Op-ed: How student groups foster inclusivity and equity

WRiSC co-presidents on demonstrating difference and celebrating excellence

Op-ed: How student groups foster inclusivity and equity

The Woodsworth Racialized Students’ Collective (WRiSC) was founded in 2018 and intends to serve racialized students by fostering a space where racial injustices can be discussed, both at Woodsworth College and with the general University of Toronto community. Prior to WRiSC’s existence, Woodsworth did not have an organization that specifically focused on advocating for racialized experiences, which was one of many reasons for its creation.

WRiSC is an organization on campus that works toward spotlighting racialized experiences and serving the U of T community through an equity perspective.

This February, WRiSC collaboratively presented its major initiative for this semester. Working with the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), we administered the Realities of U of T campaign followed by an event titled Inequality Examined, Discrimination Discovered, Privilege Present. On February 11 at Hart House, students exhibited their work that fell under the broad category of social inequality.

The objective of the Realities of U of T campaign is to render visible experiences of racism, and other forms of discrimination, that U of T students have encountered throughout their lives — either during their time at U of T or prior to their enrollment. As a second component of the campaign, we wanted to inform students of mental health resources that are available, in case they may need them as a result of racism, or for an alternative reason. Thus, each of our posts included the link to the UTSU’s mental health resources list on their website.

Although our club is focused on spotlighting the racialized experiences, we want to promote and emphasize intersectionality, and we always invite students to share experiences they may have had based on multiple dimensions of their identity. We worked with the UTSU to provide a platform for students to share their work  — such as academic papers, artworks, and short stories — through our exhibit at Hart House on February 11.

We strongly believe that there is not enough emphasis on the work students produce as a contribution to the dismantling of colonialism and other societal structures that negatively impact marginalized communities. There are some students on this campus whose classes and coursework do not even discuss the ways that societal structures affect populations in different ways. We believe that every student, and every individual, should have the opportunity to learn about perspectives that may differ from their own.

Moving forward, WRiSC hopes to increase its presence at Woodsworth, and the wider campus, through collaborative events targeted at the student body. For any students who are interested in attending our events, we recommend liking our Facebook page, “/wrisc,” and following us on Instagram at “@wrisc_uoft,” as these are our main platforms of information. Students who would like to get involved with the club can email wrisc@mywcsa.com and stay tuned for more information regarding our upcoming annual general meeting and elections.

Victoria Barclay is a fourth-year Sociology, Political Science and Equity Studies student at Woodsworth College.

Ali Aghaeinia is a fourth-year Criminology, Ethics, Society & Law, and Sociology student at Woodsworth College.

Barclay and Aghaeinia are co-presidents of the Woodsworth Racialized Students’ Collective.

Op-ed: The Black Future Lawyers program promotes Black representation in the legal field

A program assistant weighs in on the BFL’s equity-based initiatives

Op-ed: The Black Future Lawyers program promotes Black representation in the legal field

On January 15, the University of Toronto Faculty of Law launched its Black Future Lawyers (BFL) program. The main goal of this program is to increase and support Black representation in law schools and the legal profession, and in turn better represent the diversity of the communities in which law is practiced. 

This program supports Black undergraduate students who aspire to go to law school and become lawyers through various engagement opportunities. Already, current undergraduate BFL members have had the opportunity to attend a speed mentoring session with Black lawyers working in both public and private practice and attend numerous workshops hosted by U of T Law — including ones with Constitutional Law expert Professor Richard Albert and Crown Counsel Kandia Aird. Other integral activities to the undergraduate BFL program include mentorship opportunities and job shadowing with Black lawyers, judges, and articling students. 

Black undergraduates can also look forward to admissions and financial aid information sessions and the second annual Black Future Lawyers Conference to be held on Saturday, February 29. 

Black undergraduates wishing to apply to U of T Law should also take note of the law school’s Black Student Application Stream (BSAS) opening in 2021. Inspired by the U of T Faculty of Medicine’s Black Student Application Program (BSAP), this stream will allow Black students to submit a personal essay centred on diversity and have their admission file reviewed by members of the Black legal community in addition to regular admission criteria. This will guarantee that the diverse experiences of Black students will be accurately assessed in their applications. 

