Editorial: The Varsity stands in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en land defenders

Violations of sovereignty undermine Canada’s commitment to reconciliation

Editorial: <i>The Varsity</i> stands in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en land defenders

In the early hours of February 6, armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers entered Wet’suwet’en land defender camps with orders to arrest and remove protestors who remained in defiance of a court injunction to evacuate the area for the development of a Coastal GasLink pipeline. These actions mirrored similar raids conducted last year on the very same land.

According to land defenders and reporters, the raid was aggressive, with officers violently apprehending protestors, as well as threatening journalists and attempting to prevent them from photographing or filming the raid.

The Varsity stands in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en land defenders and condemns the undemocratic silencing of journalists as an infringement upon news organizations’ ability to keep Canadian institutions accountable. These very actions are evidence of the insidious and aggressive nature of the raid.

Since the publication of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls last June, the Trudeau government has only just begun serious efforts to bring action and justice to Indigenous communities, days after calling for an end to the land defenders’ blockades.

Many who protest the RCMP’s most recent actions see it as an act of national aggression, with Canada invading the sovereign, unceded territory of the Wet’suwet’en. These include students at the University of Toronto, who have been participants in the nation-wide protests against the RCMP’s actions. These protests have resulted in the mass blockade of transit systems throughout Canada.

While some Indigenous leaders do support the pipeline for mainly economic reasons, what must be emphasized and take precedence is that the hereditary chiefs of the five Wet’suwet’en clans are the ultimate authority in the unceded Wet’suwet’en territories.

In this instance, it is members of the Elected Band Council, not the hereditary chiefs, who have voiced their support for the pipeline. The elected band councils are themselves remnants of colonialism, having been created under the Indian Act, a racist piece of legislation that governs Indigenous lives. However, according to virtually all reports, all the hereditary chiefs, whose titles predate colonization, oppose the pipeline.

Additionally, the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1997 Delgamuukw v British Columbia decision affirmed under Canadian law that the hereditary chiefs had a right to land and governance of the Wet’suwet’en territories.

Unis’tot’en land was specifically infringed upon during the raid. The Unis’tot’en are a clan within the Wet’suwet’en and the “original Wet’suwet’en Yintah Wewat Zenli distinct to the lands of the Wet’suwet’en,” on whose land this pipeline is proposed to pass through and whose people are fighting for command of their culture and community.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have given Coastal GasLink an alternative route through their territory, which does not impact important grounds. Yet Coastal GasLink, with the support of the RCMP and provincial courts, has made it clear that respect is merely an obligatory measure.

It is the belief of The Varsity that the sovereignty of the Wet’suwet’en people must be recognized, and that the RCMP’s intrusion onto unceded land was and is an act of aggression that must be understood as such. The hereditary chiefs are the legitimate authority in these territories, and their opposition to the pipeline is the only opinion that should have legal weight.

The Association of First Nations National Chief Statement on Wet’suwet’en Nation notes, “As it stands, the RCMP is only sworn to uphold civil law and common law. If we are to move forward with reconciliation, Canada must also recognize First Nations laws.”

Canada has a long history of adopting alternative legal systems, like Québec’s French civil law. In an interview with TVO, Daum Shanks, a law professor and Métis academic, discussed the general acceptance of Indigenous law on a case-by-case basis in the Canadian legal system. He emphasized the dominance of Canadian law over Indigenous law, two systems which are not particularly different, but with Indigenous law focused on “taking care of the space you’re located.” Shanks emphasized the need to see this conflict as similar to one between two premiers who are facing a legal disagreement.

In an interview with CTV, Kim Stanton, a lawyer who specializes in Indigenous law explained, “We’re in a situation where Canada and B.C. assume that they have jurisdiction, when in fact, they never legally got it.”

Shanks is focused on the legal system and the means by which we can further incorporate a general understanding of the implementation of Indigenous law. However, the issue still stands that Indigenous law, in this instance, was not adhered to or recognized.

Until Canadian governments accept the authority of Indigenous law on sovereign, unceded territory, reconciliation efforts remain insincere and without respect for self-governance and tradition.

The inconvenienced student

While it might be easy to reduce this into a faraway conflict that does not concern Torontonians and U of T students, it would be remiss to ignore the far-reaching effects of the Wet’suwet’en land defenders’ actions. This is not just an issue of one swathe of land, but one that regards the continued obstruction of Indigenous sovereignty in Canada.

To those who bemoan transit delays, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, understand that these nationwide protests have resulted in responses from a government that resorted to violence rather than dialogue.

Trudeau’s call for an end to the blockade places the onus on Indigenous leaders to further cooperate with the Canadian government, despite the fact that the RCMP’s presence continues to be felt on Wet’suwet’en territory.  Even though they proposed to move to a nearby town, the RCMP officers remain poised to act, and that aggression cannot be ignored.

The Varsity is disappointed in Trudeau’s callous comments and disregard for the power imbalances which continue to motivate these land defenders. Let it be noted that the RCMP made the first act of aggression, and for our prime minister to ask peaceful land defenders to end their assembly just because their actions have forced the government into negotiations represents a gross misunderstanding of these protests.

The Wet’suwet’en have been forced from their land and are subject to centuries of institutional violence in a nation that refuses to recognize their sovereignty.

