these positive and diverse learning environments. While restructuring the entire institution’s approach to curriculum would be an incredible undertaking, declaring a renewed focus on diversifying the academic voices we learn from, both in person and on paper, would be a huge step in the right direction.

Diversifying the curricula can also help rid us of the persistent post-racial mindset. As Crenshaw said, “The brutal fashion in which Trump’s rise repealed virtually every plank of post-racialist self-congratulation underlines how flimsy and premature the celebrations of Obama’s top-of-the-ticket symbolic breakthrough were.” Post-racial thinking isn’t just delusional, it’s dangerous. We cannot say to ourselves that the mission is accomplished, when it is clearly far from so, especially in Canada where white nationalist Faith Goldy placed third in last fall’s Toronto municipal election.

We, as students and as Canadians, must make a committed effort to creating diverse curricula that exposes us to the multitude of ways in which Canadians experience this country. That, I think, is one of the lasting messages of Black History Month, and one that will help the country grow in constructive ways, hopefully leading to more inclusive environments in institutions and communities that can truly claim to embrace difference.

Cracking the illusion of Canadian progressiveness

Canada as a nation of liberal politics is an empty idea in the face of recent political turns toward conservatism

Cracking the illusion of Canadian progressiveness

The election of Donald Trump as US president was notable for revealing common ideas about Canada, especially in relation to the US. Americans frequently joked about emigrating to Canada, while Canadians pridefully boasted about our country’s alleged progressiveness in relation to a politically regressive America. 

This is the image of Canada perpetuated from both within and without: a nation of unrivalled tolerance and liberalism. It is, however, an image without substance, mostly grounded in a mythology written and spoken by those on both sides of the political spectrum.

Justin Trudeau’s political career is an important contemporary piece of this mythology.  His person has been heralded and denigrated as an icon of tolerant, liberal, Canadian values. The fervor surrounding his figure somehow instituted a nationwide amnesia about his famously conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, who won three consecutive elections.

Trudeau was transformed from just another centrist politician following a plethora of centrist and conservative politicians to a figure agreeable with and representative of the stereotype of Canadian progressiveness. This effectively silenced discussions of Trudeau’s failures to actually embody a progressive politics, such as his retraction of promises related to Indigenous rights and sovereignty.

Much of this illusion might have had to do with his relatively young age and — according to some — attractive appearance. A part of it might have also been wish fulfillment on the part of Canadians, who seemed to desire a leader who could remain staunchly centrist in his politics while appearing progressive.

This somewhat farcical image of Trudeau as a vision of liberality is adopted and mobilized by those on the right of the political spectrum. Propaganda that positions Trudeau as a communist or as attempting to institute sharia law abounds in right-wing media, rendering Canadians more sympathetic to right-wing ideologies. This propaganda is found in fringe conspiratorial media like Toronto’s Your Ward News, but also makes its way into more widely consumed media like The Toronto Sun.

Perhaps these images do render Canadians more susceptible to right-wing ideologies. On the other hand, perhaps the images work to obscure the reality that these ideologies have always been present, that conservatism historically and presently plays a major role in shaping Canada’s political field. Either way, the presence of conservatism is at this point undeniable: provincial elections this year in Québec and Ontario both resulted in the appointment of controversial right-wing politicians to office.

Much has already been said about our new premier, Doug Ford, and his eccentric notions of democracy. But earlier this month, our neighbours a bit further east elected François Legault and his right-wing party, Coalition Avenir Québec, to a majority government. Legault and his party are known for their desires to restrict immigration and for their disdain for public symbols of Islamic and Jewish faith.

Legault reaffirmed his politics immediately before being elected by proclaiming his desire to use the notwithstanding clause to bar public officials from wearing religious garments such as the hijab or the kippah.

The election of both Ford and Legault is made possible by the same mechanism that garnered large amounts of support for contrarian celebrities like U of T’s Jordan Peterson or Faith Goldy. When working within this mythological framework of Canada as a radically progressive nation-state, a state that will bend backward to sustain its trans, Muslim, and minority citizens, rhetoric that targets minorities is reframed as anti-government dissent.

Challenging the presence of immigrants or denigrating minority religious communities becomes a form of subversive rebellion in which those who perpetuate these discourses are heralded as underdogs who ‘stand up for’ the disenfranchised against what is reconstructed as abusive hegemony. This is an ideological consequence of our excited sponsorship of the illusion of Canada’s progressiveness. The illusion is adopted, exaggerated, and weaponized, and it actively works to undo any sort of social liberality we have obtained.

This is not to say that these conservative figures and trends are aberrations in a tradition of political progressiveness. There have been some victories for social progress that were made by the Liberal Party in past years, but framing the party as an icon for progressiveness plays into the mythology even more. The truth is that any major party is going to be constantly negotiating between conservative and progressive policies, and oversimplifying this process renders resistance to elements of conservatism impossible.

