RealAtoms reinvents the molecular model kit

Founders Ulrich Fekl and Joshua Moscattini aspire to create a new standard for chemistry model kits

RealAtoms reinvents the molecular model kit

Around this time of year, students purchase molecular model kits from the bookstore. These kits come with parts to create ball-and-stick models, but they are rigid and rather unreflective of the dynamic reactions taught in courses like organic chemistry.

“You have a visual picture of atoms shuffling around, and it’s very hard to communicate it in undergraduate classes,” says Professor Ulrich Fekl of UTM’s Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences. 

For instance, in existing model kits, the carbon atom can only form four bonds, and the models are unable to show chemical reactions and intermediates. 

As such, teaching reactions and mechanisms becomes difficult for instructors, who could resort to animations and videos, but this approach lacks a tactile experience. 

This lack of flexibility is what inspired Fekl and U of T alum Joshua Moscattini to found RealAtoms

“I always have this mental picture of atoms rearranging and it’s really, really smooth, and there is something enjoyable and memorable about touching models,” says Fekl. But “rearranging and the tactile experience don’t mesh with the existing kits.”

RealAtoms is a dynamic molecular model kit developed with the goal of being able to model and visualize organic and inorganic chemistry reactions, including their intermediates. 

The kit comes with 12 hydrogens, six carbons, one nitrogen, and two oxygens. The carbons, nitrogen, and oxygens all have the same composition and can be used interchangeably. 

“We call it the molecular reaction kit,” says Fekl.

Fekl developed prototypes of the molecular kit with support from his department, its Chair Claudiu Gradinaru, as well as the Impact Centre.

Moscattini, who is a sessional instructor at U of T and Professor at Seneca College, used his ten years of design experience to help develop RealAtoms using 3D Design. 

With RealAtoms there are more possibilities. SN2 reactions can be observed in the hands of the user. The atoms of this kit are capable of showing the entire process from a nucleophilic attack, a five-coordinate carbon representing the intermediate, and finally the exit of the leaving group. 

The Walden inversion — the conversion of a molecule from one enantiomer to another — cannot be demonstrated using current model kits, but can be done with RealAtoms with ease. 

The kit can also be used for inorganic studies. The atoms in the kit are also able to form transition metal complexes and show square planar and octahedral geometries, and can be used to create lattice structures, and organic and inorganic molecules. 

Unlike typical ball-and-stick models, parts in the RealAtoms kit contain magnets enclosed in ABS plastic. According to Fekl, magnetic model kits can already be purchased, but the magnets in the kits don’t contribute to their function.  

The magnets used in RealAtoms are functional and allow users to quickly assemble and change a molecule’s geometry. 

The model kit also allows users to feel the resistance when rotating bonds. 

The model clearly shows that the single bonds of sp3 hybridized carbons can freely rotate, while the double bonds of sp2 hybridized carbons, which cannot rotate. 

To form molecules with double or triple bonds, traditional ball-and-stick models would require completely different sticks to form them. The molecule must also be taken apart in order to transition between the different geometries. 

However, the atoms in the RealAtoms model kit contain plane surfaces along with concave and convex surfaces. These surfaces, contributed by Moscattini, lock in the orientation of a molecule to prevent rotation around the double bond. 

Fekl and Moscattini hope to create a new standard for organic and inorganic model kits. 

The model kit became commercially available for the first time at the 2018 Canadian National Exhibition. Moscattini delivered a pitch that won the Kids Technology Pitch Competition. It is also currently being used in a study at Seneca College to investigate the benefits of model kits in chemistry education. 

