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Op-ed: To new student leaders — and those who hope to become ones

A retirement message from the President of the Arts and Science Students’ Union

Op-ed: To new student leaders — and those who hope to become ones

The regular student election season has come and gone. For those who did get elected: congratulations and welcome to the world of student governance. Before I retire as the President of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU), I want to offer some advice for those involved and those still pondering the decision to get involved.

I got involved because I wanted to feel a little part of campus life and community, make some new friends and because — let’s be real — it wouldn’t look too bad on a résumé. I started small and got involved in a course union, the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations Students’ Union, as a first-year representative. I had the opportunity to collaborate with others and run events. Through it all, I was guided by senior students. This is why I am such a big proponent of getting involved in your early years at U of T.

Afterward, I moved on to a more senior executive position in the course union and eventually got leadership opportunities across multiple clubs, ranging from the Orphan Sponsorship Program to ASSU, where I eventually became the president.

For those of you who want to get involved, you first need to find your community. This campus is huge and trying to find your space is sometimes difficult. Get involved in opportunities that actually interest you. There are hundreds of clubs on this campus that cater to diverse ends, whether they are cultural groups, political work, or just recreational. If you cannot find one that interests you, then create your own.

But while you’re there, remember the commitment that you have made and try to do the best work that you can. After you accomplish this foundational experience, you might want to take the big step of running in an election for a senior role in a student union. However, there’s something you should know before you do it.

Student ‘politics’ can be a lot of fun. I’ve been involved in a few elections myself, and campaigning is one of the most thrilling experiences you can have. You will meet and talk to students about their issues and propose your own ideas to fix them. You will have articles written in The Varsity about you and you get to debate the issues you care about.

However, the role you’re in is no cakewalk. This university has a lot of problems: we have a mental health crisis, housing is too expensive, and marginalized communities continue to feel unsafe. Those in power have attempted to fix these issues for decades, but they are not so easily resolvable. When pushing for reform and lobbying administration, you can expect to face the insurmountable walls and barriers that have led multiple student leaders to burn out.

Moreover, you will face criticism — warranted or unwarranted — by simply being in the position you are in. People will call you out, write articles against you, and spread nasty rumours about you. You must be ready for that.

However, the most difficult part about student ‘politics’ is the label of student ‘politicians’ — which I hate. It creates a false sense of entitlement that only feeds into people’s egos. Trust me when I say most, if not all, student leaders at U of T have an ego, including myself. Hence, when all of these egos coalesce, we often want to be the ones in control to get the credit. This leads to disagreements and petty actions by others just to garner more clout. Often, larger groups or organizations will try to interfere with the affairs of other student groups.

What you should know is that there are well-intentioned and dishonest people on all ‘sides’ of the political spectrum. You will need to learn who to trust in your role. Stand for what you think is right. Taking the safe route on issues like the university-mandated leave of absence policy or the Student Choice Initiative is not the way to go. You need to take action.

The last thing I need to clear up is that student ‘politics’ is not real politics. There is a life beyond it — so don’t take it too seriously. If you do have a chance at ‘power,’ make it as enjoyable as you can. Live in the present, work together, and get things done. No one cares if you were the President of ASSU once you leave this school.

Have fun, and good luck. As for me, I’m out of here.

Haseeb Hassaan is a fifth-year Political Science and Religion student at St. Michael’s College. He is the President of ASSU.

Op-ed: What happened in New Zealand has no borders

A Muslim Students’ Association Executive reflects on the recent mosque massacre

Op-ed: What happened in New Zealand has no borders

“Hello brother.” That was the greeting of a Muslim man who was the first to be met with bullets. 

On March 15, a white supremacist perpetrated a massacre in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. 51 innocent souls lost their lives due to a vicious and gruesome hate crime. But while this terrorist attack took place thousands of miles from Toronto, its origin and impact has no borders for Muslims around the world. 

