Opinion: To better accommodate students with disabilities, U of T should compensate note-takers

Pay or extra-credit would improve the quality and quantity of notes

Opinion: To better accommodate students with disabilities, U of T should compensate note-takers

Throughout my academic career at U of T, I’ve had many note-takers, all of whom I appreciate more than they could ever know. However, I’d like to start this piece with a thank you to one in particular: a man whom I will call Herbert.

Herbert was a volunteer note-taker for an evolutionary anthropology course. His notes were effectively perfect. He uploaded a set for every lecture, never missing a single class, and always wrote the date, lecture number, and lecture topics at the top. He put in a table of contents, diagrams, and bullet points that changed based on the subject matter. His wording was simple yet eloquent, and he covered all the necessary material without overdoing it.

Herbert, if you’re out there — this one’s for you.

Like many of us at U of T who require accommodations, I sometimes miss classes for disability-related reasons. There are definitely a lot of reasons why other students need note-takers, but the gist of it is that not every student can attend lectures, or if they can attend, not all of them are able to efficiently take notes every class. This is why note-takers are so important.

Unfortunately, volunteer note-takers are few and far between. There are many classes that don’t have any note-takers at all, and the ones that do might only submit one or two lecture notes and then stop. This makes it hard for students who have no other way of following the lecture material.

You could try to get notes from our friends, but what if you don’t have friends in your class, or they spend all class watching shows on Disney+? What if you don’t want your friends to know you have a disability, or don’t feel comfortable asking them for notes?

Students are left shouldering this responsibility, but they should not have to make up for U of T’s inability to provide equitable access to course material. Volunteer note-taking is a necessary service for many students. Without it, they would have almost no other way to study for material covered in lecture.

By failing to adequately provide this service, the university is failing these students, and furthering accessibility challenges for those who are reliant on them.

If note-takers are so necessary, why are volunteer notes so subject to chance? As a student who depends on accessibility services, I know that there are ways to improve both the quality and quantity of notes. These include financially compensating note-takers or providing an extra-credit incentive.

Paying note-takers would create an incentive for students to not only apply for the position but also to improve the quality of their notes.

Furthermore, note-taking is a necessary accommodation, and it should be compensated as such. By only compensating this labour through co-curricular credits (CCRs), we are undervaluing the impact of good note-takers, and potentially leaving those who depend on this service with limited access to coursework.

Whether it be through a work-study scheme or through an honorarium, providing financial compensation for note-takers is long overdue. This will not only provide some students with more opportunities to earn income, but it will also provide students with better learning materials.

Another way to compensate note-takers would be providing extra-credit opportunities for submitting high quality notes. By doing this, students would be able to receive some academic recognition for their work, rather than just CCRs.

It’s important for U of T to accommodate all its students, and that includes those who require accessibility services. Students who use accessibility services are just that: students. They’re people who deserve to be given the opportunity to learn the course material through high quality notes.

I would like to thank every note-taker who has ever submitted notes. I printed out your notes, colour-coded them, sat on a pink blanket on the floor with my incense burning, and read them over and over until it was time to take my meds. They are in my heart — always.

Especially your notes, Herbert. Your notes have a special place in my heart.

Bao Li Ng is a third-year student at Victoria College.

Ontario universities sees dramatic increase in international enrollment, tuition over past decade

Toronto Star investigation suggests boom in international enrollment acts as replacement for government funding

Ontario universities sees dramatic increase in international enrollment, tuition over past decade

U of T is one of the many colleges and universities in Ontario that, according to a recent survey by the Toronto Star and the St. Catharine’s Standard, are experiencing a boom in international student enrollment. Accompanied by increasing international student tuition costs, this suggests that these universities may see international tuition fees as a viable replacement for government funding.

While the university is currently encountering financial pressures from decreased provincial funding, these growths corroborate earlier estimations made by The Varsity that the university would use international tuition to replace funding lost as a result of the Ford government’s new policies.

