Editorial: The election’s over — let’s get to work on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples

Following Indigenous Education Week, we reflect on the role of government, university, and media in reconciliation

Editorial: The election’s over — let’s get to work on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)’s final report, released in 2015, documented the history and lasting legacy of Canada’s residential school system, where the government forcibly removed Indigenous children from their communities and placed them in abusive schools that aimed to erase their culture and identity. 

We know that this colonial history, which is not limited to residential schools, has led to high rates of poverty, unemployment, suicide, substance use disorder, and poorer health and education outcomes in Indigenous communities. Yet institutional responses have been inadequate, and meaningful action is lacking. 

The recent federal election, where Indigenous issues were a sideline issue, also urges us and our newly elected government to begin to create meaningful change beyond rhetoric. While Canada’s government has made progress in improving life for Indigenous peoples, it has made severe missteps along the way. Remedying them will be no easy task, but the new government should start with efforts to bridge the socioeconomic gap and public health issues facing Indigenous peoples.

U of T also can do much more on the topic of reconciliation. Last week, from October 28 to November 1, First Nations House ran events for its annual Indigenous Education Week, providing an opportunity for the U of T community to learn, reflect, and act on the pressing issue of settler-Indigenous reconciliation in this country. 

It is incumbent on young people especially to correct the wrongs of our predecessors in this era of reconciliation. It is vital, therefore, for us to reflect on where government, the university, and media stand, and how they can move forward. 

The federal government

On October 21, Canada’s federal elections concluded with Liberal Leader and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau winning a minority government. According to The Globe and Mail, National Chief Perry Bellegarde, the leader of the Assembly of First Nations, said that the Liberals have been the most effective first-term government in the sphere of Indigenous rights.

Examples of achievements include the government’s efforts to end boil-water advisories via upgrading water and wastewater systems, as well as forgiveness of more than a billion dollars in loans to pursue land claims.

The government’s choice to expand the pipeline demonstrates a worrying prioritization of profit over reconciliation.

However, Bellegarde also highlighted the significant socioeconomic gap between First Nations and non-Indigenous Canadians. For now, he suggests moving toward reducing the number of boil-water advisories, taking action that reflects upon the urgency of the climate crisis, protecting Indigenous languages via legislation, and giving Indigenous communities authority over child and family services.

Additionally, the Trudeau government’s push for the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline has been heavily criticized by Indigenous groups. The expanded pipeline runs through numerous First Nations territories, alongside freshwater sources. Any potential defects in the pipeline threaten these communities’ access to safe drinking water. 

The government’s choice to expand the pipeline demonstrates a worrying prioritization of profit over reconciliation. 

Trudeau has miles to go to gain Indigenous peoples’ trust concerning the pipeline. Whether that means halting construction on the expansion entirely or selling a majority share to Indigenous-led shareholders, the rights and resources for Indigenous communities must be a prime concern with any decision made regarding the pipeline.

The Trudeau government’s decision to appeal the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling ordering the payment of compensation to First Nations children and families over a “chronically underfunded child-welfare system” is further evidence of its devaluation of Indigenous reconciliation.

In doing so, Trudeau has directly contradicted his public declaration of support for Indigenous communities. While he agreed with the ruling, his excuses his appeal by citing the length of time the tribunal set as too short. However, this stance is unforgivably damaging and demoralizing. Trudeau must commit his government to reconciliatory efforts at any cost. 

Furthermore, Trudeau has received sustained criticism for his handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair. At its crux, Trudeau removed Jody Wilson-Raybould, a member of the We Wai Kai Nation and former attorney general, from the Liberal caucus, following her refusal to let the SNC-Lavalin engineering company settle a legal case to avoid a criminal trial on corruption.

Canada’s ethics commissioner later concluded in August that Trudeau’s pressuring of Wilson-Raybould to halt her criminal investigation breached the Conflict of Interest Act.

The Varsity calls on the federal government to implement solutions backed by experts, which includes empowering Indigenous communities to manage their own community health services, further investing in infrastructure for water treatment in Indigenous communities, and improving education funding for First Nations children on reserves.

These recommendations are only the beginning. The TRC has also made additional recommendations for the federal government to follow to further reconciliation.

The elected Liberal minority government must remedy the missteps taken during Trudeau’s first term in office. The election is not an indication of success. Trudeau failed to end all boiled water advisories, as promised. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is not yet implemented. Even with a majority government, the Liberals were unable to prove themselves capable of making these changes.