The attack was fuelled by extremist anti-Muslim ideologies that have been tolerated, and even actively encouraged, by politicians and leaders around the world. It is not disconnected from the ongoing Muslim ban in the US or the rising anti-hijab contempt in Europe. Furthermore, the denial of the problem of white supremacy and the lack of its reporting by the media contribute to massacres like the one that took place in New Zealand.

Canada too knows the violent ideology of white supremacy very well. Two years ago, the Québec City mosque shooting took the lives of six Muslims and devastated the lives of many Canadians. In fact, the white supremacist New Zealand shooter wrote the name of the Québec mosque shooter on his weapon. This should be a wake-up call to Canadians: we need to acknowledge and address the existence of Islamophobia in our country. 

Earlier this year, students found white nationalist posters around U of T that decried  multiculturalism. In 2018, the municipal elections gave a platform to white nationalist individuals like Faith Goldy. At York University, just a few miles from our campus, a student showed up in a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat to a vigil for the victims of the New Zealand mosque massacre.

All of these examples have been largely tolerated and not condemned by our community. The perpetrators of white supremacy are hiding behind the banner of ‘freedom of speech’ as an excuse for their Islamophobia. But the tolerance of this anti-Muslim rhetoric has resulted in the loss of 51 lives. We need to draw the line between intellectual freedom and the spewing of hate. We cannot accept a version of freedom of speech that results in the deaths of innocent people.  

The massacre has impacted the lives of many Muslims, including U of T students — especially those who made their way to Friday prayers the next day. Within hours of receiving the news, we at the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) organized healing circles at the two Friday prayer locations to provide students with the space to grieve. We extended our support to the Toronto vigil by assisting in the marketing and promotion of the event. We referred students to wellness resources in the GTA to assist them in coping with the tragedy through an Islamically-principled approach.  

In turn, the campus community has been quite supportive through this process. As we arrived at Hart House to perform the congregational prayers that the New Zealand victims had just engaged in a few hours previously, we were welcomed by handwritten messages from the staff and students offering their support to the Muslim community. Our Christian and Jewish friends stood by us as we made our way to prayers. The kindness we received from our faculty and fellow students on campus was incredibly supportive during what was a dark day for Muslims. 

President Meric Gertler released a heartfelt statement in which he sent his condolences to the MSA and all Muslims on campus. His kind words helped us feel heard and acknowledged. 

Others, however, have made a meaningful effort to address the issue at its core. Professor Anver Emon, director of the Institute of Islamic Studies (IIS) has recognized the attack for what it is: a white supremacist attack. He highlights that the discussion on Islamophobia is long-term, and we must recognize its existence within our own lands. Emon has announced that the IIS will be hosting bimonthly discussions on difficult topics in order to advance our understanding of Islamophobia. 

This explicit recognition has a far greater impact on combating white supremacy. We hope that the U of T administration and the IIS can work together to address Islamophobia and eradicate ignorance both within our campus and in Canada at large. 

The Christchurch massacre can serve as an entryway into an important discussion on Islamophobia. However, we must remember that the attack is not an isolated incident. Anti-Muslim violence has existed as a global reality for years. Therefore, the efforts and discourse from our allies at U of T in alleviating the pain of the New Zealand massacre must address those continued realities as well. 

There is much work to be done at the university to support Muslims in their efforts to confront white supremacist ideologies and the violence they face around the world. And these changes begin when we make a sincere effort to recognize the problem of white supremacy.

Shahd Fulath Khan is a second-year Psychology, Neuroscience, and Political Science student at Victoria College. She is the Secretary of the MSA at UTSG.

Op-ed: For mental health, callous attitudes contribute to preventable deaths

Reviewing the development process of the university-mandated leave of absence policy

Op-ed: For mental health, callous attitudes contribute to preventable deaths

Content warning: discussion of suicide.

Earlier this week, a U of T student died by suicide at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. Just last June, another student died under similar circumstances.

Around that time, the University of Toronto Governing Council approved the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP). The UMLAP is intended to help students in distress — like our peer who died recently. As stated in the UMLAP, if a student’s behaviour “poses a risk of harm to self or others,” it can be used to place the student on a non-punitive leave of absence and to provide them with additional resources and accommodations.