As a BFL program assistant, I have had the opportunity to be an active participant in the launch of this program. I have helped coordinate events at the law school, developed content for the BFL social media pages, provided piano accompaniment for the BFL Launch Party, and most importantly, I’ve assured myself a position on the BFL working group committee. 

The primary concern of the working group committee is to bring the issue of Black underrepresentation in law school to the forefront of legal discourse and U of T Law’s admissions strategy. In attending workshops hosted by U of T Law, last year’s BFL conference, and meetings with the BFL working group committee, it is evident that the law school has a strong desire to rectify the issue of potential discrimination against Black students on law school applications. By ensuring that all applications are assessed in an impartial and unbiased manner, U of T Law believes that the number of Black students entering their law school will increase. As a result, the number of Black lawyers in society will increase as well.

Why does society need more Black lawyers anyway? Well, an increase in Black lawyers would mean better legal representation for Black people in the criminal system. This is important because traditionally and recently, there has been a disproportionate overrepresentation of Black people in the criminal system without adequate legal representation from lawyers who understand their needs and situation. With more Black lawyers in society, it is possible that more Black people would be kept out of the prison system. 

In addition, more well-educated Black lawyers will inspire young Black people to believe that they too have the capacity to become successful lawyers. For a marginalized group that has consistently felt the burden of ‘not being enough,’ this will truly uplift Black youths. This is one of the core values of the BFL program. It would also challenge the idea that law schools are reserved for the elite in society, as they have been for some time.

Breaking down racial barriers is necessary to make previously exclusive institutions accessible to talented students from a wide array of backgrounds. Further, an increase in the number of Black people practicing law would mean the chance for them to offer their unique perspectives leading to new innovations in the law. 

In addition to U of T Law, other departments at U of T have been increasing awareness around Black underrepresentation in academia and other pressing issues facing the Black community. For example, early on in 2017, the U of T Faculty of Medicine launched its BSAP which increased its number of Black students from one to 14 in its first year. Also, the Toronto Black Policy Conference hosted by the City of Toronto’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit, and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy’s Urban Policy Lab have both been crucial elements in “fostering conversation about local policy initiatives that affect Toronto’s diverse Black communities.” 

Outside of U of T, Black Owned Unity has aimed to support Black businesses and young Black entrepreneurs through their Black Owned Holiday Market in Toronto. The City of Toronto has even come on board to tackle anti-Black racism through the Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism. The various initiatives throughout the community to raise awareness of the issues Black people face show that U of T Law is not alone in attempting to create a legal profession that is more inclusive and accessible for tomorrow’s Black lawyers. This program is the start of something new and exciting.

For more information on the BFL program, visit us at bfl.law.utoronto.ca, blackfuturelawyers on Facebook and Instagram, and BlackFutureLawr on Twitter. 

Stephane Martin Demers is a third-year Classical Piano student at the Faculty of Music. He was elected onto Governing Council as an undergraduate student representative for the professional faculties for the 2020–2021 academic year. He serves as a Black Future Lawyers program assistant.

Op-ed: We must preserve legal aid for students — and anybody who requires access to it

Provincial cuts, Student Choice Initiative threatens the functionality of the Downtown Legal Services Clinic

Op-ed: We must preserve legal aid for students — and anybody who requires access to it

The Downtown Legal Services Clinic (DLS) is one of the U of T Faculty of Law’s community legal clinics that offers students the opportunity to handle local cases under the close supervision of lawyers. Their range of free services includes help with academic offences and landlord disputes, while simultaneously serving as an educational program for Law students.

With regards to The Varsity’s ongoing coverage of the effects of the opt-out period on various aspects of student life, it has previously been reported that the DLS is facing hits ‘by triple blow’ from the anticipated budget cuts not only deeming their $3.29 fee non-essential, but followed the already-announced $133 million budget cut to Legal Aid Ontario and a 10 per cent cut in Law tuition fees.

It is clear that the DLS’ future is bleak under such circumstances, as is the case with many other student societies on campus. At the time of writing, it is unclear the extent to which the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) has affected student life on campus or how this can be measured.

