U of T should pay heed to the Ontario Human Rights Commission

Re: “Ontario Human Rights Commission releases new policy on accessible education”

U of T should pay heed to the Ontario Human Rights Commission

While clearly the new policy on accessibility in education released by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) is meant to apply to all schools across Ontario, it appears as though it was in part a specific response to U of T’s Governing Council, following Governing Council’s approval of the discriminatory University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP) in May. Even if this were not the case, it certainly would not hurt Governing Council to pay attention to this new policy.

For a start, the OHRC policy itself should be a reminder for institutions like U of T as to how they should make special consideration for students with mental illness, disabilities, and other accessibility needs. It is the responsibility of the university to help, accommodate, and respectfully treat students with such needs. It is hardly respectful to focus energy and resources on forcibly removing students with mental illnesses, as is the case with the UMLAP, instead of first and foremost addressing their needs and improving the structure of treatment for such students.

The UMLAP shows us how the university views students with mental illnesses. The OHRC policy, on the other hand, shows us how universities ought to view such students, and how all students with disabilities, mental illnesses, and accessibility needs ought to be treated: respectfully, and in good faith. The OHRC policy includes things like expanding definitions of disability and reaffirming the rights of all students to achieve an education with the support of the Ontario institution of their choice.

It is not up to students to try and force themselves to fit into outdated standards and policies in sacrifice of their health, mental and physical. Instead, it is the obligation of the institution, including U of T, to support all students and meet them where they need.  The goal should be to keep everyone in, not kick them out.

Adina Heisler is a fourth-year University College student studying Women and Gender Studies and English.

Story against policy

Navigating U of T’s bureaucracy as a bipolar student with PTSD

Story against policy

Content warning: descriptions of sexual violence and suicide.

On January 29, 2017, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a bipolar mixed episode gone wrong.

On June 12, 2017, I was readmitted for a suicide attempt.

On June 27, 2018, the University of Toronto’s Governing Council approved the mandated leave of absence policy, cementing tools administrators had to remove students in crisis from their studies. Had the policy or similar policies been used a year ago, it would have upended my life. This policy will upend the lives of numerous students who also struggle with their mental health.

During my last year of high school in Switzerland, I was being treated for depression. I discontinued treatment and therapy when I came to U of T in the fall of 2014. I figured a new country and new phase in my life would allow for a fresh start, and to some extent, this was true.

But mental illness doesn’t stay behind in the country you leave. I suppressed this truth and revelled in the novelty of university life.

I suppressed this truth until I returned to Switzerland over my first winter break.

It happened on the morning of New Year’s Eve. I went for an early-morning run in my hometown. The crisp winter air filled my lungs and the familiar scenery filled me with bittersweet nostalgia. I was running along a beaten path lined with trees. A man jumped out from behind one of the trees and, as the stereotype goes, he sexually assaulted me. I remember running across the road. I remember screaming “no” on the sidewalk. Cars passed. Some drivers slowed down to see a display of hysteria before driving away. One person’s trauma is another person’s spectacle.

When I left Geneva a few days later, home didn’t feel like home anymore. Over the next month, I ignored my parents’ advice to contact U of T’s sexual assault counsellors. I didn’t want to revert to my high school self, a depressed person sitting in a therapist’s office. Meanwhile, I had regular Skype calls with the police in Geneva as part of the year-long process to prosecute my assailant. I thought that I could balance the re-traumatizing bureaucracy behind the investigation with schoolwork. I thought that I could handle it — until I couldn’t.

My nightmares turned into night terrors. When I wasn’t in class, I stayed in bed, too afraid to leave my dorm room. I drank alone. I gained 20 pounds. I fell back into depression, a familiar sadness that came with an unfamiliar trauma. I finally made an appointment with the sexual assault counsellor at Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

When I arrived, a receptionist at CAPS handed me a pen and a clipboard with a questionnaire. I filled it out in the waiting room, accidentally chewing the pen. When I was halfway through reducing my depression to a numerical value, the assault counsellor called me into her office.

“What brings you in today?” she asked. That’s how therapy starts. I had been in this situation before.

“I was assaulted,” I replied, clinging to the comforting ambiguity. I didn’t want to say ‘sexually assaulted.’ I didn’t want to say what happened.

The counsellor wanted me to say what happened. I racked my English literature brain for an escape route via euphemisms or circumlocution. “I was running and there was a man behind a tree and it just happened.”

The grammatically indefinite ‘it’ buffered me from the shock of retelling a violent story. But the counsellor pried for more.“

Did he put his penis against your body? I just want a better picture of what happened.”

I wanted to say ‘no.’ No to the question. No to re-traumatizing retelling. No to graphic details for the sake of graphic details. Instead, I said “yes.” One person’s trauma is another person’s picture.