“The overall goal, I think, is for this to be the new standard in terms of organic model kits and inorganic kits,” says Moscattini. “We’re aiming for that, to have it in classrooms across Canada and the rest of North America.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Councillor Joe Cressy proposes amendments to enforce conformity with zoning laws

Reflecting on Saudi-Canada crossroads

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

Reflecting on Saudi-Canada crossroads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning the business: education and the Weinstein complex

Sexual misconduct in Toronto theatre schools highlights the need to address institutional flaws that are characteristic of the entertainment industry

Learning the business: education and the Weinstein complex

In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, it has become clear that Hollywood is not the only institution in the spotlight when it comes to sexual misconduct. In Toronto, theatre programs at postsecondary institutions like Randolph College for the Performing Arts and George Brown College have also been rocked by sexual assault accusations.

While it is productive that these allegations are being heard and taken seriously, it is problematic that many conversations revolve around accused individuals as outliers. This rhetoric allows institutions to target perpetrators without addressing the deeper issues of policy and culture that create and enable them in the first place.

Here’s what has happened at the two colleges so far. At George Brown, several students accused former Acting Teacher Todd Hammond of inappropriate sexual comments. Though the first accusations from a former student appeared in February 2017, Hammond was still associated with the school as a director as late as April 2017. His name has now disappeared from George Brown’s Theatre Faculty Directory, but the college has yet to make a formal announcement regarding his absence.

At Randolph College, founder and former President George Randolph announced his intended retirement for spring of 2018. Then, in January 2018, the college issued a formal statement saying that Randolph had been accused of making “unwelcomed comments and physical gestures” by former students and staff. The administration did not explicitly state that his preemtive retirement last December was due to these accusations, but I would say that the timing deserves scrutiny due to the quick succession of events.

In the end, we have two colleges specializing in acting and performance, and two high-ranking individuals accused of sexual misconduct, both of whom have now vacated their positions. While this is a good start, there is still much institutional action required. If we are now acknowledging that the entertainment industry is a breeding ground for sexual harassment — whether it be in Hollywood or within educational facilities in Toronto — institutions have to dig deeper and ask why this is the case and what they can do to prevent harassment in the future.

Professional entertainment settings are characterized by intense competition over employment, a theme that underlies the Weinstein allegations. A startling amount of Weinstein’s victims stated that fear of losing current or potential job opportunities was a reason they initially chose to stay silent about their experiences.

Similar factors appear to be at play at the Toronto theatre schools currently under scrutiny due to sexual misconduct allegations. Students at George Brown have cited the school’s system of regularly eliminating students for not meeting the program’s standards as creating an atmosphere of fear and anxiety.

In an interview with The Varsity, two graduates from Randolph College who wished to remain anonymous recalled how they were made to believe that expressing any “concern, objection or dislike” of teachers or faculty would potentially ruin their career. This took place through instructions on professionalism and a lack of willingness to address concerns in conversations with various staff members. Furthermore, graduates of Randolph College stated that Student Services, the proscribed avenue for sexual misconduct complaints at the college, is widely perceived by students to be not confidential.

If these schools are creating atmospheres where objections are perceived as tantamount to throwing away one’s career, and where they may not even be heard confidentially, it is hardly a surprise that sexual harassment allegations fester.

To move past individual perpetrators into institutional changes, the first step should be breaking the culture of silence and fear. Weinstein had a reputation in Hollywood of being predatory before the accusations, but silence prevailed over fear that anyone who hurt his career would face consequences to their own employment. Randolph College and George Brown could combat this tendency toward silence by clearly stating the conditions under which Hammond and Randolph stepped down.

While both colleges claim to be revising policy, nothing has yet become public. Bringing the conversation out into the open is imperative to digging into policy and culture in a productive way. If the institutions remain hushed about the proceedings, it seems akin to the previous environments that cultivated fear around hurting the reputations of industry names.

It must also be acknowledged that theatre programs are a unique academic setting. One graduate from Randolph College noted that “theatre training does sometimes require physical contact between student and instructor,” a requirement that probably does not occur in many other fields. A specific setting requires specific policy: if physicality is the norm, there must be a clear way for students to express when they are comfortable and when they are not, without fear of their education or career being jeopardized.

