Op-ed: Vote ‘yes’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

How we support students — beyond just buttons and free coffee

Op-ed: Vote ‘yes’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

During the 1960s, students were faced with large class sizes and a sense of alienation on campus. In response, course unions were founded across the arts and science disciplines to advocate on behalf of student issues within their respective departments.

Ultimately, this led to the formation of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) in 1972 to ensure stronger representation for all students in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Today, ASSU represents over 23,000 full-time undergraduates, and we’re asking you to vote in favour of the upcoming referendum to increase our levy by $1.50 per semester.

We support course unions

We at ASSU are comprised of seven executives, three staff, and over 60 recognized course unions. The structure of our council, which meets once a month, allows course unions to best represent the voices of their students. We fund over $180,000 to our course unions, which work tirelessly to meet student needs through interesting and innovative events.

The Indigenous Studies Students’ Union’s Honouring Our Students Pow Wow and the Philosophy Course Union’s Symposium on Love are just a few examples of the ways by which course unions are able to connect with their peers.

Course unions also provide a multitude of platforms for students to showcase their academic work, including journals such as the Classics Students’ Union’s Plebeian and the Health Studies Students’ Union’s Health Perspectives. Our course unions will directly benefit from our proposed levy increase as the funds will be used to further support their projects and events.

We support campus life

For student support, Executive Martha Taylor started the Moving on From… campaign to showcase the obstacles that students face during their undergrad. The campaign now features multiple students covering a range of themes, including international student life and mental health.

Executive Victoria Chen started the ASSU Mentorship Project (AMP) to establish a student support system, especially for first years, international students, and students with accessibility needs. The AMP received hundreds of applications, proving the necessity of such an initiative.

More broadly, providing our students with strength and guidance during stressful times is an area that ASSU aims to continue to focus and grow on, such as through our bi-annual Exam Jams — the ones with the cute puppies — and access to our past test library for over 500 courses.

We support student research

Last year, we recognized the lack of opportunities available for students to present their own research. In response, our Undergraduate Research Conference was created, inviting students from across disciplines to present original research to fellow students, professors, and the general public.

In addition to the conference, ASSU provides travel grants and undergraduate research funds to help students afford the costs of creating and presenting novel research. Our Arbor Journal of Undergraduate Research furthers our commitment to celebrating student work. With an increased levy, ASSU hopes to create and contribute to projects and grants that prioritize undergraduate research.

We support accessible education

Treasurer Ikran Jama created ASSU’s Student Success Day High School Conference in an effort to help marginalized youth explore the prospect of university education. Invited students attended workshops run by our course unions, listened to professors, and spoke to campus leaders.

Our Project: Universal Minds matches U of T students as tutors for high school students. Our scholarships and bursaries give our students greater assistance with continuing their education. Our levy will always contribute to projects and increases in scholarships and bursaries in order to ensure that the academic needs of all students are fulfilled.

We continue to build on our past accomplishments, including the implementation of our annual Fall Reading Week, the credit/no credit option, and the 24-hour study space in Robarts. Currently, ASSU is working to extend the credit/no credit deadline, revise our course retake policy, and create an American Sign Language course.

We need your support

Our levy, unlike that of most other student societies on campus, is not attached to the Consumer Price Index, meaning that it does not reflect the changes of dollar inflation over time. As a result, we have had to make strategic cuts to line items in our budget, which we hope to reverse and provide additional funding to, such as award bursaries and course union funding.

We encourage you to read our official referendum statement, and to contact us with any questions or concerns. We need your support to continue supporting you: please vote ‘yes’ to our levy increase.

The ASSU levy increase referendum will take place from February 13–14 at voting.utoronto.ca and in Sidney Smith Hall.

Victoria Chen is a second-year Psychology and Cell & Molecular Biology student at Trinity College. Ikran Jama is a second-year International Relations and Criminology and Sociolegal Studies student at Victoria College. Martha Taylor is a second-year Life Sciences student at Trinity College. They are members of the ASSU executive.

Op-ed: Vote ‘no’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

Before asking for a raise, the group should improve its governance and finances

Op-ed: Vote ‘no’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

With the recent postsecondary fee changes announced by the Ontario government, student groups across the province are under attack. It is more important than ever to fight for the existence of strong, well-funded, and democratic student societies. It would feel almost irresponsible to urge students to vote against a student organization’s fee increase at this time.