However, to me, the SCI has helped reiterate the importance of some of the many services students have access to on campus, particularly with consideration to the work of the DLS over the past few years. This is one aspect of the SCI that has urged our close attention to various services and groups that we are considered to be a part of or have access to.

In this case, most people might question to what extent the services of the DLS are useful to a current student. I hope to defend the view that the services provided by the DLS are of high value to both the students who have access to it and those who are involved with their work. Legal aid is a necessity not only to us as students, but to anybody who requires access to it.

The work of the DLS and its funding allows the clinic to offer services at no cost to low-income residents of the city and students at U of T. Access to free legal aid helps a person understand their rights and navigate the law with confidence. The ability to do this is dependent on the DLS’s budget. As outlined on their website, their ability to take on clients who are eligible to receive their services is dependent on the caseload they currently have. Hence, cuts to the budget threaten the clinic’s ability to manage large caseloads during the year and serve the communities that need it most.

Further, the communities which the DLS serves are entitled to attend Public Legal Education (PLE) workshops, which help people better understand the law. As depicted on their website, “Knowledge of the law and legal rights is a critical first step in assisting people in exercising their rights.” Through their efforts to extend their outreach in different communities, it is clear that the DLS is a vital resource in helping people recognize their rights and privileges through the law. This can range from students navigating the academic appeals system to the rights of refugees.

It is vital that we advocate for an informed population who are not at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the law.

Access to this information is not universal and may be difficult to understand for some without assistance and the necessary education. Unfortunately, PLE is not a common course you get the chance to take in high school, or the kind of information a quick Google search can provide. It is vital that we advocate for an informed population who are not at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the law. The DLS is an institution that characterizes that in the best way through its work across various legal fields. The DLS fosters this notion in both those involved with the clinic’s efforts and those who depend on it.

Their range of free services includes help with academic offences and landlord disputes

With the impending threat of the SCI levied above student groups, it is awfully concerning to me that the fragility of student life is best exemplified by services such as the DLS being deemed non-essential.

Some may continue to defend the view that not every student at the university is in need of legal aid, hence the ancillary fee is not one that concerns the entire student population. This perspective remains close-minded to the ethics behind what the clinic can offer to those who need it and how necessary free services really are for those who cannot afford it.

I am personally eager to continue supporting the work of the DLS and invite you all to consider taking the time to learn more about each fee that has been made optional to you this year.

Neeharika Hemrajani is a second-year History and Ethics, Society and Law student at St. Michael’s College. Hemrajani is St. Michael’s College Director for the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

Editor’s Note (October 6, 6:19 pm): This article has been updated to correct that legal aid is not a right.

Op-ed: This election, youth must vote — whatever your politics

We have the numbers, so let's go make a difference

Op-ed: This election, youth must vote — whatever your politics

My name is Saeda Ali and I’m a volunteer with a non-partisan, non-profit organization called Future Majority at UTSC.

Future Majority is working to get students out to vote in the upcoming federal election to accelerate our values as young Canadians into the forefront of political decision-making. We are operating in more than 20 campuses, in 40 ridings, with over 600 volunteers.

I was inspired to volunteer with Future Majority at UTSC because I wanted to remind my peers that our concerns about our futures matter and need to be taken seriously by politicians. More often than not, young people underestimate the power of their vote. We fail to inform ourselves about how current policies impact us because many of us don’t believe that politicians listen to us.

When I found out that Millennials and Generation-Z — those aged 18–34 — now make up the largest voting bloc in Canada, I knew I had to get involved. Our vote can change the trajectory of the election and the political landscape of Canada.

While volunteering with Future Majority, I’ve been able to go around campus and speak to fellow students about the upcoming election. I have heard first-hand accounts of the issues that are impacting young Canadians. Three issues have repeatedly been brought up: the rising cost of education, unaffordable housing in the GTA, and the climate crisis.

With the recent changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program, there is a heightened concern around the mountains of student debt students now face after graduation — which is especially worrisome considering it is more and more difficult to get a good job after graduating in order to pay off loans.

