Two-and-a-half million cities

Exploring the patchwork identity of Toronto and its neighbourhoods

Two-and-a-half million cities

Toronto recently celebrated its one hundred and eightieth birthday. I have lived here all my life, but I’m always surprised when reminded of the city’s age; looking around, there is little to suggest that it predates confederation. It grew in shaky steps as more and more plots of fertile lakebed farmland were paved, built on, and tunnelled under. Over the decades, we’ve razed entire slums and industrial districts and, more recently, we’ve reinvented blocks with new roles and relevance.

Greek street signs on the corner of Danforth and Carlaw. ADAM ZACHARY/THE VARSITY

Greek street signs on the corner of Danforth and Carlaw. ADAM ZACHARY/THE VARSITY

Toronto has grown as a collection of neighbourhoods, or villages, that are exquisitely distinct yet governed by a central power. As such, ours has become a city with no one, coherent, internal identity. There is little beyond proximity that links Forest Hill to Kensington, or the downtown maze of towers to the placid Beaches.

Our experience of the city is totally informed by which subway stop we come home to at night, which corner store we buy our cigarettes at, whether we wake up in a glassed-in high-rise or a bay-and-gable basement. In adult life, others’ opinions of us will be founded upon the answer to that question; we, too, may in part define ourselves by it. We perceive neighbourhoods based on their outstanding traits such as their ethnic communities, architectural styles, and unique landmarks. These are the traits that both make up and display their character.  How the rest of the world sees Toronto is equally informed by this patchwork identity.


Cultural lines

Last month, The New York Times’ travel section characterized Toronto as an “ethnic buffet” — a city of overlapping neighbourhoods, full of immensely different populations that live calmly side by side. The article made me wonder if tourists visit Toronto not to see Toronto, but to, for example, go dancing on Church Street or shop in Yorkville. We, as residents, have this psychology; the high school experience in this town is coloured by day trips to Kensington and nights spent sneaking into Annex bars.

OCAD's Sharp Centre for Design rises high above McCaul Street. ADAM ZACHARY/THE VARSITY

How Toronto came to be this way is not easily understood, but one important element is the different immigrant populations that settled in different areas of the city through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A common trend in the movements of these populations was to start in a place once known as The Ward. This was bound by Queen Street West, University Avenue, Dundas Street West, and Yonge Street — we know this as a built-up northern stretch of downtown, but it once housed the city’s largest and most notorious slum.

Irish, Jewish, Polish, Italian, and Chinese communities, in that order, congregated in The Ward upon arriving, as it was where the cheapest housing could be found. As such, conditions were hardly livable. As each community gained a stronger foothold in the city, it developed the means to move out of The Ward, leaving it for the next wave of huddled masses until it was mostly demolished in the 1950s to make way for Viljo Revell’s soaring new City Hall, Nathan Philips Square, and the new courthouse.

This Jewish-Italian restaurant is a neighbourhood landmark in Baldwin Village. ADAM ZACHARY/THE VARSITY

Toronto went on to attract communities of Portuguese, Korean, Indian, Hungarian, Somali, Vietnamese, and other immigrants who established support networks to welcome others. A friend from Greece, Angelos, told me how he was drawn to the Danforth when he moved to Toronto decades ago; the street signs were in Greek, he said, and the restaurants cooked real Greek food. He could go to work and speak English, but when he went to the local bars, he would speak Greek with new friends so he wouldn’t forget the language.

These stories are common in this city, where forced cultural assimilation of immigrants is not so prevalent as elsewhere in the world. One of my favourite things about living here is the ability to drift between different nations by walking a few blocks along a thoroughfare. In places like Kensington and The Annex, these cultures come together; it is in these instances where we might find the one, uniquely “Toronto” feeling.


Creative class communities

In keeping with global trends in postmodern urbanism, a more recent phenomenon in the evolution of Toronto’s neighborhood character is the advent of “creative class” communities in former industrial spaces. Liberty Village and the Distillery District are examples of postmodern, master-planned neighbourhoods whose “artistic” reputations were made up by the developers.

A repurposed toy factory in Liberty Village now houses lofts and a coffee shop. ADAM ZACHARY/THE VARSITY

On the other hand, places like The Junction and Lansdowne grew organically around communities of artists who were exiled by gentrification to the city fringes. Toronto used to be a far more industrial city, earning the nickname “The Big Smoke.” Today, there is no more soot caked into stones, nor smells of slaughterhouses.

The repurposing of obsolete industrial spaces fits into Toronto’s timeworn love affair with the phenomenon of spatial “creative destruction,” a concept identified with economist Joseph Schumpeter. At its most basic definition, creative destruction is the process by which new opportunity is created and capitalized upon in space left vacant by the fall of a former economic order. Gentrification is similar, but the key difference is that, in gentrification, a more powerful economic order imposes itself upon a space that is not vacant. Many neighbourhoods we know as constant are products of gentrification; who, today, would guess that Yorkville was once a vibrant village of young creatives?

These homes on Grace Street, Little Italy, were once derelict but are now being renovated to keep up with the area's development. ADAM ZACHARY/THE VARSITY

Gentrification is discussed to death in this city, but for good reason. Toronto is becoming more and more prosperous, and more of a global city, at a time in urban demographic history called the “great inversion.” For the first time since the postwar dawn of auto-loving, modernist urban structure, upper- and middle-class households are finding urban neighbourhoods more desirable than the suburbs, and the return of their daily economic interests to the city centre is a mixed blessing. It begets the pricing-out of local businesses and lifelong area residents. Both ethnic and long-established working class communities are at risk.

An older woman, Anne, bought her Yorkville house in the 1970s when the street was mostly home to academics and musicians. She described how she not only feels like more of an outlier with every passing year, but even feels unwelcome among the new neighbours. She claims they resent her family for not having “made over” their unique old home to match the others on the street. This was once a neighbourhood where people trusted and loved each other, she said. Kids played on the road, men sat on their porches. Now it feels like New York, she said, like another boring block.