With that said, in the first quarter of 2019, there have already been two suicides on campus. With the UMLAP in place and the media attention it has received, students should be reaching out and considering it as an option. However, recent comments from students show clear disagreements with the policy. We need to ask ourselves what impact the UMLAP has really had on campus since its implementation.

Something went wrong

Somewhere along the UMLAP’s development process, something went wrong. I was a member of the University Affairs Board (UAB) of Governing Council when the idea of a leave of absence policy was first introduced in May 2017. At the time, Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh described it as “a welcome Policy” that would provide a “transparent, non-disciplinary and compassionate” process for students to engage in leaves of absence. I distinctly recall the broad support from across the board — myself included.

We understood the need for a policy, both to provide front-line administrators with direction on mental health issues, resources, and accommodations, and to provide students with a voluntary, compassionate leave option when no option existed in their division or program.

It was not until the following academic year at the October 2017 UAB meeting, after my term had ended, that the terms of the proposed leave of absence policy were made public. Students and faculty raised grave concerns with its contents. They included the risk that a student in crisis could be denied access to essential services at their time of greatest need, the fact that individuals with no expertise in mental health could make unilateral judgements on what could be considered ‘relevant information’ when a student was pleading their case, the lack of involvement from regulated health professionals throughout the process, and much, much more.

Within a month of the UMLAP’s release, students self-organized a grassroots Facebook group with over 200 members to coordinate their opposition. Several took the initiative to meet privately with the central administration to discuss their concerns.

In response, the central administration revised the UMLAP and put forth a new version for final approval by the Governing Council’s boards in January 2018. Some issues were addressed. The revised version made clear commitments to the Personal Health Information Protection Act, prohibited the placement of any notation on academic transcripts regarding the leave, and added equity officers as an additional source of support for students subject to the UMLAP. But given that the fundamental concerns raised by students, like the threat of being denied services during a time of need, were not addressed to students’ satisfaction, they continued to raise vocal opposition.

The university and the Ontario Human Rights Commission

Less than 24 hours before the revised version of the UMLAP was slated for recommendation at the January 30, 2018 UAB meeting, Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), sent an unprecedented letter to Ms. Claire Kennedy, Chair of the Governing Council. Mandhane communicated major concerns with the UMLAP. The OHRC recommended that “the Policy not be approved in its current form.”

The letter also referenced a meeting between staff from the Office of the Vice-President and Provost (OVPP) and the OHRC on December 13, 2017. In fact, documents obtained by The Varsity showed that correspondence with the OHRC began as early as December 6, 2017. After the December 13 meeting, the OHRC had stated that it “[looked] forward to receiving a copy of the next draft of the Policy before it enters the governance path for approval.” In response, the OVPP stated that “we will share that we have met informally with OHRC staff about the proposed policy when we meet with student groups in the weeks to come.”

As the OVPP never specified which student groups they intended to share their conversations with, it’s difficult to determine whether they kept their promise. Nonetheless, a comment from Mathias Memmel, President of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) at the time, was telling: the UTSU “didn’t know that the OHRC was involved until the [January 30, 2018] UAB meeting.” For context, during this time, the UTSU had met extensively with the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students and several student groups regarding the UMLAP. The fact that the UTSU was not aware of the OHRC’s involvement at the time is concerning.

But perhaps more concerning was the central administration’s behaviour toward the OHRC’s request and at the January 25, 2018 meeting of the Academic Board (AB) of Governing Council. Like the UAB, the AB must also recommend draft policies that impact certain issues before the policy can proceed in the governance path. The OVPP appeared to have declined the OHRC’s request to provide a draft policy prior to the UMLAP’s entry into the governance path.

In response to a direct question regarding the OHRC’s request from The Varsity to Elizabeth Church, Interim Director of Media Relations at the time, Church stated, “I can tell you that the draft policy was made publicly available to everyone to review before it went through governance.” This statement is technically true: a draft policy was made publicly available just prior to the October 2017 UAB meeting, but the January 2018 version of the UMLAP that was made public on the AB meeting agenda was different. By placing the updated UMLAP on the AB agenda, this previously unseen version of the UMLAP had entered the governance path for approval.

