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

To next year’s unions: less controversy, more engagement, please

Reviewing this year’s SCSU, UTGSU, UTSU, and UTMSU

To next year’s unions: less controversy, more engagement, please

Thanks to last year’s levy increase, The Varsity has expanded its tri-campus and graduate affairs coverage. We are proud to comprehensively report on the governance and election cycles of four major student unions: the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU); the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU); the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU).

With the emergence of a common threat — the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative — student media and governments must remain committed, more than ever, to serving U of T students, earning their trust, and defending campus life. So let’s remember, student unions: our job is to keep students informed, and yours is to represent them.

As the academic year comes to an end, there is no better way to inform students than to review campus politics from the last year. All four unions must do better if we are to have meaningful student democracy.

For next year, let’s hope for more competitive and contested elections, more engagement with the membership, and unequivocal freedom of the press to cover student politics.

The SCSU

SCSU elections were the first of the season, and the most controversial. Unfortunately, controversy had been striking the union all year. In the fall, multiple food safety scandals raised serious concerns about sanitary practices on campus. Yet the union did not respond with meaningful action.

In December, the Board of Directors voted unanimously on a motion put forward by Director of Political Science Raymond Dang that would regulate and limit student media access to board meetings. Dang accused student media of “abusing their positions” and “misrepresenting the reality of the situation.”

The duty of media is to freely and independently hold those in power  to account. During the 2019 SCSU elections, Dang expressed some regret for the policy. But it nonetheless demonstrated anti-democratic tendencies on the part of the union.

SCSU elections were, however, the most competitive and contested of the four unions. Two slates faced off, making for an engaged race, and ending in a split executive. But everything else was pure chaos.

One presidential candidate, SCSYou’s Anup Atwal, was questionably disqualified early on for multiple campaign violations. He made noise when he claimed that fellow presidential candidate, Shine Bright UTSC’s Chemi Lhamo, hit another candidate with a table, which Lhamo denied. Post-disqualification, he was exposed by The Underground, UTSC’s student paper, for making transphobic remarks about Vice-President (VP) Equity candidate Leon Tsai in a leaked group chat.

Controversy did not conclude once the election results were released. President-elect Lhamo became the target of an online harassment campaign due to her views on Tibetan independence. The story became a world headline.

Some U of T students agree with demands for the nullification of her election. But it is important that students respect democratic outcomes and demand change through voting or running as candidates themselves. Most importantly, it is unacceptable that an elected candidate face threats of violence.

Drama continued when the board refused to ratify Rayyan Alibux, who had been elected as VP Operations. Concerns were raised regarding Alibux’s involvement in Atwal’s transphobic remarks. In a Varsity op-ed, Alibux reasonably questioned the legality of the SCSU’s decision. The SCSU later reversed its decision and ratified Alibux.

The new SCSU must correct for the anti-democratic tendencies of its predecessors and ensure that elections are run competitively and fairly. And of course, it must cut the controversy.

The UTGSU

In December, the UTGSU Annual General Meeting (AGM) failed to meet quorum. As such, it was unable to pass important motions, including its 2017–2018 audited financial statements. Members were frustrated and some worried that the organization would financially default to the university.

At the General Council meeting immediately following the AGM, conflict arose between Varsity journalists and the council. The journalists were offered seating on the condition that they would not photograph or live-tweet the events, the latter of which they purposefully ignored as directed by The Varsity’s editors.

Live-tweeting helps ensure transparency, allows The Varsity to keep a public record of governance events, and makes meetings accessible to those who cannot attend. But The Varsity’s journalists were asked to leave.

These issues were resolved only recently. Over the course of several months, The Varsity had to defend its interest in reporting on the events of the union, and we still differ in our views of how the union’s activities should be scrutinized. Ultimately, journalists’ attendance at UTGSU meetings is still subject to challenge from UTGSU members.

The union’s elections were overwhelmingly dominated by incumbents. Five of the seven individuals elected are returning to positions they held last year. This suggests that insiders will retain control of the organization, and that little is likely to change.

Moreover, only five per cent of eligible students voted, demonstrating that engagement with the union is very weak. This undermines the credibility and mandate of the elected representatives.

Nevertheless, The Varsity is able to provide a valuable service to our readership, which overlaps with the UTGSU’s membership, by reporting on the union’s activities and working to increase awareness. We hope the UTGSU works to smooth out its operations, address engagement, and, in time, fully accept the importance of our presence in the room.