However, these changes have placed a new emphasis on accountability, and it remains important to speak out against student societies that, whether through apathy or malice, act in undemocratic ways. As such, I cannot support the Arts and Science Students’ Union’s (ASSU) upcoming referendum to increase its levy from $9.50 to $11 per semester.

ASSU’s primary function is to organize, aid, and fund arts and science course unions. The union proposes to distribute about $180,000 in course union funding each year. It also offers essential academic services and advocacy. While there’s no evidence that ASSU is acting maliciously, it is clear that little progress has been made to address the union’s long lasting problems.

A read of ASSU’s constitution shows that there is no avenue for a member to engage in the union’s governance process. ASSU holds no general meeting at which all fee-paying members have voting rights, does not advertise the dates of its regular meetings, and holds no public forums to hear student concerns.

Furthermore, although it holds its presidential and executive elections at open council meetings, ordinary members are not eligible to vote. It seems that the only time that ASSU offers its membership basic democratic control is when it needs a fee increase.

Instead of being governed by its 23,000 full-time undergraduate student members, ASSU is governed by the course unions to which it provides funding. ASSU defends this structure because it views itself as a federation of course unions rather than a student union made of individual members.

However, the union cannot expect its members to pay fees if it is not ready to give those members the right to participate in its governance process. If ASSU wants to be more than a middleman for distributing funding, it needs to acknowledge that it is accountable to all full-time Arts & Science students at UTSG.

With little oversight, it’s easy for an organization to slide further away from its mandate and democratic norms, and a look at the ASSU budget tells us that this is exactly what has happened. ASSU has three full-time staff members in addition to its elected executives. The most senior of the three staff members receives a salary of at least $100,000 before benefits. The remaining two employees receive salaries of about $55,000 each.

Student society staff are essential and deserve to be compensated fairly. However, ASSU spends about $280,000 on salaries and benefits each year, and these salaries are increasing at an annual rate of three per cent above inflation. With every year that goes by, a larger and larger share of ASSU’s budget will be taken up by its staff’s salaries — leaving less and less money for bursaries, scholarships, and course union funding. The ASSU executive has not, and likely will not, admit that these salary increases are an issue.

ASSU’s financial statements paint a picture of an organization that’s running out of money as staff costs increase. While the union claims that it needs a fee increase to fund bursaries, scholarships, and the growth of course unions, it hasn’t made any assurances that this is how the new funds will be used.

The proposed increase is a band-aid solution for ASSU’s problems, and those in charge have demonstrated no intention of finding a long-term fix. Even if this referendum passes and allows for inflationary increases, between each referendum, staff costs will increase at a rate greater than these levy increases due to inflation. Eventually, the union will run out of money, be forced to cut services, and will come asking for another increase.

If ASSU wants a fee increase, its leadership needs to show that it understands who the union is accountable to. It can begin by giving all members the ability to elect their own representatives. It should also follow the lead of similar unincorporated student societies and voluntarily hold annual meetings for members of the executive to hear and address the concerns of students.

It also needs to prove that it has a long-term plan to fix the union’s financial woes. ASSU should work with the labour union that represents its staff to limit salary increases and ensure its long-term welfare.

Until ASSU starts to take the students’ concerns seriously, and addresses them with long-term solutions, they shouldn’t be given a fee increase.

The ASSU levy increase referendum will take place from February 13–14 at voting.utoronto.ca and in Sidney Smith Hall.

Daman Singh is a fourth-year Political Science and Philosophy student at University College. He was the 2017–2018 Vice-President Operations of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

Op-ed: A student union must always be political

The UTMSU VP External discusses Ford reforms, importance of advocacy

Op-ed: A student union must always be political

If you’re a student at a postsecondary institution in Ontario, you are bound to know what just happened with the recent announcements by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative (PC) government, especially as it pertains to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).

Last year, it was estimated that over 400,000 students in Ontario use OSAP to attend school. Students at U of T know how expensive it is firsthand and how much government assistance is essential to access education.

As a disclaimer, I must note I abhor all political parties, and I choose to voice my concerns based only on policies that affect me and the students that I represent. And I can’t say that I was a full believer in the Liberal changes to OSAP in 2016.

I am a student who heavily depends on loans, and my family does not make enough to support me and my two other siblings who also attend postsecondary institutions. We don’t qualify for the “free tuition” grant because my dad makes $65,000 a year, but nonetheless, some of the grants helped us through.

But with the Ford government announcing major changes to student assistance, including cuts to funding for students, I am one of the students who will only walk out with more debt, like thousands of others at U of T.