For one, Canada’s government should implement recommendations by UNDRIP, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), and the TRC. This is especially true as the Liberal Party, New Democratic Party, and Greens have made commitments on their platforms to implement their calls to justice.

While the publication of the MMIWG report is a big step in the right direction, it’s up to this government to make the structural changes needed for reconciliation. 

U of T 

In a direct response to the 2015 TRC report, U of T struck a steering committee to realize the report’s recommendations.

The committee has advised U of T to create dedicated Indigenous spaces at all three campuses, increase hiring of Indigenous faculty and staff, and integrate Indigenous curriculum content in its programs.

Following the committee’s report, a Faculty of Arts & Science commission recommended the construction of a new Indigenous college at UTSG.

U of T has also hired two Indigenous academic advisors, professors Suzanne Stewart and Susan Hill, in response to the TRC’s report. Their work will include investigating ways for researchers to work with Indigenous communities, as well as designing and redesigning curricula to improve education on Indigenous issues.

The Varsity calls on U of T to take a stronger stance on Indigenous issues, especially on the university’s involvement in the Thirty Meter Telescope project, which threatens the land of Indigenous peoples in Hawaii.

The university has made further steps to launch Indigenous-focused initiatives, including the Deepening Knowledge Project, the Indigenous Education Network, and the TRC Implementation Committee. 

Overall, U of T has taken some meaningful steps to implement the recommendations of the TRC report. Further progress is, however, needed to ensure U of T’s contribution to Indigenous reconciliation.

The Varsity calls on U of T to take a stronger stance on Indigenous issues, especially on the university’s involvement in the Thirty Meter Telescope project, which threatens the land of Indigenous peoples in Hawaii.

We further call on U of T to make a larger impact to preserve Indigenous languages and through course offerings and partnerships with Indigenous communities. 

Intercultural initiatives like the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health — which takes a specific community and socioeconomic approach to learning that strives to address all aspects affect the health outcomes of Indigenous communities — must be further developed and supported across all fields of study.

Universities are historic centres of progress and we must lead by example by integrating reconciliatory efforts into our curriculum, structures, and operational policies.

The media

Media outlets, including The Varsity, also have a responsibility for meaningful and appropriate coverage of Indigenous issues.

We must responsibly provide the context necessary to understand Indigenous issues. Journalists must be mindful to explain how present-day challenges are rooted in systems and institutions designed to eradicate Indigenous culture. 

It’s also important to understand and recognize the identity of interviewees. Indigenous people are composed of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. Proper representation stems from the understanding that within these groups are a rich variety of cultures and languages who deserve nuanced portrayals in the media. 

The final MMIWG report has made recommendations for responses by media outlets to address the issue of systemic violence faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada.

These recommendations include ensuring “authentic and appropriate representation of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people,” to avoid the spread of negative and discriminatory stereotypes.

We at The Varsity strive to do better in the quality and quantity of our coverage of Indigenous issues on campus by actively pursuing Indigenous stories and voices that would otherwise go unheard.

The commission has also called on the media to support “Indigenous people sharing their stories, from their perspectives, free of bias, discrimination, and false assumptions, and in a trauma-informed and culturally sensitive way.”

Such stereotypes include typecasting Indigenous people as “warriors, victims, or magical creatures.” At times, even when the media tries to positively capture Indigenous resistance and action, it can still perpetuate stereotypes. Consider when a cartoonist portrayed Wilson-Raybould challenging Trudeau in the context of the SNC-Lavalin scandal while wearing feathers and a leather fringe; the second cartoonist to face a backlash over stereotyping Wilson-Raybould during the affair. 

Other biases include centering coverage on the platitudes of addiction, alcohol use disorder, suicide, unemployment, and poverty, which further the stereotype of victimization.

We at The Varsity strive to do better in the quality and quantity of our coverage of Indigenous issues on campus by actively pursuing Indigenous stories and voices that would otherwise go unheard. Whether through our News, Comment, and Science sections, we firmly believe that all aspects of our paper must meaningfully and responsibly commit to such coverage.

We will strive to continue our efforts to cover Indigenous issues in ways that are sufficient, responsible, and well-informed, and welcome criticism and feedback from you about our coverage.

Op-ed: Become involved in campus politics through the First Year Council

The council is part of the UTSU’s effort to increase student engagement on campus

Op-ed: Become involved in campus politics through the First Year Council

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) is unveiling the First Year Council (FYC) at the start of the fall 2019 semester. The goal of the FYC is to engage first-year students in campus politics and improve their overall experience at U of T.