The UTMSU

This year, the UTMSU made significant changes both internally and externally. During their AGMs, the UTMSU and UTSU voted unanimously to separate.

With this separation, funds paid to the UTSU by UTM students will instead be paid to the UTMSU to directly improve campus life there. This is a step in the right direction. According to incoming President Atif Abdullah, one way these funds could be used is to create more bursaries for UTM students.

After intense debate at the AGM, students voted to reject online voting in UTMSU elections. This was disappointing. As UTM is a commuter campus, online voting is the most accessible means to involve students in campus governance. Incorporating online voting could have increased voter turnout at UTM, which was 13 per cent last year.

It is clear that the UTMSU has not made itself accessible to students. In this year’s election, the Students United slate swept all five executive positions. There was no other slate, and the majority of positions were uncontested.

If students were engaged, the race would have been more competitive. UTMSU executives should take a closer look at how they operate and what they can do to improve student engagement, and not just during elections.

For starters, the UTMSU should be more transparent by letting The Medium, UTM’s student paper, do its job. Earlier this year, a conflict between the two was publicized. The Medium has its flaws, including questionable journalistic standards, but nonetheless serves as an important voice at UTM, keeping students informed about their elected representatives. As such, the UTMSU should invite criticism from The Medium — not seek to limit it.

To its credit, the UTMSU has been able to introduce a U-Pass and the course retake policy, and extend the credit/no credit deadline. These have taken years to develop and implement and are important to UTM students. If the UTMSU worked to increase transparency with The Medium and facilitate engagement among students, it could achieve much more. 

The UTSU

At the UTSU AGM last fall, slates were banned from future elections. Slates had previously enabled teams of candidates to run under organized platforms.

UTSU President Anne Boucher claimed that independent candidates, as opposed to slated candidates, would offer voters a better understanding of the individual running as opposed to the team to which they belong. Many also criticize slates for an elitist culture that favours insiders. In theory, these are valid perspectives that justify the ban.

But the same night that slates were banned, another remarkable phenomenon took place: the UTSU failed to maintain the required quorum of 50 attendees. This despite being one of the largest student unions in Canada. This spoke to the UTSU’s longstanding and fundamental engagement problem.

The UTSU’s attempt to make elections more accessible to outsiders by banning slates, when the union continued to face, and had yet to resolve, its engagement problem, turned out to be a huge miscalculation. The casualty was the 2019 UTSU election.

This year, no candidates ran for three of the seven executive positions, including the crucial VP Operations and Student Life roles that are needed this summer to draft a budget and prepare for orientation. There were also no candidates for 18 out of 28 Board of Director positions — which means it will be unable to meet quorum and function. The 10 positions that had candidates were all uncontested.

The lack of candidates and contested positions is extremely concerning, and reflects the lowest level of engagement in recent history. Voters responded in kind: turnout was 4.2 per cent — the worst of all four unions this year — and no executive candidates garnered 1,000 votes.

This contrasts with the three previous spring elections, where candidates tended to surpass this threshold and voter turnout was at least double. In those elections, there was at least one full slate competing.

In practice, slates serve to ensure that a given team fields candidates for all available positions, and by running under an organized platform, more easily engages voters. Only after securing a record of stronger engagement and turnout should the UTSU have considered a slate ban.

As it stands, the 2019–2020 UTSU has an extremely weak mandate to govern. The current UTSU has been forced to hold by-elections in April to address the unfilled positions, before the new term starts in May. Given that these elections will occur during exam season, we have low expectations for the quality of campaigning and level of engagement from students.

Next year, the UTSU’s priority must be to market itself better, recognizing that students do not feel heard, represented, or connected to it. It must launch a campaign that builds a better relationship with students to justify its existence and its fees, and improve voter and candidate turnout for next year’s election.

Externally, it must be more vocal vis-à-vis the university administration with student concerns like the weather cancellation policy and mental health resources. And, of course, it — alongside the three other unions — must lobby the provincial government to minimize the impact that the Student Choice Initiative and Ontario Student Assistance Program changes have on student life and finances.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

This fall, we must organize a student strike

In light of the Ford cuts, Ontario should learn from Québec 2012

This fall, we must organize a student strike

Approximately 150 UTSG students walked out of their midday classes on March 20. They assembled in front of Sidney Smith Hall to protest the provincial government’s recently-announced Ontario Student Assistance Program changes and the Student Choice Initiative. Similar walkouts took place at UTM, UTSC, and across Ontario.