North American colonialism began with the acquisition of land and resulted in the destruction and genocide of thousands of Indigenous cultures, languages, and communities. The Varsity is calling on Canadians to remember this history, so that we can stop ourselves and our institutions from repeating it.

Institutional support: U of T’s role in these protests

We are privileged to receive our education on stolen land at an institution that is still complicit in colonialism. This can be seen through its involvement with the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA)’s Thirty Meter Telescope project, which sits atop Mauna Kea, a sacred site for Kānaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiian.

Despite student and faculty opposition, the university has not taken any steps to divest from this project, issuing a vague statement which noted its responsibility to truth and reconciliation and consultation with Indigenous groups. However, in this instance, the Kānaka Maoli did make their resistance known to ACURA through their protests; it was the university that failed to act on this knowledge.

The Varsity commends the faculty and students of the Department of Geography & Planning for publishing a letter of solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en nations, which outlines calls for federal and provincial action with respect to sovereignty and human rights as outlined by the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The University of Toronto sits on stolen land — this is the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River. While faculties, administration, and student groups at times read land acknowledgements at the beginning of lectures, events, and ceremonies, it is not enough to simply remember the past. The Varsity emphasizes the importance of advocacy in this moment where the Wet’suwet’en people are under threat and whose land is under seizure from a nation that ignores their ownership of their land.

The Varsity hopes that the university does not make the same mistake again. Stealing land is not something of the past, and the university must reinforce its commitment to reconciliation and justice for Indigenous peoples through explicit support for student and faculty activism. Reading a land acknowledgement means nothing if you haven’t acted upon your promises.

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.

Editor’s Note (February 25, 6:17 pm): This article has been updated to clarify wording around The Varsity condemning journalistic infringements.

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.

“The overriding story of our time”: The Varsity’s pledge to cover the climate crisis

We are joining over 250 media outlets around the world in the Covering Climate Now initiative

“The overriding story of our time”: <em>The Varsity</em>’s pledge to cover the climate crisis

In 2015, governments around the world signed onto the Paris Agreement to address the climate crisis. They agreed to implement plans that cut greenhouse gas emissions such that the rise in global temperature this century remains below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  

But since then, governments and institutions continue to delay investing in a bold and sound climate strategy that significantly reduces emissions. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2014–2018 have been the five hottest years in recorded history. As of July, 2019 is set to take either the second or third spot. 

Canada is at particular risk: it is warming at twice the rate of the global average. A Council of Canadian Academies report from July indicates that the crisis poses major threats to Canada’s physical infrastructure, coastal and northern communities, human health and wellness, ecosystems, and fisheries. Extreme weather events, like the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires, are occurring more frequently and are more severe. In Canada, the economic cost of the crisis is measurable in the billions

That is why, this week, The Varsity has joined over 250 media organizations around the world in the Covering Climate Now initiative. A joint initiative of The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review, the campaign is intended to engage media outlets in a week of sustained climate coverage in the leadup to the crucial United Nations Climate Action Summit on September 23. At that summit, world leaders have been called on to submit “concrete, realistic plans” to cut greenhouse gas emissions. 

The crisis is closer to home than we may think. Institutions like U of T are complicit. In 2016, President Meric Gertler controversially decided to refuse divestment from the fossil fuel industry, the overwhelming contributor to the crisis, and yet continues to present U of T as a global leader on environmental sustainability. 

Emissions historically produced by the industrialized north are the major contributor to the current crisis, though the global south is now also producing considerable emissions.  Despite this historical imbalance, vulnerable populations in the global south and Indigenous people around the world, including in Canada, are the ones who are disproportionately impacted. 

The climate crisis is real, it is here, it is urgent, and human beings are culpable. If we cannot rely on our governments and institutions to take necessary action, then ordinary citizens must tell the truth and call them out, and we, the media, must lead this charge.

Covering Climate Now

We are one of only four newspapers in Canada to participate in the initiative. The Toronto Star, our Queen’s University peers at the Journal, and our Ryerson University peers at The Eyeopener will also engage in climate coverage this week. Other Canadian magazines, journals, and digital news sites also chose to participate.

At The Varsity, climate coverage is nothing new. However, to participate in an initiative that treats the climate crisis with the global, collaborative, large-scale attention that it deserves is unprecedented for us. 

Between September 16 and September 23, The Varsity will publish at least one article every day to draw attention to the crisis. This editorial is the introductory article to our series, and each day of the week will feature a different section’s coverage: News, Comment, Business, Arts & Culture, Features, Science, and Sports will all participate. 

Like The Nation, we hope to convey that the climate crisis “is not just one more story but the overriding story of our time.” With coverage from all seven of our sections, the climate crisis affects us in all facets of our lives.

Our commitment to climate journalism

This week will be the beginning of an expanded effort to cover the climate crisis, especially as it concerns the U of T community. We will continue to cover efforts made by student activist groups and youth climate activists, such as the Fridays for Future campaign and Leap UofT, and hold the U of T administration accountable to its complicity the crisis. 

U of T groups and students will participate in Global Climate Strikes scheduled to take place this month, in line with the UN summit. The Varsity will be there to tell those stories.

Our Science section has just launched a “Climate Crisis” subsection to consistently cover the issue. Our style guide is being updated to ensure that the passive language of ‘climate change’ is avoided. Instead, we will henceforth use ‘climate crisis’ or ‘climate emergency.’ After all, when the world falls into a recession, we call it an economic crisis; the troubling state of the planet ought to proportionately receive an alarm, too. 