The UTSU hopes that increasing first-year student engagement will help us in mounting a defense against the effects of the Student Choice Initiative, the provincial mandate to give students an opt-out option for certain ancillary fees. Part of the inspiration for the idea came from first-year councils established by other student unions, like those at McGill University and McMaster University

I did not become involved with any campus political organization until well into my third year at U of T. My story is the same as that of many others: entering student politics as a first-year student without any connection to the social networks within can be extremely intimidating, and sometimes feel impossible. The FYC aims to empower new students in a way that makes their insights feel respected and valued. 

In my first year, I went to several drop-in events before I found a club where I actually felt welcomed. As a member of Fight for $15 and Fairness UofT, I picketed outside of a Tim Hortons on Bloor Street with several students who shared my view on fair wages. As I was doing this, a student from my program recommended that we run for executive positions on our academic student union. This inspired me to run for and subsequently be elected to the Arts & Science Students’ Union executive, which oversees 62 active course unions at UTSG. 

I am now the President of the UTSU, but I had to meander through a myriad of lost connections and one-off experiences with clubs before I found my footing in student government. This should not be the only way for students to get involved with politics on campus. 

The UTSU is tasked with representing all full-time undergraduate students at the downtown campus, including first-year students. Students should not have to wait years before feeling comfortable enough to get involved in student politics. The FYC was created to change that. 

The UTSU is a huge organization. We have a 41-person Board of Directors, with seven executives and directors from across the colleges and faculties. Getting involved with such a large organization may seem daunting, and the reality is that for the most part, it is. 

Students are asked to balance their studies with a cumbersome election period that takes place both in-person and online. After rounds of debates, social media campaigns, and handing out pamphlets, there is still a possibility that candidates will not get elected. 

The incentive for students to actively get involved with UTSU programming and operations has been gradually chipped away over time.  Moreover, engagement is very low, as seen in the voter turnouts in our previous two election periods — respectively at 4.2 per cent and 2.9 per cent. We should be creating opportunities to change these trends.

The FYC will be one of the only institutions that is completely operated by first-year students at the University of Toronto. While residence councils and college-based student societies have long been creating positions for first-year students, they have done so with the impetus that senior students will be guiding their decision making. This is not the case with the FYC. 

The FYC will be composed of an appointed body of 10 councillors and two executives that will meet each month and report to the UTSU Board of Directors. At the first meeting, the FYC will select a president and vice-president from among its membership. After its inaugural year, the FYC will be elected entirely by first-year students. It will be able to create and lead its own committees, which will be dedicated to addressing specific issues facing first-year students.

Now in my fifth year at U of T, I know first-hand how long it takes to become meaningfully involved with the UTSU. Our hope is that, in creating the FYC, we can create a UTSU that genuinely supports its first-year members. We need fresh ideas, and this year, the UTSU wants to find new ways to implement those ideas from first-year students. Through this new initiative, we will be listening to first-year concerns and amplifying them in a supportive and meaningful way.

The FYC is a way to do this. Apply and become involved in a university that wants to hear from and work for you.

Applications for the first FYC will be accepted until September 20. Interested applicants should check out the FYC page on the UTSU website and fill out the application form.

Joshua Bowman is a fifth-year Indigenous Studies and Political Science student at St. Michael’s College and current President of the UTSU.

The March For Life counter-protest was an exercise in futility

Modern protests are not short on passion, but lack substance

The March For Life counter-protest was an exercise in futility

It is a sad comment on the current state of political discourse that the police frequently have to separate groups of people with opposing ideas. The more important an issue, the more crucial it is that the truth – or something approximating the truth – be reached, and this can only be done through rational dialogue.

It is only through reasoned discourse that the complexities of political issues can be fully explored, and the points of contention ironed-out. If there is any hope at all of resolving some of the bitter disputes which populate our modern political landscape, it rests on the willingness of activists on both sides to control their emotions and use their higher faculties to argue their cases intelligently and, crucially, to consider that they might be wrong about some or all of what they believe. There may not be a path to compromise and conciliation on any particular topic, but if there is, it is through conversation, not conflict.

This calm, rational, self-aware truth-seeking is precisely what did not happen at Carr Hall on May 9, when pro-choice demonstrators converged to protest against anti-abortion workshops being held within. As The Varsity reported, police were called to the scene and guarded entrances while the protestors chanted outside.  

Whatever ideas were being discussed inside Carr Hall — correct or incorrect, laudable or dangerous — went unchallenged. No minds were changed on either side. Nothing was accomplished, and no progress was made.

