Opinion: Public Health needs a better political strategy

Chronic underfunding fetters life-saving public health efforts in Canada

Opinion: Public Health needs a better political strategy

Cuts to public health funding by the Ontario government announced in April have taken the media by storm, leading a tripartisan group of previous Ontario Health Ministers to urge the government to reverse its decision.

But is this political treatment of public health a new phenomenon, or is this appended to a long history of budgetary cuts and perceived underfunding of its practice and research?

Another event in a long-lasting pattern

Dr. Steven J. Hoffman — the Scientific Director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Population & Public Health — and his colleagues would agree with the latter. In a timely paper published in May, the authors argue that public health in Canada is underfunded.

They assert that the 5.5 per cent of total Canadian health spending allocated to public health practice fails to sufficiently fund the range of work that public health practitioners are expected to undertake — from food and drug safety, to occupational health, to health inspection, and more.

More importantly, Hoffman and his colleagues point out that the current rise in the frequency of chronic disease, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders in Canada has failed to garner a “significant” increase in budget allocation to the appropriate venues of public health.

They say that this results from the public health community lacking an appreciation for the process of policymaking, which causes them to fail to account for the reasons why public health isn’t a clear win from a political perspective.

As a solution, the authors propose developing knowledge of political tools and processes among public health officials.

Public health saves lives

Public health efforts are focused on long-term goals, such as preventing, rather than curing, illnesses, or on analyses of statistical trends within the field. Often, its work seems intangible to the public, and is not exploitable by politicians.

Attempts to pull down the 28.1 per cent Canadian adult obesity rate, for example, would require public health officials to target multiple industries. They may need to advocate for businesses to change food labelling, health care providers to provide more expansive training programs, or ask municipalities to adjust local regulations, according to the 2011 Obesity in Canada federal report.

Such efforts aim to change individual behaviour on a large scale through multiple forms of societal intervention. However, it is difficult for non-experts to trace their effects back to conscious public health efforts.

The more these efforts are hidden from voters, the less clout they gather on the political agenda of politicians, who are already wary of being unable to reap rewards from these efforts within the timeframe of the election cycle.

Solutions to the lack of political will for public health funding

To solve this problem, the authors ask for members of the public health community to better appreciate the policy-making process and the actors involved in it, so that public health agencies can adapt strategies to the kind of policy-making network relevant to specific healthcare issues.

They similarly argued for improved understanding of policy instruments — regulation, communication, taxing, and spending — so that the regulatory tools used for public health can be better used. Increased efforts to spread awareness of public health efforts may counter its lack of priority in the voter base.

In the wake of the opioid overdose crisis, mental health crisis, and spread of preventable chronic diseases forming the leading causes of death in the province, public health cannot be more vital in addressing our most urgent needs. Whether the output of a work is deemed tangible or not by some individuals should not make the verdict over the survival of that field of work.

Nonetheless, concerted effort to engage with the political system in the push for improved funding and policy can ultimately win over politicians and policymakers.

Who is fighting for our future?

Youth protests reveal the lifeless reality of on-campus climate activism

Who is fighting for our future?

Fridays for Future is a movement started by 15 year old Greta Thunberg, who sat for three weeks outside of the Swedish parliament to challenge their inaction on climate change. Her courage and determination sparked an international student activism movement.

In Toronto, the Fridays for Future school strike for climate change action began on May 3 at Queen’s Park. It coincided with Doug Ford’s meeting with the recently-elected Alberta Premier, Jason Kenney, as they discussed their objections to the recently-enacted federal carbon tax. The strike concluded at Nathan Phillips Square, in front of City Hall.

These protesters highlighted the fact that even if they collectively decided to recycle, stop using straws, and go vegan, it would not be enough to contest the amount of damage that large-scale carbon emissions have done to the earth. Just 100 businesses alone have contributed to 71 per cent of our world’s global emissions since 1988.

Statistics like this can leave some feeling hopeless, but it ignited a movement among thousands of students around the world. These students refused to let the world decide their future. They refused to be left with the scraps of a dying planet. The march on May 3 was just a glimpse of their potential for enacting change. This is a continuous fight on all fronts, and it is being led by those who will be affected the most.

In 11 years, the damage to the Earth caused by climate change will be irreversible. It is the terrifying end to a story that began with the birth of the industrial age. From the early eighteenth century to now, generations have witnessed the development of what the National Centre for Climate Restoration calls a “near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization.”

It may seem excessive to phrase it that way, but it is the unfortunate, daunting truth. Scientists around the world have made it clear that if we do not stop the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions there will be permanently detrimental consequences.

We already see some of these consequences today, with frequent wildfires on the west coast, record-breaking hurricanes, floods with tolls on thousands of lives, and a severe lack of crops, a major instigator behind the modern refugee crisis.

As reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international goal is to reduce warming to under two degrees Celsius and afterward to not allow warming to rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius. It seems impossible, but in order to even begin the process, “every sector of the economy needs to get to zero emissions if we are to stabilize our climate” according to Akshat Rathi, reporting for Quartz.  

It is an intimidating task laid before all of humanity, and yet the response in political spaces has been lackluster.

U of T has witnessed a small protest campaign centred around divesting from fossil fuel companies led by the climate activist group Leap UofT. However, the scale and reach of the movement, unfortunately, does not compare to that of Fridays for Future and is only the second campaign of its kind on campus, following the UofT350 campaign. The truth is, we are nowhere near leading the charge. We are not doing enough.

Just before the march began, the voices that spoke from the microphone placed at the top of Queen’s Park were young, innocent, and enraged. They screamed, they begged, they chastised, and they joked at all those who claimed to work for the betterment of their future.

They spoke on a range of issues in quick, concise speeches. Topics included fast fashion, the effect of the meat industry on global emissions, the Green New Deal, and why divesting from the corporations leading in greenhouse gas emissions was vital for the fight against climate change. All this, when they should have been busy being kids.

Signs are one of the most important parts of a protest, and at the Friday for Future protests it was no different. One replaced the faces on the popular ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme with Doug Ford, money, and our dying earth. Another displayed earth imagined as an ice cream cone with the caption “Noo, I’m melting.” Then there were those with simple, heartbreaking messages, such as “I want to meet my grandchildren.”

That is the core message of Fridays for Future: to let the world see who would be left to deal with the ramifications of a dying earth. At the heart of protest signs covered in memes and the innocence of various misspelled words were children, standing in front of adults who have determined their future, begging for their lives.

As the world faces the consequences of negligent production and selfish policies, children, armed with seemingly more knowledge and worldly understanding than our public servants, are rallying. The question to be asked is where do we, the students who should be empowered by the privilege to learn more, question more, and fight for more, stand. We, as fellow students, must follow in the footsteps of the brave, impassioned students at Fridays for Future in combating climate change. This movement is for all of us, and we must do a better job.

It can be comforting to see youth rising against the injustices of the world. It can make you feel hopeful that the future will be filled with bright minds ready to challenge any obstacle that comes their way. You must not forget that this is not what they should be doing. At the end of the day, it is upsetting to see so many children forced to protest in the streets, because instead, as dozens of signs read, they should be at school.

Nadine Waiganjo is a second-year Social Sciences student at University College.

Opinion: what counts as fairness in sports?

Caster Semenya and the extent to which sporting will go to exclude athletes who are different

Opinion: what counts as fairness in sports?

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has erred by failing to overturn a series of discriminatory rules that target female athletes who are transgender or have intersex traits.  

By ruling in favour of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), the CAS has authorized regulations that require female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels — typically found in intersex women — to suppress their hormone levels if they wish to compete in races between 400 metres and a mile.

At the centre of this controversy is South African runner Caster Semenya. Semenya, who issued an appeal against the IAAF rules, has dominated the women’s track and field scene for the past decade. As a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a three-time World Champion in the women’s 800-metre race, Semenya has faced unrelenting scrutiny. Like several other intersex women who will be penalized by the new rules, Semenya identifies and competes as a woman.

In order to race, she has four options: either take hormonal contraceptives up to six months before competing; compete alongside men; compete in other events not subject to the regulations; or cease competing entirely. Even if Semenya gives in and undergoes hormonal treatment to lower her testosterone levels to the IAAF requirements, the possible side effects of the treatment may negatively impact her health and further prevent her from racing against other women in the events of her choosing.

The IAAF has argued that their new rules — which came into effect on May 8 — are intended to ensure fairness in women’s track and field. This argument is supported by the perceived correlation between testosterone and enhanced athletic performance.

It is commonly believed that an increased amount of testosterone can improve strength and speed levels. The IAAF and supporters of this ruling have relied heavily on this perceived correlation to argue that Semenya holds an “unfair advantage” over other women in her sport because of her naturally elevated levels of testosterone.

However, wouldn’t it be fair to argue that many successful athletes possess natural advantages that give them an upper hand in their respective sports? It’s no secret that height is beneficial in sports such as volleyball and basketball. Should the IAAF ban tall women from competing in basketball and volleyball matches to ensure fairness in these sports?

Take 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. Phelps not only possesses an exceptionally long arm span and reportedly double-jointed ankles, but also produces significantly smaller amounts of lactic acid compared to his competitors. Lactic acid build-up contributes to muscle fatigue, and because Phelps produces less while competing, he holds an advantage over his competitors. Yet, Phelps is not required to undergo treatment to elevate his lactic acid. We still continue to praise him for his athletic achievements while discounting Semenya for hers.