Village life 

My own nearby house is similar to Anne’s. Last year, two new neighbours showed up in my yard and made a grandiose offer to buy it, to replace it with something “respectable” so the lot could live up to its “potential.” I don’t speak to many of my neighbours.

Looking up from the corner of Bay and Wellington. ADAM ZACHARY/THE VARSITY

In my lifetime, I’ve watched the high buildings and prices of Yorkville encroach west upon the Annex, watched Parkdale shed its stigma and start to attract young families, and watched faux-lofts rise on every corner, ground floors full of the same franchises. The trend has sparked the creation of several industries dedicated to easing the process: house “flippers,” prefab skyscraper builders, exclusionary but “independent” shops. This is the greatest threat of gentrification — its potential to homogenize much of the city (ironic, as the appeal of at-risk neighbourhoods is often their unique, “authentic” characters).

The diversity and eccentricity of our city must be preserved. We are drawn to these neighbourhoods that feel like villages — independent, but thriving within a greater fabric. One falls into village life; you create a village around yourself, fall into a routine pieced together from the first reliable things you find — grocery store here, a shortcut there. Slowly, it expands; your walks get longer, and the nights seem brighter. Maybe all city dwellers live in their own villages. All live in others, too — those of strangers we see on the subway, neighbours we love or hate. There is not one Toronto; there are many, all with different names.

Chris Hadfield enthralls Con Hall

Packed audience treated to space stories and advice from Canada's most famous astronaut

Chris Hadfield enthralls Con Hall

U of T was so excited to see former astronaut Chris Hadfield that they gave him a standing ovation, twice. On either side of his hour-long talk at Convocation Hall on Friday, the entire 1,600-person audience was on its feet to celebrate the first Canadian to command the International Space Station (ISS).



The talk was awarded as a prize for the record-breaking $148,784 raised by 976 U of T students, staff and faculty — many of them in the first two rows of the audience — for Movember. The sum went towards programs that fight testicular cancer, prostate cancer, and men’s mental health problems. Hadfield, who sports a healthy ‘stache himself, expressed his admiration for the team and highlighted every moustache in his slides with coloured arrow graphics.

While aboard the ISS, Hadfield used his social media accounts to post pictures of space, record videos about daily space life, and famously cover David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while in orbit. Space is a fascinating unknown for most of us, so seeing it through the eyes of such a humble and dedicated documenter has created something of an international storm of interest in all things extraterrestrial. As he said in his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, people are fascinated by space because “it helps them see the world slightly differently, perhaps even with a sense of wonder … People like being reminded that the impossible really is possible.”

When the free tickets for the event became available online the week before, they were claimed within a span of a few hours. While waiting in the line that snaked around King’s College Circle and back into the UC quad, third-year global health students Nura Mazloom and Alicia Lara Gonzalez recounted how they excitedly snatched up tickets while still sitting in class.

“I think he’s really cool,” said Mazloom. “I like how he engages people with what he’s doing. I love astronomy, I love space, and it’s cool how he helps other people learn about it with his own experiences.” Gonzalez adds: “He uses his passion for science and for astronomy, but he uses the things that he’s good at, like music, to make other people more engaged.”

The atmosphere in the room ­­— full of fans including students, staff, and a young boy clutching Hadfield’s book to his chest — was far more attentive than in any 100-level course as Hadfield told stories and relayed lessons learned through launching to, living in, and leaving space.

One of Hadfield’s major lessons is that every person should have a goal to give themselves a sense of direction. “That type of motivation is the very key to helping you make decisions throughout your life,” he said, “to meet people you wouldn’t have met, and to achieve things you wouldn’t have otherwise.” And in order to be prepared to clear each hurdle, you have to be prepared for any possible failure. “You have to base everything on as deep a competence you can develop within yourself and your team,” he said.

Hadfield also noted how seeing Earth from afar can broaden your perspective in terms of issues on it. The Great Lakes comprise almost one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, and they seem immense to us here on the ground, but a picture that he took of them from above emphasizes how small and precious a resource they really are. “It reminds you of the fragile and transient knowledge that we take for granted,” he said.

Contributing to outreach and inspiring a new generation of young people to dream about space and follow their dreams is a particular passion of Hadfield’s. This talk was only the latest in a series of thousands he has conducted in his 21 years as an astronaut. Asked why he continues to pass on his knowledge, he said that “one objective is just to share the interesting and fun parts of the experience, but really my objective is to show people the possibilities that lie just beyond the easy horizon to see.”

A large number of people clearly see Hadfield as an inspiring figure. His social media outreach coincided with a marked increase of visits on the NASA science websites, and Ireland’s Director of Education is attributing the country’s 20 per cent increase in math and science university enrolment to the ISS team. Hadfield is a shining example of someone who set a goal, worked hard to achieve it, and continues to excel at distilling what he has learned into practical advice for others.

And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the inspiration comes with plentiful anecdotes about space: you have to move at eight kilometres per second to stay in orbit, and Hadfield quipped that the diapers astronauts wear are customized with little pink and blue space suits. And for Torontonians: while you can’t see the Great Wall of China from space, you can see the 407.

With files from Emma Hansen.

Decertification referendum finally approaches

GSU schedules vote to leave Candian Federation of Students

Decertification referendum finally approaches

Student union politics, long marred by in-fighting and litigation, has faced few issues more contentious than decertification.

Members of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) began in earnest a campaign to decertify from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) this September, after submitting petitions to the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O) and CFS, requesting a referendum of the GSU’s general membership. After months of deliberation, the referendum is tentatively scheduled for later this month.

According to CFS bylaws, referendum petitions require an audit process in order to confirm signature validity and the GSU membership of signatories.

The CFS offered to internally verify student membership through a one-way searchable list. U of T’s administration rebuffed this suggestion, citing student privacy concerns stemming from their interpretation of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA). U of T then suggested that a third party auditor verify the list for the federation.

Finding an auditing firm that satisfied the GSU, U of T administration, and the CFS/CFS-O was challenging, according to GSU external commissioner Brad Evoy.

Following a four month back-and-forth, the parties selected Deloitte Canada, a firm that provides financial advisory services.