When I joined the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) a few weeks after my orientation week, I found a place where I can be a part of something bigger. I began volunteering and pretty soon applied for a part-time position in the union, where I began to engage students and help with event planning. Now, as an executive, I can see a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into representing over 14,000 students and providing them with campaigns, services, and events that work for them.

There is so much at stake as students now see the low level of support for students from a government whose platform was supposed to be “for the people.” I ask the question: are they really?

I read a recent Varsity Comment piece on how the UTM Campus Conservatives are somehow the “official opposition to the UTMSU.” The writer went after issues between UTM’s student newspaper The Medium and the UTMSU, seemingly failing — or choosing not to — understand that both parties have addressed their recent behaviour, instead loosely clinging on to misguided attacks in a desperate cry for attention.  

After scratching my head from reading the piece and coming to the conclusion that some people enjoy altering reality under the guise of pretending to care, I began reading old articles about student organizations and how student unions lobbied the government in the past.

I came across an article in The Charlatan, Carleton University’s student newspaper, from March 2009. It exposed how the Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association allegedly led meetings and trainings for Campus Conservatives to take over their student unions. Leaked documents from a workshop at the University of Waterloo on WikiLeaks showed how Conservative students were told to create front clubs like “Campus Coalition for Liberty” to defend free speech agendas and  lobby for funds

Reading this, I felt immediately that history was simply repeating itself. It’s not unheard of for Conservative chapters on campuses to wish to remove political activism from student union organizing.

What we see is that Doug Ford and the PC government’s agenda with the “Student Choice Initiative” is precisely meant to attack student organizing and autonomy. Why? Because the government fears student unions and student organizations when we become political. We create platforms for students to assemble, to organize, and to challenge. Whether university administrations or governments, student unions have been there to fight those that stand in the way of student interests.

Students should always demand to see better from their student unions. I was lucky enough to join my union and feel inspired by the work and leadership of the executive when I was in first year. Victories are important, and I saw them in abundance over the 2016–2017 academic year. Student unions must always work to build on strong advocacy efforts to achieve a better and more inclusive campus environment.

For instance, the UTMSU got rid of the $35 exam remark fee, introduced free menstrual products on campus — becoming the first U of T campus to do so — extended the credit/no credit policy to the last day of classes, successfully lobbied for a direct transit line from Brampton to UTM, and brought in gender-neutral washrooms on campus. This was a student union at work.

Last month, the UTMSU saw a huge victory with our course retake policy being approved by Governing Council, one that was seven years in the making. This was achieved by the student union remaining true to its objectives for fairness in academic policies. Thinking and believing that students deserve more and better is the essence of being political, and must be how we reach those goals.

Some of our goals are lofty, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be achieved. We must yearn for better. Our lives are inherently political because there are decisions being made for us. If being political is how we win, then student unions must stay political. If they aren’t, students must organize and make them that way.

Atif Abdullah is a third-year Computer Science student at UTM. He is the Vice-President External of the UTMSU.

Op-ed: Black tech matters

NSBE U of T reflects on the first university-student run Black hackathon in the GTA

Op-ed: Black tech matters

On January 26, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) U of T chapter hosted NSBEHacks, the first student-run Black hackathon in the GTA. It was held at the Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The event brought together students, professionals, and tech-enthusiasts from across the province to spend 12 hours solving company challenges.

NSBEHacks was co-founded by the three of us — young, Black women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). To some, the need to highlight these particular aspects of ourselves — particularly our Blackness — will be viewed as a form of divisive identity politics.

In fact, we are well aware that for many, the very notion of a ‘Black’ hackathon may be uncomfortable. However, we hope that you are able to sit with this discomfort for a little bit as we describe the significance of having Black-centred STEM events like NSBEHacks.

It is first important to recognize the origin of NSBE itself, which was founded in 1975 by undergraduate students at Purdue University, shortly after the civil rights movement had ended. Their mission was to promote the recruitment and retention of Black students in engineering.

Despite the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and the Civil Rights Act passing in 1964, Black students still faced systemic challenges accessing basic services, including intense opposition from local school districts when trying to attend public schools.

As a result, the creation of NSBE represented more than just a university club. It offered Black students, and the Black community more generally, a safe space to simply exist and work toward a better future.

Decades later, Black youth remain underrepresented in educational institutions and higher-income employment, and overrepresented in correctional facilities. In the GTA, based on 2006–2011 data, Black students are disciplined more harshly than their non-Black peers, and they are more likely to be streamed into non-university-track programs. Black youth are also more likely to grow up in poverty, reducing their likelihood of enrolling in university.