Finally, we will also be dogged in correcting any form of false balance surrounding the climate crisis: for example, any form of skepticism or denial of the crisis will be contextualized as false. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus on the matter, and journalists must fairly attribute weight to sides in a given story on the basis of evidence. For this crisis, the facts cannot be debated, politicized, or treated as partisan. 

In sum, we hope that the Covering Climate Now initiative will inspire our editors and contributors this year, and for years to come.

Deciding the next four years 

The need for climate journalism is also crucial in the context of the upcoming Canadian federal election. Consider when, last month, Elections Canada (EC) warned environmental groups that advertising the legitimacy and severity of the climate crisis could be deemed partisan. Such ‘partisanship’ could require such environmental charities to register as a third party with EC, subject them to scrutiny from the Canada Revenue Agency, and potentially jeopardize their tax status. 

This ‘partisan’ ruling, and blatant suppression of climate speech, was a result of the position of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, according to an EC official which espouses climate denialism among other far-right views. That is the unfortunate reality of climate discourse today. Whereas our leaders should be debating how to best tackle the problem, we are stuck at debating the reality of the issue itself. 

Inadequate approaches to the climate crisis are not exclusive to fringe politics. Our supposedly progressive prime minister, Justin Trudeau, offers voters a paradox: he believes that Canada can reduce emissions and address the crisis while it continues to invest in pipelines, extract Alberta’s tar sands, and empower the very cause — fossil fuels — which is responsible for the crisis.  

The climate crisis is not debatable, and it is certainly not resolvable through halfhearted policy. Furthermore, ‘the environment’ cannot just be another issue among the myriad of other issues in this upcoming election. Rather, the crisis is entangled with other concerns that voters may have — like economic growth and development — and, in fact, presents us with an opportunity to re-envision how we organize ourselves on this planet. Taking care of our environment is necessary to have a viable economy; economy and environment go hand in hand. 

Indeed, the crisis is not about economic sacrifice, but about transformation. It is about divesting from fossil fuels and using our technological ingenuity to immediately and fully transition into alternative sources of energy. It is about embracing the future, and restructuring our economy in a way that will create new, sustainable sources of livelihood. 

The role of media, then, is to cover these positive opportunities that the crisis provides and to challenge politicians who are impeding our progress. Ahead of this federal election, the crisis is a top concern for voters, and media must commensurately cover the issue. This is about deciding the next four years — and taking immediate action to mitigate and adapt to the crisis. 

As U of T students, we must recognize that we are the future. Soon, we will be graduates, workers, and leaders in our community, country, and the world. It is us who will inherit the planet, and it is up to us to create a sustainable planet for those that come after us. Let’s vote accordingly. 

And journalists, including student journalists, must be committed to responsibly telling the story of our lifetime. That is why we are dedicated to Covering Climate Now. 

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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.

Doug Ford doesn’t deserve to march at Pride

Premier has a record of disregarding the needs of minority communities

Doug Ford doesn’t deserve to march at Pride

Earlier this month, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that he would not be marching at Toronto’s Pride Parade on June 23 as long as uniformed police officers remained banned from the event. Uniformed police officers will not march at Pride for the third year in a row, following a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest at the 2016 Pride Parade.

BLM successfully demanded the removal of police floats from future parades and voiced the need for Pride to better include communities of colour. Since then, criticism over perceived police inaction and mishandling of several disappearances in the Church and Wellesley Village has also underlined the continuation of the ban. 

Ford’s decision not to march — calculated and political — is not surprising, considering his history of exclusionary policy-making, some of which reduced funding for healthcare, education, and social services.

These changes will impact the most vulnerable of our community and blatantly express a disregard for constituents who are unable to access these resources independently. His choice to march in the York Pride Festival on June 15 alongside the York Regional Police is just another reminder of Ford’s disregard for the marginalized in Toronto and raises the question of whether the premier was marching in support of Pride or in support of police.

Ford breaks six-year tradition set by Wynne in 2013

By contrast, Kathleen Wynne became the first sitting Premier to march in the Parade in 2013. Wynne, who led Ontario’s previous Liberal government, was unaware of this historical first, and said of her attendance, “Every year I take part in the Pride events. Jane and I go to the Pride and Remembrance run on Saturday morning. I go to the church service, which is always very, very moving, on Sunday morning, and of course I walk in the Parade.”

Wynne, who was the first Premier in Canada to openly identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, noted at the time that many of her constituents told her that Pride was like an annual family gathering, given that many of their own families had excluded them from important events.

On the other hand, in 2014, while running for the mayor of Toronto, Ford — alongside his brother, former Mayor Rob Ford — declined to march in the parade, infamously saying, “Do I condone men running down the middle of Yonge Street buck naked? Absolutely not.” He continued, “Maybe there are some people in this city that approve of that, and maybe they can bring their kids down to watch this.”

The Fords have long been criticized for their absence at the parade, and it is unreasonable to expect Ford to attend the parade now. Since taking office last summer, Ford reintroduced a regressive sexual education curriculum which, as discussed in a previous Varsity editorial, greatly threatened the ability for LGBTQ+ students to learn in an inclusive space.

After much backlash from Ontarians, including legal challenges by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Ford’s government backtracked on its plans, instead opting for a new sex ed curriculum that appears similar to Wynne’s 2015 version. However, though sexual orientation and gender identity are still in the curriculum, they will now be taught much later, and parents will also have the ability to opt-out their children from the curriculum.