At UTSG, the protest was organized by the Canadian Federation of Students and campus groups. Not only did they demand a reversal of the planned changes, but they put forth a list of additional demands, including the elimination of tuition fees for all students, increased public funding for education, and more grants instead of loans.

This protest was an excellent starting point for organized opposition to changes that will detrimentally affect student life. Low-income students will face increased barriers to postsecondary education, and student clubs and student journalism could lose funding.

The cuts aim to override student needs and to silence our voices. To this end, we must react by publicly expressing our disapproval — by raising our voices and claiming space. We must not stand idly by while spheres of academia are rendered exclusive and inaccessible by politicians who do not have our best interests in mind.

I consider this protest only a starting point because it should not remain our sole reaction. A walkout on a single day over the course of a few hours communicates our dissatisfaction. But truly making an impact requires a more coherent disruption. Effective political protesting will only succeed if it manages to disrupt the current system in a significant way.

As students, we have to recognize that educational institutions cannot continue to exist without our cooperation and participation. Without us, a school is nothing but a collection of buildings. To be a place of learning requires not only instructors, curricula, and infrastructure, but also a body of students eager and willing to learn.

These institutions require our continued presence. And so does the province: it needs an educated population in order to continue to function and to prosper economically. The government may attempt to frame our relationship to it as one where we need its benevolence and care in the form of funding, but in reality, it needs us much more.

For a relevant example of how students might weaponize their presence as a powerful political tool, we can look to the widespread student protests that rocked Québec in 2012. Over the course of several months, students objecting to ludicrous tuition hikes refused to attend their classes and took to the streets. They organized swelling protests, disrupted transit systems, and occupied central highways. They made their dissatisfaction at the tuition changes palpable and material.

Their disruptive tactics were, in the end, successful. Not all of the students’ aims materialized, but the province was forced to enter negotiations with them that stalled the tuition hikes significantly. The operative word here is ‘forced’: a powerful institution like a provincial government will not change its course of action unless it somehow becomes inviable.

We should consider adopting some of the tactics used by students in Québec. A lengthy and coordinated strike effectively communicates not only that we will not stand for the planned changes, but also that these schools are unable to operate without our presence. If the province realizes that the institution of academia has been severely disrupted, those in power will scramble to find a way to return to normalcy. Their hand will be forced and they will be required to find a compromise with us. 

If we want the government to take our needs into account, we must articulate them in a way that forces their ear. We cannot passively wait and hope that eventually someone in a position of power will feel sympathetic toward our needs. The institutions of education in Ontario are in danger of regressing toward heightened exclusivity and inaccessibility, and this threat requires organized and powerful action.

We must recognize that we belong to a political force: the student movement. This fall, when the government forces its cuts onto students, let’s show them our force in turn.

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.

Op-ed: Labour must continue to resist

Fight for $15 and Fairness UofT reflects on the dangers of Bill 66

Op-ed: Labour must continue to resist

Only a few months ago, Premier Doug Ford’s Bill 47 repealed many of the labour protections won through advocacy by decent work coalitions across Ontario — including the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign. Workers lost two paid sick days; pay equity between full-time, part-time, and temporary workers; and the scheduled increase of minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The bill passed despite persistent outcry, proving that Ford is not “for the people,” no matter how often he repeats it.

Following Bill 47, the Progressive Conservative (PC) government tabled Bill 66 in December, an omnibus bill titled “Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act,” which proposes amendments to several, unrelated laws dealing with childcare, environment, and labour, among other things. The PCs claim it will “eliminate red tape and burdensome regulations so businesses can grow, create and protect good jobs.”

However, the so-called red tape that will be removed crucially protects workers’ rights. The bill is at its third reading stage and will almost certainly pass in the very near future.

When organizing works: the Greenbelt

When it was announced that Bill 66 would open the Greenbelt for development, the PCs were met with strong opposition. The Greenbelt, an established protected land strip, includes more than two million acres of environmentally-sensitive areas and farmlands. That section of the bill allowed municipalities to create “open for business” zoning bylaws, giving them the option to override legislation that prohibits development in the Greenbelt.