The natural testosterone that Semenya produces differs from the exogenous testosterone which has been prohibited in the Olympics since 1976. The correlation between testosterone and enhanced performance is believed to be linked to the use of synthetic testosterone.

It has yet to be proven whether the same correlation exists for its natural counterpart in female sports. There is a possibility that natural testosterone improves performance, but this prospect is offset by the likelihood that it is unrelated to athletic capabilities. As reported by the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, there is “no clear scientific evidence”  of a relationship between the two in female sports.

The argument that women with higher testosterone levels hold an unfair advantage is also based on the outdated association of testosterone with masculinity. Traditionally, it has been understood that there is a crucial distinction between men and women in terms of athletic ability, since it was assumed that men typically have more testosterone than women.

Categorizing testosterone as the sex hormone that exclusively belongs to men not only falsely categorizes women with naturally high levels of testosterone as somehow unwomanly, but also neglects the fact that women produce and rely on testosterone to survive as well.

The preoccupation with the role that testosterone plays in fuelling athletic performance also underestimates the importance of external factors, such as income, which play as much of a role in contributing to athletic success as do physical capabilities alone.

Large income disparities across the globe disadvantage athletes who are the product of lower-income environments. These athletes do not have access to the same quality facilities, coaching staff, treatment, or even the support system that are generally present for athletes living in more affluent areas.

U of T Professor of Kinesiology and Physical Education Bruce Kidd reflects similar sentiments in his article. There, he remarks: “Would Canadians who support the IAAF against Semenya like it if they were required to train under the same conditions as their competitors from the Global South? Of course not.”

The new IAAF rules also draw criticism because it seems to unfairly and unnecessarily target Semenya and other female runners from the Global South. An IAAF study on the effects of natural testosterone reveals that it has a greater influence on performance in events such as the hammer throw and the pole vault.

On the contrary, there is a much weaker correlation between natural testosterone and athletic capabilities in the 1500-metre race. Yet women with higher testosterone levels have not been barred from competing in the hammer throw and the pole vault, but have been banned from competing in the 1500-metre race.

This finding is especially daunting considering the fact that events, such as the hammer throw and the pole vault, have historically been dominated by white women from the West. Black women from the global South have typically been victorious in long-distance running events, thus leading some to believe that the IAAF’s policy may be racially motivated.

In response to the CAS’s rejection of Semenya’s challenge to the IAAF rules, the South African Sports Ministry has declared that their track federation, Athletics South Africa, will appeal the decision. Canadian Minister of Science and Sport, Kirsty Duncan, has condemned the ruling, saying that it exhibits “a total disregard for human dignity.” Furthermore, Semenya has vowed to continue running, even stating that she will not give in to the new rules and take hormone suppressants.  

The unjust IAAF rules call for society to re-examine our traditional beliefs about fairness in sports. Is it fair to publicly humiliate intersex women on the unfounded belief that their genetics give them an unfair advantage over other women? If the goal is to ensure an equal playing field for female athletes, the IAAF should focus on securing equal access to adequate training facilities, coaching staff, and athletic gear, instead of resorting to inhumane measures that single out certain athletes because they are different.

Comment in Briefs: Month of April

Students react to some of Volume 139’s final News stories

Comment in Briefs: Month of April

Who are we missing?

Re: “Accessibility is inaccessible, Innis students host mental health forum”

When Oliver Daniel, Annie Liu, Kathy Sun, and Jehan Vakharia first proposed the idea of hosting a mental health forum at Innis College in response to the death in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, I was impressed and delighted. Four first-year students coming together to take action within days of the news spreading gives me hope about the strength of our campus community.

I love the spirited proposition of initiatives, like the implementation of a Mental Health Director and mental health training within Innis, as well as the acknowledgement that there is only so much students can do without the full force of administration and professional resources to back us up.

But there are still important questions to be asked: what will happen to the students who don’t make themselves visible to us, who don’t come to events, who don’t speak out about campus issues, who don’t engage with student groups, and who may not live on or near campus? These are questions fellow student leaders and I deal with on a daily basis.

These students are often not even on the radar of student clubs, unions, and publications. Student leaders may not have the tools or the vocabulary to identify the communities that are missing from their programming. At the same time, these students are often the ones who most need support.

Student leaders and administration at Innis have worked hard this year to push the boundaries of the Innis community farther to encompass more students of diverse backgrounds and interests. But it is not certain if it is enough. If we aren’t even fully aware of who we are missing, it is not clear what our next step should be to ensure that essential services like mental health support reach the students who need it most.

Michelle Zhang is a second-year Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies, Urban Studies, and Political Science student at Innis College.