After four appointments, the assault counsellor decided that I needed to see a psychiatrist instead. The re-triggering sessions were all for nothing.

After a few months on a waitlist, I got an appointment with a psychiatrist, who prescribed antidepressants and asked me questions about why I wanted to die. She seemed bored by my case during our 15-minute appointments. It’s difficult to explain suicidal ideation in a tight timeframe.

I stopped seeing her after two months.

When I returned to Geneva the summer after first year to see my family and attend the prosecution of my assailant, my body got sick. I underwent a series of tests, including blood work, an MRI scan, an ultrasound, a bone density scan, and a smell test (which I failed).

I was misdiagnosed with partial Kallmanns Syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome, and hyposmia — an impaired sense of smell. I was accurately diagnosed with a pituitary microadenoma (which sounds scarier than it is) and osteoporosis (which, to a 19-year-old, sounds as scary as it is).

My body matched my mind: both were starting to break down.

I entered second year feeling older, and not in a good way. I made an appointment with a doctor at the Health & Wellness Centre to discuss management options for my osteoporosis. This doctor was kind and thorough. She also recognized that I was depressed. She prescribed medication I was comfortable with and put me on a waitlist to see a different psychiatrist at CAPS.

My doctor continued to see me regularly and offered me more help than I had received from either the sexual assault counsellor or the psychiatrist in first year. For the first time, I experienced good care at Health & Wellness.

I continued to receive good care with an excellent psychiatrist at CAPS. Although my medical care got better, I got worse. I experienced not only depression but also psychosomatic reactions to trauma, a response which manifested in tics and a stutter.

It started in January 2016, about a year after my assault. My head jerked insistently to the left, keeping me in a constant state of negation, and my shoulders shook like laughter. I felt like a modern-day hysteric. I could handle the physical pain of these motor tics. What I could not handle was my loss of language.

With the thick stutter clipping my words, I could no longer speak in class or be the engaged English student that I wanted to be. I dropped one of my classes because I couldn’t stand the looks I was getting from the other students. Fewer classes meant fewer people had to see my awkward twitching body.

Over a few months, my psychiatrist and doctor treated my psychosomatic symptoms.

Although I still twitch whenever I get stressed, startled, or over-caffeinated, my tics are no longer a 24-hour full-body workout. Aside from depression, panic attacks, night terrors, motor tics, osteoporosis, and a faulty sense of smell, I finished second year relatively scot-free.

In retrospect, second year was a breeze compared to the years that followed. Things took a turn when I started experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder.

During the fall of third year, I felt good. Too good. I was energized in a way that I had never been before. Everything looked sharp, as though someone had increased the saturation and resolution of the world around me. I wrote thousands of words of terrible poetry, convinced that I had to publish a book immediately. My pressured speech and racing thoughts demanded an audience.

I would waltz around the Junior Common Room (JCR) to find someone to listen to my latest theories on behavioural homeostasis, the physical antimatter of our bodies, and Greek etymological connections to a specific musical chord progression. Friends would often stop me mid-speech to tell me they couldn’t follow. I was elated, electric. I could write an A-grade paper on modern poetry in a few hours and spend the rest of the night running around the city.

But this dream-like, sleepless state didn’t last. Eventually, I’d crash. After every high-energy episode, I’d spend weeks in bed, incapable of reading, writing, or thinking. These drastic mood and energy fluctuations would happen several times a month, stretching my brain like an overused elastic band.

My psychiatrist eventually identified these high-energy episodes as hypomania and diagnosed me with rapid cycling bipolar disorder type II. Afraid of losing the thrill of hypomania, I resisted the mood stabilizer and antipsychotic she suggested until my fluctuations landed me in the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

I stayed in an in-patient unit during February 2017. Had U of T used the new mandatory leave policy that year, or the existing Code of Student Conduct, the administrators could have removed me from school. Throughout my hospitalization, a Student Crisis Response Coordinator helped me manage my course work. She sent me comforting emails, telling me, “We will do everything possible to make sure things stay on track.”

One of my professors also messaged me while I was in the hospital: “Kristen, just checking in — do you need books? Can you have visitors? Please let me know — I’d be happy to come see you and bring you what you need.” Professor S. not only accommodated me as a student but also cared about me as a person.

I used one of my hour-long hospital passes to visit this professor. I’m not saying that all professors should offer to bring their students books in psychiatric hospitals. But if all professors had this level of compassion toward struggling students, perhaps we wouldn’t struggle as much.

I returned to school the week after I was discharged. If the current mandatory leave policy had been applied to me, this return would have been impossible. Students on enforced leave “must apply in writing” 30 days before the next school term. Along with asking an already vulnerable person to perform the emotional labour of self-advocacy, the policy expects people to schedule their crises.