Absence at Parade follows legally-challenged move to revise Ontario’s sex ed curriculum

In truth, Ford’s appearance at Toronto’s Pride Parade would be a farce, as his policies do not reflect the needs of the community. In practice, his reversal of Wynne’s sex ed policies is regressive and detrimental to students’ health education. A 2015 comparison by Global News revealed that the previous government’s policies brought Ontario’s sex ed curriculum closer to that of Canada’s other provinces and territories. 

By reverting Ontario’s sex ed curriculum this year, he instigated a harmful discourse questioning the importance of LGBTQ+ identities. Eliminating references to sexual orientation, gender identity, and same-sex relationships — as Ford planned to do before the reversal — threatens efforts to normalize different gender and sexual identities through the public school system.

Not only did the previous curriculum aim to foster a community of inclusivity, but it also strived to eliminate gender and sexuality-based persecution and bullying in and outside of schools. In many situations, this curriculum may have been the first time many students below grade eight encountered issues related to the LGBTQ+ community.

The Ford government claimed that Wynne’s curriculum was too detailed in its description of certain elements of sexual health and reproduction and introduced certain concepts too early in students’ education. Rather than rewriting and introducing an alternative curriculum that would specifically remedy these issues, Ford wanted to roll back Wynne’s 2015 curriculum, a decision which the CCLA says “stigmatizes, degrades, and alienates” LGBTQ+ students and parents.

In addition, his cuts to public education threaten the livelihoods of teachers, parents, and students as schools will be forced to make cuts to specialized programs, elective courses, and classroom supplies. It also grossly increased class sizes, reducing face-to-face time between students and teachers. These disproportionately affect students who are not able to access programs outside of school due to financial, physical, or environmental factors.

Ford’s Student Choice Initiative has also threatened funding of LGBTQ+ student advocacy groups

Similarly, Ford’s highly controversial Student Choice Initiative (SCI) allows students to opt out of non-essential fees. Institutions must rationalize “essential” services according to the framework set out by the Ontario government. Student groups, such as The Varsity, will need to provide a fee opt-out option. The Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario and the York Federation of Students subsequently launched a legal challenge against the initiative in May.

The opt-out policy has the potential to defund or severely restrict funding for groups and services whose members may be otherwise without a community to depend upon for social support. Particularly at U of T, an institution that has been criticized for failing to foster a positive collegiate atmosphere, students rely on clubs and group activities to transform our university into a place of emotional and social growth and support. Minority students, many of whom may not be able to express themselves in their communities and homes — whether through their gender identity, sexual orientation, or cultural and ethnic heritage — will be without these support systems.

The SCI will potentially cut the ability of levy-funded student organizations, like LGBTOUT, Rainbow Trinity, and Woodsworth Inclusive, all of which advocate for LGBTQ+ students.

University is meant to be a place of growth and of self-discovery, and Ford’s SCI limits individuals’ and clubs’ ability to fully support this element of postsecondary education.

Ford’s funding cuts do not stop at the SCI. His reductions of OSAP funding threaten lower- and middle-income students’ ability to access postsecondary education. In particular, the decrease in grants for loans, the consideration of parents’ incomes up to six years after being in school, and the fact that the loans will accumulate interest immediately after graduation have detrimental effects on students’ ability to access funding. Just this week, many students took to social media to show how much funding they stand to lose in comparison to previous years.

According to Higher Education Today, a blog by the American Council on Education, “higher education has historically been and remains a positive location for students’ identity development.” Gender and sexual identity development should not be bound to an economic bracket.

Placing an increased pressure on lower-income students to find funding for school not only places these students in a compromising position, but uniquely challenges LGBTQ+ identifying students by limiting their access to a historically supportive space — and especially considering that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be in lower socio-economic brackets. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “Bisexual and trans people are over-represented among low-income Canadians… An Ontario-based study found that half of trans people were living on less than $15,000 a year.”

Doug Ford has never been for the people, and there is no reason to believe he has a place at Toronto Pride. His policies have increased financial and systemic pressures on the province in general and on the LGBTQ+ community specifically.

Ford continues to tout his adherence to his campaign base while ignoring and flagrantly opposing much of the social and financial support systems which aim to benefit marginalized communities and individuals. By limiting access to student groups, financial aid, and modern sexual health education, Ford is unduly challenging members of the LGBTQ+ community who rely on these services.

Ford’s last-minute decision to participate in York Pride was his opportunity to assure his base of his support of the police force, and, in the process, his prioritization of the needs of institutions over vulnerable communities and individuals. Supporting the LGBTQ+ community was never the nexus of his appearance. If it were, he would have attended the Parade during his time as a city councillor. Doug Ford chose not to go to Pride, but the truth is, Pride is better off without him.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.

To properly acknowledge Indigenous territory, go off script

Speech must reflect intent, purpose, and a commitment to action

To properly acknowledge Indigenous territory, go off script

From U of T events to some NHL games, traditional land acknowledgements have become increasingly commonplace in Canadian public spaces. The purpose of such acknowledgements should be self-evident in the era of truth and reconciliation: for non-Indigenous settlers to recognize and honour the history of the land and the Indigenous people who have long resided on it.