One referendum will decide the GSU’s membership in both the CFS-O and the CFS. While the results of the Deloitte audit are still pending, the CFS and CFS-O have scheduled preliminary dates and campaign periods for the referendum this March. Voting is scheduled to take place in the last week of March.

Evoy is confident that the Deloitte audit will confirm the petition’s validity and that the referendum will proceed unimpeded. Should the GSU vote to separate, Evoy believes the parting of ways “will be on amicable terms.”


Stalled attempts

However, a smooth exit is not always easy from the CFS. For example, the decertification initiative of Dawson College, a CEGEP in downtown Montreal, is currently stalled. The CFS has “refused” to set a date for their proposed referendum, according to Dawson Student Union (DSU) chairperson Sarah Drouin.

CFS internal coordinator Brent Farrington disagreed with this characterization. He claims the CFS is waiting on the DSU: “We are now in the process of petition verification and are waiting for Dawson to provide the exam period and holiday timetables necessary to set a referendum date.”

Reflecting on the challenges faced by the DSU, former GSU external commissioner Ashleigh Ingle is adamant that the will of students is being quashed.

“The CFS is beyond being disconnected from their members; they are afraid of them. It is my opinion that the CFS would hemorrhage members if they just allowed students to hold [decertification] votes,” she noted. “They make it as expensive, as irritating and as litigious as possible. Their hope is that, buttressed by our dues, they can make themselves a force … that students won’t be bothered to fight.”

Alastair Woods, CFS-O chairperson, believes that Ingle’s comments belie the reality of the situation.

“Just this week, students at Collège Boréal in Sudbury voted 98.75 per cent in favour of joining the CFS in a referendum that saw a 33 per cent voter turnout. Ingle is entitled to her opinion, but that opinion is not shared by students across the province who have worked together to achieve tangible victories such as changes to flat fees and tuition fee billing alongside stronger protections for unpaid interns and co-op students,” he said.

Other causes of stalled decertification attempts stem from legal action.

The Concordia Student Union (CSU), the Concordia Graduate Student’s Association (GSA), and the McGill Post-Graduate Student’s Society (PGSS) have been involved in lawsuits to decertify from as early as 2010.

For former GSA president Robert Sonin, the origins of the litigation are clear: “the CFS’s continued refusal to recognize the referendum results of its constituent members.”

“Following our 2010 referendum, the GSA membership voted 75 per cent in favour of leaving the CFS and, as a result, the GSA no longer regards itself as a member of the CFS. Despite this, the CFS has refused to acknowledge the [2010] referendum and so the matter was taken to court.”

Farrington acknowledges that the GSA petition was verified by the CFS and that referendum dates were set, but contends that under the CFS bylaws, the GSA referendum could not be considered valid — as the Association failed to remit outstanding membership dues to the CFS in advance of the vote. Using this regulatory framework, the CFS claims the GSA referendum was inappropriately held and believes that their decertification is illegitimate.

The CSU organized a referendum similar to that held by the GSA. The results were, once again, both overwhelmingly in favour of decertification and ultimately rejected by the CFS.

The students’ unions and the CFS differ in their interpretations of both cases. On the one hand, the GSA and the CSU see themselves as no longer being CFS members and have accordingly stopped paying membership fees. The CFS, who sees the decertification results as illegitimate, still expects payment of membership fees and has thus countersued the two student unions for outstanding membership fees.

Ultimately, the two legal cases involving the GSA and the CSU were combined under the same legal counsel in January 2013.

The PGSS at McGill has faced similar legal proceedings with the CFS following an April 2010 referendum that saw 86 per cent of voters in favour of decertification. While the reasons for CFS refusal to accept decertification in this are different, litigation remains the ultimate result.


Proud supporters

Not all CFS constituent unions are dissatisfied with the federation’s leadership.

Gayle McFadden is the vice president of campaigns and advocacy at the York Federation of Student (YFS).

“The YFS is a proud local of the Canadian Federation of Students. In fact, I ran and won the most recent YFS elections on a platform of working together with students across the province and across the country through the CFS” said McFadden.

Ryerson Student Union (RSU) director of communications and outreach Gilary Massa, similarly spoke positively of the federation.

“We believe that working together with students across the province and across the country through the CFS is important and necessary.”

She continued, “the RSU has not made any attempt to decertify from the Canadian Federation of Students. Nor do we have an interest in doing so. We are active members of the organization, and believe that students at Ryerson benefit greatly from our affiliation with the CFS.”



At least two student unions have successfully decertified from the CFS. The Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) settled out-of-court in December 2011. This settlement followed a three-year legal battle after which the SFSS paid an undisclosed settlement.

The University of Victoria Students Society (UVSS)  decertified from the CFS subsequent to a successful referendum in 2011. The Canadian Federation of Students’ British Columbia Chapter (CFS-BC) did not recognize these results as constituting a decertification of the UVSS from CFS-BC, however.

In response, the UVSS scheduled a March 2012 referendum on decertification from the CFS-BC. The CFS-BC rescinded the UVSS’ membership before this referendum could proceed, citing outstanding membership fees of approximately $160,000.

As of press-time, none of these funds had been remitted to the CFS-BC. The UVSS denies that fees are outstanding. Reached by phone, the CFS-BC claimed that, from their perspective, the funds remain outstanding, though they are not in a position to say whether they will litigate in the future.

Men’s swimming wins nationals for second straight season

Blues men’s swimming team wins both OUA and CIS championships, women’s wins OUA championship, and comes fourth in CIS championship

Men’s swimming wins nationals for second straight season

For the second consecutive year, the Varsity Blues men’s swimming team won the Canadian Intercollegiate Sport (CIS) title, this time in their home pool. The women’s team placed fourth in the CIS, and both teams took the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) titles at the beginning of February.

Coach Byron MacDonald stated in an interview with The Varsity at the beginning of the season that he hoped to lead this year’s men’s team to another title, and while recognizing that the women’s team would not be able to compete at the same level nationally as the men, he hoped that they would swim strongly and challenge their opponents. MacDonald was awarded once again with the CIS men’s coach of the year award.