The investigation found that international student enrollment in Canada has increased by 73 per cent since 2014, partially due to new laws that make it easier for non-Canadian students to work and attain permanent resident status. U of T alone has seen an increase in international student enrollment from 10 per cent of the total student body in 2008–2009 to 24 per cent in 2019–2020.

For many schools, international students are a lucrative alternative to provincial grants — the demographic brought in $21.6 billion to the Canadian economy in the last year alone, reported the Star.

For the 2018–2019 year, the average tuition for a domestic student at U of T was between $6,780 and $15,760, while international student tuition ranged from $34,180–54,840. In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson commented that “tuition is similar to that of other globally leading universities.

While domestic fees are government regulated, international tuition fees are unregulated and decided by the university. For the 2019–2020 academic year, 87 per cent of U of T’s operating revenues will come from tuition, other student fees, and provincial operating grants — with the proportion from provincial grants declining.

Enrollment-related revenue is expected to increase by 2.9 per cent in the 2019–2020 school year, despite there being no increase in provincial operating grants, and the 10 per cent reduction of domestic tuition fees mandated by the Ford government, both of will have been offset by a 5.4 per cent average yearly increase in international tuition fees.

In response to the higher tuition fees for international students, the U of T spokesperson wrote, “universities don’t receive provincial funding for international students as we do for Canadian students. Canadian students and their families pay taxes that flow back to universities and colleges, so we ask international students to pay their share.”

The three-part investigation from the Star and the Standard offered a few suggestions to prevent universities from taking advantage of international students. Among them being increased provincial operating grants and government support for incoming international students — or that schools could offer training to staff, better language support, and more robust support services.

U of T plans to continue to invest in academic and co-curricular programming, counselling, and support services for international students, according to the U of T spokesperson, who also mentioned other services that the university provides to international students, “such [as] language assistance, additional orientation and advisors to help them learn everything from navigating the TTC to understanding U of T’s academic culture and expectations.”

“International students benefit from studying at the University of Toronto and we benefit from their presence,” wrote the spokesperson. “International students enrich our community with their experiences, fostering a vibrant exchange of perspectives and opinions and helping us build relationships around the world.”

Alvin Singh remembered for his kindness, teaching excellence

UTM alum and OISE graduate student died from cancer in September

Alvin Singh remembered for his kindness, teaching excellence

Alvinder Pal Singh, better known as Alvin, was a graduate student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and a teaching assistant (TA) at UTM. He died on September 13 from cancer. He was 30 years old. 

Singh was diagnosed with cancer over the summer and was “left without an income for the foreseeable future,” according to a GoFundMe page set up by Cindy Short, the lab coordinator at the Department of Biology at UTM, to help support Singh while he underwent treatment.  

The fundraiser raised $33,700 from 719 people since it was posted on August 30. Following Singh’s death, Short posted an update on September 14, noting that the funds would be given to his surviving family.

In July, Singh was scheduled to attend a science education conference.

“He was late getting there because he was getting his cancer diagnosis at Sunnybrook Hospital that morning, and he still came to the conference,” Fiona Rawle, an associate professor in the Department of Biology, said to The Varsity. “He said that he didn’t want to let anything dictate what was important to him.”

Singh’s teaching career started in the summer of 2011. He was a TA for 15 courses in the Department of Biology, six in the Department of Mathematical & Computational Sciences, and one in the Department of Psychology. 

He taught a total of 93 sessions, which included tutorials and labs, from 2011–2019, and was also a guest lecturer in three courses at the Department of Biology.

Singh was a TA in Rawle’s courses for several years and worked as one of her research assistants. 

“He wanted to be in charge of what was important to him,” said Rawle. “And he put so much of himself into… what was important to him.”

Singh was awarded the June Scott Teaching Excellence Award for Teaching Assistants for 2013–2014. The award recognizes TAs for demonstrating enthusiasm for a subject, engaging with students, and encouraging them to learn the course material. 