U of T’s Governing Council officially adopted a Statement of Acknowledgement of Traditional Land in 2016 following consultation primarily with First Nations House, as well as with non-Indigenous members of the U of T community. The statement is intended for “specific university ceremonies,” but it is also open for use by U of T community members at all three campuses.

It reads: “I (we) wish to acknowledge this land on which the University of Toronto operates. For thousands of years it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.”

There is, however, an expanded version on the First Nations House website that is also used at some events. It adds that “this sacred land… Has been a site of human activity for 15,000 years” and “was the subject of the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and Confederacy of the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.”

This version is distinct in important ways: 15,000 years of human activity sharply contrasts with Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017, and the recognition of the Dish with One Spoon treaty implicitly reminds residents of their obligation to take care of the land. This expanded version should be used at university ceremonies and events.

Either way, the acknowledgement seeks to shift conversation and address Canada’s history prior to colonialism — for example, by using the decolonial term “Turtle Island” to describe North America — and importantly, the enduring presence of Indigenous people on this land today, not just in the past.

But the proliferation of land acknowledgements in the reconciliation era has also drawn criticism. Ryerson University’s Advisor to the Dean Indigenous Education and Anishinaabe writer Hayden King helped produce Ryerson’s land acknowledgement in 2012, but expressed regret for doing so earlier this year in an interview with CBC News. He criticizes the acknowledgement for only superficially addressing important and real historical treaties like the Dish with One Spoon in a way that obscures their significant value.

Furthermore, the fact that Indigenous community members produce the script to be read by non-Indigenous speakers at events reveals a labour imbalance. Settlers avoid putting in the work when it comes to learning about the nations that live on and the treaties that continue to govern this land.

King also criticizes how “privileged spaces” give themselves invitation and permission to be on the territory through such acknowledgements. Indeed, at a privileged institution like U of T, to say “we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land” self-grants a legitimacy to settler presence. This overlooks the unethical and non-consensual processes through which colonization occurs, such as in the case of the 1787 Toronto Purchase.

Perhaps acknowledgements should more explicitly describe the historical and existing power dynamics between settlers and Indigenous people on this land, as well as the obligation of settlers to redress it. However, acknowledgements are intended to be brief and are only a starting point for settlers to engage with Canada’s history. If they are used by an audience as a placeholder for in-depth learning, then the acknowledgement is counterproductive and does not serve its purpose.

That is why the university must also invest in cultural competency and literacy in the form of curriculum changes. We need an on-campus community that is more informed of settler-Indigenous relations for the conversation sparked by land acknowledgements to be sustained and fulfilled.

Acknowledgements should also be problematized with regard to the speaker. The fact that a scripted statement is mechanically recited over and over again at various events at the university means that it risks turning into an empty, formulaic, and performative gesture. It is relegated to a checkmark in the scheduling of the event, rather than a foundational moment that grounds and shapes the conversation that is had. In order to be meaningful, it has to achieve some level of active reflection and personal intention.

Hence, King suggests that beyond acknowledging the land, the speaker should also describe what they intend to do about it. It is important that the land acknowledgement be partially self-written — personalized and catered to both the speaker and the audience. We encourage the speaker to disclose their positionality and what the acknowledgement personally means to them. They should address how the land acknowledgement speaks to the event in question and also how the organizer of the event intends to better serve — in concrete terms — the Indigenous people and the land that they acknowledge.

This should apply to all events, including student-led ones, but especially for senior administrators at U of T, such as the president or provosts. They should describe how far the university has progressed with regard to reconciliation since the U of T Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee report was released in 2017, and what the university is still committed to doing — for example, hiring Indigenous staff, creating physical campus spaces, and making curriculum changes.

As we argued in a previous editorial, “Reconciliation must mean action, not words.” The sharpening contradiction between reconciliation rhetoric and the federal government’s actions exposes Canada’s hypocrisy. Speech alone does not create change; concrete action does.

It is crucial to understand that land acknowledgements are not a part of reconciliation in and of itself. That is what Lee Maracle, a Sto:lo author who teaches oral traditions at U of T and helped create U of T’s official land acknowledgement, conveyed to the Toronto Star. “Reconciliation is economic equality, access to territory, all of those things that are in the 94 calls to action… No more taking our kids. Like stop right now. Take care of the missing and murdered women. Stop killing us. None of those things have ended.”

However, land acknowledgements can serve to reshape discourse, culture, and language in a way that can commit speakers and impressionable listeners to take action toward systemic reconciliation. This is true for youth at university, and even more so for children across schools under the Toronto District School Board, where, since September 2016, land acknowledgements have been integrated into the morning announcements.

The next time you are at an event at U of T and the speaker recites the land acknowledgement, reflect on what the words mean to you and how you intend to do better for this land and the original nations of this land. And if you are a speaker, do what’s right: go off script.

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.

To preserve credibility, the student press must be careful with sensationalism

Reviewing the missteps of The Underground during the 2019 SCSU elections

To preserve credibility, the student press must be careful with sensationalism

Though The Varsity has a tri-campus mandate, we are impressed by how closely our peer publications at UTM and UTSC are able to cover stories on their respective campuses. UTM’s The Medium and UTSC’s The Underground have strong histories of news coverage and invigorating commentary. It is essential that reporters and contributors on the ground at those campuses are able to serve readers in ways that The Varsity might not.