Institutions like George Brown and Randolph College exist for the purpose of preparing students for the professional industry — if sexual harassment goes overlooked or unaddressed, it is tacitly accepted, and undoubtedly bleeds into the professional industry. But if schools take the initiative in ensuring students’ ability to express discomfort without repercussion, they can begin to change the industry from the ground up.

Maighdlin Mahoney is a second-year student at University College studying English and History.

Self-hate to self-love

How one woman returned to school with fear, doubt, and bipolar disorder

Self-hate to self-love

It takes a lot of heart: an eventful year both on campus and abroad, 2016 was a divisive year for a lot of us. As another year begins, this series of personal essays invites you to ponder this question: where is the love?


I hated myself. I hated that I have limits, I hated that I have doubts, that I have fears, that I can’t do what others can. I hated that I am disabled, that I feel lost, that most of the time I feel broken, that I don’t trust today, tomorrow, that I see emptiness, loss, anger, confusion…

I hate me.

But I can’t lie, this has been my life for a long time. I hated every aspect of myself for years, regretted my lot in life, and despised the cards I was dealt. All of it.

I have bipolar disorder and I hate that too.

People would mention the concept of self-love, but that had been too elusive, a fleeting moment in the back of my thoughts, like a spider’s web catching all the refuse, shredded. Why would I bother with self-love when I can so easily break down into fragments of manic highs and depressive lows?

This time last year, I reached the apex of that garbage-ridden journey of self-hatred, frustration, and despair. Sitting in front of a computer screen, surrounded by an office cubicle, bathed in harsh, florescent lights of my day job. Knowing that I was smart, that I had talent, but wholeheartedly believing that I just simply couldn’t. Couldn’t do anything but push papers and blink under that harsh light. But I’d had enough — enough lack of will, enough absence of motivation.

What was my life? An endless battle of ‘I can’t’ and ‘that isn’t my life.’ Why? Because of mental illness? I’d gaze out the tinted window of the twenty-first floor, Queen’s Park in the distance with the university’s buildings just grazing my line of vision.

The words ‘why me?’ slowly became ‘why not me?’

I wanted to go back to school. I’d wanted to for years. To reinvent myself. To see how far, truly, I could go. To test my own illness — this battle of emotions constantly raging inside me — to see if truly, I could be me. Without self-loathing. Without despair. Without damn self-pity.

And possibly with a little success. I decided to investigate if it was even possible for me to return to school. I made the calls, still filled with doubt. I conversed with my partner, with trepidation. I registered for classes, with fear.

Then I quit my job. This decision wasn’t borne from a manic-induced bout of impulse. This decision, the decision that was to forever change the course of my life, was meticulously thought out and carefully planned. And for a small moment, I felt capable. Just a little bit of competence.

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Today, I know self-kindness, self-care.

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When classes started, doubt poured over me once again. Conversations with my partner would start with questions like, ‘What business do I have being in school with peers who are half my age?’

‘What if I dysregulate?’

‘What if they all find out just how crazy I really am?’

What if, what if, what if?

My partner always responded, ‘Then we will deal with that, too. In the meantime, go to class.’

The semester continued, I attended classes as best I could, riding my bike to and from campus. I met other students. I even told one peer that I had bipolar disorder. I wrote my finals, and I did well.

I started to forget that I hated myself.

The following semester, I applied for a position with a student club. I began to lead a registered study group. I got to know my peers and professors. I wove my life around campus, around the bustle of academia. Delving into projects and research, I even garnered a research position at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Doubt began to fade, replaced by a glimmer of confidence. The fear of my illness shuffled to the back of my mind, pushed out by papers and learning and grades. Possibilities of a bright future began to bud.

A bright future for me, that I carved out for myself. With my own two hands.

I wrote my finals, I turned in well-crafted, purposeful papers, I earned respectable grades. And I began to smile. To feel pride and accomplishment.

And a little bit of love. Self-love.

One year ago, I sat in that office chair, at that cubicle, gazing out the twenty-first floor window. Gazing at the university. Self-hatred, self-loathing. A self-image buried under years of carving a box for myself and filling it with memories of hospitalizations, of therapy, of medications, and perceived failures.