“He wanted to make students feel at ease and he wanted to support them,” said Rawle. “He’s well known for long colour-coded emails and detailed instructions to students that are quite helpful, and also in midterms and exams, he would be the one to do all the announcements.”

The comments on Singh’s fundraiser also attest to Singh’s penchant for teaching. 

Alvin was a warm and supportive TA, and he made me feel like I could succeed. He will be missed so much,” wrote Heba Faroohki, a former student of Singh. 

Faroohki’s comment is just one of 113 from people who have left comments on the fundraiser’s page. 

“The fact that there have been hundreds of grieving students on campus really shows how many people [Singh] touched,” said Rawle. “You could see that in everything he did, in terms of teaching students — he wouldn’t just teach them the content of the course.”

“He was really concerned about how they were learning and what their experience was like, and how he can make it better for them.” 

Christoph Richter, a professor in the Department of Biology who worked with Singh, echoed this sentiment in an interview with The Varsity. Richter teaches introductory biology courses, including BIO153: Diversity of Organisms. 

That happened to be the first course that Singh taught in the summer of 2011. It would also be the last course he would teach, in the spring of 2019. 

“He was really concerned and worried and cared a lot about the students that he interacted with,” said Richter. “He would do office hours until late at night; he would just be totally committed to the… students.”

Singh’s love for education began at a young age.

Short recalled a speech at the memorial service given by Singh’s brother. “At his memorial service, [he]… talked about how Alvin, even at a young age, would teach [Alvin’s brother] and so he put together… different lessons,” said Short to The Varsity. “[Singh] would develop his own courses, and he would put together syllabi for his make-believe courses and he would make tests for his brother to do.” 

According to Rawle, Singh was also known for carrying around a notebook with him with a quote that read: “Wherever you are, be all there. Be present.” 

Rawle knew that Singh liked the quote because she observed that when Singh finished one notebook, he would cut out the quote and move it to the next one. 

“That, to me, is what Alvin was,” she said. “Alvin was present… he would always focus on you and give you his full attention.”

“Alvin really made [students] feel valued, and made them feel important. [He] made them feel like they could succeed.” 

The faces of Ford’s OSAP cuts

Three members of the U of T community share their stories

The faces of Ford’s OSAP cuts

Back in January, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced large-scale changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). Notably, there were significant changes to grant-to-loan ratios, the defining guidelines of independent students, and the scrapping of the free tuition program for low-income students. The Varsity spoke to three members of the U of T community about the personal implication of these changes.

“Education is about liberation.”

Yasmin Owis, a first-year PhD student and research assistant at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at U of T, was confirmed to receive thousands of dollars worth of funding through OSAP in June. Two months later, her funding was recalculated to zero.

Thinking back on the completion of her first two degrees, Owis wrote that she had relied completely on OSAP to be able to afford her education. Without it, she wouldn’t have been able to get this far.

Although as a full-time PhD student she receives a funding package from the university that covers tuition, the amount she receives doesn’t account for all the soaring costs of housing, food, and transportation that come with living in Toronto.

“I’m taking on extra work in an already stressful first year of doctoral studies to cover the funding I lost from OSAP and applying to as many scholarships, grants, and bursaries as I can,” Owis wrote in an email to The Varsity.

Among students and families impacted by the Ford adminstration’s drastic slash of OSAP funding, Owis’ story stands as one of thousands.

For many postsecondary students across Ontario entering the new school year, the prospect of funding their education has become an anxiety-driven scramble for financial security before their fees are due.

This anxiety began metastasizing in January, alongside Ford’s announcement. The previous Liberal government had implemented a program that offered affordable tuition to students whose families earn less than $50,000 a year. Coming into power early last year, Ford’s administration disagreed with the sustainability of such a program.

Their response was cutting postsecondary tuition by 10 per cent, reducing the qualifying threshold for funding from $175,000 to $140,000, and requiring students under the $50,000 threshold to take on loans in addition to grants.