Whether or not the police presence was necessary to prevent violence is unknown and beside the point; rather than putting forth an intelligent argument or rationally engaging with the ideas to which they were opposed, the protestors waved signs and chanted slogans. They made noise rather than sense. As a result, yet another abortion clash has come and gone, and we are no closer to agreement, compromise, or conciliation.

This is the dismal reality of modern political discourse: rather than advancing and defending ideas of their own, protestors instead try to drown out or shut down ideas they oppose. Of course they will say they are not “just opposed” to these — their reasoning is that the ideas are hateful, dangerous, or both and need to be suppressed.

The possibility that their own ideas may be considered hateful or dangerous by others, and that to determine which is which requires open, intelligent discourse, does not seem to cross their minds — neither does the idea that it may not be their place to decide, on behalf of Canadian civil society, which ideas may or may not be put forth for public consideration. Still farther from their minds is the possibility that, if these ideas are really so dangerous, and if they are so correct that they are justified in censoring them unilaterally, that it might be better — indeed crucial — to publicly engage with and dispatch them through rational argument, so that they might be publicly shown to be wrong.

Abortion rights are extraordinarily important, and the more they come under attack the more crucial it is that the people defending them come across as calm, rational, and well-informed, rather than aggressive and unreasonable. It is just as crucial that they focus their attention on winning the debate rather than shutting it down, for — as with all attempts to stifle free expression — it will not be suppressed, but merely driven underground, where those with whom they refuse to engage will have no opposition.

Simon Capobianco is a fourth-year student studying math and bioethics at Woodsworth College.

Save the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto

Moving the program into the Daniels Faculty will be detrimental to climate-change research

Save the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto

U of T is in the final stages of its plan to eliminate the Faculty of Forestry and move its staff, faculty, students, and programs into the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design as of this July. A news release from the university said that “The proposal would go through the governance process beginning on May 9.”

The abolition of the Faculty of Forestry as a standalone faculty is one of the worst ideas in U of T’s history. In an era of climate change, forests are the key to sustaining life on Earth. They sequester carbon, emit oxygen, filter precipitation, absorb rain, and protect ecosystems from erosion. We need forests. U of T should show pride in the Faculty of Forestry, and invest in it.

The Faculty of Forestry’s proud history began in 1907 as Canada’s oldest forestry faculty. Plaques displayed in the Earth Sciences Centre attest to the faculty’s men who gave their lives in World War I and World War II.

By the turn of the 20th century, settlers had cut down much of the forest on the Oak Ridges Moraine, and east to Northumberland County. The topsoil proved too thin to support agriculture and blew away, resulting in mass desertification and devastating annual floods in Port Hope and other communities.

Foresters knew what to do. They mobilized the government of Ontario to set up a network of tree nurseries across Canada. A massive, province-wide campaign to plant trees ensued. To this day, red pine plantations in a wide band of the northern GTA attest to the wisdom of this prescription. After the mass reforestation of the Ganaraska River Valley, the floods in Port Hope ceased. In 1968, Premier John Robarts planted the one-billionth tree: a sugar maple grown at the St. Williams provincial government nursery. Robarts also gave his name to the university’s flagship library.

Robert Wright was appointed as Dean of the Faculty of Forestry in July 2017. The university appointed him to abolish the stand-alone faculty, and he has worked hard to achieve that goal. During his first 18 months, the dean did not meet with forestry students as a group to discuss this goal or to solicit feedback. He held a town hall to discuss the restructuring only after the 34 students who enrolled in the Master of Forest Conservation in September 2017 had completed their course work and left the school.

Thus the assertion of the U of T provost, Cheryl Regehr, that “we are strongly committed to using these consultations to identify the best structure for forestry-related academic programs at the University of Toronto,” rings false.

In a recent open letter, my colleague Ben Filewod, a PhD candidate in forestry, spelled out some concerns over this transition. The Faculty of Forestry has gained recognition across Canada for its expertise in promoting the bioeconomy; for example, researchers have succeeded in making car parts out of nano-cellulose. Other research uses soil amendments to help forests, and other labs at U of T find new ways to defend forests from invasive species. One lab raises caterpillars who feed on invasive the dog-strangling vine.

Forestry companies and governments rely on the expertise of centres such as the Faculty of Forestry. A 2016 external review noted that “the University of Toronto’s program is designed to produce graduates qualified to move rapidly into research or managerial/policy-making roles.” Folding the faculty into a subordinate role in another faculty, with no dean to advocate on its behalf, risks reducing U of T’s leadership role in forestry research in Ontario. Schools in Quebec, New Brunswick, and British Columbia are ill-equipped to take its place.