The women’s team swam undefeated until the CIS championship, where they placed fourth. The championship was dominated by the UBC Thunderbirds who won their third-straight CIS title, finishing the tournament with 802.5 points; the runner-up was the University de Montreal Carabins who finished with a score of 405. In the OUAs, the women came out on top of the Western Mustangs 823–692, winning their first title in six years.

Standing out for the women’s team this year was Vanessa Treasure, who captured the title of OUA MVP. Treasure won five gold medals at the OUA championships, including a record-breaking 200m breast stroke performance at 2:28:99.

While the men’s team swam to their second straight CIS title, they did not swim an undefeated season like the women’s team. The men placed first in all of their Canadian meets, but placed second in their stint at the University of Nevada, losing to Nevada by a 92-point differential. The Blues dominated in the CIS championships, however, totalling 690 points, beating the silver medal Thunderbirds who finished with 609.5 points.

The men’s swimming team has won 18 national titles. PHOTO COURTESY OF VARSITY BLUES

Zach Chetrat led the team once again, winning one gold, one silver, and two bronze medals in the CIS championship. He also dominated in the OUA championships with three gold medals and one silver in his four competitions, including the 200m fly, of which he broke the 10-year-standing OUA record in his rookie season. He captured his fifth straight OUA all-star and CIS all-Canadian titles.

While the team will see key players leaving the team next year, such as Zack Chetrat, Frank Despond, and Zach Summerhayes, the Blues should not be worried about their team’s future. At the OUAs, rookie swimmers accounted for 40 per cent of the team’s medals. Women’s team swimmer Cino Ling made the top eight finals in all four of her events, while national team member Paige Schultz re-joined the team. On the men’s side, the team added six strong swimmers who will be sure to continue to work to bring a third CIS championship win to U of T in the 2014–2015 season.

U of T must divest from fossil fuels, student groups say

Formal presentation to U of T president on March 6 will ask the university to divest

U of T must divest from fossil fuels, student groups say

Pressure is mounting for U of T to divest from its holdings in fossil fuel companies. A local activism group called Toronto350, as well as many other prominent student groups, are calling on the university to pull all its direct stock holdings from fossil fuel companies. Activists say that the fossil fuel companies’ harmful environmental and social impacts give the university an ethical obligation to divest.

“The university is meant to make the future better for students. While we’re burning fossil fuels, we’re changing the climate, and guaranteeing a worse future for those students. Every student will be affected by climate change,” said Stuart Basden, president of Toronto350.

U of T’s two largest single-company holdings, listed by The University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM) in March 2012, are $9.8 million in Royal Dutch Shell PLC, and $7.8 million in BP PLC. Also listed was a $5.8 million investment in Rio Tinto PLC, a mining company with large fossil fuel reserves. UTAM does not list all investment quantities.

U of T president Meric Gertler declined to comment on whether he thinks investing in fossil fuel companies is ethical, or on how he plans to address the concerns of student groups: “It would not be appropriate for me as president to express a view or position on the specific issues pertaining to the fossil fuels divestment debate until the process outlined in the university’s policy has been allowed to run its course,” he said.

In an extensive brief called “The Fossil Fuel Industry and the Case for Divestment,” Toronto350 argues that a massive redirection of investment from fossil fuel energy sources will help curtail the serious environmental effects of global warming. U of T’s divestment, they argue, would play an important role in leading this move.

The brief details the scientific evidence for the role of fossil fuel energy sources in climate change. Toronto350 contends that the fossil fuel companies’ business plans are out of touch with the disastrous environmental consequences of their activities. The brief also argues that divestment is in line with U of T’s divestment policy and Statement of Institutional Purpose, which includes “a resolute commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice.”

“If future generations are to have equal opportunities, they cannot inherit a planet that has been impoverished by uncontrollable climate change,” reads the brief.

Further, Toronto350 argues that divestment would be a financially feasible, and possibly beneficial, move for U of T. They argue that much of the value of fossil fuel companies is illusory, since the increasing severity of climate change will negatively affect their value. Toronto350 argues that attractive alternatives to U of T’s holdings in fossil fuel companies exist, including the renewable energy sector.

Toronto350 was founded in June 2012. Since then, its divestment campaign has garnered the support of many prominent student groups, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (GSU), the University of Toronto Environmental Action (UTEA), the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council, Trinity College Meeting (TCM), and the Muslim Students’ Association. Thirty-eight faculty members have also endorsed the brief. Other prominent supporters include environmental activist and academic David Suzuki, former Toronto mayor David Miller, and American Indian environmental activist Winona Laduke.

“The UTSU believes that our university should operate based on ethical guidelines. As a university, we have a lot of pull as far as the priorities of our government. The fossil fuel divestment debate is similar to when students successfully mobilized to get the university to divest from companies operating in apartheid South Africa,” said Munib Sajjad, president of the UTSU.

On March 6, Dimitri Lascaris — a U of T law alumnus who was named one of the 25 most influential lawyers in Canada in 2012 — will formally present the divestment brief to U of T president Meric Gertler, on behalf of Toronto350. Toronto350 will ask U of T to declare its intention to divest from fossil fuel companies, and immediately stop making new investments in the industry. They will ask the university to divest from Royal Dutch Shell within one year of receiving the brief, and divest all its direct stock holdings from 200 other companies with large fossil fuel reserves within five years of receiving the brief.

Toronto350 likens the ethical and legal basis of their proposed divestment plan to U of T’s past decisions to divest from tobacco companies and companies operating in apartheid South Africa. They argued that in these situations, although there was no official legislation prohibiting the activities of these companies, U of T took a stance based on the companies’ socially injurious activities. “Although no Canadian legislation currently exists limiting the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, which directly causes climate change, U of T should act in response to the strengthening consensus among governments, scientific organizations, and financial institutions,” reads the brief.

