U of T Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre releases report assessing growth and future

56 reports of sexual violence at U of T over the past two years

U of T Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre releases report assessing growth and future

The U of T Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre (SVPSC) released a progress report in May detailing the Centre’s tri-campus changes and objectives across a two-year period, from January 1, 2017 to December 31, 2018.

In the report, the Centre noted that it received 506 requests for support from faculty, staff, and students. Fifty-six reports were filed under the university’s Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment.

The Centre also participated in 64 outreach activities at campus events and delivered 190 workshops to 7,920 U of T community members, amassing a total of 300 hours of training through the workshops. In addition, 4,156 students, staff, and faculty members had engaged with the new online sexual violence prevention training module posted on Quercus in 2018.

A relatively new institution at U of T, the Centre was established in 2017.

“Really, [we’re] looking at ways we can break down some of the stigma around reaching out for help around sexual violence,” said Angela Treglia, the Director of the SVPSC.

According to the report, among the core objectives of the Centre is providing a safe space where people can receive non-judgmental care and support, while also learning about the resources and options available to them, whether or not that includes filing a formal report.

The Centre has had some difficulty trying to reach more people. According to the results of an Ontario-wide survey on sexual violence at postsecondary institutions, U of T respondents noted that only 20.1 per cent felt strongly that they knew where to go for resources and support. In contrast, 58.7 per cent disclosed that they experienced sexual violence or sexual harassment since the beginning of the academic year.

Treglia said that the Centre’s future objectives include building the education effort through workshops and also increasing community engagement. She believes that as the Centre’s visibility grows, more people will use its services.

“We want people to know that when they come to us, they get to decide what level of detail they get to share with us, so that they don’t feel like they don’t have to retell their story multiple times,” she said. “They’re in control of what next steps might look like.”

Treglia also emphasized the Centre’s commitment to working with student groups to reach out to students more effectively, noting that she has seen the 60-page report about sexual violence at U of T released by U of T student grassroots organization Silence is Violence.

However, according to Jessica Wright, representative and researcher at Silence is Violence and PhD candidate at U of T, the Centre could improve its outreach to student groups. Wright believes that U of T’s administration needs to work harder to incorporate the voices of student activists and survivors in the conversation about sexual violence.

“We have yet to hear from the university or see any engagement with the work that [Silence is Violence] did to collect student voices on gender-based violence at U of T,” Wright said. “It remains that those with the most power at the university are determining what students and survivors need, without meaningfully engaging with what student survivors are saying.”

“This is not going to be the most effective way of supporting students on the ground.”

According to Treglia, the Centre is in the process of developing feedback tools to chart its development and weaknesses. Some forms of feedback are already in place, such as the current review of U of T’s sexual violence policy. These responses will be used to pinpoint and address potential areas for growth and change at the Centre.

“We are just in the beginning,” Treglia said. “We know we are reaching people, but we also know we have work to do.”

Where to find sexual violence and harassment support at U of T

A list of safety resources is available at safety.utoronto.ca

The tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre’s website is www.svpscentre.utoronto.ca

Individuals can visit the Centre’s website for more information, contact details, and hours of operation. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266.

Locations:

  • U of T downtown Toronto campus: Gerstein Library, suite B139
  • U of T Mississauga: Davis Building, room 3094G
  • U of T Scarborough: Environmental Science and Chemistry Building, EV141

Those who have experienced sexual violence can also call Campus Police to make a report at 416-978-2222 (St. George and U of T Scarborough) or 905-569-4333 (U of T Mississauga).

After-hours support is also available at:

  • Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre (416-323-6040)
  • Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre (416-495-2400)
  • Trillium Hospital Sexual Assault Care Centre (905-848-7100).

Task Force on Student Mental Health announces members

Consultations with students, staff to begin in July

Task Force on Student Mental Health announces members

The University of Toronto has revealed the members of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health. Its establishment was announced last semester in response to growing mental health concerns on campus.

The task force was established on March 28 as one of four key elements laid out by U of T President Meric Gertler to address the problem of mental health. Since then, hundreds of nominees have come forward to serve on this task force — a committee which may have a lasting impact on how the university handles mental health issues for years to come.