If a student does not meet the 30-day timeframe, the university may “terminate the student’s registration.” I could not have written that application in the hospital. Would U of T have ended my undergraduate degree?

A month after I left the hospital, my psychiatrist went on maternity leave and CAPS transferred my care to someone different. When I asked my new psychiatrist if I could have therapy for my post-traumatic stress disorder, she refused. She said she wanted only to focus on treating my bipolarity, primarily with medication, because I “wasn’t ready” for trauma-informed counselling.

I acquiesced and dealt with the flashbacks and nightmares alone, ashamed that I had asked for help in the first place.

I rapid-cycled my way through the rest of third year. Since I missed my course deadlines, I petitioned for extensions during the summer. While my professors agreed to the deadlines I requested, the petition officers did not: “It is not reasonable to expect special considerations for substantial amounts of outstanding coursework after the courses have ended.” This email sank me.

The three Fs on my transcript replaced my 4.0. Failure, failure, failure.

I closed the email.

That night, I punished myself and, with a bipolar penchant for extremes, I took things too far. When I realized that what I was doing could end my life, I scribbled an apology and the names of some important people in my life (names that included Professor S). Most people would judge my reaction as melodramatic, and they wouldn’t be wrong.

But most people don’t have an illness that heightens emotions and fuels destructive impulsivity.

My mind is one of extremes: I experience happiness only as elation, sadness only as despair. When I woke up the next morning, my body was fine, but it also wasn’t. I rationalized that since I was still here, I had to seek medical help.

I went to CAPS for an emergency walk-in appointment with my psychiatrist. She called Campus Police. Campus Police called the emergency medical technicians after one officer asked to see the damage. I wanted to say no, but I didn’t really have a choice. The medical model, which the mandatory leave mirrors, seldom offers Mad people choices; instead, it intimidates. I was in a room full of police officers, a psychiatrist, and a mental health nurse.

Paramedics eventually joined the party. The police officers and paramedics escorted me out of CAPS. I felt like a criminal walking through the Koffler Centre. Inside the ambulance, a paramedic took my vitals and attempted small talk.

“So, what do you study?”

“English.”

“Cool, what kind of English?”

“Modern poetry.”

“Cool, and how’s modern poetry?”

“It’s fine.”

“Well, you know, we all have bad days. You just have to stay positive.”

A Campus Police officer stayed with me in the waiting room. She showed me pictures of her dog on her iPhone. I didn’t feel like talking about her dog. I didn’t feel like talking.

A security guard joined the police officer to observe me. A doctor examined me before making her final assessment: “You know this could have killed you, right?”

I shrugged off her finger-wagging. She then established whether I posed a physical threat to myself and/or other people.

The slash is a convenient punctuation mark.

Incidentally, the threshold for intervention for a mandated leave also conflates “harm to self or others.” Since it’s easier to justify a mandated leave of absence for students at risk to others than it is to mandate a leave for students at risk to themselves, the policy combines the two scenarios. I would have met this threshold.

If a denied petition was enough to push me over the edge, what would a mandatory leave do to students like me? After treatment and observation in Mount Sinai Hospital, practitioners sent me to CAMH, where I stayed the night. I returned to school and my work-study position the next day.

I appealed my denied petition, finished my coursework, finished my summer class, and finished third year — three very different Fs.

Toward the end of the summer, I returned to Switzerland, and, unfortunately, another trauma occurred. It happened on the night of August 22, 2017. I was raped in an alleyway behind the bus stop where I used to wait as a kid. My parents took me to a hospital, where I stayed overnight.

A nurse drew my blood and brought me to an adjustable bed. I pulled the papery white blanket over my body. There would be more tests, examinations, preventative injections, and pills to take when I woke up. Given my psychiatric hospitalizations that year, it was strange to be in a hospital for purely physical reasons.

Back in Toronto a few weeks later, I felt sick from the antibiotics and post-exposure prophylaxis pills I was taking in addition to psychotropic medication. I knew how trauma worked after my first assault; school would be hard, so I booked an appointment with my accessibility counsellor to discuss accommodations.

“Something traumatic happened,” I told her, hoping that was enough of a story to have my academic needs met. I clung to the indefiniteness of “something,” but my counsellor asked for more.

“Was it sexual trauma?” I wanted to say ‘no.’ No to invasive questions. No to prurient curiosity veiled as concern. No to counselling that so desperately lacks trauma-informed approaches. Again, I said “yes.” One person’s trauma is another person’s intrigue.

It was only after this second assault that my former psychiatrist agreed to transfer my care to a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma. For the first time, I experienced an appropriate approach to treating trauma. In my first appointment, the new psychiatrist said, “You can tell me as much or as little as you like. We don’t even have to talk about it.”

