Burn it all down

A brief overview of radical politics in Toronto

Burn it all down

Toronto has a rich history of radical politics. Over multiple generations, University of Toronto students have consistently taken the initiative as political participants and leaders. 

As early as the nineteenth century, U of T students have advocated for a more inclusive campus and improved broader community. The very first issue of The Varsity, from October 7, 1880 contains an article staunchly defending the then-contentious idea of allowing women not only entry into university, but the same access to programs of study, scholarships, and extracurricular activities as men. In that same year, students challenged conventional teaching methods, describing curricula as “too much reading too little thought.”

These early years of recorded student activity are characterized by intellectual resistance, wherein students advocated for change and independent thinking. With that said, universities were still dominated by white, privileged men, who shaped the institution in their image — to the exclusion or marginalization of other groups. Nevertheless, these primary organizing ideas manifested into student organizations designed to facilitate the extracurricular activities and advocacy that students demanded. By the early twentieth century, U of T had a student government. Students would also play a key role in creating the National Federation of Canadian University Students in 1926, the first national student union in Canada.

THE VARSITY ARCHIVES

In the city at large, radical politics in the early twentieth century took the form of grassroots social collectives, united under causes like feminism and anarchism. Toronto also sheltered political exiles from the United States, including the influential Emma Goldman. 

Goldman was a Jewish-Russian immigrant who challenged all injustices she came across, including poor working conditions, a lack of social supports for the lower classes, and discrimination against women. This led her to join, and eventually lead, anarchist movements in Canada and the United States. Goldman lived in Toronto briefly, in a small walk-up apartment on Spadina Avenue, and died in a friend’s home on Vaughan Road in 1940. 

Goldman gave speeches calling for many things taken for granted today, including birth control, tolerance of non-heterosexual orientations, an eight-hour workday, and banning corporal punishment in schools. Her actions attracted the negative attention of police, and she soon bore the nickname “The Most Dangerous Woman in the World.”

One of Goldman’s Canadian successes was halting the extradition of Attilio Bortolotti, a key figure in Toronto’s early anarchist movement. Bortolotti, an Italian immigrant, edited anarchist journals and advocated against Benito Mussolini’s policies from abroad. He was slotted to be extradited to Italy, and many speculated that once he’d arrived, he’d be killed by the fascist government for his dissidence. Goldman engaged in campaigns to raise awareness and garner public support about Bortolotti’s plight, successfully pressuring the Canadian government to cancel his extradition. 

Despite the cataclysmic events of World War II and the resulting onset of the Cold War, radical politics in Toronto and on campus persisted. Tommy Douglas, described in a 1954 issue of The Varsity as “the only Socialist premier in Canada,” came to speak to U of T students in the fall of that year. 

Throughout the early 1960s, The Varsity made it a priority to hear from those in society who had largely been silent in mainstream media, including communists, sex workers, and those suffering from drug addiction.

In 1960, the U of T Communist Club was founded. Their first meeting was crashed by a crowd of anti-communist students shouting “Rule Britannia,” attempting to drown out the communists. Supposedly, they gained a majority in the room and began to force the club to adopt anti-communist stances, such as the endorsement of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s speech at the United Nations, which condemned the imposition of political and economic orders on new countries. The Varsity interviewed one of these communist students to get their perspective. 

U of T students also flirted with communism abroad. A mysterious letter sent to The Varsity in 1960 under a pseudonym told an account of five U of T students who joined Fidel Castro’s resistance forces in Cuba to fight against the oppressive Bautista regime. According to the account, the students spent two months wandering through Cuban jungles until they found the rebels’ camp and met Castro himself, who welcomed them into his ranks. The students participated in military activities and were active members of the resistance movement. While The Varsity’s editors at the time questioned the truthfulness of the account, it was compelling enough for them to publish it with a disclaimer, and it has since become campus legend.