Forestry overlaps with architecture in two areas: urban forestry and the use of wood in buildings and design. This leaves out, for example, the study of Ontario’s huge forested areas, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region, and the boreal forest that covers most of the province and generates tens of thousands of jobs.

Large, healthy, contiguous, diverse forests are more vital than ever to mitigate and adapt to climate change. We need a dedicated unit at the University of Toronto to tell the government how to enhance and improve our forests. The U of T community must wake up and save its Faculty of Forestry.

Peter Kuitenbrouwer will graduate with a Master of Forest Conservation from the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto in June 2019.

Why the UTSU can’t do without you

A message to the student body from a UTSU presidential candidate

Why the UTSU can’t do without you

My name is Bryan Liceralde, and I ran for president in the 2019 University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) elections. First, I want to congratulate the executives and directors for their impeccable victories in the spring elections. The UTSU is going to face many challenges this year, especially when it confronts issues caused by the policies of both U of T and the Ford government. Going forward, President Joshua Bowman must face the biggest issue in student democracies: voter apathy.

When I looked over the by-election positions in April, it was heartbreaking to see how many seats — both of Directors and Vice-Presidents (VP) — were vacant. It was all the more heartbreaking when I found that the election’s turnout rate stood at just 4.2 per cent.

From my brief experience in student politics, I can surmise that this lack of engagement is the fault of both the UTSU and the student body. It is our fault as student voters for ignoring the issues that will affect us, and it is the UTSU’s fault for not sufficiently promoting its elections.

If we collectively do not get our act together, students may choose to opt-out of UTSU fees through the Student Choice Initiative, greatly hindering the abilities of student governance. As a result, there would potentially be no organized student body to defend students from potentially harmful U of T policies. Had the UTSU done a better job in promoting its elections, the three VP positions left vacant from the elections may have been filled by March 25.

In an interview with The Varsity, Bowman said that the UTSU has “a lot of relationship-building to do.” He is right. The UTSU must do a better job marketing the clubs it funds and the services it provides to all students, not just to those in first year.

The UTSU VPs must make themselves more relatable to the student populace through engagement on social media. Of course, the executives reserve the right to keep some aspects of their lives private. Nevertheless, they should try to socialize with their constituents as much as possible. Doing so would bring us closer to realizing outgoing president Anne Boucher’s goal of making UTSU “more human.”

More importantly, the UTSU should demand changes to the university-mandated leave of absence policy, which, according to The Varsity, currently “allows the university to place students on a nonpunitive, but mandatory, leave of absence from U of T if their mental health either poses a risk of harm to themselves or others, or if it negatively impacts their studies.” If U of T refuses to amend the university-mandated leave of absence policy, the UTSU must demand its repeal.

On U of T’s part, it should increase funding to its mental health services and do more to encourage its students to use these resources. Any changes to the university-mandated leave of absence policy should be approved by both the UTSU and the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Overall, the UTSU must work in tandem with the U of T administration to make our campus a more welcoming place.

As for students, the most important duty we have is to vote to keep our student democracy alive and our rights protected. I also strongly encourage students to run in the UTSU elections. We are all prepared for any UTSU position through our shared campus experiences — including both the struggles and triumphs that all students face. I know that we all have creative solutions to the most pressing problems in our student lives, so step up to the plate and run. We must confront a campus environment of ignorance with a spirit of optimism. Overall, we must reform student politics today so yesterday’s mistakes will not be repeated tomorrow.

Before I end off, I’d like to thank all the students who inspired me to run. Although I faced defeat, I’ll forever appreciate the support you gave me. As long as I’m a student here, I’ll always be on your side.

For 118 years, the UTSU has always been a beacon of hope for students. It is thus our responsibility to ensure that it keeps on burning.

Bryan Liceralde is a fourth-year Political Science student at St. Michael’s College. He was a presidential candidate in the 2019 UTSU executive elections.

Comment in Briefs: Month of April

Students react to some of Volume 139’s final News stories

Comment in Briefs: Month of April

Who are we missing?

Re: “Accessibility is inaccessible, Innis students host mental health forum”

When Oliver Daniel, Annie Liu, Kathy Sun, and Jehan Vakharia first proposed the idea of hosting a mental health forum at Innis College in response to the death in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, I was impressed and delighted. Four first-year students coming together to take action within days of the news spreading gives me hope about the strength of our campus community.

I love the spirited proposition of initiatives, like the implementation of a Mental Health Director and mental health training within Innis, as well as the acknowledgement that there is only so much students can do without the full force of administration and professional resources to back us up.