Individuals, communities, and environmental organizations were active in opposing this legislation. A testament to political organizing, the opposition was ultimately successful: Schedule 10 of Bill 66 relating to the Greenbelt was repealed.

However, while Bill 66 has received significant media and public attention around the Greenbelt, less attention has been given to its labour implications. This lack of awareness is partially due to the fact that Bill 66 is an omnibus bill that makes changes to multiple pieces of legislation at once.

Though omnibus bills save time by shortening legislative proceedings, they limit the ability for MPPs and constituents to express their objections to specific components of the bill. Instead, they are forced to either support or reject the bill as a whole. In majority governments, omnibus bills become a strategic way to quickly push through enormous policy changes — allowing segments of the legislation to fly under the radar without accountability.

Bill 66 continues the attack on labour

According to the current Employment Standards Act, for an employee to be able to work more than 48 hours a week, both the employer and employee are required to sign an agreement and gain approval from the Ministry of Labour. This specific provision has existed for nearly 75 years in Ontario thanks to labour advocates. However, Bill 66 removes the extra step of approval by the ministry, allowing employers to ask employees to work overtime with little to no oversight.

Ministry oversight is, ideally, meant to keep the power of employers in check. It can be difficult for many workers, especially workers in low-wage, precarious positions, to say no to their employers when asked to work overtime. Removing a mechanism of formal accountability makes workers vulnerable to abuses in the workplace.

Current laws also allow employers to average out hours worked over two or more weeks, but only with the agreement of workers and approval from the Ministry of Labour. For example, working 30 hours in one week and 50 hours in another could be averaged to 40 hours both weeks — and would thus not be considered ‘overtime.’

Bill 66 scraps the requirement for overtime averaging to be approved by the Ministry of Labour. Without oversight, employers are sure to take advantage of this loophole by avoiding paying workers time-and-a-half overtime pay.

When the Ford government says it wants to get rid of ‘red tape,’ what it really means is that it wants to give the green light to employers to place their bottom line above workers’ safety. Agreements between employers and workers are shaped by a clear power imbalance, in which workers are beholden to the whims of their boss, especially if they are relying on a paycheck to put food on the table.

Students are at risk

Students trying to make ends meet by working in precarious sectors, like retail or service, are especially vulnerable. As Ford’s policies, like cuts to Ontario Student Assistance Program grants, make postsecondary education more expensive, students will find it difficult to say no to a boss who asks them to average their overtime hours or work excess hours.

Bill 66 also scraps the requirement for the Employment Standards Act poster to be displayed in “a conspicuous place” in all workplaces. While this change is quite small, it is not trivial: it limits workers’ access to crucial information about their rights, making them less likely to seek justice if they have been wronged.

Lastly, the bill harms construction workers. Ontario’s Labour Relations Act has a “non-construction employer” provision, which means that any employer deemed to be a “non-construction employer” is not beholden to any collective agreement that unionized construction workers would regularly be covered by.

Bill 66 expands the definition of “non-construction employer” to include municipalities, school boards, hospitals, universities, and colleges. Workers performing construction work in these settings would not be afforded the protection that their union usually offers them. By allowing these public employers to dissolve collective agreements, Bill 66 effectively undermines the power of unions, hindering access to fair working conditions and wages.

All of the changes to labour laws that this bill proposes are discomfiting, but the changes to the Labour Relations Act especially belie a pattern of the Ford government. Ford’s Student Choice Initiative effectively defunds student unions by making their fees optional, undermining their ability to provide services to students and advocate for structural change.

The collective power of students to challenge establishments like U of T is threatened by the Student Choice Initiative, just as the collective power of construction workers’ unions to advocate for workplace protections is threatened by Bill 66.

We must continue the resistance

In moments like these, when another piece of Ford legislation claws back worker protections, it is essential to remember that making noise has worked before and can work again. Though Bill 66 will pass very soon, we can still hold Ford’s PCs and exploitative workplaces accountable by continuing to organize and agitate.

Indeed, many of the labour protections that we’ve retained, such as domestic or sexual violence leave and the $14 minimum wage, are the direct result of tireless organizing by activist groups like the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign. Students have been a part of this movement for decent work, and we’re a part of a broader struggle that is resisting Ford’s continued attacks on our collective rights.

In this political moment, we must not only remind ourselves of the fights that have been won, but also be vigilant in advocating for one another in our workplaces and communities. Under Bill 66, when employers no longer have to answer to the Ministry of Labour, they will have to answer to us: the people.