Different counsellors at U of T led me to believe that trauma therapy required traumatic retelling. This psychiatrist showed me an exit route without my having to search for one. He gave me the option to say ‘no,’ a ‘no’ I knew he’d respect. My care got better, but I got worse.

Toward the end of fall term in 2017, trauma took its toll and sparked a bipolar mixed episode. This episode included racing thoughts, heightened irritability, pressured speech, erratic energy, and about two hours of sleep a night over two weeks.

I hallucinated while trying to write a seminar presentation and paper on Virginia Woolf and Jacques Derrida (two writers who can make anyone’s head spin). I heard voices saying, “There’s something you need to show, there’s something you know.” I started seeing things that weren’t there.

Words transformed. The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library turned into Rape Fisher. I saw a mangled skeleton on College Street. After a rare nap, I woke up to a man in a mask. I saw devils on the day of my presentation. An hour before class, I ran around the JCR talking about Derrida and “what it all means” to anyone who would listen. My apologies to all these people.

Those who support the mandated leave policy would argue that I should have taken a leave of absence. But while students in these situations often need more time, more time does not mean mandated time away from one’s school community.

Last winter term, I took a creative writing course with Professor S. She let me write about my rape in a personal essay. Writing this essay restored my ability to write. It took me five months, but I eventually finished that Woolf paper. Had I been placed on leave, I would have lost the support I got from my professor.

On June 27, 2018, I joined a group of students in protest while Governing Council held a meeting to pass the mandated leave policy. We chanted and gave speeches outside Simcoe Hall. The noise we made reached Hart House, and our message reached the news.

While we made ourselves heard, the governors did not listen. At the end of the meeting, our voices were raw, and the policy passed. It rained that day.

I worry about students who could lose their jobs, their residency, their international student visas. I worry about marginalized students, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Colour, who will face the additional stress and discrimination of a mandatory leave. I worry about Disabled and Mad/Mentally Ill students. I worry about students dealing with difficult life experiences.

When the proposal first came to light, many of my friends and I were afraid to be on campus, afraid to be seen in CAPS and Accessibility Services. This policy will dissuade students from seeking help. This policy will divest Mad and Mentally Ill students of the dignity and agency they deserve. This policy will put people’s lives at risk.

The day after the mandatory leave policy passed, Professor S. emailed me: “Keep fighting — we studied human rights together, and your right to participate at your university is one.” Students will keep fighting against the policy. We will hold the policy administrators accountable for their discrimination until we’re guaranteed barrier-free access to education.

We will keep telling our stories. This was mine.

Administration ignored human rights commission’s request to review mandatory leave policy, documents reveal

Student groups also kept in dark about OHRC involvement

Administration ignored human rights commission’s request to review mandatory leave policy, documents reveal

The U of T administration did not send a copy of the university-mandated leave of absence policy to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) before it was slated to be approved by the University Affairs Board (UAB) on January 30, despite the commission’s expressed interest in receiving a copy of the new draft.

Documents obtained by The Varsity, released through a freedom of information request, outline communications between university staff and lawyers at the OHRC about the policy as far back as December 6, 2017.

The university also did not inform the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) of the commission’s involvement despite explicitly informing the commission that it would inform student groups at the meeting.

The contentious policy would have allowed the university to place students on a mandatory leave of absence if their mental health issues negatively impacted their studies, or if they posed a dangerous risk to themselves or others. The policy received significant backlash from the community before it was eventually pulled from the governance cycle in late January.

Reema Khawja, OHRC Legal Counsel, reached out to Archana Sridhar, Assistant Provost at the Office of the Vice-President and Provost, in an email on December 13. “We encourage you to thoroughly consult and seek legal advice as you develop the next draft,” reads the email. “The OHRC will continue to monitor the developments, and we look forward to receiving a copy of the next draft of the policy before it enters the governance path for approval.”

However, the OHRC did not receive a copy of the draft until it was made public on the online agenda of the Academic Board of Governing Council before the board’s January 25 meeting.

In addition, the commission did not have any correspondence with U of T between Khawja’s email and January 29. It was, at that point, one day before the policy was set to go before the UAB, when OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane sent a letter to Claire Kennedy, Chair of Governing Council, recommending that the policy “not be approved in its current form” and requesting a delay on voting on the policy.

“I can tell you that the draft policy was made publicly available to everyone to review before it went through governance,” said Elizabeth Church, Interim Director of Media Relations at U of T. When pressed on whether a copy was sent explicitly to the commission, Church repeated the same response.

The UTSU was also unaware of the university administration’s communications with the human rights commission, despite Sridhar explicitly promising to inform student groups. In a December 15 email to Khawja, Sridhar wrote, “We appreciated your time for an informal meeting about the draft University-Mandated Leave Policy at the University of Toronto. It was helpful to hear your thoughtful feedback, and we will share that we have met informally with OHRC staff about the proposed policy when we meet with student groups in the weeks to come.”