Chaired by Professor Trevor Young, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, the task force is made up of four students, three faculty members, three administrative staff members, and two senior assessors. Their work begins immediately in reaching out and consulting the U of T community on how to improve student mental health and wellness.

The task force members come from a variety of different faculties and campuses, with both undergraduate and graduate students being represented. Among the members are people who have previously volunteered, researched, or worked professionally on mental health issues, with some having personally faced challenges with mental health in the past.

The students on the task force are Master of Social Work student Egag Egag from the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, Jayson Jeyakanthan from UTM, PhD candidate Corey McAuliffe from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, and Aurora Nowicki from the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.

The first phase of the task force’s operations involves in-person consultations and collecting online form submissions starting in July and continuing through the fall semester. This is in accordance with the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health Outreach and Engagement Plan, which outlines the group’s proposed operations from now until November 15, 2019. This draft plan is currently under consultation and feedback can be submitted online until June 21, 2019.

The Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health is set to present their findings and recommendations to President Gertler and Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr by December 2019.


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

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

Warning signs of suicide include:

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

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

Office of Indigenous Initiatives releases first progress report

Report tracks progress of reconciliation, university announces new initiatives

Office of Indigenous Initiatives releases first progress report

The University of Toronto’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives (OII) has released its first progress report on the university’s advancements toward reconciliation, focusing on areas including institutional support for the Indigenous community, Indigenous curricula, and the hiring of Indigenous faculty and staff.

The report is meant to follow the advancement of the recommendations made by U of T’s Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee in their final report back in January 2017. It contained 34 calls to action for U of T in six major areas, including in Indigenous spaces and institutional leadership.

According to the OII’s director, Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo, the university has made progress since the Truth and Reconciliation report was released, but he also acknowledged that there is still a long way to go. “Because this is a long-term process and commitment, we always knew things weren’t going to happen overnight. But we’re definitely moving in the right direction,” he told U of T News.

Hamilton-Diabo was previously the Director of Aboriginal Student Services at First Nations House, and was appointed as the first Director of Indigenous Initiatives by Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr and Vice-President, Human Resources & Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat shortly after the release of the Steering Committee’s report. The establishment of the OII followed shortly after, with a mandate to guide the U of T community in its efforts toward reconciliation, as well as advise on and oversee Indigenous initiatives across the university.

Among the innovations detailed in the progress report is the office of the Vice-President & Provost’s establishment of a university fund designated for the hiring of 20 new Indigenous faculty members and 20 new Indigenous staff members.

The university’s advancement division has also secured funding for institutions like the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, as well as new scholarships meant to provide financial assistance to Indigenous students, such as the Bennett Scholars program.

New Indigenous faculty members have been hired at all three of U of T’s campuses since the 2016–2017 school year.

The university’s different faculties have continued to develop Indigenous-related curriculum content. Of note, the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work recently launched a specialized Master in Social Work, Indigenous Trauma and Resiliency, and the university incorporated Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in 97 courses.

On the Indigenous student experience, the report states that recruiting and supporting Indigenous students is a priority for U of T. It highlighted events such as the Indigenous Studies Students’ Union (ISSU)’s annual Pow Wow, and the SOAR Indigenous Youth Gathering program, which the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education hosts over March break.

The report also notes the importance of promoting the creation and visibility of Indigenous spaces at U of T, which has been bolstered by the redesign of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute, as well as increased signage at the office of Indigenous Law Students’ Association at the Faculty of Law.

The progress report concludes with notes on challenges to reconciliation and next steps. Among the challenges noted by the OII is a lack of confidence in how to proceed, attributed to the general neglect of Canadian education on Indigenous history and culture, as well as limited time, resources, and persistently low levels of Indigenous faculty representation. According to the report, Indigenous consultation and participation, as well as the development of relationships, will be key in the progress of reconciliation at U of T.

Labour groups rebuke U of T’s “inaction” on asbestos

Comments come as U of T report finds university meeting provincial standards

Labour groups rebuke U of T’s “inaction” on asbestos

In response to an independent U of T report that found that the university’s asbestos management practices meet legislated provincial requirements, and are even “more restrictive in some places,” labour organizations are criticizing the university over its perceived “inaction and inadequate response.”