Vidhya Elango is a fifth-year Linguistics, Anthropology, and Computer Science student at Victoria College. Talia Holy is a second-year Political Science, Women and Gender Studies, and Sexual Diversity Studies at Victoria College. Simran Dhunna is a first-year student in the Master of Public Health in Epidemiology program at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. They are members of the U of T chapter of Fight for $15 and Fairness.

Op-ed: To new student leaders — and those who hope to become ones

A retirement message from the President of the Arts and Science Students’ Union

Op-ed: To new student leaders — and those who hope to become ones

The regular student election season has come and gone. For those who did get elected: congratulations and welcome to the world of student governance. Before I retire as the President of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU), I want to offer some advice for those involved and those still pondering the decision to get involved.

I got involved because I wanted to feel a little part of campus life and community, make some new friends and because — let’s be real — it wouldn’t look too bad on a résumé. I started small and got involved in a course union, the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations Students’ Union, as a first-year representative. I had the opportunity to collaborate with others and run events. Through it all, I was guided by senior students. This is why I am such a big proponent of getting involved in your early years at U of T.

Afterward, I moved on to a more senior executive position in the course union and eventually got leadership opportunities across multiple clubs, ranging from the Orphan Sponsorship Program to ASSU, where I eventually became the president.

For those of you who want to get involved, you first need to find your community. This campus is huge and trying to find your space is sometimes difficult. Get involved in opportunities that actually interest you. There are hundreds of clubs on this campus that cater to diverse ends, whether they are cultural groups, political work, or just recreational. If you cannot find one that interests you, then create your own.

But while you’re there, remember the commitment that you have made and try to do the best work that you can. After you accomplish this foundational experience, you might want to take the big step of running in an election for a senior role in a student union. However, there’s something you should know before you do it.

Student ‘politics’ can be a lot of fun. I’ve been involved in a few elections myself, and campaigning is one of the most thrilling experiences you can have. You will meet and talk to students about their issues and propose your own ideas to fix them. You will have articles written in The Varsity about you and you get to debate the issues you care about.

However, the role you’re in is no cakewalk. This university has a lot of problems: we have a mental health crisis, housing is too expensive, and marginalized communities continue to feel unsafe. Those in power have attempted to fix these issues for decades, but they are not so easily resolvable. When pushing for reform and lobbying administration, you can expect to face the insurmountable walls and barriers that have led multiple student leaders to burn out.

Moreover, you will face criticism — warranted or unwarranted — by simply being in the position you are in. People will call you out, write articles against you, and spread nasty rumours about you. You must be ready for that.

However, the most difficult part about student ‘politics’ is the label of student ‘politicians’ — which I hate. It creates a false sense of entitlement that only feeds into people’s egos. Trust me when I say most, if not all, student leaders at U of T have an ego, including myself. Hence, when all of these egos coalesce, we often want to be the ones in control to get the credit. This leads to disagreements and petty actions by others just to garner more clout. Often, larger groups or organizations will try to interfere with the affairs of other student groups.

What you should know is that there are well-intentioned and dishonest people on all ‘sides’ of the political spectrum. You will need to learn who to trust in your role. Stand for what you think is right. Taking the safe route on issues like the university-mandated leave of absence policy or the Student Choice Initiative is not the way to go. You need to take action.

The last thing I need to clear up is that student ‘politics’ is not real politics. There is a life beyond it — so don’t take it too seriously. If you do have a chance at ‘power,’ make it as enjoyable as you can. Live in the present, work together, and get things done. No one cares if you were the President of ASSU once you leave this school.

Have fun, and good luck. As for me, I’m out of here.

Haseeb Hassaan is a fifth-year Political Science and Religion student at St. Michael’s College. He is the President of ASSU.

Comment in Briefs: Week of March 25

Students react to Gertler’s task force on mental health, Robarts Library expansion

Comment in Briefs: Week of March 25

Content warning: discussion of suicide.

Gertler’s task force falls short

Re: “U of T President Meric Gertler announces new task force on student mental health”

President Meric Gertler has released a letter following public protests of the University of Toronto’s lacklustre response to recent student suicides. In this letter, he focuses more on applauding the institution’s existing services than admitting to its shortcomings. He highlights so-called achievements such as the provision of thousands of counselling appointments and Accessibility Services’ more than doubling the amount of registered students.