And then came 1968, a pivotal year for student movements, which saw unprecedented mass protests around the world in countries including Brazil, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, France, and the United States. The University of Toronto was swept up in this current, which saw a spike in activism on campus and in the city. Students impacted by a housing crisis in Toronto built a tent city outside of Hart House to call for change. This newly-formed community began to host their own events, entertainment, and advocacy initiatives to raise awareness about their need for accessible to housing. In fact, they became so organized that they arranged for ads in The Varsity to inform students about their upcoming activities.

While most U of T students were not directly affected by the Vietnam War and the military draft lottery that led to massive student protests south of the border, they still recognized the war’s controversial nature and empathized with their American counterparts. Fall 1968 saw a large protest consisting of students and local activists in front of the American consulate in Toronto, which resulted in a number of arrests and instances of police violence, including the beating of protesters and riding horses into crowds. A number of students wrote to The Varsity, denouncing the Toronto police as pigs, while a later issue was filled with letters from students defending the police as trying their best to maintain order.

TIM AND SELENA MIDDLETON/CC FLICKR

During this time, student demographics were beginning to change significantly. The first scholarship students from Africa arrived at U of T in 1960, which in the same academic year prompted a series of articles calling out racist behaviours on campus. By 1970, a Black Students Union had formed, and the Students’ Administrative Council — now known as the University of Toronto Students’ Union — decided to allocate $5,000 annually to this organization to support marginalized students. In 1969, the University of Toronto Homophile Association (UTHA) was established to advocate for equal rights and freedoms for students of non-heterosexual orientations. This marked the first time that such a group had been organized in Ontario or at any Canadian university. The advocacy of UTHA activists helped bring about changes in paradigms of sexuality and gender in Canada and across the world. Today, the UTHA is now known as Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans People of the University of Toronto (LGBTOUT) and has a permanent space on campus for organizing a variety of events and programming for LGBTQ students.

While many Canadian protests in the 1960s had been in response to events in other countries, everything changed with the rise of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). Québec separatism exploded in the early 1970s with the election of separatist governments, mailbox bombings, and the kidnapping of politicians. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act and deployed the military in Québec to restore order. However, what is not well known is that martial law was enforced in other parts of Canada as well. Two University of Toronto students were arrested for allegedly supporting the FLQ, and their rights of habeas corpus were suspended under Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act. Despite this, many U of T students were committed to bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Several meetings about the crisis in Québec were held on campus in 1970, with the ultimate conclusion being that U of T students should take action.

After two Indigenous women from Kenora were unjustly jailed in 1970, a protest was organized at Queen’s Park by Indigenous activists from across the province, highlighting the racist behaviour of the judge who presided over the case and Indigenous peoples’ limited access to legal counsel. In 1992, an organization now known as the Indigenous Students Association was formed, dedicated to providing community for Indigenous students on campus and advocating for their needs.

Environmentalism also began to catch on in the 1970s, with articles in The Varsity outlining how corporations were lobbying against environmental protections to make more profits. Other students began to theorize how these sentiments could develop into a lasting political movement to foster policy change.

MARC FALARDEAU/CC FLICKR

The 1980s saw the rise of neoliberalism and a more conformist ideology spread through academia, which emphasized focusing primarily on academics and spending less time on activism. U of T seems to have felt some of this as well, with activism focusing more on smaller local issues like high rent prices. It was not until the 1990s that University of Toronto students would rise up again in large numbers, this time in response to the proposed tuition increases of the Progressive Conservative government in Ontario, led by Premier Mike Harris. Roundtables were held on campus that hosted prominent speakers like former NDP Ontario Premier Bob Rae, who encouraged students to build coalitions with other community groups. 

Over 7,000 people attended a protest at Queen’s Park in 1995 to challenge the Harris government’s budget cuts to education.  As in 1968, police tried to disperse the demonstrators. A column of officers in full riot gear, 14 wide and five deep, advanced toward the protestors, beating anyone in their path with batons. Then-U of T student Allison Starkey, who attended the protest, described an incident in which a police officer cracked open the skull of a mother of four with his baton. Student leaders were influential in the protest, with Arts and Sciences Students’ Union and Graduate Students’ Union representatives and members asserting their presence among a number of students from Toronto secondary schools. The Students’ Administrative Council was criticized by students for not formally attending the protest.