Disclosure: Zhang served as the 2018—2019 Equity & Outreach Director at the Innis College Student Society.


In defence of the recent provincial changes to education

Re: “Thousands protest Ford’s proposed education cuts at Queen’s Park”

Since the Ontario government backtracked on controversial changes to its autism programs by making significant concessions and pursuing consultations with parents, I will focus on the recently protested changes to the general public education system. Rather than succumb to the fear-mongering antics of some protesters, we must recognize the benefit of proposed changes to the Ontario public education system, namely the increases to class sizes and mandatory online education.

We’ve come far since the pioneer society of Upper Canada with non-uniform textbooks and uncertified, often transient, pseudo-educators to today’s Ontario public education system.

Still, the system is not without faults. Most concerningly, it fails to prepare students to meet the unique challenges and unprecedented scale and rate of socio-economic changes of the age of information technology.

Overloading if not overburdening the public system by hiring too many teachers misses the forest for the trees. This ineffective hiring policy has diminishing returns on investment and limits the capacity of public coffers to address the many other systemic and infrastructural problems.

It’s been my experience, from primary through postsecondary education, that the quality of the teachers not class size makes for a good or bad learning environment. Increasing classroom size in order to better optimize cost-effectiveness will hopefully maximize use of limited space and resources. At the very least, it will encourage students to be independent and to self-advocate.

Furthermore, mandatory online learning isn’t something to be feared. It is long overdue and must be embraced, especially in a year that marks the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web. Online learning promotes student independence and responsibility, and holds our province’s limited public resources more accountable.

These changes will maximize the potential of our society’s public education system and better prepare them for an economy that requires more versatile and adaptable lifelong learners.

Oscar Starschild is a second-year Mathematics, Philosophy, and Computer Science student at Woodsworth College.

How can students get involved in science policy?

Fighting for science and the decisions it informs

How can students get involved in science policy?

With the recent anniversary of Toronto’s March for Science, it’s hard to ignore changes rolled out by the Ford government this past year.

Not only has the government scrapped initiatives such as Ontario’s cap and trade carbon tax program and energy efficiency programs, it eliminated the position of Environmental Commissioner and fired Ontario’s Chief Scientist. Many of us who disagree with these changes are wondering where and how we can have our voices heard, especially since the march — which sought to encourage science that works for all — did not take place this year.

Having a seat at the table is the first step toward the inclusion of scientific evidence in policy. This means showing up to city hall meetings and contacting local representatives about science issues that matter to you.

“There are many competing voices [in policy], and there will be trade-offs and balances. Our job is to help people understand what those trade-offs really mean,” said Dr. Dan Weaver, Assistant Professor in UTSC’s Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences.

Each year at U of T and across the world, research yields mountains of new scientific data. Weaver noted that we must continue to incorporate this new data, see if our goals should shift, and ask ourselves if policy and the public are still informed. For researchers, this means communicating findings effectively to those drafting policy.

Weaver pointed to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris as an example of effective communication. Initially, limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius was set as a policy goal, but further scientific evidence showed that the outcomes would be less costly and far more manageable if capped at 1.5 degrees Celsius instead. This informed policymakers and inspired stronger initiatives for more aggressive emission reductions.

Let’s Talk Science and U of T’s Science Communication Club, both organizations that focus on science communication and outreach, are outlets for students to advocate for science. According to UTM PhD candidate Sasha Weiditch, students can also create their own blogs or participate in activities with groups such as Soapbox Science.

For those interested in policy, Toronto Science Policy Network (TSPN), co-founded by U of T PhD candidate Ellen Gute, regularly organizes workshops on science advocacy, communication, and policy, in addition to hosting panel discussions. These workshops teach students and researchers how to translate their knowledge into an accessible format for the public and for political representatives.

Initiatives outside of campus, such as Citizen Science, allow people to assist in the collection of important data, work on environmental monitoring, or get involved with public science education and awareness.

There are many ways to fight for science as citizens, students, and whoever we will be in the future.

Instead of showing up en masse to march in the streets this year, we must show up in equally great numbers to our campuses, city halls, and voting booths, to communicate the critical importance of science for our democracy and the world at large.

Nothing about us without us

An open letter to the University of Toronto administration on the mental health crisis

Nothing about us without us

Content warning: discussion of suicide.

Dear President Meric Gertler, Vice-Provost Sandy Welsh, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine Trevor Young, and Governing Council of the University of Toronto,

We — the students of the university you serve — write to you publicly, as a last resort, because we are in crisis. In light of the University of Toronto’s ongoing mental health crisis, students are best equipped to advise on and address these urgent concerns, which are matters of life and death — our own. We are writing to demand that you listen to what we are saying.