The report and the university administration’s response were made public on March 26, two years after asbestos-containing dust forced the closure of sections of the Medical Sciences Building.

The report is a product of an independent panel whose membership was finalized by U of T in January 2018. Submitted to the school in February, the report includes data from over 4,000 air samples taken from university buildings.

The samples found that 95 per cent of indoor air samples from the Medical Sciences Building are indistinguishable from outside air and have asbestos levels below existing standards.

However, the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA), which represents U of T faculty, librarians, and research associates, has strongly criticized the university’s asbestos management and the report’s limited scope.

On April 18, the UTFA, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3902, and the United Steelworkers (USW) 1998 held a press conference to voice concerns about the report and the university’s handling of asbestos.

CUPE 3902 represents contract academic workers at U of T, including teaching assistants and exam invigilators. USW 1998 represents U of T’s clerical and professional employees.

Setting standards

Asbestos is a silicate mineral that was commonly used in construction for insulation and fireproofing before 1990. It was later banned, with some exemptions, in Canada in 2018.

When asbestos fibres are released into the air, such as during maintenance or construction, they pose a serious health risk if inhaled.

Across Canada, the occupational exposure limit (OEL) — which is the standard acceptable exposure for construction workers — is 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre (f/cc) for asbestos.

The generally accepted exposure standard for the general public is half of the OEL — U of T has set its campuses’ action limit to this 0.05 f/cc standard.

The report was unable to find a legally enforceable maximum or best practice standard for public exposure to asbestos, meaning that its findings are tied to existing best practices.

Vice-President Operations and Real Estate Partnerships Scott Mabury stood by the university’s use of a 0.05 f/cc action limit, adding that if it finds a standard that is “grounded in something that everybody can agree on… or is based on some physical reality, then [the university] will consider adopting that level.”

Although not legally enforceable, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change has set a desirable concentration of 0.04 f/cc.

Mabury, formerly the Chair of the Department of Chemistry, said that as an analytical chemist, it is “very difficult to tell the difference” between 0.04 and 0.05 f/cc.

U of T’s standards have been a point of contention. The report recommended that the university ensures that asbestos exposure is “as low as reasonably achievable,” with 0.02–0.04 f/cc as suggested reasonable guidelines. It added that 0.01 f/cc should be an aspirational limit.

Mabury, however, said that the university has yet to find a basis upon which to lower acceptable asbestos exposure levels.

Terezia Zoric, the Chair of the UTFA’s Grievance Committee, wrote to The Varsity that U of T must act on the report’s recommendations.

“Despite the Administration’s own Panel’s finding that it would be best practice for the Administration to adopt a more demanding standard for testing air quality, the Administration has shown a complete lack of willingness to do so,” she wrote.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Administration plans to use a less demanding standard and are concerned for the health and safety of UTFA members, students and staff.”

In response to UTFA’s critiques, Mabury told The Varsity, “We believe we will endeavour to always do the best we can. We are holding ourselves to a standard that is connected to a legal requirement because it’s something we can point to that is real and substantive.”

He added that the safety of the U of T community is the administration’s highest priority.

Administration and consultation

Another chief concern that the labour organizations have voiced is what they perceive as the panel’s lack of meaningful consultation with the U of T community.

The three-person expert panel was chaired by epidemiologist and l’Université de Montréal professor Jack Siemiatycki as well as Roland Hosein and Andrea Sass‐Kortsak, both associated with the Division of Occupational and Environmental Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Jess Taylor, the Chair of CUPE 3902, said that the panel failed to listen to criticism and that outreach was “abysmal” and inaccessible, adding that unions were only provided a 10-day notice for the feedback sessions.

“There was a democratic deficiency of representation regarding the review panel process and implementation,” Taylor said. In response, Mabury told The Varsity that the panel “went well beyond what [U of T] asked them to do.”

He also said that the panel’s timing of the consultations was based on its members’ limited availabilities due to their “high demand on a global basis to provide [their] expertise.”