However, students were not informed about the meeting. Mathias Memmel, President of the UTSU, said that the union “didn’t know that the OHRC was involved until the UAB meeting.”

Church said that in the consultations with student groups on campus, the university did not necessarily share whom they had spoken with in regard to the draft policy.

“We held many meetings with individuals, one-on-one meetings and also with groups to discuss the policy,” said Church. “In those meetings we discussed the feedback that we’ve received from internal and external consultations. In those conversations we did not necessarily identify the source of specific feedback.”

According to communications obtained by The Varsity, the university corresponded with the commission as early as December 6, when Anthony Gray, Director of Strategic Research at the Office of the President of U of T, connected Sridhar with Mandhane. In an email the same day, Mandhane requested that Sridhar meet with Khawja to hear the OHRC’s concerns about the policy. Sridhar and Khawja eventually met on December 13.

Initially slated to be voted upon late last semester, criticism from students and other members of the university community prompted U of T to delay the vote for two months. The policy was eventually withdrawn, with Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh announcing the university’s intention to rework it and reintroduce it at a later, unspecified date.

That date may be in the near future. At the March 6 UAB meeting, Welsh noted that the revised draft of the policy was in the final stage of internal review, and that the university administration would reintroduce it “shortly.” Welsh also mentioned U of T’s commitment to make the revised document available to the public prior to the governance process, and that it would notify the OHRC once it is posted online.

Student concerns about mental health policy demand the administration’s full attention

Recent events surrounding the mandatory leave policy should spur the university to better prioritize the student voice

Student concerns about mental health policy demand the administration’s full attention

The most recent draft of the controversial University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy was withdrawn last week in what many have classified as a resounding victory for the dignity and respect of students struggling with mental health issues at U of T.

Having been in the works for the past few years, the policy allows for students struggling with mental health issues to be placed on a non-punitive leave of absence from their studies, under circumstances in which their mental health is ruled to negatively impact their studies or to present a physical threat to themselves or others. The originally proposed draft of the policy was met with widespread concern from students and campus organizations, prompting Governing Council to delay the final vote on the policy’s recommendation pending further feedback and revisions.

The status of the policy currently remains uncertain. In light of the concerns raised, the university may choose to reintroduce a revised draft in the future — and it is fortunate that being sent back to the drawing board provides optimal opportunity for reflection. When it comes to mental health on campus, the past months have demonstrated that students will not back down if they feel their needs are not being met.

University-mandated leaves of absence are currently governed using the Code of Student Conduct. It should be acknolwedged that, in contrast to the existing measures in the code, the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy is intended to be non-punitive; unlike measures adopted under the existing framework, it does not result in a punitive mark being added to a student’s record.

Nevertheless, much of the criticism of the policy has centred on its potentially discriminatory treatment of students with mental health issues. The Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) weighed in to this effect in December 2017, expressing the opinion that it does not meet the legally mandated duty to accommodate the OHRC’s Policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability and the Policy on preventing discrimination based on mental health disabilities and addiction. The university, according to the OHRC, is required to take all steps to accommodate those with disabilities “to the point of undue hardship.” Despite these concerns, the Academic Board approved the most updated draft of the policy at the end of January, prompting the OHRC to request another delay on the policy’s progression.

It is disconcerting that the OHRC’s intervention appears to be the tipping point in the university’s final decision. The OHRC’s insistence that the policy could possibly be in contravention of Ontario human rights law — and therefore a legal liability — finally incentivized the administration to reconsider. In comparison, the numerous, repeated, and profound concerns raised by students and campus organizations over the better part of this academic year apparently did not provide sufficient impetus to substantially revise the policy in a way that could meaningfully accommodate their concerns.

A profoundly inspiring grassroots movement has formed in opposition to the policy, bringing together students from across the three campuses. The St. George Round Table, representing the student heads of colleges and undergraduate faculties, sought out concerns from students to streamline the feedback process. Petitions opposing the policy were circulated by Students for Barrier-free Access and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. The U of T Graduate Students’ Union Executive Committee came out against the policy, and students from iStudents for Mental Health united to present a panel discussion reviewing the tenets of the policy. Online, students gathered in a Mandatory Leave Policy Response Group to present a line-by-line breakdown of the policy and compile student criticism.

The ultimate outcome of the draft being withdrawn would not have been possible absent the hard work of these organizations and of all the individuals involved. But despite the overwhelming amount of feedback the administration has received in this regard, the amendments to the policy remained nominal. Of the 14 concerns raised by the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) with respect to the policy, only three were ultimately addressed by the time the most recent draft was completed.