Since the second student suicide in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology in less than nine months, on March 17, students have sought available avenues to express their concerns and proposals, including reaching out to your offices in various ways, and intervening in Governing Council’s Business Board meeting on March 18. Through extensive consultations since then, students have collectively drafted a follow-up report of over 40 pages titled Nothing About Us Without Us,” which summarizes recent student action, testimonies, and demands arising from the crisis.

Initially, these student-led efforts were met with administrative interest. Janine Robb, Executive Director of the Health & Wellness Centre, arranged for focus group meetings, and President Gertler’s March 28 email stated that “we have listened, we have heard you, and we will continue to do so. We share your concerns, and we are strongly committed to collaborating with you to address them.”

It is not difficult to listen to what we are telling the university. The key student position on this issue has been simple, unanimous, and continuous since March 18: nothing about us without us. Students demand to be included, as a majority, in all aspects of the administration’s plans to address U of T’s mental health crisis.

Unfortunately, the proposed Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, with only three students slated to represent the collective interests of some 90,000 students, is not the collaborative effort that students were expecting based on the preliminary demands made on March 18 and the Nothing About Us Without Us report. Limited student membership and the vague wording surrounding the task force’s mandate have raised concerns about the lack of transparency, diversity, and accountability mechanisms to ensure that the task force constitutes a meaningful and effective response to the crisis.

There have been prior committees that have clearly failed to bring about the change needed. The university’s refusal to meet student demands — specifically, majority representation within such bodies — will condemn the task force’s work to irrelevance at best, and complacency in the ongoing crisis at worst. As the task force stands, it risks losing any legitimacy with students who have been repeatedly told that their voices are being “listened to,” but who have in fact not yet had their proposed solutions heard, let alone seriously considered, by the university administration.

Students demand once again to be meaningfully consulted from the beginning on any mental health-related efforts and policies. Based upon recent engagement — or lack thereof — with administration, it is clear that student leadership and diverse voices will not be centred in administrative-led initiatives such as the task force. Furthermore, students have received little to no clarification regarding the steps that will be taken in the future by such entities to ensure that there is adequate consultation with diverse stakeholders.

In light of the past inadequacies of presidential and provostial committees and working groups on mental health — failures to which these recent suicides stand as a tragic testament — students demand to know what mechanisms are in place to hold the administration accountable, if the labour and recommendations of another group of experts do not translate into tangible, integrated, systems-level solutions.

In the absence of these preconditions, students wish to make clear that the task force — and any similar efforts — will lack legitimacy, efficacy, and support from students and mental health advocates on our campuses. As is demonstrated by the growing number of student, student group, and union signatories to the “Nothing About Us Without Us” pledge of “commitment to helping hold the University administration accountable throughout the upcoming year on the issues, demands, and recommendations related to the [Nothing About Us Without Us report],” students are committed to continuing the collective organizing that has been spurred by the mental health crisis.

In light of student demands, which have repeatedly been made clear to administration over the past month, we must ask that the task force not advance in its current form. Once again, we ask you to stop and to really listen to what we are saying.

We urge you to genuinely and seriously consider both our concerns and our proposals, along with our welfare and our lives. We call upon you, in good faith, to give us concrete seats at a table for dialogue and negotiation, rather than tokenism — an unacceptable outcome, which we will have no choice but to resist. For the sake of those whose lives still hang in the balance, we cannot and we will not accept it.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Layla Ahmed, Zachary Beich, Sabrina Brathwaite, Catherine Clarke, Sarah Colbourn, Oliver Daniel, Raluca Geampana, Ben Hjorth, Arjun Kaul, Lucinda Qu, Sheila Rasouli, Nouran Sakr, Max Xi, Adam Zendel, Kristen Zimmer


To show your support for this letter, please add your name to the petition.

To commit yourself and/or your student group to helping hold the University administration accountable as student mental health advocates continue to advocate for the reform outlined in the “Nothing About Us Without Us” report, please sign the pledge.

To illustrate the consistent and repeated efforts of students to engage in meaningful dialogue with the university at all levels, and the increasing resistance of the administration to that engagement, here is a timeline of key events in the mental health crisis over the past year. 