“It pulls focus away from academics and completing your degree to the best of your ability,” Owis wrote.

Compared to others, Owis believes that she is one of the lucky ones. Many of her friends that are without funding packages are taking out lines of credit, moving back in with their parents, and balancing three jobs with their course load.

The mental costs of such a workload can be stark.

“If you’re someone like me, who has both mental and physical health barriers, OSAP cuts [mean] that I have less funds for medication and mental health services that [are] not covered by my health insurance,” wrote Owis. “Those who already face challenges [with] affording education are not spared.”

“Despite having worked two jobs — both full time — this summer, the money I saved won’t even help.”

Morgan Murray, a third-year student double majoring in English and Cinema Studies, with a minor in Creative Expression and Society at U of T, has been commuting from Cobourg to the downtown campus for the entirety of her undergraduate studies. She wrote to The Varsity that she and her parents agreed on the commute to cut down on costs, but now, even that won’t be enough.

“A major part of that decision was because I wanted to put all my energy into my studies and extracurriculars, rather than working [a job] after class or on weekends,” wrote Murray.

As she now faces losing thousands of dollars in OSAP funding, the mounting costs that she didn’t anticipate are another pile of responsibilities slammed on top of her textbooks. Her summer funds will be funnelled to her basic amenities, like transportation, food, and textbooks. Any potential for a layer of comfortable cushioning in her financial situation has all but dissipated.

“As I’ve become more educated from university, whether it’s from my classes or the life lessons learned in between, it is very apparent that many people in government are not concerned about their citizens being educated,” wrote Murray. “If they did, they would find ways to benefit the lives of students and help make an accessible way for all to attend, regardless of their background or family income.”

As a result of the OSAP changes, many postsecondary students find themselves in a ‘catch-22’ situation. With less support from the government, students need to compensate by dedicating more time to pursue scholarships or potential jobs.

However, the more time spent on these activities, the less time students have to focus on their courses, which detracts from their ability to achieve a higher GPA. This then lowers their chances to receive merit-based assistance like scholarships that would alleviate their need to work a job, which swallows up time and perpetuates the cycle.

“It seems the only thing you can do is work harder than before,” Murray wrote. “It’s going to be difficult to not constantly worry about finances, but just taking it one day at a time is the best way to get through this.”

“The next step is to definitely fight back.”

“My heart sank when Ford [made the] cuts.”

Ananya Banerjee, Assistant Professor and Interim Program Director at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, has seen firsthand how the drop in OSAP funding has impacted many of her students.

“I had a number of our top applicants email me when they received an offer and saw the tuition cost of our program. Many simply said they couldn’t afford to enter our program as they didn’t get the OSAP amount [that] they needed,” Banerjee wrote to The Varsity.

Some applicants asked to be switched to part-time students so they could work on the side. “I noticed a high proportion of these top applicants were racialized and from low-income families,” wrote Banerjee. “Fewer individuals from marginalized communities will be entering our post-secondary education system, and those that do will spiral into severe debt in order to afford it, leading to a rise in mental health issues.”

Worries over losing a grip on postsecondary opportunities is shared amongst many. While the Ford government’s OSAP cuts impact different students in very different ways, one sentiment remains the same across each and every subject: a growing fear of the unknown.

“We have to commit as an academic institution to build a barrier-free and accessible education system until we have a change in government,” wrote Banerjee. “If we don’t, we are going to lose the brightest students who rightfully deserve to [be] part of the University of Toronto.”

“Our education is now a privilege.”

Fifth time’s the charm

Even at a university as academically rigorous as U of T, it’s still okay to take your time

Fifth time’s the charm

When I failed my driving test for the third time, I came home anxiously expecting a harsh lecture from my mother. I hadn’t completed this milestone in the expected timeframe like all the other kids my age, and so I braced myself for, at the very least, a disappointed look or sigh.