Consequently, if the central administration had not provided this updated version of the UMLAP to the OHRC prior to placing it on the AB agenda, it would seem that the central administration declined the OHRC’s request to review the UMLAP “before it [entered] the governance path for approval.”

Based on reports from The Varsity, it appears that the OHRC and the central administration did not have any correspondence between December 15, 2017, when the OVPP responded to the OHRC’s email, and January 29, 2018, when the letter from the OHRC to the Governing Council was sent. If the central administration truly did not send the OHRC a draft of the UMLAP before placing the policy on the AB agenda, the onus of the OHRC’s letter of concerns lies with the university even more. Had the OVPP complied with the OHRC’s request for a draft, changes could have been made and the notice avoided. Also, nothing prevented the central administration from delaying approval of the UMLAP until a later meeting.

Furthermore, the central administration appears to have failed to disclose the OHRC’s concerns to the AB at their January 25, 2018 meeting. An official, detailed record of the meeting shows no mention of any correspondence between the OHRC and the university.

In corporate governance structures like the AB, there is an expectation that management — in this case, the OVPP — provide relevant information that could contribute to the decision-making process of the respective board. This is part of a legal ‘fiduciary duty’ — something of a shared interest toward a common goal among the board members, who oversee the corporation, the management, who deal with day-to-day operations, and the members or shareholders of the corporation. Because management is the source of a significant amount of information about the corporation and its affairs, board members must be able to implicitly trust the information that management provides them to be able to perform effective oversight.

Failing to disclose relevant information can jeopardize the diligent review of information each member of the board is required to perform when making decisions.

Thus, I find the central administration’s failure to disclose the OHRC’s concerns to the AB to be an outrageous, unconscionable, and indefensible act. In light of potential legal liabilities identified by the OHRC, they ought to have done so. I have no doubt that, had the OHRC’s concerns been fairly presented to the members of the AB, the UMLAP would have been met with significant opposition. But these concerns were not presented, so it is no surprise that the AB approved the UMLAP. Just five of the 65 members present, including two named faculty members from the U of T Faculty of Nursing and the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, dissented.

Tokenistic public consultation or sunk-cost fallacy?

Let’s fast-forward to spring 2018. By now, the draft UMLAP had officially been published twice in Governing Council documents. For the first time since the initial draft, the central administration began soliciting public comments from any student, faculty member, or staff on a third, not-yet-official revision. Like the policy development process for the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment passed in December 2016, an online form was provided as part of the public consultation process.

To my knowledge, responses to the form were never released, so it’s hard to know exactly how many submissions were delivered. At the very least, we can assess how the consultation process changed the UMLAP by comparing the third version to the version ultimately approved at the May 2018 UAB meeting.

The similarities between the third version and the final version are striking. If you took each copy and laid them out side-by-side, you would find that the pages and clauses line up almost perfectly. All but three of the 79 clauses are identical, and two of the amended clauses had little impact to the practices prescribed by the UMLAP.

The third and arguably most substantive change involved section 40, which discusses the discretion that the Vice-Provost Students may exercise when placing a student on a University-Mandated Leave of Absence (UMLA). Language was added such that the Vice-Provost, Students “will consult with an appropriate regulated health professional” when considering a UMLA. Previously, there was no requirement for the Vice-Provost Students to consult health professionals. Students had consistently raised concerns at prior UAB meetings regarding the lack of involvement of health professionals and the potential for decisions to be made by administrators with no expertise in mental health. The same concern was also identified in the OHRC’s letter.

Some might allege that the lack of substantive change following public consultation was a reflection of a broader consultation process rife with tokenism. However, I propose an alternative explanation, albeit one that is not mutually exclusive. The central administration had already received suggestions for the UMLAP based on “initial consultations with registrars, academic administrators, deans of students and health & wellness staff” as early as May 2017. The UMLAP was then placed on the governance path for approval in January 2018, where the AB recommended it.