The twenty-first century would in many ways see a continuation of advocacy for the social issues brought to the forefront in the twentieth century, and in some cases these issues would blend together. The 2008 financial crisis prompted the formation of a number of social movements designed to highlight economic inequalities by physically occupying areas of cities where financial power was concentrated. Occupy Toronto was one of these groups, formed in 2011, which organized a 40-day protest with activists setting up camp in St. James Park. From their encampment, the activists would go to Toronto’s financial district to engage in a series of demonstrations. The camp was largely sustained through the generosity of Toronto residents.

Other, more organic protests formed in response to the G20 summit held in Toronto in 2010, with activists challenging elite politicians and discriminatory economic policies, as well as the cost to Canadians to host the summit. Police established a temporary detention centre and arrested over 1,100 people, most of whom were later released. A report by the city’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director released two years later outlined that police tactics during the protests had breached Canadians’ constitutional rights.

FIGHTBACK LA RIPOSTE/CC FLICKR

It may be argued that in recent times, student engagement in advocacy activities and political participation in Canada, outside Québec, is insufficient and has little genuine influence on policy. However, students today benefit from powerful democratic student unions that, in addition to advocacy, provide services to help improve the quality of education in spite of unfavourable economic and policy trends. 

Identifying issues and working together as students necessitates communicating effectively between large numbers of students. An independent student press is crucial for highlighting important issues for students today and tomorrow. At U of T, we’re lucky to have multiple student newspapers. Similarly, extracurricular groups on campus need to work together to engage their members toward common goals. A good way to facilitate campus coalitions is to host joint events and activities where different memberships can develop friendships and exchange ideas. Cooperation between undergraduate and graduate student organizations, and even secondary and postsecondary students, is particularly valuable. 

Furthermore, students should always ensure that their own organizations, especially student unions, have fair decision-making processes. Any authoritarian practice, including excessive power in the hands of unelected officials, financial mismanagement, discrimination, lack of transparency, or interference with democratic processes, should be challenged. That way, we’ll be ready for future crises. 

As history shows, a strong framework for student advocacy exists, and can continuously be improved. The challenge lies in identifying tangible policy goals and the accompanying political tactics that would be the most successful in achieving them.  

Scarborough—Rouge Park poll shows McKelvie with sizeable lead

Incumbent Shan falling behind

Scarborough—Rouge Park poll shows McKelvie with sizeable lead

A poll conducted on October 16 by market research firm Forum Research gave municipal councillor challenger Jennifer McKelvie a sizeable lead over incumbent Neethan Shan in Ward 25 ScarboroughRouge Park, the ward that UTSC is located in.

Of the 405 people questioned, McKelvie is polling at 50 per cent while Shan is at 27 per cent.

Shan was elected as councillor for Ward 42 on February 13, 2017 under the previous city boundaries. Forum Research President Lorne Bozinoff said that Shan is “likely to see his tenure on council ceded.”

McKelvie, who is a former UTSC student, is running on establishing an integrated Scarborough transit network and a training centre to combat youth unemployment, as well as enhancing greenspaces.

Of the other Ward 25 candidates, Reza Khoshdel was at seven per cent, Paul Cookson at five per cent, Amanda Cain at three per cent, Cherryl Lews Thurab at one per cent, and the remaining five candidates at six per cent total.

The research also showed that Mayor John Tory is polling at 68 per cent in the ward, while challenger Jennifer Keesmaat is at 21 per cent. Twelve per cent of people said they will be voting for another candidate in the mayoral race.

A debate on the Autumn Munk Debate

Two opposing student perspectives on the upcoming Toronto debate about populism, which features the controversial Steve Bannon

A debate on the Autumn Munk Debate

“Be it resolved, the future of western politics is populist, not liberal…”
PRO: Steve Bannon CON: David Frum  

Should Steve Bannon speak at the Munk Debate? Poll Results.