Instead she smiled and told me that I could just try again, and that there was no need to rush through. So instead of scrambling to pass before I was ready, I was encouraged by my mom to enjoy the process of learning to drive at my own pace. There was no point in simply matching other kids who earned their G2s on their first attempt with only 12 lessons under their belt.

I am currently preparing to graduate in November, having finished a degree that spanned five-and-a-quarter years of full-time and part-time course loads and a summer abroad. Upon reflection, I’m incredibly grateful that I took my time in university.

Like most university students, the way I initially approached school was anything but taking my time. All I was focused on was getting my degree in four years like everyone else, going on to do a Master’s degree in some field I’d eventually become passionate about, and get a good job somewhere… anywhere. I saw university as just a stepping stone to the rest of my life, which inevitably resulted in extremely busy course loads.

It was only during the middle of my third year — during a family crisis coupled with already poor mental health — that I realized how much I dreaded going to class, hated writing, and had stopped enjoying learning. I constantly thought about dropping out of university. I was lucky to have fantastic extracurriculars that kept me engaged at U of T, but I came to resent academia.

I started handing in assignments late, made excuses for missed lectures, and glossed over readings, barely absorbing any of the material. I sought help, but couldn’t muster up the energy to follow through with advice and accommodations. In fourth-year, I dropped to a part-time course load and felt like a failure for not graduating with the class of 2018.

Gradually, I moved past that shame and slowly found myself learning to enjoy school again. I asked questions in class, challenged peers in tutorials, and critically engaged with my readings and professors. Writing returned to me. After years of making excuses and telling myself I didn’t have enough time to go abroad, I finally finished my degree in Berlin, Germany, this summer.

This isn’t to say that finishing in four years is unrealistic. Nor is it to warn incoming first years that they’ll come to dislike school by following a planned four-year map. Rather, I’m telling you to not be afraid of slowing down if you need to.

I won’t deny that there’s a stigma attached to taking extra years to finish. Even shifting your course load to part-time simply for the sake of your own well-being can feel like a defeat.

But here’s a secret: there is nothing wrong with taking your time and enjoying university at your own pace.

University isn’t simply a stepping stone to your life. It’s a milestone, and milestones pass by in a blur no matter how long you take.

Ride it out. Make memories with people that matter. You’ve got your whole life waiting for you, so enjoy these fleeting university years.

I ended up getting my driver’s license on my fourth try, and the road ahead has never looked so bright.

Government think tank assessing education faces criticisms of questionable research methods, lack of transparency

“Now is the time to shut down HEQCO,” reads faculty coalition press release

Government think tank assessing education faces criticisms of questionable research methods, lack of transparency

A leadership crisis is currently wracking the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), a government agency that evaluates the postsecondary education system in Ontario. The high-level resignations of its board members and President Harvey Weingarten in August are giving rise to criticisms, which are further fuelled by earlier accusations of questionable research methods. 

In an August 20 press release, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), a non-profit organization that advocates for the interests of faculty in Ontario universities, called for the dissolution of the HEQCO, claiming “now is the time” as the organization currently has no president.

The OCUFA accused Weingarten of hypocrisy in his recommendations to cut pensions while he himself has a $4.5 million public pension fund. The HEQCO recently held a series of consultations where it suggested that faculty should not be able to collect a salary and pension at the same time, as well as encouraged faculty to retire at the age of 65 for cost-cutting purposes.

“They put out this ridiculous report in which they said that faculty salaries and pensions are one of the more critical issues facing the sector in postsecondary education in Ontario, without really even mentioning that Ontario has the lowest per capita per student and funding vis a vis GDP in the country,” said Michael Conlon, Executive Director of the OCUFA.

HEQCO’s Research Methods

In 2018, the HEQCO completed a series of studies which claimed that around 25 per cent of graduating postsecondary students in Ontario scored below “the minimum required for graduates to perform well in today’s work world.” The test aimed to measure “literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking,” looking specifically at whether graduates have the skills to succeed in the workplace.