Firstly, the word ‘essential’ was added to Section 1.c.21 of the policy to narrow the scope of the “activities” with which the student’s mental health condition could be ruled to interfere. Secondly, in response to a concern that the policy’s invocation would disproportionately impact international students given their enrolment-dependent immigration status, an amendment was made to provide students with access to a Student Immigration Advisor “where appropriate.” Finally, a provision was added to ensure the university’s compliance with the Personal Health Information Protection Act, which outlines the guidelines for the collection, use, and disclosure of personal health information in Ontario.

Much of the rest of the policy remains exactly the same, and numerous issues have been left unaddressed. The policy contains no explicit requirement for the involvement of medical professionals in the process and places the power to make these determinations in the hands of the Vice-Provost Students. While health professionals have the training to properly and accurately assess mental health issues and determine the extent to which students’ lives may be affected by them, the same cannot necessarily be said for members of the administration who do not receive this training.

Concern has also been raised that the vague language of the policy poses limits to student autonomy by granting overbroad powers to the administration. Students’ ability to stay in school, as well as to return to their studies if they are placed on leave, falls entirely under the discretion of the Vice-Provost Students. Any appeals must be made within 15 business days of the decision to the Discipline Appeals Board of the University Tribunal. The Senior Chair will hear and make a final decision on the appeal.

Finally, in a sad twist of irony, a policy intended to relieve mental health stressors may actually cause even greater distress by potentially forcing students in already precarious situations to take time off school. At a competitive institution like U of T, assignments can pile up after just a day of neglect, so prospects like falling behind by a semester or more, or being unable to complete one’s degree, can be harrowing. It is hardly an uncommon occurrence for mental health related stressors to interfere with students’ studies at U of T — the highly pressurized atmosphere is often considered to be a disturbingly ordinary part of the student experience.

To its credit, the administration has maintained that the policy is non-punitive and meant to be exercised in students’ best interests. Nevertheless, a number of the policy’s provisions have sparked monumental and understandable resistance from the student body, centred on fears that it will work to unduly marginalize some of the most vulnerable people on campus. If the university truly wants the policy to work for students, it is vital that it be receptive to their concerns moving forward — only then can it begin to develop a meaningful solution to addressing mental health issues on campus.

Now that the policy is once again at the drawing board, the university has the chance to issue a more meaningful response.

U of T can be a deeply isolating place, and a comprehensive approach to addressing mental health on campus is sorely needed here — such a policy has the potential to be a progressive addition if implemented in a way that is designed to serve those to whom it applies.

Fortunately, the past months have demonstrated the passion students at this institution have for supporting one another through mental health struggles. And while we hope that any future drafts of this policy will address its current flaws in a way that is more sensitive to students’ concerns, we know students will continue to push for change if these efforts fall short.

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

From hindsight to insight: 2017 in review

Contributors reflect on politics, law, and human rights on campus and in the community at large

From hindsight to insight: 2017 in review

 As far as years go, 2017 was a kicker. World politics is a dumpster fire, and a deeply distracting one at that. Within this generally turbulent international political climate, everything can appear devastating, and the doom and gloom of international headlines can feel incredibly disempowering.

What is happening in the world might cause us to lose sight of the subtle but pernicious ways in which university affairs have impacted life at the University of Toronto as well. We might also forget that, as students at the largest university in Canada, we have vital bargaining power, and we shouldn’t shy away from trying to make a difference in our immediate community. While stepping into the ring with political moguls might seem like a pipe dream, students retain the power to affect change locally, at the very least.

The start of 2018 provides us with ample opportunity for reflection and analysis. I asked six Comment contributors to write about key events and phenomena that forged 2017’s trajectory, both at the university and in the world at large. Going forward, let’s remain vigilant about macro-level political affairs — but let’s also keep local issues situated in our sightline.

Happy new year. Stay political.

 

Teodora Pasca

Comment Editor

ON CAMPUS

Students voted down a motion to merge two executive positions during the UTSU AGM. STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

UTSU AGM REMINDED US WHERE POWER LIES IN STUDENT GOVERNMENT

Instead of preparing their Halloween costumes, over 90 U of T students spent the evening of October 30 hotly debating motions at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the University of Torotno Students’ Union (UTSU). Taking centre stage was a motion to combine the executive positions of Vice-President External and Vice-President University Affairs into the proposed new role of Vice-President Advocacy. The motion had been passed by the UTSU Board of Directors, but it needed to be approved at the AGM to take effect for the next election cycle. While other motions in the same position passed easily, members decisively voted this one down — an important reminder of the power students can wield when they disagree with student politicians.