However, with the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative posing a serious threat to the financial stability of the student press, student journalism is now, more than ever, under the microscope. The student press must take even more care to remain a trustworthy and responsible campus institution with the risk of losing not only credibility but also funding. In light of this, it’s vital that we in the student press — especially among U of T outlets — hold each other accountable to the very highest of standards.

Let’s not play a part in the drama

Following a weak presence last semester, The Underground has launched a new website and is putting out regular online content. However, it has fallen wayward with respect to upholding journalistic norms and responsibility in its publishing. 

We are very aware that this editorial may come across as The Varsity condescending toward another student publication, despite being prone to mistakes ourselves. Our objective is to offer constructive criticism in an era of destructive criticism toward the press, because U of T readers deserve the very best from their student media. We assure you that this editorial will later delve into The Varsity’s own imperfections, so please bear with us for a little while.

One of the most salient issues in The Underground’s recent coverage is its undue sensationalism of the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) elections. While it’s our firm belief that the student press has some wiggle room to be sensational — if we can’t, who can? — when it comes to student union elections, the actions of candidates individually and during events within the campaign period often speak for themselves.

The editors and reporters of The Underground went beyond what we think is acceptable sensationalism by fanning the flames of an already-inflammatory election, and not exercising due caution and responsibility in the publication of sensitive statements. Case in point: the article summarizing the events of the election is titled “2019 Elections Drama.” This clearly injects commentary into what is otherwise a news story.

It must be said from the start that the SCSU elections were fairly dramatic. The election period included allegations of violence, a widespread campaign against now president-elect Chemi Lhamo, and the controversial disqualification of SCSYou slate leader Anup Atwal. The Underground was, to its credit, absolutely on top of every development in the elections and started off well by hosting a candidates’ debate.

However, its hair-trigger attitude led it down a path of quickly and testily publishing every story as it arose. In one case, The Underground published an article about a private Facebook chat that exposed anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments from Atwal. However, in using a raw screenshot of Atwal’s comments as evidence, The Underground reproduced and propagated a transphobic slur against a Shine Bright UTSC candidate. This was arguably libellous toward the candidate. The article also failed to contextualize that the candidate is a transgender woman, and furthermore failed to explicitly call out Atwal’s statement as transphobic.

In addition, the article was published before receiving and including comments from either the candidate or Atwal. The Varsity also admittedly publishes articles that indicate that certain figures have been reached out to and have yet to provide comment. But this is a question of context and accessibility: when covering a student union election, student politicians are accessible for comment. When an article includes high-stakes information about an election, it is vital to retrieve comment from all figures who are named and are central to the story in order to ensure fair and complete coverage. Notably, the article still does not have their comments. This is absolutely a transgression of responsible journalism.

More broadly, there seemed to be a general forgetfulness among the editors of The Underground over the role of the media in informing the public. We aren’t here to disseminate all information available, but rather to curate and present it to our readership in a way that makes sense of the facts at hand and landscape at large. Doing otherwise has the potential to propagate misinformation and entrench the chaos already surrounding union elections.

This was certainly the case with The Underground’s proclivity for publishing extensive screenshots of Facebook messages between candidates. Many of the messages were notably asinine, but they were presented without the context to provide depth or constructive explanations of the events of the campaign.

For instance, The Underground published an anonymous screenshot showing a Facebook chat with SCSYou’s Vice-President External candidate Chaman Bukhari. In the screenshot, an anonymous person is shown asking Bukhari, “How was it,” to which Bukhari replied in Urdu, “Fuzool” and “Wohi LGBTQ [bakwas].” The Varsity translated Bukhari’s text to “useless” and “the same LGBTQ bullshit.”

However, The Underground failed to find out that the message took place two years prior to the election period. While Bukhari’s comments are obviously insensitive, we wonder to what extent The Underground’s editors and their eagerness to publish private messages were used, by themselves or others, as a tool to sow further division in the campaign.

Committing to standard journalistic practices

All of this was punctuated by an “op-ed” by The Underground’s Editor-in-Chief, Eilia Yazdanian, which was a rambling diatribe against how the elections were conducted. We don’t understand why Yazdanian’s piece was labelled an op-ed, which is an opinion piece written by an author who does not belong to the outlet’s editorial board. By contrast, opinion pieces written by an author who does belong to the outlet’s editorial board, like Yazdanian, are called editorials. These pieces, like the one you’re currently reading, typically speak for the outlet as a whole. Yazadanian’s piece should have been labelled as an editorial, or at the least, as a letter from the editor.

One reader also pointed to the fact that Yazdanian did not disclose in his op-ed that he was previously the Vice-President Operations for the SCSU. While Yazdanian initially defended the non-disclosure, a disclaimer was later added to the op-ed. This clear misunderstanding of journalistic form has accompanied other transgressions by The Underground, including the issuance of corrections and clarifications to articles in Facebook comments, when these notes should be added to the articles that are being clarified. In fact, it appears that when they do make updates to articles, they do not indicate that they’ve done so with an editor’s note, which is standard practice.

When the election finally came to an end, The Underground did not opt to invest in formally covering the results in the form of an article, as it had done with the aforementioned scandalous stories. In what is perhaps the most important aspect of any election — who won — the outlet oddly chose to simply post screenshots of the results, leaving it up to readers to flip through the raw information rather than provide them with original and organized reporting.