In the professional world, Black youth are underrepresented in most STEM fields — especially in the booming high-tech industry. For those who do pursue a postsecondary degree, many self-select out due to ongoing discrimination in the classroom.

The NSBE U of T chapter was founded in 1999, to continue and expand on the legacy of its founders with a focus on establishing a safe, reputable, and prominent space for Black high school and university students to learn, mentor, and network among themselves and within the wider STEM community.

NSBEHacks was introduced as a part of this wider effort of creating a safe space, where Black students who are currently studying or who may be interested in STEM fields can connect with other Black and non-Black hackers.

We wanted to provide Black students personal and career development opportunities that they may not always find accessible or welcoming in traditional tech settings. We wanted to create a space where both Black and non-Black students have the opportunity to challenge their biases against the ability of Black students to perform in STEM industries.

Overall, we wanted NSBEHacks to be a Black-centred event to help alleviate some of the pressure and alienation that often comes with embodying the only Black representation in a space. Regardless of their programming experience, we encourage Black students to get involved and benefit from the opportunities that hackathons provide.

With these goals in mind, we think that the first NSBEHacks event was a resounding success. With sponsorship from U of T and major companies, including Google, IBM, Shopify, Bloomberg, and McAfee, we were able to organize workshops, programs, and networking sessions led by Black professionals. Students left feeling empowered with new skills and having formed new friendships with fellow hackers of diverse backgrounds.

And NSBEHacks is just one of our projects. This past academic year, our chapter hosted several other events aimed at supporting Black students in the GTA. In October, we hosted a day-long high school conference designed to foster and support Black interest in STEM. The conference also aimed to dispel any fears or myths young students may have developed about their own abilities to succeed as Black youth in the field, by providing a series of hands-on projects led by various STEM groups.

We have also established a mentorship program that connects Black undergraduate students at U of T to alumni working in the industry. The program developed out of our popular Meet a Mentor event, where students were given the opportunity to speak with, seek advice, and gain insights from NSBE alumni.

All these events address important parts of NSBE’s mandate to improve the experience of Black students in STEM. NSBEHacks in particular has been our biggest and most innovative event of the year.

This is only year one, and with all this success, we hope that it will continue to grow in the future. We also hope that Black students are given the space to have a stronger presence in tech spaces and STEM programs. Because Black tech matters.

Ayan Gedleh is the Programs Director of NSBE U of T and a fourth-year Industrial Engineering student at the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering. Temisan Iwere is the Vice-President of NSBE U of T and a fourth-year Computer Science Student at St. Michael’s College. Kyra Stephen is the President of NSBE U of T and a fourth-year Computer Science student at Woodsworth College.

Op-ed: January 29 — remember and resist

Two years after Québec City, Islamophobia still thrives at U of T and beyond

Op-ed: January 29 — remember and resist

Rebellion comes in many different forms. Sometimes, even your identity feels like an act of defiance. That is what it feels like to be a Muslim, two years after a white supremacist opened fire on innocent Muslims as they quietly prayed in a Québec City mosque.

That to be a minority means to be subject to the influence and judgement of the dominant culture is not new. Any marginalized person growing up in the West can attest to the experience. As we mature, we realize that society entices us, both openly and subliminally, to assimilate our culture, values, beliefs and desires, lest we be faced with ostracization. 

Being openly and unapologetically Muslim is increasingly portrayed as antithetical to Western culture, including in Canada. In Ontario, hate crimes against Muslims went up by 207 per cent in 2017. In Québec, the Coalition Avenir Québec majority government that was elected in October aims to ban people working in the public sector from wearing religious symbols, a move openly fuelled by opposition to Muslim religious attire.

Even Toronto, a world-class bastion of multiculturalism, is not an exception to this trend. Last October, white nationalist mayoral candidate and U of T alum Faith Goldy, whom Premier Ford spent three days refusing to denounce, horrifically managed to place third in the municipal elections. She trounced every other ‘long-shot’ candidate by more than 10,000 votes each, even though she did not have access to any of the public debates.

In November, The Varsity reported that members of the U of T Muslim Students’ Association were receiving unexpected visits from law enforcement and national security agencies, including at their homes, who requested to talk to them about confidential matters. While potentially important for security, this practice tends to otherize communities and make them feel unfairly targeted if not exercised tactfully.