But there are still important questions to be asked: what will happen to the students who don’t make themselves visible to us, who don’t come to events, who don’t speak out about campus issues, who don’t engage with student groups, and who may not live on or near campus? These are questions fellow student leaders and I deal with on a daily basis.

These students are often not even on the radar of student clubs, unions, and publications. Student leaders may not have the tools or the vocabulary to identify the communities that are missing from their programming. At the same time, these students are often the ones who most need support.

Student leaders and administration at Innis have worked hard this year to push the boundaries of the Innis community farther to encompass more students of diverse backgrounds and interests. But it is not certain if it is enough. If we aren’t even fully aware of who we are missing, it is not clear what our next step should be to ensure that essential services like mental health support reach the students who need it most.

Michelle Zhang is a second-year Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies, Urban Studies, and Political Science student at Innis College.

Disclosure: Zhang served as the 2018—2019 Equity & Outreach Director at the Innis College Student Society.


In defence of the recent provincial changes to education

Re: “Thousands protest Ford’s proposed education cuts at Queen’s Park”

Since the Ontario government backtracked on controversial changes to its autism programs by making significant concessions and pursuing consultations with parents, I will focus on the recently protested changes to the general public education system. Rather than succumb to the fear-mongering antics of some protesters, we must recognize the benefit of proposed changes to the Ontario public education system, namely the increases to class sizes and mandatory online education.

We’ve come far since the pioneer society of Upper Canada with non-uniform textbooks and uncertified, often transient, pseudo-educators to today’s Ontario public education system.

Still, the system is not without faults. Most concerningly, it fails to prepare students to meet the unique challenges and unprecedented scale and rate of socio-economic changes of the age of information technology.

Overloading if not overburdening the public system by hiring too many teachers misses the forest for the trees. This ineffective hiring policy has diminishing returns on investment and limits the capacity of public coffers to address the many other systemic and infrastructural problems.

It’s been my experience, from primary through postsecondary education, that the quality of the teachers not class size makes for a good or bad learning environment. Increasing classroom size in order to better optimize cost-effectiveness will hopefully maximize use of limited space and resources. At the very least, it will encourage students to be independent and to self-advocate.

Furthermore, mandatory online learning isn’t something to be feared. It is long overdue and must be embraced, especially in a year that marks the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web. Online learning promotes student independence and responsibility, and holds our province’s limited public resources more accountable.

These changes will maximize the potential of our society’s public education system and better prepare them for an economy that requires more versatile and adaptable lifelong learners.

Oscar Starschild is a second-year Mathematics, Philosophy, and Computer Science student at Woodsworth College.

Nothing about us without us

An open letter to the University of Toronto administration on the mental health crisis

Nothing about us without us

Content warning: discussion of suicide.

Dear President Meric Gertler, Vice-Provost Sandy Welsh, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine Trevor Young, and Governing Council of the University of Toronto,

We — the students of the university you serve — write to you publicly, as a last resort, because we are in crisis. In light of the University of Toronto’s ongoing mental health crisis, students are best equipped to advise on and address these urgent concerns, which are matters of life and death — our own. We are writing to demand that you listen to what we are saying.

Since the second student suicide in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology in less than nine months, on March 17, students have sought available avenues to express their concerns and proposals, including reaching out to your offices in various ways, and intervening in Governing Council’s Business Board meeting on March 18. Through extensive consultations since then, students have collectively drafted a follow-up report of over 40 pages titled Nothing About Us Without Us,” which summarizes recent student action, testimonies, and demands arising from the crisis.

Initially, these student-led efforts were met with administrative interest. Janine Robb, Executive Director of the Health & Wellness Centre, arranged for focus group meetings, and President Gertler’s March 28 email stated that “we have listened, we have heard you, and we will continue to do so. We share your concerns, and we are strongly committed to collaborating with you to address them.”

It is not difficult to listen to what we are telling the university. The key student position on this issue has been simple, unanimous, and continuous since March 18: nothing about us without us. Students demand to be included, as a majority, in all aspects of the administration’s plans to address U of T’s mental health crisis.

Unfortunately, the proposed Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, with only three students slated to represent the collective interests of some 90,000 students, is not the collaborative effort that students were expecting based on the preliminary demands made on March 18 and the Nothing About Us Without Us report. Limited student membership and the vague wording surrounding the task force’s mandate have raised concerns about the lack of transparency, diversity, and accountability mechanisms to ensure that the task force constitutes a meaningful and effective response to the crisis.