A week ago, after I’d finished my finals, as the grades started pouring in, my partner wrapped his arms around me and said, ‘I’m so proud of you. Look at what you’ve accomplished. You did it.’

Writing this, I feel hope and promise. I see possibility and excitement. Today, I know self-kindness, self-care.

Today, I’ve learned self-love. I faced a decades-old fear — that having bipolar disorder would forever pigeon-hole me into despair. I still have limits, doubts, and fears, but I don’t hate myself.

In fact, I love myself. Just a bit.

‘Bird courses’ aren’t just smooth sailing

The reality behind bird courses is more complex than it seems

‘Bird courses’ aren’t just smooth sailing

When course enrolment rolls around each year, many students spend time carefully scrutinizing their options for electives. Websites such as yconic and birdcourses.com, as well as Facebook groups, are designed to help students search for ‘bird courses,’ a term widely used for courses that have a reputation for granting students an easy A with minimal effort.

After perusing birdcourses.com, it seems that students generally perceive bird courses as ones that are high in subjectivity, writing-intensive, require rote memory work, or introductory courses. Many students see bird courses as opportunities to skip lectures for that course, using the time to catch up on the work required by more ‘important’ courses.

That said, bird courses may not be as ‘birdy’ as they seem. The perceived level of difficulty within each course differs from student to student, as a result of disparate learning styles and talents.

Ideally, students should enrol in courses courses they are interested in and passionate about, and not make decisions merely according to course ratings.

The key to effective learning may be to have a sense of purpose and to be fully engaged in the task at hand. According to Daniel Pink, author of the bestselling book, Drive, when students have a learning objective, they don’t have to feel that they are good at what they are learning in order to put in effort and to like the course; essentially, “their goal is to learn, not to prove they’re smart.”

Ultimately, whether or not a course is perceived to be ‘easy’ should not be a deciding factor when enrolling. Instead, it is important to take courses that capture what you are interested in; this interest produces a motivational spark to succeed and learn.

This spark is bound to differ from one student to the next. For those who embrace Pink’s concept of mastery, “activity is its own reward,” which encourages us to learn and do well in any course we choose, whether ‘easy’ or not.

Secondly, the level of difficulty within each course differs for each student as a result of dispirate learning styles and talents. The University of Toronto Scarborough’s Career and Academic Advising Centre lists three learning styles: auditory, visual and kinesthetic learning.

When choosing courses or electives, an auditory learner should choose a course that heavily features group discussions. When enrolling in courses, seminar type courses would greatly benefit auditory learners who value group discussions. For instance, the lecture section of CCR199Y1 offered by Woodsworth College is a seminar course that combines writing, presentations and group discussions.

Visual learners should generally enrol in courses that have group presentations, which allow one to create chart materials and visuals. For instance, visual learners should consider taking art courses which involve creative components.

Finally, kinesthetic learners should enrol in courses that involve certain physical activities, including laboratory practice and making models that condense information into physical components. It may be that the majority of these courses are science courses, which often involve lab components, but are not frequently classified as ‘bird’ courses.

Of course, many students learn in a combination of styles, or would not categorize their learning according to this system. Nevertheless, students will be best served by identifying their own learning strengths, and seeking out courses that lend themselves to those styles.

When selecting courses, it is important to look beyond ratings, and expand the typical definition of a ‘bird course’ to account for individual differences among students. Taking what appears to be the easy way out can have a boomerang effect; students may find themselves enrolled in a course that is difficult for them despite easy online ratings. Instead, the key is to select courses that are intrinsically motivating to you, and that complement your learning styles and talents. Doing so means that you can capitalize on your strengths and harness your individual talents.

Alexa Lopreiato is a Master’s student in Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto.