The UTEA has collaborated with Toronto350 on the divestment campaign throughout the year. “Denying climate change is like arguing for a flat earth right now. The scientific community is in agreement on this issue,” said Ben Donato-Woodger, head of the UTEA. “Young people are losing out tremendously because of the actions of those in power right now, and it is a structural, systematic injustice against young people to have people who won’t be paying the price make decisions that will harm the next generation,” he said. “Failing to divest would be a clear act of not caring about their students.”

Sarah Levy, vice-president of the Trinity College Environmental Society, noted that the motion to endorse divestment from fossil fuels passed by a narrow margin in the TCM. Levy said that those who voted against the motion felt that a student government should not endorse a political issue. “I believe that climate change is not an inherently political issue. It’s often politicized, but what people need to recognize is that it’s a fact, it’s something that’s going on in our environment. Similarly to when we divested from tobacco companies 30 years ago, it concerns something that poses a direct threat to people,” she said.

Toronto350 is part of a larger organization, called, founded in 2008. now has a global network of environmental activism groups in more than 188 countries. “All of our work leverages people power to dismantle the influence and infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry, and to develop people-centric solutions to the climate crisis,” reads a statement on their website. Nine colleges and universities in the United States have committed to divesting from fossil fuels.

Michael Kurts, U of T’s assistant vice-president, strategic communications & marketing, said that the president will be in a position to appoint an ad hoc committee upon receiving the divestment brief and accompanying attestations. “The committee may seek additional information and advice from the UTAM and others before arriving at any list of  recommendations in response to the brief,” he said.

Correction Tuesday March 4 2014: Thirty-eight faculty members have endorsed Toronto350’s brief, not 13 member as was previously stated. 

Clarification Monday March 10 2014: Toronto350 originally claimed to have been endorsed by the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union. This is not the case, this article has been updated to reflect this fact.

Shifting intersections

The evolving relationship between religion and medicine in Toronto’s public sphere

Shifting intersections

On Saturdays, an elevator in Mount Sinai Hospital automatically rises and falls continually through the day, stopping on every floor, one after the other. It is designed to allow accessibility to people of the Jewish faith on the Sabbath — a holy day of rest on which the use of electricity is prohibited. Without the elevator, few of the hospital’s services would be easily accessible to those of the Jewish faith who keep the Sabbath.

The Sabbath Elevator is symbolic of how religion shapes public spaces in secular society. The narrative of religion in public medicine is complicated. It is a narrative of history, scientific research, and community growth. It can be a narrative of tolerance, or of discrimination. Ethics, public policy, and theology all offer different lenses from which to examine the issue.

According to professor Pamela Klassen, director of U of T’s multi-disciplinary Religion in the Public Sphere initiative,“[Religion in the Public Sphere] got started as an initiative to bring together the university, students [and] faculty, not only from the Department of Religion, but also the law school and other places where people are asking questions… what is the role of religion in public spaces? We are a secular society — what does that really mean? And how does religion play a role in those kinds of spaces of what some might call neutrality? Though nothing’s really neutral!” she says. “Religion in the Public Sphere is basically a place for people to think about those questions historically, anthropologically, sociologically, and legally, throughout all kinds of different disciplines and figure out… what is the status of religion in society?”


Holy history and modern medicine

St. Michael's Hospital. DENIS OSIPOV/THE VARSITY

St. Michael’s Hospital. DENIS OSIPOV/THE VARSITY

Many medical institutions in Toronto can trace their histories back to religious communities. Three of the city’s current hospitals — St. Joseph’s Health Care Centre, Providence Hospital, and St Michael’s hospital — were founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto. The sisters arrived in Toronto from Philadelphia in 1851, during an outbreak of typhus and cholera among Toronto’s Irish immigrant population. They founded the House of Providence to care for Torontonians who could not afford other health care.

After their work during that outbreak, the sisters were asked by the Medical Officer of Health for the City of Toronto to work in the Isolation Hospital (now Riverdale Hospital) during an epidemic of diphtheria and scarlet fever in 1891. The following year, the sisters founded St. Michael’s Hospital.

While Christian doctors in early Toronto easily found work, Jewish doctors faced discrimination from the established medical community, and were shut out from employment opportunities.

In August 1913, four women began knocking on doors, leading a nine-year fundraising campaign. Mrs. Cohn, Miller, Spiegel, and Adler raised $12,000 and, in 1923, the Toronto Jewish Maternity and Convalescent Hospital was founded in Yorkville. One year later, in 1924, its name was changed to Mount Sinai Hospital.

Teaching medicine was also a matter of faith. “If you look back at the nineteenth century, most of the medical schools were set up by the religious – by Christian organizations. Trinity College had a medical school, so did Victoria College — they all had their own medical schools before they federated with the University of Toronto,” says Klassen.

In the twenty-first century, religious congregations are generally no longer the primary founders of hospitals in North America, but religion continues to impact health-care.

“Largely, people argue that the process of medicalization — where medicine gains more and more power in our society — was also a process of secularization,” says Klassen, “I don’t totally buy that… I think secularisation is too much of a linear concept to think about what the role of religion is in various hospital settings today.”

The sisters of St. Joseph passed the administrative duties of their hospitals over to lay boards in the mid-1990s.

“They decided to get back to their grass roots,” says Joan Breech, chief administrative officer of the convent. “Going back over a hundred and sixty years ago, to basically to deal with the causes of poor health, to deal with the determinants of poor health… What do we do with people who are in poverty, have poor nutrition, and are isolated?”

The sisters run and participate in a number of programs in the city, including community kitchens and gardens, the In Good Company program, the Etobicoke program “Village  Mosaic,” and the “Health Bus.”

The three hospitals that they founded are still linked by policy to the Christian faith. St. Michael’s H.ospital, for example, uses the Catholic Association of Canada Health Ethics Guide to guide some of its policies. Mount Sinai is not explicitly affiliated with the Jewish faith in its operating policies, but remains connected to Toronto’s Jewish community through community events and donations.


Motivated by faith



Sister Margaret Myatt studied at the University of Toronto and graduated from the University of St. Michael’s College and the School of Hygiene. She worked as a hospital administrator for over 35 years. In Toronto, she was responsible for overseeing the merger of Our Lady of Mercy Hospital into St. Joseph’s Hospital to create St. Joseph’s Health Centre in 1980.