The Underground must also quickly address a glaring oversight in the design and categorization of its website: the fact that there is no clear divide between news and opinion pieces. The line between news reporting and opinion commentary is sacred in journalism. It must be upheld so that readers understand what is being presented as fact and what is being presented as a reasoned opinion. This line is also worth upholding to separate reporters from columnists, with the idea that publications should not have the same people reporting on stories that they have taken or will later take strong stances on.

Finally, it should be noted that prior to the controversy-filled SCSU elections, two previous stories published by The Underground, one in January and the other in November, had to do with Fusion Radio’s financial scandal and Asian Gourmet’s food scandal. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the coverage of scandals — indeed, it is important to do so — to only focus on such stories means that The Underground risks cementing itself as a sensationalist outlet that is primarily interested in clicks and views. By not covering or telling other stories, especially positive ones that have taken place this year, The Underground also inadvertently risks negatively stereotyping UTSC, which is already a big issue.

The currency of credibility

All this isn’t to say that we at The Varsity don’t make mistakes or deserve criticism. Quite the opposite — we welcome critical engagement from our readership because it holds us accountable, gives us opportunities to improve, and allows us to show our readers that we’re listening and willing to do better. And our readership hasn’t hesitated to tell us when they think we’ve messed up. We’ve published many critical letters to the editor this year, touching on issues from the comprehensiveness of union procedure reporting to accessibility concerns with our Fall Magazine.

The role of our arms-length Public Editor, Morag McGreevey, also allows readers to express concerns to someone tasked with upholding journalistic ethics at the newspaper but not beholden to the publication’s management structure. McGreevey, like her predecessor Sophie Borwein, has proved indispensable in weighing in on issues of journalistic ethics and calling us out when she thinks we deviate from them, as she did in her criticism of our discussion of a photograph of a Ryerson Students’ Union executive and Premier Doug Ford, or our coverage of Faith Goldy in the Toronto municipal elections.

Ultimately, we’re excited by the renewed vigour and spunk that The Underground is showing this year. But that can’t come at the cost of good journalism. As The Underground continues to expand its coverage, it should consider how it will be accountable to its readership, whether through letters to the editor or an arms-length, third party in the form of a public editor or ombudsperson. And we also welcome criticism from The Underground and The Medium, whom we have also criticized in the past, to challenge us on our shortcomings.

There’s a saying that credibility is currency in journalism, and it’s vital that student media outlets ensure that they aren’t wasting energy and efforts in a way that damages a relationship of trust with readers. Ultimately, not only do the criticisms in this editorial aim to be healthy and constructive, because we want UTSC readers to be better served by their closest outlet, but they are to some degree self-interested. We cannot afford to see a given outlet make mistakes that become easy targets in today’s anti-student press climate and ultimately hurts all outlets.

In a Facebook comment, Atwal has expressed his hope that The Underground will not receive sufficient funding with the implementation of the Student Choice Initiative in September. This kind of mentality is concerning, especially from a former presidential candidate who had previously defended student journalism, pledged to resist the Student Choice Initiative, and could have been held to account by an outlet like The Underground had he won the election.

When journalistic institutions make mistakes, the solution is not to destroy them. Rather, it is to offer healthy criticism and hold them accountable so that they can improve and better serve us in the future. To preserve the currency that is credibility, let’s do just that.

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.

Editor’s Note (February 24): This editorial has been updated to include information about the SCSU election results coverage by The Underground

How’s the weather, UTSG — and what’s wrong with you?

Student safety must be paramount when severe conditions hit campus

How’s the weather, UTSG — and what’s wrong with you?

On three dates across the past several weeks, severe winter weather conditions have compelled universities across southwestern Ontario to cancel classes or close campuses entirely. This is naturally expected, provided that universities prioritize the safety of their students and employees.

But what’s wrong with you, UTSG?

On January 28, UTM closed at 4:00 pm, UTSC closed at 5:00 pm, and UTSG cancelled classes at 6:00 pm. The next morning, UTM and UTSC remained closed for several hours, while UTSG re-opened.

On February 6, UTM closed yet again, UTSC cancelled classes starting at noon, and UTSG closed at 3:00 pm.

On February 12, the worst of the three cases arrived, as evidenced by a winter storm warning issued by Environment Canada. Both UTM and UTSC closed early in the morning, as did universities across Toronto and southwestern Ontario, including ones located blocks away from UTSG, like Ryerson University and OCAD University. The only exception was UTSG, which decided near noon to only cancel classes that started at or after 4:00 pm due to “worsening weather conditions” in the evening.

The point is that UTSG has consistently chosen to delay the inevitable decision to cancel classes or close campus, while its satellite campuses have exercised the prudence to make the call earlier. It has also frequently opted for the softer of the two choices, cancelling classes, unlike the other campuses.

UTSG’s anomalous behaviour has caused many students to rise up in anger on social media, and rightly so. It is unacceptable that this campus operates significantly differently from the other two, especially when they all belong to the same region being affected by severe weather conditions.

No respect for commuters

UTSG’s record is first and foremost disrespectful to commuters. By delaying the decision on whether or not to cancel classes, thousands of commuters are forced to make unsafe and messy journeys to campus, made even worse as sidewalks have not yet been shovelled or salted in the early hours of the morning. Furthermore, many have their commute times significantly lengthened due to poor road and transit conditions, especially if they are from outer suburbs like Mississauga, Oakville, or Markham.