Especially with the current sweep of conservative victories, we need to ensure that we do not romanticize the period when the Ontario Liberal Party had control of the province. We should criticize Ford’s government while remaining aware that it was Wynne’s government that privatized Hydro One and consistently sided with the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party to disparage the New Democratic Party  (NDP) during elections.

While the current sweep of conservative victories isn’t necessarily a stark deviation from Canadian political trends, it is still jarring and needs to be resisted. As university students, we should be particularly concerned with these political trends, if for no other reason than because they are detrimental to the width of our wallets. Though Ontario’s Liberals have been economically conservative on other issues, their education policies have granted students a number of concessions, including significant increases in Ontario Student Assistance Program grants in 2017.

During the Ontario provincial election, while the NDP’s Andrea Horwath pledged to replace government loans with non-repayable grants and to cancel interest on current student loans, Ford remained suspiciously silent on the issue of tuition. In fact, Ford’s government has been silent on any issues related to postsecondary education, other than that of free speech. However, having a staunchly conservative government usually means cuts to social programs, and Ford has been resolute in his insistence that his government will cut taxes for Ontarians.

The future that is being shaped by current trends is dangerous and uncertain. Space is being made for people like Goldy, who has clear white nationalist and alt-right ties, to compete in mayoral elections. Space is being made for people like Maxime Bernier, who decries multiculturalism as a central problem in Canada, to have a legitimate shot at being elected prime minister. What is certain in all this is that there is no longer space for us to don our blinders and continue sponsoring the illusion that Canada is a safe haven of progressive politics.

Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College. She is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.

Yemeni community stages protest against Canada’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia

Protesters in front of Chrystia Freeland’s office call for end to $15 billion deal

Yemeni community stages protest against Canada’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia

Yemeni protesters and allies gathered on September 8 in front of Chrystia Freeland’s constituency office at Spadina Avenue and Bloor Street West to protest Canada’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Canadian-made combat vehicles have reportedly been used by Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen. The conflict was labelled by the United Nations as the worst humanitarian crisis of 2018, with at least 16,700 casaulties since it began in 2015, though the count could be much higher. Over two million people have been displaced by the conflict.

The protest comes in the wake of growing Canada-Saudi tensions after Freeland, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, called for the release of two human rights activists in Saudi Arabia on Twitter. As part of its response to Freeland’s message, Saudi Arabia announced that Saudi students studying at Canadian universities had to leave the country.

Protesters gathered at around 2:45 pm, holding signs calling for Freeland to take action and immediately stop the arms deal.

The group of roughly 50 were affiliated with groups such as the Yemeni Community in Canada, the Canadian Defenders for Human Rights, and the Canadian Peace Coalition.

Protesters held signs depicting the victims of war crimes as young as nine years old.

Firas Al Najim, a member of the Canadian Defenders for Human Rights and one of the participants in the protest, criticized the Canadian government’s decision to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, saying that it makes the country “an accomplice to war crimes” and adding that “the government should speak up for human rights in the war-torn Yemen.”

The deal, initiated by the Harper government in 2014, is for $15 billion in armoured vehicles, and aims to create 3,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector — mainly in London, Ontario.

The protest comes after an August 9 airstrike on a school bus which killed 51 people, including 40 children. Some 79 people were injured, 56 of whom were children. The Saudi-led coalition airstrike has been condemned by Human Rights Watch, which called it an “apparent war crime.”

The fighting in Yemen has been going on for more than three years, and involves Saudi Arabia, allied Sunni Muslims, and the Houthi rebels who control much of northern Yemen and the capital, Sana’a. The rebels drove Yemen’s government into exile in 2014.

“Many innocent people will be victims of these weapons. I totally understand that these weapons are creating job opportunities in Canada, but it is coming in the interest of Yemeni innocent blood,” said Hamza Shaiban, President of the Yemeni Community in Canada.

Councillor Joe Cressy proposes amendments to enforce conformity with zoning laws

Reflecting on Saudi-Canada crossroads

The Saudi withdrawal of students from Canada demonstrates an urgent need to re-evaluate how we advance human rights in global politics

Reflecting on Saudi-Canada crossroads

In early August, Saudi Arabia called for the withdrawal of all Saudi students from Canadian postsecondary institutions, including the University of Toronto, by the end of the month, amidst a series of sanctions against Canada. This was in response to criticism tweeted by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland regarding the crackdown on dissidents in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh viewed Freeland’s human rights advocacy as “interference” in its domestic affairs.

Currently, many Saudi students are scrambling for asylum in Canada in order to continue their education. Some asylum seekers fear harassment, as the deadline to return has already passed; others fear imprisonment due to their links to Saudi dissident activists.

The Saudi call for withdrawal is gravely concerning. International studies are a key means of development for all parties involved. University education is not just important for employment; it enables scholars from a variety of backgrounds to share, challenge, and develop ideas and, ultimately, affect change in society.