Myatt’s faith informed her decision to enter the medical field. “The poor are always with us,” she says. “I just felt called to be a part of that — to provide for those people who were most in need.”

The Sisters of St. Joseph build their work around six core faith values, which were passed down into the hospitals they founded: “Sanctity of Life, Human Dignity, Compassionate Service, Community, Social Justice and Social Responsibility,” lists Myatt. “My belief in that philosophy had to come out in my professional life as a hospital administrator… it focused it.”

During her education, Myatt chose to work at Mount Sinai hospital — in part to gain a new perspective on how faith is integrated into the field, expressing the importance of “respect for the diversity of faith.”

This diversity of faith can cause challenges for hospitals that are steeped in the Christian tradition. Faiths have different requirements and expectations, especially surrounding issues of birth and death.

In Canada, Islam is the fastest growing religious demographic. In 2007, the Muslim Medical Association of Canada was founded. It aimed to unite Muslim Canadians — both patients and students — in the medical field, to provide advocacy and services to a growing demographic in Canada and the medical field.

The MMAC founded the Welcome Medical Clinic in Mississauga — a free, volunteer-run clinic that only treats those without health insurance. The MMAC also aims to increase access to education and advocacy in the medical sphere. Its 2012 Pathways program provided high-school students in lower-income neighbourhoods the opportunity to speak with their local MP about refugee health care cuts.


Communication and accessibility

Dr. Raza M. Naqvi, the chair of MMAC, emphasises the importance of communication in building an equitable health care system: “The differences in culture between patient and physician often create communication gaps that can be difficult to address unless both sides are aware of the issue… As in most situations, we hope that more open and clear communication of the needs of all involved will help to address this.”

This need for communication is addressed in Canada’s Charter, which specifies the universal right to access without discrimination.

Religious needs are diverse and can include respecting food restrictions in hospital food, respecting a patient’s request to be examined by a female doctor, having a Sabbath elevator, or providing a place to pray. These particular needs are often referred to as patient accommodation needs.

According to Marylin Kanee, director of diversity and human rights at Mount Sinai, “When we haven’t addressed everything possible around access and equity, there becomes a need for accommodation… [Y]ou can’t always anticipate every situation, our world changes a lot constantly, and even with the best intent, you miss stuff. So that’s when people come forward, and we need to give individual accommodation.”

Often the greatest challenge for hospital staff is not the process of providing accommodation, but communication between staff members.

“We’re in a really, amazingly complex place… it is entirely possible that within two days, a patient may have contact with 40 people who work here,” says Kanee. Patient information — including any religious needs — has to be communicated to every member of the staff, and there is not always an accessible repository for this information.

The problem with accommodation is that it happens on a case-by-case basis, and can be easily forgotten in the hectic day-to-day operations of the hospital. Policy and official documentation become powerful tools, policy changes outlast and overpower institutional memory, and documents can become the foundation of a shift in practises — a shift from working in the sphere of accommodation to working in the sphere of equity.

Kanee describes one of her most recent initiatives — documenting the official safety procedures around smudging.

“I could not find it in a policy anywhere,” she says. “We had done it, we had decided as a group, we worked with the fire marshall to ensure that we could do smudging in the hospital, but that’s not written down anywhere. So if [the current staff] disappears, we don’t know about it. So that’s why policy is important… So that anyone can find it, so that nobody can say ‘We don’t have a policy on smudging, so you can’t do it.’”


Caring for the spirit

Access to religion in hospitals is more than avoiding a lawsuit. Academic studies show that people with access to religion often heal faster and more completely. Respecting religion positively impacts mental health, which in turn impacts recovery times. Disrespecting a patient’s religious needs can cause great distress, negatively impacting their health. Faith communities can also act as support networks.

In Toronto’s hospitals, access and respect for religion are a matter of ensuring complete care for a person. According to Joanne Davies, the Ecumenical Chaplain at Mount Sinai and Chaplain at St. John’s Rehab, “Spirituality is what grounds you. And often that comes from something other than what the religious institution and dogmas and doctrines provide. It comes from somewhere else entirely. And it’s cliché, but it’s true — it can be something as simple as being outside.”

Though spirituality encompasses religion, Davies stresses that hospitals should still aim to consider religion as a factor in patient care. “Sometimes a person’s own spirituality is affected deeply by their religion, and not always in a healthy way. So you do need to know,” she says, citing the example of LGBTQ patients who experience exclusion in some religious communities.

On the hospital floor, the chaplains act as spiritual nurses more than they act in an explicitly religious context. Davies’s day-to-day work is often exploratory: “It’s basically walking the floor and visiting people… and having them go, ‘What do I do with a chaplain?,’ and usually, quite often, that’s the first place,” she says.

If a patient is isolated from what gives them greatest spiritual fulfillment in the course of their treatment, “I attempt to find a way that they can cope with missing that,” she says, “And find what else in their life that they have, that they can also use to cope, what else informs their spirituality. Because, as always, when you are isolated away from the thing that gives you the greater joy, you totally forget any of the smaller pieces.”

Davies’s role is as a counsellor — “I can’t give a needle or medicine, but I can listen” — and as a communicator. She helps patients conceptualize and articulate their spiritual needs, and offers validation and support for those who need different care because of their religious identity.

“And if someone has that religious belief that I don’t, or because medicine believes one thing and religion believes another, neither are wrong,” she says, “so that’s where it’s a real communication — as a chaplain, that’s where I would help a patient articulate. ‘I can’t have that, I can’t be part of that, and this is the reason’ so that each side can hear, and everyone gets the best care that is possible.”


Striving for equity

When asked if accessibility and equity concepts affect the physical structure of hospitals — if concerns about equity shape the design of spaces, or the location and amount of space given to certain services — Kanee pauses.

“It should,” she says, “how hospital buildings are built — it’s a lot to do with the bottom line. Every inch is specified through a ministry. What is this inch for? How many of these inches do we need for this or for that?”