  • June 24, 2018: a student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre; students criticized the university’s response, calling for better mental health services.
  • June 27, 2018: Governing Council approves the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP) as “a non-punitive option” for students struggling with mental health. However, students in the months since have frequently cited the policy as a deterrent to voluntarily seeking help, and as disciplinary in nature if not in name.  
  • March 17, 2019: a second student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre, the third reported on-campus suicide within the past year.
  • March 18, 2019: a silent protest congregated at Simcoe Hall; student protesters later moved to the Medical Sciences Building, where Governing Council’s Business Board meeting had been relocated in reaction to the protest. Student representatives invited into the meeting shared a collectively-drafted statement of preliminary concerns and demands, to which Gertler responded with “an openness, and indeed an enthusiasm, to work with students in good faith and in a very open way to solicit your advice and your ideas on how to do better.” On the same day, a change.org petition entitled Better Mental Health Services at the University of Toronto” was started; it currently has over 25,500 signatures.
  • March 25, 2019: as a result of this petition, students participated in a focus group run by Robb. Students raised various concerns regarding discrepancies in the treatment of students between programs and instructors; UMLAP; the role of campus police in crisis situations; and more. Robb shared an intent to hold a second focus group. Plans are underway to schedule this second meeting for the end of May.
  • March 28, 2019: an email from Gertler was circulated among the U of T community, marking the university’s first acknowledgement of the death in Bahen as a suicide and the first mention of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health.
  • April 2, 2019: after scheduling a meeting for April 5 with Gertler and other top administrators, a student representative asked if they would be willing to make the meeting accessible to a larger number of students or to livestream the meeting, in order to make the discussion more transparent and accountable. This request was cited by the president’s office as sufficient grounds to cancel the meeting. However, this meeting was later rescheduled to April 10 on the condition that the meeting would not be open to the public.
  • April 3, 2019: the first complete draft of Nothing About Us Without Us was publicized and shared online by students and student organizations. Robb, along with Senior Director of Student Success Heather Kelly and Senior Director of Student Experience David Newman , met with two students who presented this draft to them. A willingness to meet again in the near future was shared by the three administrators. That same day, the nomination process and composition of the task force was publicized, and it was revealed that only three students would be entrusted with the concerns of a student body numbering 90,077 in the 2017–2018 school year.
  • April 10, 2019: a small group of student activists were granted a half-hour meeting with Gertler, Welsh, and Director Office of the Vice-Provost & Student Policy Advisor Meredith Strong,  where copies of Nothing About Us Without Us were shared and key themes and demands were summarized. Students present explicitly asked if they would be meeting again with the president for further discussion; he responded positively, before clarifying that this may not happen before the task force’s first meeting. Students insisted that the lack of student consultation prior to the task force’s structuring, and the lack of diverse representation therein, be recognized as problematic and addressed accordingly. Gertler responded that “our intent is really to keep the group small” and that the task force is meant to solicit input via external consultations.
  • April 12, 2019: after the April 10 meeting, student advocates sent a follow-up email to the president’s office. Students received a response on April 18, stating that Young, who is heading the task force, would be the appropriate figure to contact moving forward.
  • April 14, 2019: a student advocate contacted administration to express concerns regarding a lack of adequate in-person advertising of the counselling services in the Robarts Library; the student had seen only one poster about it. A response was received April 18, stating that the administration believed that the existing social media work and postering at various libraries are adequate advertisement and that the administration would not consider an additional poster. The student advocate in question replied on April 19 addressing these claims, but no further responses were received from administration.
  • April 18, 2019: a student activist reached out to Young requesting a meeting regarding the task force’s composition and mandate. They were informed later that day that “once the task force has been struck there will be opportunities for individuals and groups to participate and submit information to Dean Young and the other members… Until that time Dean Young is not available to meet.” Another student activist independently sent a 1,240-word email to the President, Provost, and Vice-Provost Students, indicating that the task force nominations process was potentially ableist and classist. Gertler responded to this email on April 24, saying that he would share this feedback with his colleagues. Gertler agreed that the administration “should consider ways to create more opportunities for consultation” with students, but also stated that groups like the task force “are intended to be small,” and “members are not expected to come with the ability to speak for all persons of this group, but are chosen for their ability to exercise discretion, listen to various inputs, and collect and synthesize feedback and information.”
  • April 23, 2019: the president’s office replied to student advocates to clarify the administration’s position, stating that “since the President has met with you and heard your views on this important matter, another meeting with the President will not be forthcoming.” Additionally, the president’s office expressed “that there are no plans for a presidential town hall-style meeting” that would allow a broader coalition of students to openly engage with administration on this issue.

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.

The Varsity will always be there for the story of student power

A letter from the Comment Editor

<i>The Varsity</i> will always be there for the story of student power

Content warning: discussion of suicide.

The theme for the Comment section of the final issue of The Varsity Volume 139 is — unintentionally — student power.

Current Affairs Columnist Meera Ulysses advocates for a student strike in response to the Ford cuts; Arts and Science Students’ Union President Haseeb Hassaan advises incoming and future student leaders; former Varsity Photo Editor Nathan Chan discusses the controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP); members of Fight for $15 and Fairness UofT discuss labour resistance; and the Editorial Board reviews all of the student union elections this year.