There have been prior committees that have clearly failed to bring about the change needed. The university’s refusal to meet student demands — specifically, majority representation within such bodies — will condemn the task force’s work to irrelevance at best, and complacency in the ongoing crisis at worst. As the task force stands, it risks losing any legitimacy with students who have been repeatedly told that their voices are being “listened to,” but who have in fact not yet had their proposed solutions heard, let alone seriously considered, by the university administration.

Students demand once again to be meaningfully consulted from the beginning on any mental health-related efforts and policies. Based upon recent engagement — or lack thereof — with administration, it is clear that student leadership and diverse voices will not be centred in administrative-led initiatives such as the task force. Furthermore, students have received little to no clarification regarding the steps that will be taken in the future by such entities to ensure that there is adequate consultation with diverse stakeholders.

In light of the past inadequacies of presidential and provostial committees and working groups on mental health — failures to which these recent suicides stand as a tragic testament — students demand to know what mechanisms are in place to hold the administration accountable, if the labour and recommendations of another group of experts do not translate into tangible, integrated, systems-level solutions.

In the absence of these preconditions, students wish to make clear that the task force — and any similar efforts — will lack legitimacy, efficacy, and support from students and mental health advocates on our campuses. As is demonstrated by the growing number of student, student group, and union signatories to the “Nothing About Us Without Us” pledge of “commitment to helping hold the University administration accountable throughout the upcoming year on the issues, demands, and recommendations related to the [Nothing About Us Without Us report],” students are committed to continuing the collective organizing that has been spurred by the mental health crisis.

In light of student demands, which have repeatedly been made clear to administration over the past month, we must ask that the task force not advance in its current form. Once again, we ask you to stop and to really listen to what we are saying.

We urge you to genuinely and seriously consider both our concerns and our proposals, along with our welfare and our lives. We call upon you, in good faith, to give us concrete seats at a table for dialogue and negotiation, rather than tokenism — an unacceptable outcome, which we will have no choice but to resist. For the sake of those whose lives still hang in the balance, we cannot and we will not accept it.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Layla Ahmed, Zachary Beich, Sabrina Brathwaite, Catherine Clarke, Sarah Colbourn, Oliver Daniel, Raluca Geampana, Ben Hjorth, Arjun Kaul, Lucinda Qu, Sheila Rasouli, Nouran Sakr, Max Xi, Adam Zendel, Kristen Zimmer


To show your support for this letter, please add your name to the petition.

To commit yourself and/or your student group to helping hold the University administration accountable as student mental health advocates continue to advocate for the reform outlined in the “Nothing About Us Without Us” report, please sign the pledge.

To illustrate the consistent and repeated efforts of students to engage in meaningful dialogue with the university at all levels, and the increasing resistance of the administration to that engagement, here is a timeline of key events in the mental health crisis over the past year. 