University Affairs (UA) called the HEQCO’s skills assessments “a good example of cargo cult policy research,” meaning that their studies are not conducted according to the proper scientific method. UA criticized the HEQCO for using a non-representative study to support broad claims about the effectiveness of postsecondary education in Ontario.

As noted in The Globe and Mail, “students volunteered or were recruited for the studies, and therefore the sample was not random or representative; nor were the same students tested at the beginning and end of their schooling.”

“They’re in essence drawing really kind of political conclusions from their data, creating this kind of exaggerated sensibility around learning outcomes,” said Conlon.

The OCUFA also criticized the HEQCO for a lack of transparency regarding their relationship to the government. “We feel like they’ve essentially become more of a political organization, rather than an independent third-party policy think tank, which is what they were originally designed to do.”

Another of the OCUFA’s criticisms of the HEQCO is their support of the usage of performance metrics in postsecondary education. Ontario announced plans earlier this year to tie 60 per cent of provincial funding of universities to performance indicators by 2024–2025.

According to Conlon, performance metrics “really undermine the system because they set up these arbitrary artificial measures that really have absolutely nothing to do with quality or student experience.” Additionally, they “distract from the real problems with this system, which is underfunding, cuts to OSAP… [and] a variety of other real challenges.”

“I think what HEQCO sets up is this kind of illusion of an independent, transparent organization, which it’s not, it’s just an agency of government. So that’s why we’re calling for that $5 million to be put back into OSAP.”

The HEQCO has declined The Varsity’s request for comment at this time.

Faculty coalition says new performance-based provincial funding model will increase inequality

Funding model doesn’t encourage improvement, but will punish failure, says OUCC

Faculty coalition says new performance-based provincial funding model will increase inequality

Since Doug Ford assumed the office of the Premier of Ontario last year, his government has made significant changes to education at all levels. One of these major changes arose in the Ford government’s first provincial budget: the decision to tie a large portion of the funding for universities and colleges to a set of performance indicators, as opposed to enrollment numbers.

In a public statement by the Ontario Universities and Colleges Coalition (OUCC), union and student leaders alike are pushing back on this move, claiming that it will “fundamentally compromise the integrity of Ontario’s higher education system.”

Renewed Strategic Mandate Agreement

The current Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs) between the provincial government and the province’s 45 publicly assisted postsecondary institutions will expire on March 31, 2020. SMAs are bilateral agreements that dictate how much the provincial government will provide in funding to these institutions over multi-year periods. While previous SMAs only tied a very small proportion of university funding to performance, the current Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities plans to increase that amount significantly.

By the 2024–2025 academic year, performance-based funding will increase incrementally from 1.4 per cent to 60 per cent in a move that Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Ross Romano claims will make Ontario a “national leader in outcomes‐based funding.”

In a statement to The Varsity, Romano wrote that these SMA bilateral discussions with university and college leaders will begin this fall to determine the specific performance metrics. Under the expiring SMA, U of T’s performance metrics are currently tied to student experience, innovation, research impact, and access and equity.

OUCC Statement

The OUCC, a coalition which represents 435,000 postsecondary Ontario students, faculty, and staff, alongside the 11 other signatories of their public statement, oppose these changes categorically. They list it as yet another attack on Ontario’s postsecondary education system, following years of stagnant public funding and cuts to student financial assistance.

The signatories argue that withdrawing funding from universities and colleges who fail to reach their targets will not encourage improvement, but will actually “ensure institutions fall further behind.”

Among a long list of predictions for how this new approach to performance-based funding will affect education, the OUCC notably claims that it will give rise to increased inequalities across all universities and colleges. Particularly  it will hurt northern and smaller postsecondary institutions, accelerate the corporatization of campuses as private funding becomes increasingly important, and generally compromise the autonomy of Ontario’s schools. In terms of students, they argue it will decrease access to education for those who are marginalized, as admissions requirements will change to best accommodate new metrics.