The UTFA has also expressed concern that the panel was not at arm’s-length from the U of T administration, “whose conduct should have been under scrutiny.”

Mabury, however, stressed that the panel was not influenced by the U of T administration.

“These were independent scientists. They are academics… These folks were chosen for their expert opinion. That’s what we asked for. That’s what we got,” he told The Varsity.

Among the recommendations of the panel was a re-evaluation of the university’s Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) Department’s organizational structure.

Under the current structure, Mabury is responsible for the removal of asbestos during capital projects, Vice-President Research and Innovation Vivek Goel is responsible for broad environmental health and safety, while Vice-President Human Resources & Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat is responsible for worker health.

“We believe that separation of oversight duties has an internal value in having internal checks and balances that wouldn’t be there if we coalesced everything into one portfolio,” Mabury said.

While asbestos management practices will not change, the university will more explicitly articulate each Vice-President’s roles and responsibilities in its asbestos management practices.

Evaluating experts’ expertise

Beyond the lack of community input, Zoric told The Varsity that the UTFA believes that the panel should have included more experts, and ones with different areas of expertise, as its three members did not have “practical experience in asbestos abatement and management, and did not include representatives from employee groups working in affected buildings.”

Mabury said that the three members were chosen because most peer reviews involve two to three experts. He added that they were “the best from amongst those nominated” from an open nomination period, citing Siemiatycki’s four decades of experience as a researcher.

The UTFA retained the services of Environmental Consulting Occupational Health (ECOH), an environmental consultant, soon after the 2017 incidents. According to Zoric, ECOH advised that the university’s current standards are not appropriate and do not meet the best practice standard that the report calls for.

“Priority Investments”: the board meeting after Bahen

Students press the administration for better mental health resources and policy change

“Priority Investments”: the board meeting after Bahen

Content warning: discussions of suicide.

On March 17, another student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology.

We’ve lost at least three members of our student community to suicide this school year. Their stories are not mine to tell.

On March 18, I was one of five students allowed into U of T’s Business Board meeting. Students deserve to know what happened in that room. This is a story I can tell.

Like most students, I learned of the tragedy through Facebook on the night that it happened. I stayed awake refreshing my home page. By the next morning, students had created an event page called “Protest UofT’s Inaction.” Word spread quickly. Hundreds of us planned to unite in peaceful protest outside of President Meric Gertler’s office on King’s College Circle from 2:00 to 6:00 pm. When I arrived at Simcoe Hall, students were protesting outside, while Campus Police officers blocked access to the inside. Hearing that a meeting was taking place on Simcoe Hall’s second floor, four of us went to the back door of Convocation Hall to try the elevators. The elevator wouldn’t budge without a key.

I felt the sting of an obvious metaphor as I kept pressing the button. Only a select few have access to the top.

We gave up on the Simcoe sit-in and made our way to the Medical Sciences Building, where we heard the Business Board meeting would be moved. We got as close as we could to the office before Campus Police blocked off the next door. Students sat in the hall, maintaining a clear path to the door and any exit route. We’re not in the camp of blocking the way. Eventually, someone came from the meeting to offer three students a seat in the meeting. The spots filled up immediately. I ran up to Lucinda Qu, a student activist who was about to go in.

“You have to talk about the mandatory leave,” I urged.

“I will, I promise,” she said. I sat back down. A few minutes later, the same person who let three of us in came back out. There was room for two more students. This time, I was one of them.

The two of us joined the three other students sitting at the back of the room. During the meeting’s first few minutes, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr acknowledged the recent tragedy and addressed mental health on campus. She mentioned new support systems for students in crisis at this time, and underscored last year’s investments in new counsellors and additional aid.

When the provost finished, my fellow students and I were poised to continue this discussion, but the board secretary changed the topic. “The main focus of our meeting today is student fees and budget,” he said. The students’ concern over U of T’s mental health crisis was not ‘the main focus,’ at least not here. Someone gave us copies of the 2019-2020 budget report. I opened the booklet to the centre spread and saw bold white letters on a glossy blue background: “Priority Investments.” A metaphor put into words. As Governing Council members discussed budgetary planning and tuition changes, I realized that our demands for better mental health services were not a priority investment. I looked at the other student who had walked in with me.