And just days ago, the Associated Press reported that researchers working at the Citizen Lab, a U of T-based cybersecurity watchdog group, were approached by suspicious undercover agents masquerading as investors twice in the past two months. In particular, one researcher was asked questions including “Do you pray?” and “Do you hate Israel?” over an upscale breakfast meeting.

The targeted researchers believe that these agents were sent to try to convince them to make statements compromising their neutrality and commitment to fairness and justice. The underlying assumption here is clear: the more one practices Islam, the more malevolent and biased they will appear to intelligence agencies, the public, employers, institutions, or others the potential blackmail would be addressed to.

Then, a false equivalency is drawn by the line of questioning that suggests a more religious Muslim is more likely to “hate Israel” a broad statement that very few people, Muslim or not, will agree with. In the same way that Islam and terrorism are equated, Islam and political hostility are ominously being equated here.

On a more personal scale, macroaggressions targeting individual students are still rampant. Consider U of T News stories describing incidents of hijab pulling, name calling, and unwanted spotlighting. Microaggressions — more subtle, sometimes unintentional acts of marginalization — are also still common. The sad truth of the matter is that, in many ways, nothing is changing. In fact, statistics only show it getting worse.

We would be wise not to miss the underlying disease as we try to keep up with reporting the symptoms. Putting it all together, a wider societal issue becomes clear: a deep-rooted, structurally-reinforced, broad-strokes characterization of an entire religion as one that just “will not mix” with the rest — a characterization that has been shown to be flatly untrue, time and time again.

Nonetheless, whether in Québec, Ontario, or right here at U of T, Islamophobia is thriving. It is a pervasive and persistent stain on the Western psyche, baked in by constant exposure to media, politics, and other influencers of sociocultural norms and values. As a Muslim, it can be dizzying to have your values perpetually interrogated and your identity called into question. The easiest thing to do in this situation would be to give in and join the chorus that claims that the way you live your life is regressive.

But to be Muslim these days is to hold true to the core beliefs of our faith in the face of a society that would rather we didn’t. While most people are accepting, kind, and well-meaning, structural, institutional, and cultural ideologies are beasts that have hardly changed in decades — and we see examples of this daily.

It is these wider structures that we as changemakers aim to address. That is why many equity-seeking communities, including the LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous, and Muslim communities, continue to make strides in civic engagement, protesting and demanding their rights to ensure that their perspectives are represented.

This is also why institutions like U of T need to send the message that diversity and inclusion are catalysts for excellence both as a university and as a society. At U of T and beyond, we must continue to support celebrations of culture and minority excellence. Slowly but surely, we can develop new narratives for ourselves and our children. 

Zahra Billoo pointedly referenced multiple descriptions of Islamophobia in her article for HuffPost, describing Islamophobia as a force that seeks to marginalize and exclude Muslims from a country’s “social, political, and civil life.” Its goal, she argues, is to oppress Muslims to the point of disengagement, thereby eliminating them from the narrative of what it means to be a part of this nation.

In my view, then, the ultimate resistance is to simultaneously be a Muslim and a bold, proud Canadian — to assert myself as an integral thread in the fabric of the national identity, without compromising my personal identity. To contribute to social, political, and civic discourse, and not rest until I’ve had a positive impact on the lives of my fellow Canadians — all while catching my prayers, giving to charity, and fasting in Ramadan.

This is how I honour the lives of my fellow Muslim Canadians, who were shot and killed on what still feels like yesterday. 

I resist. 

Imaan Javeed is a student in the Doctor of Medicine program at the Faculty of Medicine (FoM). He is a Diversity Program Assistant for the FoM’s Diversity and Inclusion Office.

Op-ed: What does effective mental health advocacy look like?

Stigma reduction and awareness campaigns are addressing cultural barriers to positive mental health, but structural barriers persist

Op-ed: What does effective mental health advocacy look like?

Many students are aware of Canada’s startling mental health statistics. One in five Canadians are likely to experience a mental illness or addiction problems in any given year, and youth aged 15–24 are at greatest risk. For these youth, suicide is one of the leading health-related causes of death.

Given that mental health has become an increasingly prominent topic of discussion on postsecondary campuses and in the media over the past few years, one could argue that we have already made significant progress in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness. With numerous student groups offering peer support sessions, destressing activities, and open spaces to share personal experiences with mental health struggles, it would seem that the mental health landscape for postsecondary students is improving.