 

The left gains from listening, not silencing 

Steve Bannon, if you are not familiar with the name, is many things — none of which I would take much pride in being called. He is a media executive, investment banker, and a former executive of Breitbart News. Most importantly, however, he is an alt-right politician who was the White House’s Chief Strategist during the first seven months of the Trump presidency, until his high-profile departure. 

Bannon’s views are clear and controversial: under him, Breitbart was immersed  in scandals regarding, but not limited to, racism, antisemitism, sexism, and white supremacism. During the disastrous 2016 United States presidential elections, when it was announced Bannon would take up an influential post in the White House, there was an incredulous outpouring of public outrage. 

Most recently, following widespread criticism of its selection, The New Yorker dropped Bannon from its upcoming festival in October. Similarly, there are calls to disinvite Bannon from speaking at the Autumn Munk Debate in Toronto against David Frum, where Bannon will support the proposition, “the future of western politics is populist, not liberal.” 

Many are worried about allowing Bannon to spread his alt-right, populist views. However, Bannon’s disinvitation due to public outrage would be a very clear violation of free speech. 

Bannon, irrespective of the repulsiveness of his views, should be allowed to share his perspective and ‘educate’ the audience. Particularly, the most important redeeming quality from his speech is that we can critically reflect on that with which we disagree, a practice that can help us cultivate stronger and more well-rounded arguments. 

In the current political climate, an observation I have made is that those who are left-leaning, with which I identify myself, seem to be too impatient to listen to the opposition’s argument. We become so overcome with outrage that we quickly pick up on the disgraceful rhetoric expressed by the opposition, rather than think about the context in which that expression is made. However, this should not be confused with justification for any spiteful words articulated by the alt-right. 

The left speaks up everywhere — on the streets, on social media, in public spaces, in government. This has unwittingly helped the opposition cultivate its argument. One of the major reasons the alt-right is so successful in the dissemination of its information is that it listens to everything we say, framing and responding to every one of our talking points before we even say them. Our views are so easily accessible and visible in society for the opposition to read, especially given our propensity to protest and march. 

The power of free speech gives us the opportunity to not only express ourselves, but to enjoy the expressions of those with whom we disagree; by better knowing the opposition, we can improve the quality of our arguments and our capacity to challenge them. However, the left continues to squander this opportunity — rather than exercise reason and pay attention to the alt-right, we are bested by emotion and demand its silence. 

It would be extremely beneficial for U of T students to attend the Autumn Munk Debate and listen to Bannon’s views on populism. As the Western world undergoes rapid change, typical understandings of the functions of a democratic society — trade, immigration, foreign policy — are being questioned. Populism has taken the front seat in this new era of politics. 

The value of this Munk Debate is that it will expose the logic of an alternative political system and its approaches to governance. Although populism currently seems like a radical idea, there is no saying what the future holds — after all, liberal democracy was at one time viewed as revolutionary. Bannon, who is closely associated with the most powerful populist figure in the world — Donald Trump — may grant the audience exclusive insights into the concept. 

Providing Steve Bannon with a platform does not put anyone at risk. Ironically, it provides the left with the opportunity to develop its understanding of the increasingly relevant concept and practice of populism, and potentially, to improve the way it can engage and argue against the opposition. The Toronto public, and especially our student body, must be equipped with all the tools needed to debate those who have different values and perspectives. To this end, the left, rather than seek the disinvitation of Bannon, should invite themselves to listen.  

Varsha Pillai is a first-year Social Sciences student at University College.

 

The absence of the left points to a questionable debate 

It should first be noted that the proposition is reductive and vague. Most scholars associate the term ‘populism’ with politicians who emphasize their loyalty to the majority of the population and reject the ‘elites.’ Ultimately, populism is an approach to politics that depends on the ideology that brings it into force; this renders the discussion of a general concept of ‘populism’ a flawed debate topic. 