Further challenges are posed by the fact that many different needs must be considered when building spaces or designing policies in the hospital. Even within the sub-category of religious accessibility, religions may have practises that contradict.

The Spiritual Oasis at Mt. Sinai Hospital. ALICE XUE/THE VARSITY

The Spiritual Oasis at Mount Sinai Hospital. ALICE XUE/THE VARSITY

The creation of the spiritual oasis of Mount Sinai, for example, was done by a committee.

“We actually pulled together staff who were interested in designing that space from a wide range of religious groups, including atheists, so we had everybody at the table,” says Kanee. “We worked together to figure out what we needed in that space, but also how we could build a space that wouldn’t be accommodating to the needs of one religion, and offend others.”

The room has prayer mats and kneelers, and a small table that can serve as an altar, and is attached to a wudu room. Each element was carefully considered before its inclusion; for example, no artifact could dominate the room.

“So it’s very plain,” Kanee explains, “but everything you need is in there, you just need to access it and pull it out.”

Like U of T’s Religion in the Public Sphere initiative, the hospitals work to research the needs of their patients.

Established by the Ontario government in March 2006, Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs) are not-for-profit groups that work with the local health services to spearhead research and work into health service priorities of their geographic region.

The Toronto Central LHIN — which includes Mount Sinai and St Michael’s Hospital — recently completed a pilot project that collected patient demographic data in order to examine both demographics and the best way to collect that demographic information from patients. Titled “We Ask Because We Care,” the study reported a patient participation rate of over 85 per cent — an overwhelming success.

The study has already effected policy change: the Toronto Central LIHN has directed its hospitals to begin collecting socioeconomic data as a first step in analyzing patient demographics and needs, in an effort to identify areas of need.


Diversity of approaches

While hospitals may welcome patients of all faiths, it is harder to write a policy that can solve the problem of the desire to have a place that you belong to — a space to which your community can lay some measure of claim, and that in turn can rely on the community for support.

“The other side to the role of religion in hospitals is this philanthropic side, so that communities feel attached to hospitals and, increasingly, the hospitals depend on this philanthropic funding,” says Klassen. She cites the Brampton Civic Hospital, as an example where the Sikh community raised over $2.5 million for the institution.

“A community [thought] that its needs were not being met, and they wanted to bring religion into the secular setting in various ways,” says Klassen. Currently, the name of the Guru Nunak Emergency Services Department acknowledges the role of the Sikh community in the hospital.

In other cases, established services do not seem capable of addressing specific concerns of new communities. Religious communities then turn inwards, creating new services to address these needs.

Naseeha, from the Arabic word for advice, is a helpline created in the GTA in 2006 directed towards Muslim youth. It provides anonymous peer-to-peer counseling, services similar to those of Kids Help Phone, but with an informed consideration of its callers’ religious backgrounds.

“The idea originated from the awareness that many youth feel they have no one to turn to for help with their problems,” says Yaseen Poonah, executive director of Naseeha. “There is a gap in our communities between Muslim youth raised in Canada and the US, and those that moved to Canada and the US from different parts of the world. This generational gap can sometimes pose a problem for young people seeking to be understood. They have challenges and questions that only their peers can relate to,” he adds.

The phone line allows callers to be defined as they chose, with their faith as merely one facet of their identity. “Muslims come in all shapes and sizes; Muslims are not a homogeneous group, and there is no cookie-cutter solution,” says Poonah. “We simply provide a safe and inclusive avenue for youth to discuss what’s on their mind.”

In the context of “one of the most ethnically diverse — and one of the most religiously diverse — places in the world,” Klassen notes, adding, “the relationship between the religious and the secular just keeps changing.”

Religious communities and ideals occupy a unique space in Toronto’s medical community. There is tension in this space — between the old and the new, theory and practise, and resources and need. It is a space beyond accommodation — changing, growing, and transforming a secular society.


“How does your religion impact your health?”

Aruba Ahmed

Aruba | Second year, health studies

“My faith grounds me… Spiritual health is just as important as physical health. When the two have a point of confluence like prayer, that makes everything amazing.”


Simeon Wong

Simeon | Third year, engineering science

“My religion, as a Christian, means that my identity and my perception of selfworth is not based purely on my academic performance or future career path. Although it doesn’t mean I don’t need to try my best… it takes a lot of stress off school. ”


Melanie Santhkumar

Melanie | Fourth year, health and disease

“It does impact my mental health!… Hinduism [teaches me that] to be real is to understand self-realisation… I think it really affects my positive energy!”


Ola Skudlarska

Ola | Second year, psychology

“I’m not religious in the traditional sense…but it’s important for me to live my life helping people.  That  affects my health pretty powerfully.”


Shafquat Arefeen

Shafquat | Third year, engineering and math

“My religion teaches me patience, and without it, I would probably be dying because I go to U of T.”


Grace Gao

Grace | Second year, pharmacology

“I’ve never thought about that question before..I’m not really religious.”

Student groups concerned over federal budget

UTSU, CFS, OUSA believe budget prioritizes older people over youth

Canada’s 2014 federal budget prioritizes older Canadians over young people, say a number of student groups. Announced on February 11, the budget features spending of around $45,000 for each person over age 65, compared to around $12,000 for each person under age 45. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) have expressed concerns over the budget.

Dr. Paul Kershaw, a professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC) School of Population and Public Health and founder of Generation Squeeze, a campaign aimed at increasing government spending on Canadians under age 45, argued that today’s young Canadians are affected by lower wages, higher costs of living, and worse environmental conditions than ever before. However, Kershaw noted, federal government policy continues to focus on the aging population.

Kershaw pointed to an approximately $12 billion annual increase in spending on Old Age Security and medical care for people over 65 since the last federal election, compared to a $2.2 billion annual increase in spending on people under 45 over the same time period. He believes that increasing government spending on people under age 45 from $12,000 to $13,000 would allow the federal government to make substantial policy changes to support young people, including more affordable child care, shorter work weeks, and lower student debt levels.