In an email to The Varsity, Romano wrote that he is “dedicated to making Ontario’s postsecondary education system more competitive and better aligned with labour‐market needs, while operating transparently and efficiently.”

Contrarily, the OUCC claims that Ford’s changes will “do nothing to improve accountability, as Ontario’s universities and colleges already have comprehensive structures in place to evaluate the effectiveness of the programs they offer.”

Further, they argue that performance-based funding won’t improve labour market outcomes, as this system will prepare students for the labour market of today, but not for the one they will enter upon graduation. The statement’s signatories include Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario, Felipe Nagata; President of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, Rahul Sapra; and President of the Ontario Federation of Labour, Chris Buckley, among others.

To preserve Indigenous languages, U of T must do better

Academic institutions must expand Indigenous language-learning opportunities in the face of endangerment and extinction

To preserve Indigenous languages,  U of T must do better

Over 188 years have passed since the first residential schools were established in Canada. Residential schools, a part of government- and church-sponsored policy, were built to undermine Indigenous identity in favor of the dominant white settler society. The repercussions of these schools are still felt by Indigenous people to this day. The intergenerational trauma of residential schooling remains a significant factor in the decline of Indigenous languages, as well as the health and well-being of Indigenous communities.

Indigenous language is integral to the preservation of culture and nationhood. As a result of residential schooling, Indigenous communities were left unable to safeguard their own languages and cultural identities. In fact, beyond the plethora of literature surrounding the psychological, physiological, and sociological implications that have taken hold, it is not uncommon to hear that those who have endured such practices still carry the burden — refusing to teach their children due to fear that they might endure a similar experience.

Until 1996, when the last residential school closed its doors in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, residential schools remained at the epicentre of the isolation, punishment, and assimilation into Euro-Canadian culture that the federal government imposed on Indigenous children.

Inside such schools, children — under the guise of educational policy — were removed from their communities and families and dissuaded from using their language and practising their culture. Furthermore, many of the more than 150,000 school children in residential schools were subjected to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.

According to a 2016 Canadian census, there are over 260,050 Indigenous language speakers in Canada — less than one per cent of the entire Canadian population. Further, there are reportedly over 70 distinct living Indigenous languages spoken in Canada according to the same census. Yet, only 15.6 per cent of Indigenous people can conduct a conversation in an Indigenous language, a drop from the 2006 census.

Language is at the root of culture and history. However, for Bonnie J. Maracle, Wolf Clan member of the Mohawk people and Professor of Language Revitalization at U of T, language is much more than that. “Language is our help, our unity, our strength,” she claimed.

For Indigenous people like Maracle, there is a clear unifying connection between language and the spiritual and natural environment around us. “Language is this healing and wellness,” Maracle said. “A whole generation of people had no language and culture, all as a result of residential schools… language has been holding on by a thread [ever since].”

This is not a problem unique to Canada. Indigenous languages and cultures are currently at risk of disappearing in all corners of the world.

This summer, three undergraduate students travelled to the city of Boa Vista, Brazil, as part of U of T’s Research Excursion Projects (REPs). With guidance from Suzi Lima, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, the students were able to study several Indigenous languages in the region, including Macuxi, Ye’kwana, and Taurepang, alongside locals in order to further preservation efforts.

On the importance of their work in Brazil, Gregory Antono, a former Linguistics and Spanish double major now entering his graduate studies in U of T’s linguistics program, spoke on the politics around Brazil’s loss of Indigenous languages. According to Antono, official language status, colonization, and desire to adhere to the dominant culture are among the major factors contributing to this decline. Antono went on to say that, “It’s a race against time, for one. A lot of these languages have [very] few speakers left so if we — from different areas of the world — don’t work together, there is a chance we will not be able to do it at all in a few years.”

Documenting the language and history of Indigenous peoples is just one example of the work that we, as academics, institutions, and global citizens can do to help preserve cultures all over the world.