This forces commuters to personally account for the weather in their commute time, and may nonetheless cause late arrivals to classes without any accommodations. If a commuter student decides to not go to campus at all, out of fear for their safety, then they are burdened with the responsibility to individually negotiate with and be left at the mercy of individual instructors for missed participation or tests.

The disunity of decision-making between all three campuses has the potential to negatively impact students taking courses at other U of T campuses. On February 12, while shuttle buses serving UTM students who attend UTSG classes were cancelled, they were still expected to attend.

Some commuters had also just arrived on campus when UTSG finally made the calls to cancel classes, rendering their difficult journey unnecessary. On January 28, for instance, an alert email to students indicating the 6:00 pm cancellation was sent just minutes before. Meanwhile, UTM and UTSC students were given notice hours before that their classes would be cancelled. The Varsity has learned that, unlike its satellite campuses, UTSG has no official guidelines on the timelines for making decisions about evening classes.

Commuters, along with others who may have been on campus beforehand, then have to reckon with the fact that they still have to make the unsafe commute back home, in “worsening” evening conditions. U of T must create and apply policy that reflects and accommodates commuters, the majority of its students.

No consideration for student safety on campus

None of this speaks to the additional issue of walking conditions on campus itself. On February 12, the city began salting roads at around 7:45 am, and it took around 18 hours to get main roads and sidewalks salted and shovelled. Thus, dangerous sidewalks have been a reality for students forced to walk through a large campus to get to class on time, especially during  midterm season. If the university knows that sidewalks are not safe by the time classes begin, then it should close campus to ensure that there are no accidents.

Although U of T’s decision already posed difficulties for able-bodied persons on campus, it was especially inconsiderate of students with accessibility needs, such as those who need wheelchairs or scooters for mobility and find it more difficult to navigate through the snow and ice. Clean-up crews tend to focus on sidewalks and major points of entry and, as a result, ramps can remain icy and difficult to navigate. Snowplows also pile snow back onto sidewalks and curb cuts, limiting wheelchair and scooter access.

The extreme cold and winds can also put individuals at risk of hypothermia, a condition in which the body cannot warm itself fast enough and causes body temperature to drop. Hypothermia is all the more likely if students are outside waiting for buses or walking to class.

Unfortunately, not all students made it through safely on campus, especially on February 12. One student who was rushing to get from one midterm to another slipped on unsalted black ice and sprained their knee. Their doctor subsequently prescribed them a knee brace. Another student slipped on ice hidden under snow and hit their forehead on the ground — the Health & Wellness Centre diagnosed them with a suspected concussion.

It is important to note that these are just two of several stories that were reported to The Varsity. There are many more, and they are not exclusive to students; instructors and employees at the university are equally vulnerable. UTSG’s policy has tangible consequences in the form of danger and harm to those who are forced to walk on campus, and the university must take responsibility.

Selective communication

Other members of the U of T community may not have been physically hurt, but had added stress as a result of these late or absent cancellations. One Varsity masthead member reported that, for two of the three dates of severe weather conditions, their accessibility and therapy appointments at the university were cancelled prior to any general decision from the university regarding the weather. Although the university is reluctant to cancel classes or close campus, it is not reluctant to shut down important services that students may desperately need to access.

Another masthead member had a midterm scheduled from 3:00–5:00 pm on February 12. The university cancelled all classes and midterms starting at or after 4:00 pm. However, it did not clearly indicate what would happen to midterms that started before but ended after the cancellation, leaving students uncertain.

It only clarified that midterms would go on once prompted by students, even though no justification was given after all, if it is deemed unsafe to be on campus after 4:00 pm by the university, then to hold a midterm that ends at 5:00 pm is entirely inconsistent. This was similar to February 6, when U of T closed at 3:00 pm but indicated that it would be up to instructors to decide whether or not to cancel classes that started before 3:00 pm.

When prompted by The Varsity on the subject of campus closures under severe weather conditions, U of T Spokesperson Elizabeth Church indicated that safety is a “top priority” but that “there are thousands of classes, exams, tests, labs and tutorials on each campus throughout the day. The decision to cancel classes or close a campus is always challenging.”

This seems to imply that the magnitude of operations on campus has a bearing on the kind of decision that is made. But it shouldn’t. If safety is compromised, then the decision should be made. Safety is not simply a “top” priority; it is the paramount priority. The inconvenience that may spillover to the university’s bureaucracy as a result of the cancellations should be secondary.

We need a safety-first policy

We call on Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr and Vice-President Human Resources & Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat, who are involved in the decision-making process for cancellations and closures at UTSG, to do better for students, instructors, and employees. First of all, they should learn from UTM, UTSC, and other campuses in the region, and make decisions much earlier to show consideration for commuters and students with accessibility needs. Students should not be left to negotiate with their instructors for extensions or accommodations when their safety is compromised.

They should also do better to ensure that all cancellations are communicated effectively and widely, and that all student inquiries and confusions are preemptively answered. Given the stress that cancellations may put on bureaucracy, a simple solution is for instructors to reschedule cancelled classes to the makeup day at the end of the term, or to negotiate with their classes regarding covering missed material.

This is also an opportunity for student unions to demonstrate that they are not simply driven by “crazy Marxist nonsense” as the premier has accused. In fact, organizing and advocating for student interests with the university administration is at the core of the mandate of student unions. We call on the University of Toronto Students’ Union and other student unions at UTSG to demand a better cancellation and closure policy to ensure that students no longer face dangerous circumstances in this and future winter seasons.

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.