 

A perilous drop

Bridging the gap between high school and university is necessary for educational progress

A perilous drop

Scrolling through my Facebook feed at this time of the year always floods me with a rush of nostalgia. However, seeing happy high school seniors posing in their prom pictures or preparing for their final exams prompts me to ask myself: are these kids ready for university?

The answer, as university students know, depends on a number of factors. For some, transitioning to university from high school can be the same as transitioning from the minor leagues to the majors. While some students are better prepared than others, the “first year dip” — an academic hit new students often undergo due to the increased difficulty and volume of material — is common during the first year of undergraduate studies.

With respect to the notorious reputations of schools like U of T, it is worth examining why high school doesn’t sufficiently prepare students to take on academic challenges following graduation.

The roots of this problem can be found in the history of public schooling in North America and Europe. During the Industrial Age more than 150 years ago, child labour was common as kids were beginning to replace adults in the job markets. As employees, children offered efficiency and cost less to employ. However, moral outrage eventually led to the implementation of public education. Its primary purpose was not necessarily to breed intellectuals, but instead to produce a new generation of better workers.

Education developed further over the subsequent years, along with the creation of the multiple-choice test. Originating in Kansas, USA, the multiple choice test was initially used to measure the intelligence of World War I veterans before integrating them back into the system.

The impact of this invention is huge, because the mainstream school system now often aims away from teaching the subject matter and toward being able to pass standardized tests. The Secondary School Admission Test, the International General Certificate of Secondary Education, and the International Baccalaureate are all standardized tests with emphasis on rote memorization.

Schools often teach strategies to do well on these specific evaluations, regardless of whether such methods account for mastering the subject matter or honing the ability to convey information in concise terms.

The inevitable result of such a system is the redundant question asked in high schools around the world: “Will we be tested on this?” This explains why a huge academic drop occurs when students graduate high school and are finally faced with questions that require deep critical thinking and logical reasoning.

Additionally, psychological reasons also play a major role in the first-year dip. High schools, by nature, provide a very co-dependent environment, where students are constantly reminded of deadlines. The faculty knows their students and families by name; teachers have enough time and resources to tailor their teaching style to the needs of their students.

This is a marked contrast to educational settings — such as Convocation Hall — whose mammoth-sized classes are large enough to destroy any sense of security or belonging. University professors teaching bigger classes unfortunately often results in little to no interaction with instructors or among peers.

Undoubtedly, this combined with the increased difficulty of academic materials creates a lot of unforeseen psychological stress. Professional, financial, and interpersonal responsibilities in university also seem to hit all at once without warning, which causes academic performance to falter. Seeing as how these difficulties are not uncommon, it is questionable why these issues and strategies to deal with them are not adequately addressed in high school.

Problems with the education system have been discussed and approached in different ways throughout the years. Many proposed solutions, however, represent changes to techniques and methods, not to the fundamentals. The system may have served well so far, but effective changes must be made soon. The rise of technological advances means that the world is changing at an exponential rate, therefore a new learning environment is more timely than ever.

For instance, artificial intelligence will eventually replace many existing jobs, so memorizing information and filling in Scantron sheets is becoming the most inefficient way to spend one’s high school career.

Instead, the aim of education should be to develop a person’s ability to ask provoking questions and think critically. Education should mean cultivating a love of knowledge for its own sake; it should develop morals and ethics that can be applied to solving our world’s greatest challenges.

Ahmed Salem is a second-year student at Woodsworth College studying neuroscience.

A commitment to reconciliation

Advocating for an Indigenous content requirement at U of T

A commitment to reconciliation

The curriculum of British Columbia’s grade 11 social studies classes involves learning about Canada’s past relations with Indigenous peoples. A large segment of this topic is dedicated to the discussion of residential schools and their impacts on Indigenous people in Canada.

I grew up in BC and I very much recall this section of the course: my teacher told my class that residential schools had all closed by the seventies. Knowing this to be false — as the last school closed in 1997 — I corrected him. Instead of acknowledging his mistake, he qualified his statement by saying, “All of the bad ones closed well before then.”