This should not surprise readers. This semester, U of T students have increasingly expressed frustration toward student leadership, the university administration, and the provincial government for their failure to adequately represent students and student needs. It is often in the context of highly contentious and sensitive events that interest in writing for the Comment section peaks. We are honoured to be an outlet where students can articulate their outrage.

When Volume 139 began last summer and the UMLAP was approved, we published several opinion pieces on the topic given its significance to the student community. The very first issue of the volume featured an op-ed reviewing the approved policy. In this final issue of the volume, a number of suicides on campus in the last year has restored focus on the UMLAP, as you will read in Chan’s op-ed.

This circularity — that we are back where we started — might frustrate readers and suggest that nothing has changed. But student resistance persists nonetheless. It always renews itself. It never seems to be down for the count.

That is why The Varsity will always be there to tell the story of student power — and to enable U of T community members to tell it in their own words. Onward to Volume 140’s version of that story.

Ibnul Chowdhury

Comment Editor, Volume CXXXIX

To next year’s unions: less controversy, more engagement, please

Reviewing this year’s SCSU, UTGSU, UTSU, and UTMSU

To next year’s unions: less controversy, more engagement, please

Thanks to last year’s levy increase, The Varsity has expanded its tri-campus and graduate affairs coverage. We are proud to comprehensively report on the governance and election cycles of four major student unions: the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU); the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU); the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU).

With the emergence of a common threat — the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative — student media and governments must remain committed, more than ever, to serving U of T students, earning their trust, and defending campus life. So let’s remember, student unions: our job is to keep students informed, and yours is to represent them.

As the academic year comes to an end, there is no better way to inform students than to review campus politics from the last year. All four unions must do better if we are to have meaningful student democracy.

For next year, let’s hope for more competitive and contested elections, more engagement with the membership, and unequivocal freedom of the press to cover student politics.

The SCSU

SCSU elections were the first of the season, and the most controversial. Unfortunately, controversy had been striking the union all year. In the fall, multiple food safety scandals raised serious concerns about sanitary practices on campus. Yet the union did not respond with meaningful action.

In December, the Board of Directors voted unanimously on a motion put forward by Director of Political Science Raymond Dang that would regulate and limit student media access to board meetings. Dang accused student media of “abusing their positions” and “misrepresenting the reality of the situation.”

The duty of media is to freely and independently hold those in power  to account. During the 2019 SCSU elections, Dang expressed some regret for the policy. But it nonetheless demonstrated anti-democratic tendencies on the part of the union.

SCSU elections were, however, the most competitive and contested of the four unions. Two slates faced off, making for an engaged race, and ending in a split executive. But everything else was pure chaos.

One presidential candidate, SCSYou’s Anup Atwal, was questionably disqualified early on for multiple campaign violations. He made noise when he claimed that fellow presidential candidate, Shine Bright UTSC’s Chemi Lhamo, hit another candidate with a table, which Lhamo denied. Post-disqualification, he was exposed by The Underground, UTSC’s student paper, for making transphobic remarks about Vice-President (VP) Equity candidate Leon Tsai in a leaked group chat.

Controversy did not conclude once the election results were released. President-elect Lhamo became the target of an online harassment campaign due to her views on Tibetan independence. The story became a world headline.

Some U of T students agree with demands for the nullification of her election. But it is important that students respect democratic outcomes and demand change through voting or running as candidates themselves. Most importantly, it is unacceptable that an elected candidate face threats of violence.

Drama continued when the board refused to ratify Rayyan Alibux, who had been elected as VP Operations. Concerns were raised regarding Alibux’s involvement in Atwal’s transphobic remarks. In a Varsity op-ed, Alibux reasonably questioned the legality of the SCSU’s decision. The SCSU later reversed its decision and ratified Alibux.

The new SCSU must correct for the anti-democratic tendencies of its predecessors and ensure that elections are run competitively and fairly. And of course, it must cut the controversy.

The UTGSU

In December, the UTGSU Annual General Meeting (AGM) failed to meet quorum. As such, it was unable to pass important motions, including its 2017–2018 audited financial statements. Members were frustrated and some worried that the organization would financially default to the university.

At the General Council meeting immediately following the AGM, conflict arose between Varsity journalists and the council. The journalists were offered seating on the condition that they would not photograph or live-tweet the events, the latter of which they purposefully ignored as directed by The Varsity’s editors.

Live-tweeting helps ensure transparency, allows The Varsity to keep a public record of governance events, and makes meetings accessible to those who cannot attend. But The Varsity’s journalists were asked to leave.

These issues were resolved only recently. Over the course of several months, The Varsity had to defend its interest in reporting on the events of the union, and we still differ in our views of how the union’s activities should be scrutinized. Ultimately, journalists’ attendance at UTGSU meetings is still subject to challenge from UTGSU members.