International students, like the Saudis in Canada, contribute to the academic community and, in turn, gain knowledge, experience, and skills to benefit their own countries. With the withdrawal of these students, we not only lose the opportunity to learn a sliver of what exists beyond us, but we lose our ability to influence the ideas of those abroad, which may be essential in creating global change. Both Saudi Arabia and Canada stand to lose from the withdrawal. Saudi Arabia should reconsider this decision.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that Saudi Arabia is justified to defend its sovereignty. Defendants of Saudi Arabia’s decision have claimed that the harsh attitude toward dissidents is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s slow, but effective, plan to produce real reform through Vision 2030. Critical commentary from foreign governments only serves to complicate Prince Salman’s ability to realize these reforms.

Furthermore, while Saudi Arabia is notorious for inflicting violence and terror unto its opponents, the fact remains that human rights violations are not unique to Saudi Arabia. For Canada to single out Saudi Arabia reflects a selective foreign policy. Furthermore, Freeland’s comments contradict the fact that Canada enables Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations — after all, the very same Trudeau government recently backed a massive arms deal with the Saudis.

Perhaps Canada should re-evaluate its expectations of Saudi Arabia and other countries it criticizes for human rights violations. What we define as human rights is largely based on Western ideals and histories, and to impose our distinct experience onto other cultures is problematic.

We have spent decades, if not centuries, structuring and improving a culture of rights and freedoms. It is not fair, then, to expect the same reforms in countries like Saudi Arabia to occur immediately. In fact, we should not pretend that Canada is morally superior, as it continues to commit its own human rights violations, namely against Indigenous peoples.

While we should not condone what is morally reprehensible in Saudi Arabia, we need to restructure the ways in which we frame our interests and goals, and how we work with international bodies to address human rights concerns. Human rights law tends to be incredibly ambiguous, requiring the consent of states to function.

Indeed, we need a global, legal infrastructure that ensures accountability and outlines specific expectations. It is necessary for other countries and powers to speak out against Saudi Arabia’s tirades, and for our criticisms to include specific alternatives and practices that can take place, while at the same time acknowledging the vast differences in the cultural climates of such nations. At the very least, where the goal is to advance human rights abroad, we should recognize that Twitter diplomacy can be disrespectful and gravely counterproductive.

The advancement of our national interests and goals in the realm of international relations requires a combination of utopian ideals and pragmatism. It is unfortunate that Saudi students have fallen victim to the complexities of global politics and diplomacy. The Canadian government and universities should do their utmost to resolve the dispute, so as to ensure that Saudi students can resume their education.

Rehana Mushtaq is a third-year English and Religion student at University College.

Saudi Arabia to withdraw students from Canadian universities

293 U of T students could be affected

Saudi Arabia to withdraw students from Canadian universities

In the latest move in the ongoing Canada–Saudi Arabia dispute over human rights, media reports are circulating that the Saudi government will withdraw all of its more than 15,000 students from Canadian postsecondary institutions, including the University of Toronto.

The diplomatic spat stems from a tweet last Thursday from Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, which slammed the arrest of Saudi women’s rights activist Samar Badawi.

“Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia,” tweeted Freeland. “Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”

Since Freeland’s statement, Saudi Arabia has expelled the Canadian ambassador, recalled its own envoy, frozen new trade and investment initiatives, and reportedly stopped state-sponsored flights between Saudi Arabia and Toronto.

And now, students are in the line of fire, with less than a month before classes are supposed to begin.

According to Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned media outlet, “training, scholarships and fellowships to Canada” have been suspended as of Monday, and the government will be taking steps to transfer those students to other universities abroad.

Bessma Momani, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, told the Toronto Star that most Saudi students in Canada are in the country through the King Abdullah scholarship, a government program that covers tuition, flights, accommodations, and a stipend for living expenses.

A spokesperson for the University of Toronto told The Varsity that out of 19,000 international students attending the school for the 2018–2019 academic year, 77 are from Saudi Arabia. Of that number, 30 are undergraduates and the rest are graduates.

“In addition, there are 216 medical residents and fellows from Saudi Arabia who are being trained in hospitals affiliated with U of T under a longstanding program,” said the spokesperson in an email. They are also affected by the government’s decision.

In total, 293 students at U of T could be affected.

“We are working to support our students who may be affected,” said Joseph Wong, Associate Vice-President and Vice-Provost of International Student Experience, in a statement released by U of T.

“This is a very stressful time for these students. Their studies have been interrupted, and we want to help them to continue their education,” continued Wong. “We will be working with them, our colleagues at other universities and with government officials, as the situation continues to evolve.”

According to the enrolment numbers for the 2017–2018 school year, 240 Saudi nationals attend U of T. They constitute the seventh largest group of international students, ahead of Nigeria with 200 students and behind Taiwan with 277.

In response to Saudi Arabia’s actions, University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) President Anne Boucher told The Varsity that the UTSU is “deeply distraught and saddened… To see students being used for political leverage, being used to make a point.”

“These students are a part of the U of T community. These are our friends and classmates,” added Boucher. “They should not be punished for exchanges between political leaders.”

The Varsity has reached out to the Saudi Students’ Association and the Middle Eastern Students’ Association for comment.

This story is developing. More to come.