“Wait — what exactly are we here for?” they asked me. This student held a framed picture of their friend who had died by suicide. Five students were physically present in the meeting, but when I looked at the picture, I realized that we were six. Perhaps, in some form or other, we were even more.

“I have no idea,” I said. I had no idea why — or how — a regular budgetary meeting was happening as though students weren’t protesting outside, as though a student hadn’t died the day before.

On the back of the budget report, I scribbled notes on why the university’s mandatory leave of absence policy fails to comply with the criteria outlined by Ontario Human Rights Commission. The other students compiled a statement about U of T’s mental health crisis on a public Google Doc, where students from the outside chimed in with online suggestions. There weren’t just five of us in the room. There were dozens.

After 45 minutes of budget talks, the board secretary addressed the elephant in the room: the students. He gave us a few minutes to speak. Lucinda read a statement on behalf of the students who could not make it into the room.

“To the thousands of us that will spend years of our lives here,” she said, “and to the handful of us who will end our lives here, this is disheartening.” My heart sank and a lump rose in my throat. Lucinda read sections of the collaborative document where students had listed inadequate responses: “It is UNACCEPTABLE to have waiting lists for access to mental health services. It is UNACCEPTABLE to have understaffed and unresponsive counseling services.”

In the Google Doc, students capitalized “UNACCEPTABLE,” flagging the need for emphasis. Lucinda’s voice carried this collective inflection. I think my voice would have cracked. “Time and time again,” Lucinda said, “we have participated [in] fruitless discussions with people who are supposed to be our allies.” The board secretary interrupted her. “I’m going to ask you to sum up,” he said. Crucial discussions become fruitless when cut short. Despite the impossible task of condensing a crisis in one minute, Lucinda pressed the administration to work with us “in a public, honest, and materially significant capacity.”

The secretary thanked her for “that thoughtful and well-articulated presentation.” President Meric Gertler expressed his shared concerns and thanked everyone who contributed to the statement. “We recognize that institutions like this university can and should do more to address these issues,” he said.

The president stated that the university has “invested in good faith — not bad faith — in many service improvements across all three of our campuses, and the investments are quite substantial. Clearly, there is the need to do more.” He continued, “I just want to signal here an openness, and indeed an enthusiasm, to work with students in good faith and in a very open way to solicit your advice and your ideas on how to do better.”

Regehr spoke next. She said that the administration will continue to invest in mental health, while acknowledging that many of those current investments fall short. “With respect to consultation,” she added, “we will absolutely continue to meet with our students. Professor [Sandy] Welsh and I meet regularly with our student leaders, and that is an issue that is on the table and we commit to continuing to do that.” In response to calls for systemic change at U of T, Regehr explained that the university has a “new expert panel on the undergraduate educational experience.”

When the provost finished, the board secretary thanked us again for this moving speech before moving on. I put my hand up. “I’m sorry, we can’t take questions at this time,” the secretary said.

I didn’t have any questions. I had a statement.

“We need to address the mandatory leave of absence policy,” I said. “A student died this weekend, and we can afford to spend a few extra minutes listening to students. I don’t know when I’m going to have another opportunity to share why U of T’s mandatory leave of absence policy is unacceptable.” I stumbled over every word. I was already standing and ready to read when the board secretary granted me permission.

“I think you should be allowed to read it, but I’d ask that you keep your comments to one minute,” he said. “It’s an additional request and we’d like to move on with our regular budget meeting, so please keep your comments brief.” I spoke for four minutes and 58 seconds. Here is part of what I said:

U of T’s mandatory leave of absence policy is incompatible with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The policy claims to “provide reasonable accommodation to the point of undue hardship” as per the OHRC. On January 29, OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane wrote, “the Policy may result in discrimination” and “falls short of meeting the duty to accommodate under the Code.” By approving the policy after making minor edits, the university sends the following message to students: although the OHRC flags potential human rights violations, the policy still stands, and its administrators stand behind the policy. By stressing the OHRC’s “duty to accommodate,” the policy preemptively defends itself from critique within a human rights framework. If a student is in crisis, the policy claims, “it may not be consistent with the duty to accommodate to merely let the student confront significant negative academic consequences.” By touting a mandated leave of absence as an accommodation, the university misunderstands the OHRC’s policies. This policy fits what the OHRC calls “denial of access,” whereby post-secondary institutions “exclude students with disabilities” and denies them “equal opportunity in their education.” The OHRC also claims “education providers have a duty to accommodate students with disabilities up to the point of undue hardship.” Allowing mentally ill/Mad-identified students barrier-free access to education does not constitute undue hardship; it grants them the equal opportunity that post-secondary institutions must provide. According to specific criteria listed in the OHRC, undue hardship entails accommodations that are too onerous in terms of cost and health and safety.

The policy capitalizes on the “health and safety” criterion of undue hardship by conflating mentally ill people at risk to themselves with those who pose a risk to others, a narrative which perpetuates discriminatory stereotypes. The policy conflates “a risk of harm to self or others” in the threshold for a mandated leave. This scenario maintains that Mad people are dangerous. Most Mad/mentally ill people, however, are not violent but subject to violence. If a student poses a risk to others, however, the university should mandate removal from studies as per the student code of conduct. There are, however, documented incidents where abusers and assailants have been allowed to remain in class and on campus. The OHRC cautions against “ignorance and misunderstanding about people with psychosocial disabilities,” and the policy reveals such ignorance. Students may appeal their mandated leave “no later than 10 business days after the decision.” This 10-day deadline ignores the complexities of mental health. Someone admitted to a psychiatric hospital, as I have been several times, might not be able to contact the university and organize their defence. Students must also apply “at least 30 days prior to the term in which the student wishes to enrol.” A student forced to leave at the beginning or middle of a term can only return in the following term. If a student does not meet the 30-day deadline, the university may “terminate” their registration. The student must organize around their crisis to ensure their post-secondary education is neither suspended nor terminated. A student’s return would involve “periodic review,” “verification,” “monitoring,” and “indication that the student may be subject to ongoing conditions.” This kind of surveillance will exacerbate symptoms of paranoia and anxiety that many people with mental illness experience. The policy stigmatizes students with mental health issues. This stigma, the OHRC claims, may “lead institutions to develop policies, procedures and decision-making practices that exclude or marginalize people with mental health disabilities.”

I urge you to revise a policy that is clearly not working and clearly not for us. I suggest a policy designed to mandate the leave of abusers and assailants on campus who pose actual threats to other students, and a separate policy designed to support students in crisis who may pose a risk to themselves. Accommodate us without removing our autonomy. As the policy stands, students are afraid to seek help for fear of being placed on a mandated leave.

Posted by Lucinda Qu on Monday, March 18, 2019

My voice shook more than my hands. At this point, I went off script to maintain eye contact with individual members until they nodded.

“We see this policy, we see it in print, we see it in writing, and we are afraid. The consequences of this fear, the consequences of being silenced, [are] life-threatening.” I needed the governors to understand this fear. Last semester, University College’s mental wellness commissioner, Kiana Habibagahi, and I met with Vice-Provost Sandy Welsh to discuss the mandatory leave policy. Welsh said that the policy would be implemented in very few cases. To a person in crisis, this condition means nothing. The fear of being the rare exception keeps students from seeking help.

I thanked the board members for their time and sank in my seat. I cried. My fellow students gave me back-pats and a glass of water. The rim of the cup missed my mouth and most of the water spilled down my shirt, which was already damp from nervous sweat. I was a sopping puffy-eyed mess in a room full of people on Ontario’s Sunshine List.

The provost spoke: “I’ll just respond very briefly. I really want to thank the student for bringing this to our attention.” I tried to listen. I dissociated instead.

“When we brought the policy through last year,” the provost said, “we did undertake that we would be reporting back to governance about use of the policy and we will be doing that, as we promised.” I’m not interested in pulling back governance, or in the policy’s rare application. As long as the policy stands, so does the possibility of it being used against us.