“Nobody wants government budgets to protect spending on seniors at the expense of investing in their kids and grandchildren,” Kershaw argued. “Unfortunately, governments will continue this trade-off until we build a powerful organization that speaks up for younger Canada.” Kershaw emphasized that the policy changes could be made while safeguarding medical care and retirement income for the aging population.

Jessica McCormick, national chairperson of the CFS, also asserted that the federal budget fails to meaningfully address issues facing youth. McCormick’s concerns centre on youth unemployment and student debt. In the past, the CFS has called on the federal government to address student debt by expanding the Canada Student Grants Program. The program provides non-repayable financial assistance to students based on financial need.

McCormick also emphasized the importance of intergenerational equity, arguing that gains for older generations should not come at the expense of young people. “In the past, students have supported campaigns for retirement security, and we have received support from retirees on our campaigns for accessible post-secondary education,” McCormick noted. “It’s unfortunate that the federal government has ignored the needs of youth in the budget,” she added.

UTSU president Munib Sajjad said that the students’ union stands behind the CFS. “The federal budget has failed to address the growing student debt crisis and the lack of accountability over post-secondary education funding that the federal government continually ignores,” Sajjad said, adding: “To not address student and youth unemployment is short-sighted and destructive to our society’s future.”

Like McCormick, Sajjad characterized federal government policies on student debt and youth unemployment as inadequate, noting that national student debt exceeds $15 billion and youth unemployment for workers aged 20–29 stands at 400,000. While Sajjad rejected the idea that young people and elderly people should have to compete for government resources, he emphasized that the government seems unwilling to invest in youth.

Stéphanie Rubec, manager of media relations with the Department of Finance, brushed off concerns that the budget failed to address young people. “While Canada has one of the highest youth employment rates among its Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) peers, ranking ahead of countries such as Germany, the United States, Sweden and Spain, more can be done to ensure young Canadians are receiving the training they need to realize their full potential,” she said.

Rubec pointed to a number of new and existing programs that support training and employment for young people. For example, the budget introduced the Canada Apprentice Loan, a program that expands the Canada Student Loans Program to provide apprentices registered in certain skilled trades with access to over $100 million in interest-free loans annually.

The budget also included $40 million for up to 3,000 full-time internships for post-secondary graduates in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the skilled trades over the next two years. McCormick claimed that this program is inadequate, as it only helps about one per cent of currently unemployed youth between the ages of 20 and 29.

Rubec also pointed to over $10 billion in existing government support for post-secondary education through loans, grants, and other investments. “Canada places at the top of the rankings of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in terms of post-secondary educational attainment, thanks in part to these federal supports for students,” said Rubec.

McCormick claimed that this government support fails to address the underlying issues of high tuition fees and student debt. “Financing post-secondary education through student debt is an unfair model that results in low- and middle-income students paying more for their education than students who can cover the costs up front,” she noted, adding: “these measures do nothing to address the significant barriers many students face in accessing higher education.”

Men’s hockey team finishes season with 15–15 record

Blues men's hockey knocked out of banner race in first round of OUA playoffs

No current member of the Varsity Blues men’s hockey has won an Ontario University Athletics (OUA) playoff series, despite U of T having qualified for the playoffs each of the last five seasons. The once unparalleled men’s hockey program has not captured an OUA title in two decades, and hasn’t won a Canadian Interuniversity Sport title since 1984.

In spite of this, it is difficult not to be at least somewhat optimistic about the team’s future. The Blues qualified for the playoffs this season even though the season was being usedeffectively as a rebuilding year for the team and they had been moved to the intensely competitive OUA West Division. Of the 27 players on the roster this season, just two are graduating. Though the loss of captain Blake Boddy and veteran defender Tyler Turcotte will certainly be felt, the core of the team will remain largely intact.

Up front, leading scorer Michael Markovic will be back for a fifth season, as will sniper Jeff Brown for his fourth season. Tyler von Engelbrechten, who showed significant improvement this year, going from 5 points in the 2012–13 campaign to 24 this past season, will round out the high-flying trio. Potential captain and excellent two-way forward Paul Van De Velde will likely anchor a solid second line with Tyler Liukkonen and sophomore standout Andrew Doyle. After recording 8 points in his rookie season, Doyle doubled his output in 2013–14, despite playing just 21 games.

Places on the bottom two forward lines will be fought over in training camp, though it seems likely that the grinding all-rookie line of Casey Knight, Dean Klomp, and Russell Turner will stay together. The rookie forwards played a crucial role in energizing the team this year, earning themselves more and more ice time as the season wore on.

Defense will likely be what makes or breaks the Blues next season. The team allowed 34.4 shots per game on average, 1.5 more than they took. More importantly, they allowed too many high quality scoring chances on their goaltenders. It is difficult to recall a goal let in by a Varsity Blues goaltender this past season that legitimately should have been stopped. Too often, it was the heroics of Brett Willows or Garrett Sheehan in goal that secured a victory or kept a match within reach.

The top pairing of stay-at-home defenseman Dylan Heide and two-way defender Lane Werbowski will be back, with both entering just their third season with the team. They will likely be required to carry a significant defensive load. The loss of Turcotte will be a disadvantage for the Blues, and the performance of defenders Cameron Bernier, Marcus Yolevski, and Charlie Connell may well determine if U of T keeps its streak of post-season appearances alive. Connell in particular will be interesting to watch; a rookie this season, he had become a mainstay on the blue line by mid-January, being known for his simple, mistake-free hockey.

In goal, there is little to be concerned about. For the past several seasons, the Blues have rotated goaltenders Garrett Sheehan and Brett Willows. Both are excellent keepers who rarely let in bad goals, keep their composure under pressure, and would be undisputed starting goaltenders for the vast majority of OUA teams. With Sheehan injured down the stretch this season, Willows rose to the occasion, recording two shutouts and a 43-save win over the Ryerson Rams in his last four starts to secure U of T a spot in the post-season.

If the team advances past the first round of the playoffs next year, and it is not far-fetched to believe that they might, goaltending will be key.