Trying to find a place to live — especially in the GTA — is increasingly unaffordable for young Canadians. This has forced many students to live at home or commute long distances to university — sometimes an hour-and-a-half each way!

The climate crisis is the biggest issue brought up by U of T students. People are scared for their futures. The United Nations has given us less than 11 years to solve this problem. This means we need action, like, yesterday. Many students expressed concern that no political party is going to do enough to reduce our carbon footprint and promote sustainable business practices. Many U of T students want to see Canada become a world leader in preserving and protecting the environment for future generations. We can make sure that happens.

As a Political Science major, I have learned that one of the fundamental aspects of democracy is the right to vote. Canadians have the privilege of choosing their political representatives. In a world where not everyone is afforded this opportunity, the right to vote should not be taken lightly.

With schedules filled with lectures, tutorials, and extracurricular commitments, many students find that they simply can’t find time to go out of their way to find a polling station. Luckily, voting has become more accessible for students than ever before.

Students at all three U of T campuses have the option of voting on their campus from Saturday, October 5 to Wednesday, October 9. Students voting at on-campus polling stations have the option of voting for either candidates from their home riding or school riding, if they have the right documentation.

There will be 121 stations set up at 109 schools, making it easier than ever for students across the nation to vote. This is a huge increase from the 39 on-campus polling stations that were set up in the 2015 election.

If you are curious about how to vote you can visit the Go Vote! website— a microsite developed by Future Majority to educate young Canadians about the election.

Future Majority will be bringing attention to on-campus polling stations by hiring canvassers at UTM and UTSC during the on-campus polling week to literally walk thousands of students to the polls.

Future Majority is projected to walk 30,000 students directly to polls, coast-to-coast. This could have a significant impact on an election that is predicted to be tight.

This October, young Canadians have the power to send a message to every political party that we can no longer be ignored. If U of T students vote in high numbers, we can influence ridings across the entire GTA. We can ensure that no political party can win without the youth vote — they literally cannot ignore us!

By getting out to vote in high numbers, politicians will no longer get elected if they don’t promise to address the issues which matter to youth. Given the power that we now hold, this election is our opportunity to have our voices finally heard and create a Canada that addresses the concerns we have for our futures.

Saeda Ali is a second-year Political Science and International Development student at UTSC and a volunteer at Future Majority.

Op-ed: UTSC NDP — let’s aim higher

It’s time to push forward on climate, student debt, economic equality

Op-ed:  UTSC NDP —  let’s aim higher

In the coming weeks, Canadian students will have the opportunity to help elect a government that will best serve their interests. Those interests? The cost of education, the impending effects of the climate crisis, and affordable housing, just to name a few.

Over the past few decades, Liberal and Conservative governments have not done enough to address these issues for Canada’s youth. It’s up to us now to start a movement, created by us but represented federally by Jagmeet Singh and the New Democratic Party (NDP), to enact real change on these issues and shape a bright future for young Canadians.

Earlier this year, the Ford government made sweeping changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) that bit hard into the financial security of many students. Federal Conservatives have shown a disdain for universities, and one can only imagine they will “find efficiencies” the same way the Ontario government did — putting money back in the wallets of the wealthy, while cutting into social services that average Canadians rely on.

Liberal and Conservative governments have passed as tuition costs have skyrocketed — why? Since 1990, the federal government’s share of university funding has fallen by nearly 50 per cent, and tuition costs have easily outpaced inflation.

In 2018, Canadian students owed $28 billion in student debt, with $19 billion owed to the federal government. A survey completed in 2015 of 18,000 graduating university students showed that the average indebted student owed more than $26,000 in student debt.

Young Canadians should not have to begin their adult lives drowning in debt that can take years to pay off, in addition to its tremendous toll on mental health. Instead, young Canadians should be able to put that money back into the economy, and back into their wallets. A New Democrat government wants to bring to the federal level what five provinces have already decided to do — an elimination of interest on student loans.

in 2015… the average indebted student owed more than $26,000 in student debt

Canadians are also worried about the climate – as everyone around the world should be. Millions of people globally have participated in climate strikes in September alone, and it’s time Canadian voices are represented by a party willing to act on climate change. The Liberals have talked a big game on the climate crisis but have pathetically failed to create any meaningful change. The so-called ‘progressive’ Trudeau government declared a “climate emergency” one day, and approved expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline the very next.