Following the OHRC’s letter, it is reasonable to assume that the central administration sought further legal advice — at great expense — to ensure that the UMLAP complied with the Ontario Human Rights Code. Substantial resources had already been committed to the UMLAP. While just as insidious as a tokenistic public consultation, perhaps the central administration felt that it was not worth turning back at this point. Maybe they felt pressure to proceed, despite ongoing concerns, from the burden of sunk costs.

Regardless, there was a clear disconnection between the concerns raised by students and the changes made after public consultation. And it’s frankly not that surprising. Public consultation is a poor way to solicit comments on a policy that has already been written; it’s unreasonable to expect members of the public to provide usable feedback when a nuanced understanding of the policy’s provisions is required. Public consultation can be extremely useful at the earliest stages of policy development, as potential issues can be identified, discussed, and mitigated before they become cemented in language. However, that time had long since passed.

Instead of a late public consultation process, I suggest that striking working groups composed of members familiar with the UMLAP would have provided more substantive and effective changes.

Good intentions, poor execution

My intention here is not to accuse the university’s central administration of impropriety. Rather, I believe that its actions after the October 2017 UAB meeting reflect a disappointingly callous disposition toward students’ mental health. There were countless opportunities for the university to take more appropriate actions. They should have done better to understand the real consequences and impacts of their decisions. Annual campus police reports show that there have been 12 suicides or suicide attempts on campus between 2014 and 2017. Especially in light of these incidents that came prior to the UMLAP’s enactment, the risk that poor decision-making could contribute to preventable deaths should have been a salient and disturbing thought.

Had the university listened closely to students, they would have heard about the numerous issues that plague our campus today. Their original focus might not have been on redirecting students from disciplinary provisions, but rather on how best to implement a voluntary leave of absence program that could accommodate all students regardless of “harm to self or others.” Despite reassurances, students now worry that disclosing severe mental health issues could lead to denial from campus services.

When you take a closer look at the issues that students discuss in conversation about mental health, they inevitably identify a range of contributing factors. Some students face long commute times, which reduces their time available to study and leads to stress. Others might live closer to campus but take on part-time jobs to help make ends meet — meaning they are similarly affected and are further impacted by financial stress. Students also report stress due to anxiety about their futures and academic pressure.

These and other factors should be described as the determinants of health and mental health, a term used in public health to emphasize the contexts in which individual and population health is experienced. Any campus mental health strategy needs to consider the impact of such determinants and the role that the university plays in mitigating or exacerbating ongoing issues.

Earlier this week, when a member of our community died by suicide this year, students rose. The next day, a grassroots movement drew media attention to a “silent protest” outside Simcoe Hall, where Governing Council and its boards meet a reflection of the unspeakable trauma within the U of T community. Their silence stands in stark contrast with the previously deafening chorus of students who had relentlessly expressed their concerns with mental health on campus. What’s left to say?

Nathan Chan is a graduate student at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the University of Toronto’s Institute of Medical Science. He was a 20162017 member of the University Affairs Board of the Governing Council, 20172018 Associate President at the University of Toronto Students’ Union, and 20172018 Course Union Representative on the General Council of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union.

Disclosure: Chan was The Varsity’s 20162017 Photo Editor.

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

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

Warning signs of suicide include:

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

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

Op-ed: The SCSU’s refusal to ratify my election was illegal

The VP Operations-elect calls on the union to reverse its decision and apologize

Op-ed: The SCSU’s refusal to ratify my election was illegal

As students, we are supposed to be able to trust our elected student unions to advocate for student issues, rights, and interests when no one else will. But in the case of the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), it is unfortunate that it has failed to fulfil the role it was elected to do.

Just like their predecessors, the Board of Directors this year has shown that the laws only apply where it sees fit. Having already dealt with an attempt by the SCSU to have me removed from last year’s election, I can attest firsthand that the SCSU attempts to intimidate students from challenging them. In this year’s election, I was elected by UTSC students to serve as Vice-President Operations. But on February 26, the board chose to illegally refuse to ratify my election.