However, widespread opposition toward U of T’s recently approved university-mandated leave of absence policy suggests that we still have a long way to go before students’ needs are adequately met. It seems to be common knowledge that our campus mental health services are lacking, and that student advocacy is required if we wish to see improvements to this system. What this advocacy looks like remains a vital question.

At Jack.org, a Canadian charity that trains and empowers youth to dismantle barriers to positive mental health through education and advocacy initiatives, volunteers like me typically look at two categories of barriers: cultural and structural.

As many young mental health advocates do, I initially gravitated toward addressing the cultural barriers to positive mental health, with a focus on stigma reduction and promoting mental health education. These initiatives do enhance our ability to identify potential struggles and make us more likely to reach out for social or professional support, but they do not address the fundamental gaps in how institutions support student mental health.

This is where structural barriers come into play, and this is where student initiatives and advocacy are currently lacking. In order to enact system-wide changes, we need to understand that mental health advocacy is not just a social endeavour, but also a political one. Students must therefore voice their concerns and recommendations, not just to each other and online, but to student unions, faculty, and administration. For example, if we want to advocate for improved access to counselling services, we should encourage collaboration between student groups, societies, and unions to lobby administrators and contribute to discussions surrounding policies and funding.

Despite the likelihood that significant improvements to our university’s mental health framework may take years to materialize, there are several actions we can take as students to incrementally improve our local mental health landscape. These range from developing resilience and stress-coping mechanisms to learning how to support peers in distress.

For students who want to get involved in mental health advocacy or contribute to student wellbeing on campus, they can join youth movements such as Jack.org and contribute to ongoing efforts to improve the mental health landscape, not only on campus, but at a provincial and national level. However, if they are entering the advocacy field, a critical approach must be taken in order to truly be impactful.

Research into identifying barriers to positive mental health is necessary and student initiatives should be planned in such a way that addresses these barriers directly. Although on-campus counselling services are often associated with long wait times, there are several external and online resources from which students may benefit. However, these are often poorly marketed to students. Therefore, Jack.org UofT developed a categorized resource brochure in collaboration with the University of Toronto Students’ Union, which printed over 2,500 copies to be distributed during orientation week in 2017.

Similarly, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union recently collaborated with the School of Graduate Studies to establish a Graduate Wellness Portal with a tri-campus resource directory. These resource directories serve as examples of small-scale initiatives that address a specific barrier to accessing mental health services — namely, the lack of marketing of resources to students.

This is in no way a call to abandon advocacy efforts targeting stigma reduction and cultural barriers related to positive mental health. These efforts are necessary both on and off campus to shift public opinion and promote help-seeking behaviour among folks who may be struggling with their mental health.

Instead, this is a call to action for students to be more critical about how we approach the topic of mental health on campus, and that we engage in initiatives, not because they seem well-intentioned, but because they will lead to impactful and measurable changes in the mental health landscape on campus and in our communities.

Daniel Derkach is a master’s student at the Institute of Medical Science. He was the 2017–2018 Chapter Co-Lead for Jack.org UofT.

Op-ed: Graphic anti-abortion protests have no place on campus

Anti-abortion groups’ use of shock tactics to convey their beliefs undermines women’s safety and erodes civil culture on campus

Op-ed: Graphic anti-abortion protests have no place on campus

As a Head Orientation Leader for Woodsworth College Orientation this year, I was tasked with welcoming incoming first-year students to university life. Equipped with a detailed logistics package, contingency plans for each activity, sunscreen, a water bottle, and an endless supply of temporary tattoos, I was both mentally and physically prepared for many of the challenges of the week. 

However, none of my training adequately prepared me for an encounter with anti-abortion protesters the day of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Tri-Campus Parade. Amid the chants of “Woody Woody Woody,” our beloved orientation cheer, the muffled voices of these protesters could be heard, and through the sea of forest green Woodsworth t-shirts, a gruesome poster claiming to depict a late-term abortion was visible. 

It was hardly my first interaction with an anti-abortion demonstration. I was reminded of my own first-year at U of T, when I had decided to go to Robarts Library for the first time, only to be met with graphic signage and chanting at the St. George Street and Harbord Street intersection. 

At the time, I was immediately taken aback by the fact that anti-abortion organizers would target a library early into the university semester with such graphic material. My university campus had become a minefield of distressing images, and I soon learned to follow UTSU Vice-President University Affairs Josh Grondin and other students on Twitter in order to know when anti-abortion protests were taking place and plan my routes to avoid them.