The union’s elections were overwhelmingly dominated by incumbents. Five of the seven individuals elected are returning to positions they held last year. This suggests that insiders will retain control of the organization, and that little is likely to change.

Moreover, only five per cent of eligible students voted, demonstrating that engagement with the union is very weak. This undermines the credibility and mandate of the elected representatives.

Nevertheless, The Varsity is able to provide a valuable service to our readership, which overlaps with the UTGSU’s membership, by reporting on the union’s activities and working to increase awareness. We hope the UTGSU works to smooth out its operations, address engagement, and, in time, fully accept the importance of our presence in the room.

The UTMSU

This year, the UTMSU made significant changes both internally and externally. During their AGMs, the UTMSU and UTSU voted unanimously to separate.

With this separation, funds paid to the UTSU by UTM students will instead be paid to the UTMSU to directly improve campus life there. This is a step in the right direction. According to incoming President Atif Abdullah, one way these funds could be used is to create more bursaries for UTM students.

After intense debate at the AGM, students voted to reject online voting in UTMSU elections. This was disappointing. As UTM is a commuter campus, online voting is the most accessible means to involve students in campus governance. Incorporating online voting could have increased voter turnout at UTM, which was 13 per cent last year.

It is clear that the UTMSU has not made itself accessible to students. In this year’s election, the Students United slate swept all five executive positions. There was no other slate, and the majority of positions were uncontested.

If students were engaged, the race would have been more competitive. UTMSU executives should take a closer look at how they operate and what they can do to improve student engagement, and not just during elections.

For starters, the UTMSU should be more transparent by letting The Medium, UTM’s student paper, do its job. Earlier this year, a conflict between the two was publicized. The Medium has its flaws, including questionable journalistic standards, but nonetheless serves as an important voice at UTM, keeping students informed about their elected representatives. As such, the UTMSU should invite criticism from The Medium — not seek to limit it.

To its credit, the UTMSU has been able to introduce a U-Pass and the course retake policy, and extend the credit/no credit deadline. These have taken years to develop and implement and are important to UTM students. If the UTMSU worked to increase transparency with The Medium and facilitate engagement among students, it could achieve much more. 

The UTSU

At the UTSU AGM last fall, slates were banned from future elections. Slates had previously enabled teams of candidates to run under organized platforms.

UTSU President Anne Boucher claimed that independent candidates, as opposed to slated candidates, would offer voters a better understanding of the individual running as opposed to the team to which they belong. Many also criticize slates for an elitist culture that favours insiders. In theory, these are valid perspectives that justify the ban.

But the same night that slates were banned, another remarkable phenomenon took place: the UTSU failed to maintain the required quorum of 50 attendees. This despite being one of the largest student unions in Canada. This spoke to the UTSU’s longstanding and fundamental engagement problem.

The UTSU’s attempt to make elections more accessible to outsiders by banning slates, when the union continued to face, and had yet to resolve, its engagement problem, turned out to be a huge miscalculation. The casualty was the 2019 UTSU election.

This year, no candidates ran for three of the seven executive positions, including the crucial VP Operations and Student Life roles that are needed this summer to draft a budget and prepare for orientation. There were also no candidates for 18 out of 28 Board of Director positions — which means it will be unable to meet quorum and function. The 10 positions that had candidates were all uncontested.

The lack of candidates and contested positions is extremely concerning, and reflects the lowest level of engagement in recent history. Voters responded in kind: turnout was 4.2 per cent — the worst of all four unions this year — and no executive candidates garnered 1,000 votes.

This contrasts with the three previous spring elections, where candidates tended to surpass this threshold and voter turnout was at least double. In those elections, there was at least one full slate competing.

In practice, slates serve to ensure that a given team fields candidates for all available positions, and by running under an organized platform, more easily engages voters. Only after securing a record of stronger engagement and turnout should the UTSU have considered a slate ban.

As it stands, the 2019–2020 UTSU has an extremely weak mandate to govern. The current UTSU has been forced to hold by-elections in April to address the unfilled positions, before the new term starts in May. Given that these elections will occur during exam season, we have low expectations for the quality of campaigning and level of engagement from students.

Next year, the UTSU’s priority must be to market itself better, recognizing that students do not feel heard, represented, or connected to it. It must launch a campaign that builds a better relationship with students to justify its existence and its fees, and improve voter and candidate turnout for next year’s election.

Externally, it must be more vocal vis-à-vis the university administration with student concerns like the weather cancellation policy and mental health resources. And, of course, it — alongside the three other unions — must lobby the provincial government to minimize the impact that the Student Choice Initiative and Ontario Student Assistance Program changes have on student life and finances.

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