The basis for the refusal was my presence in a group chat in which I supposedly condoned another individual’s transphobic comments, even though my only comments were “Good God” followed by “I hope this chat is never leaked.” One individual publicly described me as a “good racist”  on social media.

The blatant attempts to skew what was said and defame my character were aggravating enough. But when another board member admitted to me in a private message that they were aware of the context behind the statement and understood that I was not to blame for someone else’s transphobic comments, and yet still chose not to communicate this context to the board in my defence — that is what has convinced me that this ratification process was one conducted with malice.

Ultimately, the board’s decision was made with incorrect interpretations of SCSU bylaws. There is no way that our student union is so ignorant that it is not aware of the laws, especially when it is its job to understand them. Its decision was made on the basis that candidates cannot be deemed elected until they have been ratified by the board. However, as per the Elections Procedure Code itself, there are only two circumstances in which the board can refuse ratification.

The first is if the board refuses to accept the entire report by the Chief Returning Officer (CRO), on the grounds that the election was deemed to be conducted illegally, for instance, through vote manipulation, tampering, or demerits. The second is if a recommendation to refuse ratification is made by the Elections Appeals Committee, which may only make a judgment based on the violations ruled on by the CRO.

Having approved the CRO’s report, the board has formally provided its consent that its findings were legitimate, and that there was no tampering within the election, eliminating its grounds for the first circumstance. The CRO found no evidence of violations by me, as per his report, and since there were no appeals, the Elections Appeals Committee could not advise the board to refuse my ratification, eliminating the grounds for the second circumstance.

What this means is that the board either does not know its own bylaws or is willingly breaking them. But it does not end there. In addition to breaking its own bylaws, the board has incidentally broken provincial law too. As a corporation, it must follow the Ontario Corporations Act (OCA).

Consider Section 127.1(2), which states that directors and officers of corporations subject to the OCA, like the SCSU, must act in accordance with the bylaws of their corporation and the OCA. As per the Elections Procedure Code, officers are elected by a plurality of votes and the voting members — the students — are the ones who cast the ballot. This does not grant the SCSU the authority to dismiss the results of the ballot without recommendation from the Elections Appeals Committee. The SCSU’s lack of due process for intervening within a democratic election is a clear violation of the law.

Also consider Section 127.1(1), which confirms that the SCSU board must act in good faith. Failure to ratify the democratically elected VP Operations on illegitimate grounds, refusal to allow candidates to make their case to the board, defamation of candidates, and disregard for its own bylaws does not demonstrate the diligence, prudence, and care that is required from our representatives on the board.

In sum, the SCSU has broken multiple laws — both its own and those of the province. I am offering the SCSU the opportunity to own up to its own mistake. Ratify me as is legally obligated and, on behalf of the students, admit that you messed up and do the unthinkable: apologize.

Indeed, all SCSU board members at the ratification should publicly apologize for trying to subvert the law behind false pretenses, for defaming me and my colleagues, and apologize to the students for continuing the SCSU tradition of breaking the little trust we have toward our union.

Rayyan Alibux is a third-year Political Science and Business Economics student at UTSC. He was elected SCSU Vice-President Operations but his election was not ratified by the Board of Directors.

Op-ed: In support and solidarity with Chemi Lhamo

SFT-UTSG reflects on anti-Tibetan harassment against the SCSU president-elect

Op-ed: In support and solidarity with Chemi Lhamo

If you’re a student at U of T, you know that toward the middle of every winter semester comes an exciting election period in which student leaders promise change on campus for the better. This election cycle was especially of interest for me due to the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) presidential candidacy and successful election of Chemi Lhamo — a fellow Tibetan and student activist.

This year, however, the SCSU elections became a national headline that drew much-needed attention to how global forces can threaten campus life. What should have been a celebratory occasion for Lhamo’s Shine Bright UTSC slate and the larger student community was instead overshadowed by a harassment campaign by a large group of international Chinese students.