Meanwhile, the Conservative plan for climate change is projected to miss its 2015 Paris Climate Agreement targets by a margin even worse than under current Liberal policy. The status quo means catastrophe — just one taste of this is the danger facing low-lying coastal areas, home to millions of people, due to rising sea levels.

The climate crisis cannot just be tackled by individual action, nor by ‘market-based’ reforms. To avoid this catastrophe, the world needs bold leadership on climate issues, and for Canadians, a New Democrat government would push this leadership forward and confront the largest emitters — big corporations.

The NDP have not only committed to a day-one elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, but A New Deal For People would support communities across the country by creating 300,000 jobs through re-investment into carbon-free energy sources. Canadians need a better way to get around — our cities and infrastructure are car-centric and it’s time to evolve cities through cheaper, cleaner and more convenient public transit.

‘How are we going to pay for it?’ is the inevitable question that accompanies any proposal to strengthen social services that benefit ordinary people. Part of the NDP’s answer is a super-wealth tax. According to the parliamentary budget officer, the policy would apply a one per cent tax to assets worth more than $20 million, raising nearly $70 billion over the next ten years.

the world needs bold leadership on climate issues, and for Canadians, a New Democrat government would push this leadership forward

The tax would only apply to the top one tenth of the one per cent of Canada, generating abundant revenue to fulfill the monetary requirements of other NDP policies. Hence, the NDP’s platform on taxes is the vanguard of necessary social reform, which posits tackling the strenuous issues of economic inequality and tax fairness.

The revenue generated from this tax would be necessary and practical in fulfilling platforms such as universal pharma care and publicly funded dental, mental, and vision care.

Inequality is a growing issue for Canadians — 87 of the richest families own the same wealth as the 12 million poorest Canadians. Inequality burdens society by rupturing and weakening the social fabric that allows liberal democracies to progress; the byproducts of inequality include reduced life expectancy, lower economic growth, and poorer quality social services.

In Canada, the issue of wealth inequality can be blamed on the abundant loopholes in the tax system — regularly exploited by the wealthy to escape paying the defined tax rates. For example, money made through stocks or real estate recieves a half-off on taxes, and money made from corporate dividends rewards a tax break.

The NDP proposes to seriously reform the shallow tax system, not just through the super-wealth tax, but through other reforms, including increasing the corporate tax rate from 15–18 per cent and bumping the top income tax rate for those making over $210,000, by two per cent.

If we vote for a fake progressive, what we’ll get is a fake progressive. The disease of corporate influence plagues both parties.

Additionally, closing tax loopholes such as the CEO stock option deduction strengthens the tax system, and creates a healthy, productive, and just economic landscape by enforcing tax fairness.

Thus, the NDP platform on tax reform is distinct in its character from other parties’ policies towards the same; the NDP champions economic justice to a dysfunctional and hollow tax system which fails to mitigate the challenges of inequality. Voting NDP means changing this and constructing a more just society for all Canadian, and setting a popular fiscal precedent in tax reform.

Finally, we realize many young Canadians are thinking about strategic voting. Some of our peers understandably seek to avoid an Andrew Scheer government, and are willing to put aside their dissatisfaction with Trudeau’s Liberals toward that end. I heard a classmate ask, “are we going to let Trudeau’s blackface scandal be the reason Scheer wins?”

To these concerned students we say — let’s aim higher. The failures of the Trudeau government will be to blame should they lose. If we vote for a fake progressive, what we’ll get is a fake progressive. The disease of corporate influence plagues both parties. Instead, let’s make actual progress.

Firaz Alvarez is a third-year Political Science and International Development Studies student at UTSC and the New Democratic Students of Scarborough External Co-Director. Shehryar Shaukat is a fourth-year Political Science student at UTSC and the New Democratic Students of Scarborough Communications Director.

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.