  • June 24, 2018: a student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre; students criticized the university’s response, calling for better mental health services.
  • June 27, 2018: Governing Council approves the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP) as “a non-punitive option” for students struggling with mental health. However, students in the months since have frequently cited the policy as a deterrent to voluntarily seeking help, and as disciplinary in nature if not in name.  
  • March 17, 2019: a second student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre, the third reported on-campus suicide within the past year.
  • March 18, 2019: a silent protest congregated at Simcoe Hall; student protesters later moved to the Medical Sciences Building, where Governing Council’s Business Board meeting had been relocated in reaction to the protest. Student representatives invited into the meeting shared a collectively-drafted statement of preliminary concerns and demands, to which Gertler responded with “an openness, and indeed an enthusiasm, to work with students in good faith and in a very open way to solicit your advice and your ideas on how to do better.” On the same day, a change.org petition entitled Better Mental Health Services at the University of Toronto” was started; it currently has over 25,500 signatures.
  • March 25, 2019: as a result of this petition, students participated in a focus group run by Robb. Students raised various concerns regarding discrepancies in the treatment of students between programs and instructors; UMLAP; the role of campus police in crisis situations; and more. Robb shared an intent to hold a second focus group. Plans are underway to schedule this second meeting for the end of May.
  • March 28, 2019: an email from Gertler was circulated among the U of T community, marking the university’s first acknowledgement of the death in Bahen as a suicide and the first mention of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health.
  • April 2, 2019: after scheduling a meeting for April 5 with Gertler and other top administrators, a student representative asked if they would be willing to make the meeting accessible to a larger number of students or to livestream the meeting, in order to make the discussion more transparent and accountable. This request was cited by the president’s office as sufficient grounds to cancel the meeting. However, this meeting was later rescheduled to April 10 on the condition that the meeting would not be open to the public.
  • April 3, 2019: the first complete draft of Nothing About Us Without Us was publicized and shared online by students and student organizations. Robb, along with Senior Director of Student Success Heather Kelly and Senior Director of Student Experience David Newman , met with two students who presented this draft to them. A willingness to meet again in the near future was shared by the three administrators. That same day, the nomination process and composition of the task force was publicized, and it was revealed that only three students would be entrusted with the concerns of a student body numbering 90,077 in the 2017–2018 school year.
  • April 10, 2019: a small group of student activists were granted a half-hour meeting with Gertler, Welsh, and Director Office of the Vice-Provost & Student Policy Advisor Meredith Strong,  where copies of Nothing About Us Without Us were shared and key themes and demands were summarized. Students present explicitly asked if they would be meeting again with the president for further discussion; he responded positively, before clarifying that this may not happen before the task force’s first meeting. Students insisted that the lack of student consultation prior to the task force’s structuring, and the lack of diverse representation therein, be recognized as problematic and addressed accordingly. Gertler responded that “our intent is really to keep the group small” and that the task force is meant to solicit input via external consultations.
  • April 12, 2019: after the April 10 meeting, student advocates sent a follow-up email to the president’s office. Students received a response on April 18, stating that Young, who is heading the task force, would be the appropriate figure to contact moving forward.
  • April 14, 2019: a student advocate contacted administration to express concerns regarding a lack of adequate in-person advertising of the counselling services in the Robarts Library; the student had seen only one poster about it. A response was received April 18, stating that the administration believed that the existing social media work and postering at various libraries are adequate advertisement and that the administration would not consider an additional poster. The student advocate in question replied on April 19 addressing these claims, but no further responses were received from administration.
  • April 18, 2019: a student activist reached out to Young requesting a meeting regarding the task force’s composition and mandate. They were informed later that day that “once the task force has been struck there will be opportunities for individuals and groups to participate and submit information to Dean Young and the other members… Until that time Dean Young is not available to meet.” Another student activist independently sent a 1,240-word email to the President, Provost, and Vice-Provost Students, indicating that the task force nominations process was potentially ableist and classist. Gertler responded to this email on April 24, saying that he would share this feedback with his colleagues. Gertler agreed that the administration “should consider ways to create more opportunities for consultation” with students, but also stated that groups like the task force “are intended to be small,” and “members are not expected to come with the ability to speak for all persons of this group, but are chosen for their ability to exercise discretion, listen to various inputs, and collect and synthesize feedback and information.”
  • April 23, 2019: the president’s office replied to student advocates to clarify the administration’s position, stating that “since the President has met with you and heard your views on this important matter, another meeting with the President will not be forthcoming.” Additionally, the president’s office expressed “that there are no plans for a presidential town hall-style meeting” that would allow a broader coalition of students to openly engage with administration on this issue.

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

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

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

The Varsity will always be there for the story of student power

A letter from the Comment Editor

<i>The Varsity</i> will always be there for the story of student power

Content warning: discussion of suicide.

The theme for the Comment section of the final issue of The Varsity Volume 139 is — unintentionally — student power.

Current Affairs Columnist Meera Ulysses advocates for a student strike in response to the Ford cuts; Arts and Science Students’ Union President Haseeb Hassaan advises incoming and future student leaders; former Varsity Photo Editor Nathan Chan discusses the controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP); members of Fight for $15 and Fairness UofT discuss labour resistance; and the Editorial Board reviews all of the student union elections this year.

This should not surprise readers. This semester, U of T students have increasingly expressed frustration toward student leadership, the university administration, and the provincial government for their failure to adequately represent students and student needs. It is often in the context of highly contentious and sensitive events that interest in writing for the Comment section peaks. We are honoured to be an outlet where students can articulate their outrage.

When Volume 139 began last summer and the UMLAP was approved, we published several opinion pieces on the topic given its significance to the student community. The very first issue of the volume featured an op-ed reviewing the approved policy. In this final issue of the volume, a number of suicides on campus in the last year has restored focus on the UMLAP, as you will read in Chan’s op-ed.

This circularity — that we are back where we started — might frustrate readers and suggest that nothing has changed. But student resistance persists nonetheless. It always renews itself. It never seems to be down for the count.

That is why The Varsity will always be there to tell the story of student power — and to enable U of T community members to tell it in their own words. Onward to Volume 140’s version of that story.

Ibnul Chowdhury

Comment Editor, Volume CXXXIX