“I think we focus a lot on theoretical problems rather than the field, but we need more programs like the REP to learn about and communicate with these communities,” Antono continued. “As a student I’m torn between pursuing my academic interests but also in creating meaningful work [within] the community itself.” It is in this day and age of critically declining language diversity that impactful work like this is not only beneficial to both parties at hand, but necessary as well.

In June 2019, the Canadian Government passed the Indigenous Languages Act (ILA). Along with making attempts to adhere to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada’s Calls to Action, the Canadian government is to allocate $333.7 million over five years and $115.7 million per year thereafter to support the ILA’s implementation. While there has been a lot of debate regarding the government’s claim of co-development of this legislation in collaboration with Indigenous groups, this increase in expenditure will hopefully allow more language revitalization projects to come to fruition in the coming years.

Academic institutions must do more to preserve Indigenous languages in light of the current instability in this area. According to Professor Andrea Bear Nicholas, Maliseet from Nekwotkok, Tobique First Nation, who works at St. Thomas University, the situation is truly dire. “Unless we as a country give equal rights to Indigenous languages for the right to schooling in our languages, I think we will not be saving our languages,” she said in an interview with Global News Canada. “We have to make the next step, and that would be pre-school programs, that would be immersion programs, and guaranteed to any community that wants to start them. This is critical.”

Across Canada, academic institutions are starting to make spaces for Indigenous peoples to learn and thrive, offering course credits in Indigenous languages and cultural studies, and recruiting fluent speakers as administrators and educators. The Mohawk language has now joined Inuktitut and Anishinaabemowin in U of T’s language course offerings, at two levels of education.

However, two levels of language-learning seem hardly enough given that the norm for other languages offered at U of T, such as French and German, are offered at four, if not five levels. As Canada’s number one university, continually pushing the boundaries of education, should we really have to ask ourselves whether three offered Indigenous languages are enough?

We must provide both Indigenous people — a great number of whom now live outside of reserves — and non-Indigenous students with opportunities to learn via immersive education, beginning in our public school systems. This is necessary if we want to move forward in mutual understanding and resolution.

U of T is also now beginning to pair Indigenous studies education with departments and faculties like the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Law, and Dalla Lana School of Public Health. According to Professor Maracle, it is crucial for professionals to learn about, understand, and attempt to solve the domestic problems faced by Indigenous peoples within our country.

The TRC has called on universities to start developing partnerships with Indigenous communities. “I can see universities coming to [our communities] and not just providing a classroom for students to go [to universities],” Maracle said.

For Maracle, though there is already programming in these communities, the question becomes, “how can we as institutions help to accredit those programmings that are already existing?” Institutions like U of T must strengthen partnerships with Indigenous communities, especially given the barriers that exist for Indigenous students entering academic institutions.

“If there are people in the community that are getting accreditation,” says Maracle, “[then] at the very least they would have gotten some validation or accreditation for the work they are already doing in their own community.” Public institutions historically have not engaged Indigenous students as well as they have their non-Indigenous counterparts. We must make greater efforts towards recruiting Indigenous youths for postsecondary educational opportunities.

For many Indigenous people like Maracle, Canada is now closer than it has ever been. In her view, Canada’s acceptance of the TRC’s Calls to Action, and promise to follow up with further action — the ILA, for example — has set the tone for Canadians. “The acceptance of the TRC entirely changed the objectives of Canada,” she said. “It is now working toward changing the ongoing problems of colonialism by working together.”

“In the Indigenous sense you would really be helping if we could sit down and have a conversation about what we actually need.” Maracle concluded. “We need to communicate with Indigenous people [to see] what they need help with.”

After all, the key to the preservation of any language or culture is ensuring that dialects not only survive, but thrive. We must start to look at reconciliation efforts that do not result in the survival and continuation of Indigenous languages and cultures as little more than continued assimilation.

Conroy Gomes is a fourth-year Neuroscience and Biology student at New College.