On the surface, the creation of a task force seems to be a step forward. However, upon closer inspection, one will see that two out of four steps of the action plan include strengthening collaboration with healthcare partners and pressuring the provincial government to increase public funding to other sources and institutions. In other words, U of T is still pushing 50 per cent of its recommendations outward.  

Other schools have moved in the other direction, reassessing their own services in response to student dissatisfaction. Following the death of three students in one year, most recently on March 5, 2018, the University of Waterloo has responded with a $1.2 million increase in counselling services. University of Waterloo President Feridun Hamdullahpur declared that “we have no time to waste.”

Gertler should take note and respond in a similarly active manner. Because even within this seemingly progressive document, U of T still manages to blame students, declaring an “overwhelming increase in demand” as the reason for its underwhelming response. Directing the focus anywhere but at itself — to students, healthcare partners, the government — does not allow for any fundamental, institutional change to occur. It simply perpetuates the cycle of wilful ignorance that U of T is known for.

U of T’s methods of assigning blame have proven ineffective. It must self-assess and investigate internally in order to truly understand its role in this crisis. It is only in acknowledging its weaknesses that the University of Toronto can effectively provide for the needs of students.

Rose Gulati is a second-year English, Political Science, and Women and Gender Studies student at Trinity College.


The glaring need for more spaces of light

Re: “Robarts Library expansion underway”

A steel structure on the northwest side of Robarts Library. MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY

In the decades since Robarts Library first opened, it has experienced a near doubling of daily visitors. The glaring need to expand and accommodate the growing demand has existed for some time.

While U of T has announced various infrastructural maintenance and expansion projects in recent years, it’s important to also acknowledge that the Robarts Commons is made possible by the generous private donations of supporters from inside and outside the U of T community.

Now that construction has begun, with an anticipated opening in 2020, let us pause to reflect on what this project means going forward, in order to sincerely express our gratitude to those donors whose support made this project possible.

The renewal project isn’t merely adding more study spaces. It is also an architectural expansion for more spaces of light, which this campus also has a glaring need for, especially in Robarts.

For those of us who study at Robarts in the winter, the lack of spaces of light can contribute to the prevalence of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which literally darkens students’ mood. While Robarts does offer SAD light therapy lamps to help students, they’re merely a band-aid solution.

What students really need and what this project aims to deliver is more spaces of light, including natural light. Light fosters hope and optimism and in turn a positive learning environment. 

The Robarts Commons was designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects. While I’m not very familiar with their work, my favourite architect, Santiago Calatrava, whose world-renowned work known for its awe-inspiring expressions of elegance, revealed that the motivating force driving his work was a constant “searching for more light and space.”

Robarts’ lack of spaces with light was always on my mind whenever I considered studying there. But from what I’ve seen in the artistic renderings and depictions of how the Robarts Commons will look, I’d imagine it would get a stamp of approval from Calatrava himself, and I can’t wait to take it all in.

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

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 reckless
  • 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 about it, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Reviewing the 2019 UTMSU elections

Students United’s pledge to resist Ford cuts is laudable, but a one-sided race is concerning

Reviewing the 2019 UTMSU elections

In this year’s University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) elections, Students United was the only full slate to run, while independent candidates ran for the positions of Vice-President Internal and Vice-President Equity.

Led by uncontested presidential candidate and current Vice-President External Atif Abdullah, under Students United, emphasized working with other student unions and challenging the provincial government’s recent changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program and mandatory incidental fees. For Abdullah and his team, advocating for free education and protecting the existence of student clubs, especially in light of the Student Choice Initiative, is key.

Students United’s platform also included goals to develop fair academic policies such as limits on late assignments and a permanent self-assigned sick note policy. They are also dedicated to fighting racism, homophobia, anti-Indigenous racism, and other forms of oppression on campus.

These are all laudable, progressive goals. As I described in a previous column, it is imperative that UTM students stand up to the provincial government’s detrimental cuts to our educational and campus experience. We need a UTMSU that prioritizes this fight — and we may just get that with Students United.

But before we look to the future, students should be concerned about the nature of the election itself. Similar to last year, this year’s elections consisted of a single slate, with at least half of the positions being uncontested. Uncontested races mean that the sole candidate will almost certainly win by default — this is problematic, especially for big roles like the presidency. In the last two years, participation in elections has dropped significantly. The last year that UTMSU elections consisted of two or more slates competing against each other was 2017.