The students involved left thousands of hateful online comments against Lhamo, and individually attacked her identity as an exiled Tibetan. They even went as far as starting a petition against her presidency on In light of what she has had to endure, we, the Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) chapter members at UTSG, UTM, Ryerson University, and York University, declare our support for and solidarity with Lhamo as both our fellow Tibetan and as the SCSU president-elect.

As a Canadian with a deep connection to and understanding of her Tibetan identity, Lhamo’s rise to a position of leadership and power seems to be an irritant for China. This is likely because her advocacy for human rights and Tibetan independence challenges the Chinese government and its harsh policies toward Tibetans and other oppressed peoples under their rule.

China’s forceful occupation of Tibet is nearly six decades old now. Despite its iron-fisted clamp down against the Tibetan people’s freedom, resistance to China has continued to grow from within Tibet as well as outside of it in its diaspora communities. Outside Tibet, the rise of younger generations of Tibetans in exile who are strongly committed to the politics of their identity demonstrates that the Chinese government has not succeeded in its oppression.

This is especially the case for SFT, which has been at the forefront of advocating for human rights and freedom in Tibet for over 20 years. Our organization serves as an amplifier for Tibetan voices that are banned back home. We have branches all over the world, including one based here in Toronto and a student-led chapter at UTSG.

Unfortunately, the harassment and slander directed at Lhamo is not surprising for us at SFTUTSG. Our members have been a constant target of ire from certain sections of the international Chinese student community at our events on campus. It is not uncommon for Chinese students to show up at our tables to mock, question, and demean our displays and our objective of spreading awareness about the ongoing Tibetan struggle.

An example of this is Dr. Lobsang Sangay’s visit to UTSG last November. Sangay is the President of the Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet’s government-in-exile based in India. SFTUTSG and three other SFT chapters, led by Lhamo as the main coordinator, organized a Hart House talk, entitled “Party-less and Global — A Case of Tibetan Democracy in Exile.”

At this event too, a number of international Chinese students showed up to protest. Clearly, these protest groups are well-coordinated, but their participants seem to be relatively unaware of the issues at hand — few of the comments made against Lhamo, for instance, had anything to do with her platform.

Such well-planned attempts to divert and disrupt Tibetan-focused events forces one to ask, who is behind it all? It would not be entirely surprising if the international Chinese students campaigning against Lhamo were receiving direct support from the Chinese government. It would not be the first time that questions over the Chinese government’s interference through student groups have surfaced.

The university is committed to the principles of academic freedom and the right to freedom of speech, as well as to equity and justice. Accordingly, students have a right to express their disagreement and opposition to their elected representatives, but they also have a right to express their identity without fear of retribution.

The attitude of some international Chinese students toward Tibetan identity exceeds the reasonable limit for free speech and should be regarded as hate speech. We need to be able to speak up against such organized campaigns that target people on the basis of national and ethnic identities.

Canada is known to be a country that places high value on and has respect for human rights, including freedom of expression. It is incumbent upon us to be aware of infiltrating forces seeking to destroy our very culture of respect for human rights. U of T can play a huge role in ensuring that Canadian values are upheld. The administration should investigate the possibility of external Chinese influence in a campaign of online vitriol against Lhamo.

March 10 this year will mark the 60th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan National Uprising Day that took place in Lhasa, Tibet. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army crushed the uprising, which triggered the flight of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans into exile. It has also been more than 10 years since mass uprisings took place across Tibet and other regions in response to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Tibetans around the world continue to remember the spirit of Tibetan National Uprising Day, to actively resist the forceful occupation of Tibet, and to seek the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet. We call on the U of T community to join SFT-UTSG and the Tibetan diaspora in Toronto in a collective march on March 10, as we pursue justice, human rights, and a free Tibet.

Dechen Tenzin is a fourth-year International Relations and Political Science student at Woodsworth College. She is a member of SFT Canada and President of the SFTUTSG.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to conclude with a call to attend an upcoming march.

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 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 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.