Despite my best efforts, I came face-to-face with the same vitriol a year later, outside the gates of Varsity Stadium during the annual Tri-Campus Parade. My concern then was not of my own comfort, but rather that of the first-year students I was now leading. I wondered how to contextualize the display, and how to explain to new students that these were, unfortunately, commonplace on campus but not endorsed by the university. 

While I tried to come up with some way of addressing the situation, a first-year student from behind me started to chant “pro-choice.” As more and more students joined the cheer, I witnessed that after less than a week on campus, first-year students were already asserting themselves against the display.  

As the Ontario government’s new policy requiring universities to protect free speech on campus comes into effect on January 1, the potential for anti-abortion organizers to target students intensifies. The government mandate requires Ontario universities to come up with policies that enforce free speech, excluding only speech that constitutes the legal definition of hate speech, or face funding cuts.

Anti-abortion groups at many universities have often been denied club status and funding due to their views, which may change when Ontario universities update their free speech policies. New, more lax free speech policies from universities may also embolden protesters.  

Using graphic imagery, misinformation, and misogynistic language, the presence of these groups on campus does not fall in line with the ideals of free expression and academic discourse that universities are meant to uphold. Instead, they take up space in order to intimidate and distress students going about their everyday lives. 

This issue is not unique to U of T, and a recent CBC news article detailed how across Canadian university campuses, anti-abortion groups are using distressing images to gain attention. Moreover, emergency pregnancy care centres located near or on university campuses are coming under fire for spreading misinformation. One pregnancy support centre was recently kicked out of the Acadia Student Union office building for reportedly telling patients that undergoing an abortion increases a women’s chances of developing breast cancer. 

Women’s health and well-being is disproportionately impacted by the spread of misinformation and demonstrations by anti-abortion groups, which admit to purposefully targeting these subjects. In an interview with the National Post, the Executive Director of the anti-abortion group National Campus Life Network, Ruth Shaw, claimed that of Canada’s 100,000 abortions annually, roughly half involve women aged 18 to 24, “which is why we focus so heavily on university campuses.” 

Women have been historically excluded from university, and even now are underrepresented in many fields. When anti-abortion groups target women as they pursue higher education, they perpetuate a campus culture that causes women to feel unsafe and excluded. For women, trans, or non-binary folks with experiences of miscarriages or unplanned pregnancies, these images are even more distressing. 

I am not asking that universities invoke censorship policies or attempt to enforce homogeny. As a Political Science student, everyday I encounter and grapple with views I don’t agree with from my professors and classmates, and I am better for it. But being exposed to offensive heckling and highly graphic imagery on my way to campus does not make me more informed, more intelligent, or more empathetic. Quite honestly, it just makes me feel sad, scared, and targeted. 

To be clear, I support students’ rights to freedom of expression and association, and I believe that religious and pro-life students should be able to form organizations. But there are ways for students to voice their opinions without jeopardizing the psychological well-being of their peers. Weapons divestment groups, for example, can get their point across without resorting to gruesome images of the effects of weapons. In fact, anti-abortion groups’ reliance on shock tactics only shows how little faith they have in the substance of their arguments. 

Although free speech is important, the flagrant spread of misinformation and offensive comparisons of abortion to the Holocaust and other tragedies by certain anti-abortion groups are clearly a threat to a civil campus culture. Graphic anti-abortion protests simply have no place on campus. 

Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society, and Law student at Woodsworth College. She is the Mental Health Director at the Woodsworth College Students’ Association.

Editor’s Note (September 20): A previous version of this op-ed stated that one of the anti-abortion organizers stole a Woodsworth College sign and used it to draw attention to the demonstration. An investigation into this statement raised questions about the accuracy of the claim. The person holding the Woodsworth sign was not an anti-abortion demonstrator, and video evidence suggests that they may have been using the sign to block graphic anti-abortion images.

Op-ed: Accessibility is a worthy investment

The Accessibility Services volunteer note-taking system is not hitting home for many students

Op-ed: Accessibility is a worthy investment

Note-taking is a recognized accessibility need for students with progressive hearing loss, deafness, poor vision, ADHD, and various other learning, sensory, and physical disabilities, disorders, and impairments. This service is an essential accommodation for departments that have historical and existing systemic barriers to entry for disabled students, such as sciences, technology, engineering, math and architecture (STEMA). 

For example, note-taking services for students with low vision allows for better contextualization and interpretation of math, equations, graphs, diagrams, and code languages, a necessity for disabled students for whom STEMA classes may otherwise be inaccessible. Lack of access to notes, especially in the STEMA fields, often means that disabled students have to switch out of those subjects. 