The board secretary thanked the provost before shifting gears. “So unless there’s any other business to be raised by the board, the meeting will now move on —” One of the board members steered the discussion back to the policy, describing it as having “a certain chilling effect.” I sat up in my seat. The unexpected ally continued: “It is a strong concern and I have to admit, having thought about this policy in the months since we passed it, I have more concerns than when we approved it.” This shift from platitudes to critique hinted at progress. I felt, for the first time, that one person in the administration was on our side. He thanked us as we left the room. I’d like to thank him back.

At the end of the hall, two Campus Police officers were waiting to usher us out. An officer placed his hand on our backs to move us through the door one by one, dividing us with a firm push and a loud “Next!” It was as though we were criminals. “Next!” I waited in line behind my four fellow students. “Next!” I have PTSD from a history of sexual assault. Too many strangers have put their hands on my body. “Next!” The officer pressed his hand against my lower back.

“Don’t touch me!”

“Fine,” he said, with a have-it-your-way indignation. I was delirious from a sleepless night and a nightmarish day. And now I was triggered.

When I felt the officer’s hand on my back, Lucinda’s statement came back to me: “It is unacceptable.” It is unacceptable that campus police use intimidation strategies. It is unacceptable that campus police do not consider students who may have a history of trauma, students who come from marginalized communities that are susceptible to police brutality, students who have the right not to be touched. It is unacceptable that I have to include a tangent on the police in this article.

Yet poor mental health care and police intervention inevitably ally. I call on the administration to address the systemic connection between campus police responses and issues surrounding student mental health. In a recent meeting that a group of students and I held with Janine Robb, the Executive Director of the Health & Wellness Centre, I learnt that two years ago, campus police could handcuff students during a mental health crisis. Today, careless campus police actions are symptoms of this sanist legacy.

And to the officer who touched students that day: keep your hands off us.

I finally joined the students who were peacefully protesting in the hall. I knew they’d be waiting for us. Lucinda and I gave brief statements. Microphones and TV cameras loomed. Still, the daunting media apparatus intimidated me less than the board meeting whose members wanted us to keep our statements brief. No one was watching the clock here. I sat back down among the protesters, most of whom I didn’t know. I just knew that I cared about these people deeply and felt their care just as intensely. I cannot overstate the richness of our communal support.

Toward the end of the evening, a group of students lingered in our space of protest. On his way out, Gertler addressed us. He thanked Lucinda and me for our moving speeches. We thanked him for the opportunity to speak. He then expressed a strong desire to engage in further discussions with students.

Students are not interested in being heard without being listened to. It will be the administrators’ privilege to listen to those of us who are still here to speak. When deference doesn’t get us change, we need to make demands. I’m demanding that the administration consult with us and implement substantive policy changes as per our pleas.

“I’ll be honest,” I said to Gertler. “Students feel like the administration is working against us, not for or with us.” Prepositions matter. Consultations matter. These forms of language and communication often go wrong. He assured that he would consult with students.

President Gertler, I will take you up on your offer for further discussions, for meaningful and regular consultations. My friends and I look forward to working with you and your colleagues.

As we continue this work, our responsibility to one another requires respect for those who are grieving, for those who need privacy, and for those whose stories are not ours to tell. Amid the anger, the protests, and the collective demand for change, we cannot forget the mourning.

We cannot forget the seemingly small gestures that just might sustain someone who is struggling. After the protests, the board meeting, the media coverage, the organizing, and the grief of that long Monday, I met up with one of my closest friends. He brought me to his place so that I could do laundry and take a shower. It had been a while since I had done either of those things. The next day, another dear friend gave me Tylenol for a crushing headache and let me lie in her lap for a moment. My friends’ simple acts of care were more necessary than I can explain. I’d argue that helping someone meet their basic needs is more important than reading a statement at a board meeting.

I’d like to end with a note on language. People do not ‘commit’ suicide; they die by suicide as a result of a broken, ableist, and sanist system that does not support those who struggle. Prepositions matter.

On June 24, 2018, a student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre.

On June 27, 2018, Governing Council approved the university-mandated leave of absence policy.

We warned the administration that the policy would dissuade students from seeking help, that the risk of student suicide could rise.

We hoped we wouldn’t be right.


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

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

Warning signs of suicide include:

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

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