Those who take on roles in student government often do not seek power or pay — there are arguably easier ways to obtain both — but rather seek to contribute to their communities. Leaving aside questions about the merits of this motion, the events of the AGM showcase an idea fundamental to student government: it exists not for student politicians, but for their constituents, meaning by consequence that decision-making authority ultimately rests with the student body at large.

While true for the UTSU, this can also be said of student governments at this university that receive much less attention, from course unions to divisional student societies. A brief survey of the Canadian Studies Students’ Union, the Association of Political Science Students and the University College Literary and Athletic Society shows that their constitutions explicitly reserve for students the power to set direction and change structures by amending bylaws. While their 2017 general meetings were less controversial than that of the UTSU, the meetings still give students the opportunity to wield their power in student government.

What happened at the 2017 UTSU AGM should remind student governments, no matter their size, that they should seek to involve students as much as possible in their services and governance — or else they risk watching students vote down the fruit of their labour. Conversely, in 2018, students must seize the opportunity to use their power and engage with their representatives, demanding that their governments serve them better.

Andrew Kidd is a fourth-year student studying Engineering Physics. He is the Speaker of the Engineering Society.

Governing Council’s mandatory leave policy has faced serious criticism from students. ANDY TAKAGI/THE VARSITY

MANDATORY LEAVE POLICY REFLECTED STATE OF MENTAL HEALTH AT THE UNIVERSITY

It was announced in 2017 that Governing Council was considering a mandatory leave policy, which would allow the university to issue a non-punitive yet compulsory leave of absence on students “whose mental health issues posed a physical threat to themselves or others, or impacted their academics negatively.” The topic of the policy proceeded to occupy much campus discourse over the course of the fall semester, and it was met with a great deal of protest from mental health and student advocacy groups. Criticisms included its vague wording and the potential effects it would have on students in situations where their enrolment would affect their financial, housing, or immigration status.

The policy is an unsurprising move from a university that has been so utterly ineffective at helping students with mental illness, often failing to provide them with badly needed support. In my own experience with the Health and Wellness Centre, the waiting list for individual therapy can be anywhere from a month to much longer. Numerous complaints have been raised by students who feel they have had their mental health concerns dismissed by the university or who have otherwise been unable to access vital services.

The policy wouldn’t apply to students with a treatment plan who are able to attend classes — yet given the state of mental health services at U of T, students cannot always expect to have access to treatment. The impact of the policy could therefore be to punish students who seek help for mental illness, preventing them from asking for help in the first place out of fear of being removed, worsening an already difficult situation. As Governing Council prepares to vote on the mandatory leave policy in 2018, I can only hope that instead of seeking to remove students whose mental health prevents them from staying in university, they will take measures to improve existing support frameworks.

Adina Heisler is a third-year student at University College studying Women and Gender Studies and English. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.

The BSA organized a town hall in November as a response to racist incidents. STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

CAMPUS DEMONSTRATIONS SHOWCASED IMPORTANCE OF THE STUDENT VOICE

Many of us in 2017 bore witness to student action and involvement in campus politics and issues regarding equity and racism. Examples of such action were demonstrated throughout the year, serving as positive encouragement for students to actively voice their concerns on the issues that matter to them — personally, campus-wide, and internationally.

One of the most significant examples of this happened during the fall of last year. A group of students walked on stage at Isabel Bader Theatre in protest of the annual Keith Davey Forum due to its lack of diversity in the speaker panel and the irresponsible way in which the discussion question — asking if social inequality was “a real problem” — was posed. This protest led to the organizers admitting there were problems with the event, going as far as to say that another forum would be held with the issues at hand resolved.

More recently, after students came forward with evidence of racist remarks made on an engineering chat forum, the Black Students’Association organized a town hall on November 28 to discuss racism and to allow students to share their experiences of racial discrimination.

These events are a testament to the impact of the student voice and how it can positively influence events and programs on campus. Demonstrations and forums revolving around campus and international affairs are a vital example of the political involvement of students at U of T, and 2017 was no exception. An active and aware student body is a testament to an environment in which students are not afraid to voice their opinions and can ultimately become a source of social change.

Abdul Ali is a first-year student at St. Michael’s College studying International Relations.

WORLD

Bill C-6 is among the most significant federal laws passed in 2017, writes Maia Harris. DAVID RUSSO/CC FLICKR

BILL C-6 SOLIDIFIED FEDERAL GOVERNMENT’S COMMITMENT TO DIVERSITY

The Liberals’ Bill C-6 received Royal Assent on June 19, 2017, a clear sign of the Canadian government’s favourable stance toward immigration. Bill C-6 issues a series of legislative amendments that facilitate easier access to Canadian citizenship, a position that stands in contrast to the political atmospheres and anti-immigration policies that characterized other countries in 2017.