A single slate race weakens choice for students, and is not acceptable at a campus with a variety of students from different backgrounds and perspectives. Student democracy cannot function if it does not mobilize and channel these differences through competitive elections. Without the willingness of students to run for office and offer choice to voters, it is no surprise that voters show little interest and engagement. Last year’s elections had a very low turnout at 13 per cent. This means the voice of the vast majority of students are not heard.   

This year, student organizations like The Medium and the UTM Campus Conservatives have actively spoken out against the UTMSU’s undemocratic behaviour. While such criticism is itself necessary for a healthy democracy, it also calls into question the degree to which the student population shares this sentiment. I have heard complaints from peers who claim that the UTMSU does not represent them, or does not focus on the problems they feel need to be addressed. These students are also likely to ignore the elections when they do come around.

With little student engagement and participation, it is clear that the student union will not be an accurate representation and reflection of the student body. At a time when the provincial government seeks to weaken student democracy, voice, and campus life, it is imperative that students are more involved and engaged than ever. 

We need more students to run for office, not only to advocate for student democracy if elected, but offer voters choice through the very decision to run. In turn, voters can be more motivated and engaged and turn out in higher numbers, and therefore ensure that the union is more representative and has a strong, legitimate mandate to govern. 

The results of this year’s UTMSU elections finally came out on Sunday evening. Unsurprisingly, Student United claimed victory for all five positions — including large margins for the two that were contested by independent candidates. Their success speaks to the power of slates, especially ones that are unchallenged.

Even though the new executive has built a strong platform dedicated to standing up for students against a hostile government — and we should hope that they are successful in their goals — the UTM student body needs to show greater interest in campus politics such that we have vibrant, competitive elections. While having a dedicated team is certainly part of the solution, it is not enough unless the student body is committed to stand up for itself.

Sharmeen Abedi is a fourth-year Criminology, Sociology, and English student at UTM. She is The Varsity’s UTM Affairs Columnist.

Reviewing the 2019 UTSU election debates

New executive must embrace a cooperative, not adversarial, form of advocacy

Reviewing the 2019 UTSU election debates

The University of Toronto’s Students’ Union (UTSU) elections always pass quickly — sometimes too subtly. Most students, who are already bogged-down in an endless stream of deadlines, encounter little more than a few posters and Varsity articles.

Last week, we experienced what the common orthodoxy holds to be the most important part of a good election campaign: the debates. They were held by the UTSU itself and The Varsity on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. 

From cautious incumbents to activist successors 

The fact that both debates were sparsely attended and garnered little sustained attention is not surprising. It is true that, as an organization, the union has drastically improved under the last few administrations. Today, the executive has a respectable record of administrative and financial transparency. But, as highlighted in my previous columns, the ongoing lack of student participation and engagement with the UTSU remains a challenge. 

This year, we have observed a more cautious and soft-spoken executive that is reluctant to make sweeping and potentially divisive statements. While these are not necessarily pejorative labels, critics argue that this has made the organization unresponsive and feeble towards the most pressing student problems. Particular incidents include their alleged ‘silence’ concerning the university-mandated leave of absence policy and inconsistent class cancellation policy, as well as a lack of mobilization against the existential threat posed by the Student Choice Initiative. 

Another criticism has been an alleged lack of accessibility, first brought to attention by Vice-President Operations Tyler Biswurm’s comment that the UTSU is comprised exclusively of “insiders” who “don’t speak for the normal person.” This idea is multifaceted. First, there is the claim that UTSU activists maintain a closed, insider culture, making it hard to get involved unless you are a part of the ‘club.’ Second, there are institutional barriers that fail to take into consideration the needs of students, particularly those from marginalized communities. 

The executive wanted business as usual, and considering the union’s state when they got elected, this was an admirable goal. This, however, is not the case today among this year’s candidates. The most consistent theme of the debates and the election more generally is the apparent consensus on the need for a more activist union. The main disagreements came from how aggressive and adversarial this activism ought to be. 

President

The two presidential candidates, Joshua Bowman and Bryan Liceralde, come from different backgrounds. Bowman, who has been involved in student politics for several years, encapsulates the image of the “insider.” Nevertheless, he maintains that his experiences as a low-income student, who has both worked part-time and commuted, keep him in touch with accessibility issues. These words have been met by action as, for instance, he proposed the correct decision to extend the nomination period for elections. 