It is therefore imperative that lecture notes, textbooks, exams, quizzes and all class materials are made available in alternative formats in order for disabled students to have equitable access to education.

At the St. George campus, the note-taking program is administered through Accessibility Services. The program relies almost entirely on volunteers; students in the same class as those in need of notes are asked to sign up as note-takers with Accessibility Services. In return, volunteers receive a certificate from Accessibility Services. If the volunteer takes on note-taking positions for multiple classes, they may be eligible for co-curricular record accreditation through U of T. 

The current volunteer note-taking program has over 1500 volunteers and serves over 1200 disabled students. Fortunately, U of T provides volunteer note-taking as one way to level the playing field for registered students with disabilities.  

However, the volunteer system has many limitations that create additional barriers for students with disabilities. One of the first challenges of this system is that it is dependent on professors making an announcement in class in order to recruit volunteers. Many professors do not make this announcement, make it only once, or fail to adequately emphasize the pressing need for volunteers.

In addition, reliance on a volunteer-based system — as opposed to hiring paid note-takers — frequently leads to a lack of consistent note-taking in class. Rather than submitting and uploading lecture notes after every class, note-takers often submit and upload their notes every few weeks. Thus, lectures notes are not uploaded in a timely manner and students often do not have access to the lecture materials prior to midterms, course assignments, or labs. 

Lecture notes are often shared in formats that end up being inaccessible; for example, handwritten notes that are not readable by screen readers are virtually useless to students who need to access them.

In addition, it is rare that tutorial notes are provided to students, as it is not required for volunteers to share notes from non-lecture based class sections. In fact, there is no formal mechanism in place for students to be able to request note-taking for tutorials, labs, or field courses if they require them.

The university’s reliance on an almost entirely volunteer-based system for note taking is puzzling, as the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) claims to provide $250 per class per semester for note-takers through the Bursary for Students with Disabilities and Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment (BSWD/CSG-PDSE).

Not having access to notes promptly after lectures take place makes it difficult for students with disabilities to absorb lecture material and work through it in the sequential manner necessary for complete understanding, or to learn through the framework in which the material is intended to be taught.

In sum, due to the inconsistent submission of lecture notes, lack of guidance for note-takers, and failure to provide note-takers in non-lecture based learning spaces, disabled students are placed at a significant disadvantage. As a result, rather than levelling the playing field, the note-taking system at U of T systematically leaves disabled students behind and struggling to catch up in their courses.

The university’s reliance on an almost entirely volunteer-based system for note taking is puzzling, as the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) claims to provide $250 per class per semester for note-takers through the Bursary for Students with Disabilities and Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment (BSWD/CSG-PDSE). Funding through this grant is decided on a case-by-case basis using a standardized application. 

While all students with disabilities requiring note-takers should, in theory, be able to get funding for this service, there seems to be an uneven distribution of this government-allocated money. At U of T, many students who have received funding for note-takers repeatedly advocated for this service prior to being approved.  

Across the province, we find that some universities and colleges consistently pay for note-takers while others, including U of T, do not. Inconsistencies also exist within U of T, which raises questions about how Ministry funding is being allocated to students. If it has been determined that a student requires note-takers, why is funding for note-takers not being provided? What are the reasons for relying on a volunteer-based note-taking program?

While U of T is is considered a publicly-assisted institution, education here is still framed through notions of meritocracy, competition, and performance. From this perspective, competition is regarded a necessary precursor to research innovation. Within the context of accessibility needs, this competition-driven system has significant consequences for disabled students. In the case of note-taking, disabled students are represented as having an ‘unfair advantage’ or a ‘competitive edge’ over their peers when they receive lecture notes from a classmate.

These unfounded perceptions lead to both professors and non-disabled students de-valuing the importance of note-taking services and, at the same time, create an even more hostile classroom environment for disabled students. Programs that are inaccessible remain inaccessible, while the lack of support often pushes disabled students out.

Without a broader discourse on equity and a reconceptualization of classroom accommodations as accessibility needs, the conversation remains focused on individual needs. Such an approach cannot lead to meaningful structural changes. In order to have a note-taker system that works for disabled students, it is urgent for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and U of T to begin to engage with disabled students and to center our needs.

Chandrashri Pal is a Board Member and the current Vice-Chair of Students for Barrier-free Access. Nadia Kanani is the Advocacy and Volunteer Coordinator at Students for Barrier-free Access.