Bill C-6 came into effect amidst a year of wealthy, influential nations peddling policies that make it significantly more difficult for people to immigrate to their countries. The second tier of the United Kingdom’s statement of change tightening their immigration policy was released in 2017, while the American government’s travel ban was upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional. The timing of Bill C-6 sets the stage for Canada to counter global political tides and lead as an open-door nation in 2018.

The bill repeals many of the previous Conservative government’s citizenship policies, including those implemented through Bill C-24, which allowed for increased liberty to revoke dual citizenship. Among the changes is a provision that greatly benefits international students seeking Canadian citizenship post-graduation: an applicant must only be physically present in Canada for three out of five years preceding their citizenship, which is more favourable than the previous terms mandating four out of six years of presence. Additionally, the revamped calculation method entails that time spent in Canada on a study permit will count toward the residency requirement. A temporary resident is now able to include one day present for every two days spent in Canada toward their requirement, up to a maximum of 365 days.

Bill C-6 stands among the most significant Canadian laws passed in 2017, and its effects will certainly be felt going forward. Potential outcomes include increased immigration rates as well as a possible boost of international students in Canadian schools. Overall, Bill C-6 sets Canada apart from the closed-door international agenda, and it lays the groundwork for an even more diverse nation.

Maia Harris is a first-year student at St. Michael’s College studying English and Political Science.

PM Trudeau with Catherine Porter (left) and Peter Baker (right) JACOB LORINC/THE VARSITY

WORLD POLITICS VEERED OFF THE LIBERAL-DEMOCRATIC TRACK

Last year saw the continuation of a struggle over the future of the international liberal-democratic order. Relatively uncontested until recently, this system was put into place following the Cold War, consisting of principles such as democratic values, economic liberalism, and interdependence guided by powerful supranational institutions. It was this establishment that Francis Fukuyama infamously called “the end of history” — yet in light of the events of this past year, such a thesis seems increasingly false.

US President Donald Trump, a candidate elected on an ‘America first’ platform of economic protectionism and xenophobia, was inaugurated early in the year. Some of the Trump administration’s actions in 2017 included various attempts at implementing travel bans for those coming from Muslim-majority countries, a war on “fake news,” withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and the beginning of renegotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Outside of Washington, events such as the Charlottesville rally reveal apparently anti-liberal movements on both the right and the left. On one hand, the ‘alt-right’ disavows diversity in favour of an American white ethno-state; on the other hand, leftist Antifa groups have engaged in violence and property damage at protests.

In contrast, Canada seems to be one of the states not moving in this direction. Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s suggestion that immigrants be screened for “Canadian values” was resoundingly defeated, for example. Justin Trudeau has pursued liberal policies and has been presented as a worthy opponent to Trump in the international political context.

Outside of the US, far-right parties continue to influence European politics with protectionism, xenophobia, and anti-EU positions; in 2017, this was demonstrated through several key elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, the latter of which saw the introduction of a far-right party to the German Bundestag for the first time since World War II. In light of Germany’s post-war fear of Nazism, this is particularly significant, and it foreshadows a global trend away from the liberal status quo towards new directions — a trend that Canada will need to respond to.

Sam Routley is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science, History, and Philosophy.

NATIONALISM BLED OVER THE BORDER, THREATENED HUMAN RIGHTS AT HOME

We might like to think that society has progressed in terms of civil and human rights during the 21st century, yet looking back on 2017, this seems doubtful. Women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and migrant rights have taken a hit in the US this year. Among oppressive policies, President Donald Trump said he would eliminate the diversity lottery for foreigners seeking US visas. Racism in political discourse has also been prominent — for instance, Republican state Senator John Bennett refused to apologize for his statement that American Muslims are a “cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out.”

What is important to remember, however, is that racism and oppression are hardly unique to the US. On Canada Day, a white nationalist group called the Proud Boys disrupted an Indigenous ceremony in Halifax. As Indigenous folks engaged in ceremony protesting Halifax’s founder, Edward Cornwallis — infamous for collecting bounty on Indigenous scalps — the group disrupted the ceremony and approached the gathering singing “God Save the Queen.” The Québec City mosque shooting occurred on January 29, when six worshippers were killed and 19 others were injured. Both of these acts of racism can arguably be linked to the influence of the US: the headquarters of the Proud Boys is located in New York City, while the Québec City shooter was allegedly a Trump supporter.

The development of civil and human rights has rightfully come a long way since slavery and women’s suffrage. However, as incidents of racism continue, it feels as though this progress is not as steady as we might hope. As 2017 has come to a close, we as Canadians should remember that, no matter the actions of the US, we do not have to follow their example. In 2018, we should focus on confronting hatred coming from abroad while also working to address it at home.

Areej Rodrigo is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying English and Theatre and Performance Studies.