Meanwhile, Liceralde is a newcomer to student politics. I confess that prior to the beginning of the election, I did not know who he was. He claims that this outsider status, including the relative inexperience that it brings, benefits him. In The Varsity’s debate, he said that he comes from the “front lines” of the student body and therefore understands its problems. He calls his platform “visionary.”

On this initial front, Bowman holds the advantage. The election of an outsider like Liceralde strikes me as somewhat radical. Liceralde has failed to demonstrate how, from a purely pragmatic and experiential perspective, he will be better at performing the day-to-day aspects of the role. Bowman has the experience and understands how the union works, especially as a UTSU Director this year. While Bowman can be considered an “insider,” this is offset by his actions to increase accountability. 

Bowman emphasized three policies and priorities “more so than anything”: the creation of a first-year council, restructuring the student aid program, and an audit of mental health services on campus. Liceralde, on the other hand, proposed a removal of breadth requirements, a review of the university’s mental health policies, and changes to the student aid program — which would impact his salary as president.

What can be observed here is that both have relatively similar goals, and I cannot determine any areas of substantive difference. It is clear that both individuals, if elected, would pursue the same abstract objectives. However, I maintain that Bowman has a much more practical hold on these issues. 

Vice-President External Affairs 

VP External Affairs candidates Lucas Granger and Spencer Robertson both indicated their strong disapproval of the provincial government’s changes to student aid, and have indicated that mental health would be their top priority. They disagreed on which tactics ought to be used to accomplish their goals. 

Robertson takes a more provocative approach, arguing that progress can be achieved by lobbying the provincial government. While his language is not aggressive, this does suggest a more adversarial approach. In contrast, Granger emphasized a cooperative relationship with the municipal level of government. 

This demonstrates the main issue of this campaign, and I believe that Granger proposes the better option. The provincial government has already shown innate hostility to student unions like the UTSU, and it seems unlikely that it will change its mind as a result of a more vocal organization. In contrast, a cooperative strategy with the municipal level, an organization more willing to strengthen the UTSU, will ultimately be more productive. 

Vice-President University Affairs

With four candidates — Christopher Chiasson, Avani Singh, Sharon Ma, and Ramtin Taramsari — the University Affairs portfolio is the most contested race and may be more important than the presidential race. All of the candidates attacked and proposed changes in the same areas: the administration’s response to mental health and the class cancelation policy. 

They all proposed an undoubtedly activist approach with the main differences coming from the degree of aggression and adversarialness. The Varsity’s moderator recognized this, indicating their “disagreement in method” on whether or not they should focus on “mobilizing students or communicating with the U of T administration.”

Chiasson was the most extreme, going so far as to claim that the university does not care about students on multiple occasions. He argues that protests are the best option, forcing action by university administration through “[making] their lives as inconvenient and shitty [as possible], until change happens.” 

By contrast, Singh appeared to be the strongest advocate for a more balanced, cooperative approach, indicating her understanding of a “link” between demonstrations and working with the administration. She made an effort to emphasize the administration’s “humanity” and good intentions. 

I believe that Chiasson’s approach would be unhelpful. It is difficult to make strong, productive changes without building relationships and a sense of common purpose. Chiasson’s idea leaves no room for this. There is a place in holding respectful demonstrations to draw attention to your cause, but you cannot question their intentions and humanity and hope to get things done. 

We need cooperative, not adversarial, advocacy 

These are, in my view, the most salient issues in this election. They demonstrate where student concerns are and what the state of the UTSU is. Consequently, they substantially impact how one votes. These grievances and efforts to create change are legitimate, well-intentioned, and well-needed. 

However, I believe that the elected candidates should not get too carried away. Activism and advocacy ought not to turn into adversariness toward the university administration and the provincial government. We should keep in mind the importance of administrative competence and building relationships with these organizations. This means a slow and frustrating process, but one that is more likely to yield results.

Sam Routley is a fourth-year Political Science, Philosophy, and History student. He is The Varsity’s UTSG Campus Politics Columnist.

Disclosure: Avani Singh served as the Chair of the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc. — the not-for-profit corporation that publishes The Varsity — from May 2018 to March 17, 2019. Singh has recused herself from the role of Chair and is taking a leave of absence from the board for the duration of the UTSU election period.