This statement implies there was such thing as a ‘good’ residential school, which is clearly not the case. All residential schools removed children from their families, communities, culture, and languages. Indigenous people who did not attend residential schools are experiencing the lasting intergenerational impacts of this system, including poverty, alcoholism, family breakdown, and systemic violence.

This statement also illustrates the lack of knowledge that many high school teachers have about Indigenous issues; these misrepresentations of the truth only serve to perpetuate stereotypes about Indigenous peoples.

[pullquote-features]A mere 13 per cent of elementary schools and 38 per cent of secondary schools consult with Indigenous communities — Indigenous peoples have little influence on the information being taught about their cultures. [/pullquote-features]

According to the 2016 People for Education Annual Report on Ontario’s Publicly Funded Schools, only 31 per cent of elementary schools and 53 per cent of secondary schools provide professional development opportunities for staff in the area of Indigenous cultural issues — just under half of secondary school teachers are not provided with up to date information to adequately instruct their students on these topics.

Additionally, only 29 per cent of elementary schools and 49 per cent of secondary schools bring in Indigenous guest speakers. A mere 13 per cent of elementary schools and 38 per cent of secondary schools consult with Indigenous communities — Indigenous peoples have little influence on the information taught about their cultures.

Given the lack of meaningful Indigenous education at the high school level, education on Indigenous issues should be incorporated into every student’s university education. Several Canadian universities have already implemented an Indigenous content requirement in order to make up for these gaps and to introduce international students to the problems faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada. It is now time for the University of Toronto to do the same.

In January 2016, the university announced it would convene a committee to review the recommendations made by the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that they would implement any recommendations found relevant to the university. Through this commitment, U of T demonstrates an interest in reconciling with Indigenous peoples. In following through with this interest, the university should feel an obligation to ensure that all of its students understand the realities of colonization, residential schools, and the impacts that have followed for Indigenous peoples.

Although not expressly laid out as a recommendation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, implementing a mandatory Indigenous content requirement would ensure that all U of T undergraduates have such an understanding upon completion of their degree. Then, students would be able to bring this understanding forward to enlighten other members of the population on these issues.

Some of those opposed to such a requirement suggest that this information should be taught in high school. The reality is that the majority of high school teachers do not have the knowledge to accurately teach about Indigenous issues, if they teach about Indigenous issues at all.

Many people in opposition to a mandatory Indigenous content requirement have a problem with any mandatory courses at all, arguing that university is a paid educational experience and students should be able to take what interests them. Rather than requiring specific courses like many other institutions though, U of T breadth requirements ensure that students are well rounded while still able to maintain their freedom of choice with respect to course selection.

U of T can simply implement this requirement in a similar way to the University of Winnipeg, which incorporated a multitude of Indigenous studies courses from which students can choose. Indigenous content could be fused with program objectives, which would allow students to learn how these issues impact all fields and ensure all students graduate with knowledge of such issues. Indigenous students could be included in designing and facilitating courses, ensuring accuracy and giving them influence on what is taught.

[pullquote-features]By implementing an Indigenous content requirement, U of T has the potential to effectively address the marginalization faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada.[/pullquote-features]

At U of T, this requirement could easily be incorporated into the current breadth requirement system, by designating any courses providing sufficient information on Indigenous issues as a breadth category and including completion of a credit in this category as a graduation requirement. The university can also avoid increasing the number of breadth courses students must take by granting credit for the Indigenous requirement in addition to any breadth categories the course currently fulfills.

By implementing an Indigenous content requirement, U of T has the potential to effectively address the marginalization faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada. Prioritizing Indigenous content will empower students to understand their position in Indigenous matters and acknowledge any related privileges they may hold. It will also give Indigenous students the opportunity to see their culture embraced by the university, creating a more inclusive, engaging environment. This is an important step that the university should take, if it truly wants to commit to reconciliation.

Madeleine Freedman is a third-year Innis College student studying Canadian Studies.