Furthermore, the dichotomy presented between populism and liberalism is questionable, given the rise of seemingly-paradoxical ‘neoliberal populist’ movements, such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! movement. 

The choice of participants for the Autumn Munk Debate opens the door to an even more significant void in this debate: that of ideological representation. Putting aside the surprising absence of voices from Europe, which has been shaken by numerous populist movements, in a debate about Western politics, the larger issue remains that there is no representation for left-wing populism. The views on stage will range from centre-right to far-right. 

To only invite a right-wing populist,  Bannon, under the guise that he speaks for the entire pro-populist side, is both unfair to populism and inaccurate of its actual manifestations. These debates are responsible for providing the jumping-off points for people’s thoughts on these ideas — to fail to inform people that support for populism is not exclusive to the alt-right will only lead to ignorance. 

Beyond ideology, Bannon himself is unrepresentative of the populist base that he claims to represent. Bannon, who is a privately-schooled, Harvard-educated former investment banker, is part of the elite he purports to criticize. Indeed, many recent right-wing populist movements have been no different: Trump is a Wharton graduate of immense inherited wealth; Brexit was led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, both Oxbridge graduates who employ ‘reject the experts’ rhetoric.

Of course, David Frum is hardly representative of the ‘liberal’ side either: he has been responsible for one of the most authoritarian speeches in recent American history, employing highly populist rhetoric to attack non-Western democracies. 

The Munk Debates’ ignorance of leftist supporters on either side of this debate points to a troubling trend in Western politics, one that says that the people “have had enough of experts,” as Gove famously said on British television just before Brexit — a trend that places trust in loud polemicists, often perceived as ‘public intellectuals,’ instead. 

Populism should not be seriously discussed without bringing in experts on the digital spread of information and misinformation, the increasing levels of support for referendum-driven democracy, and other phenomena which have allowed Western populism to flourish — and neither Bannon nor Frum cite these experts when making their cases. Populism deserves a more holistic, informed, and global analysis.

We then come to a final problem: that of Bannon’s actual attendance at the debate. Bannon’s ideas are one problem, but the platform that this debate could give him is a far more dangerous one. Bannon has a history of expressing sexist and racist views. He co-ran Trump’s 2016 election campaign, one which coincided with a hitherto-unforeseen spike in hate crimes reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

Bannon uses the affectation of reason to push hateful ideas. The Munk Debates are propagating the idea that Bannon and his ideas are reasonable by putting him up on stage.

This is not a free speech issue. The suppression of free speech entails censorship: denying someone any sort of platform, private or public. Bannon has many platforms and he has used them to repeat the same message. His ideas have been publicized throughout the last few years, by everyone from liberal-learning mass media to demagogues like Nigel Farage, Kellie Leitch, and Viktor Orbán. We must consider the fact that, even if we did want to hear the words of Bannon, he does not have anything important to say. 

Bannon should be dropped from this debate because of the horrific ideals he openly espouses — ideals which he has been given chance after chance to spread. But even if the Munk Debates decide to tolerate the fact that Bannon is one of the worst people in modern Western media, he should be dropped simply because, as someone who is both unrepresentative of populism and ideologically worn out, he is irrelevant to the topic at hand. 

Arjun Kaul is a fifth-year Neuroscience student at St. Michael’s College. 

 

Editor’s Note (2018-10-01): The “Should Steve Bannon speak at the Munk Debate?” poll at the top of the article was replaced after 14 days of polling with the completed results. 

Survival strategies for the Ford era

We need to stick up for each other, whether with our time, words, or money

Survival strategies for the Ford era

As Ontario’s favourite Labels and Tags aristocrat sweeps into office, the future of our sweet settler province is starting to seem a little cloudy. We no longer have a kindly lesbian with a no-nonsense haircut representing us in Queen’s Park and, like, bleeding on stuff or doing whatever it is that female politicians do.

Instead, we elected her very antithesis — and now we need to deal with it. However, unlike white wealthy men stumbling into positions of power, this is easier said than done. Everyday, we’re inundated with a range of international issues that demand and deserve our attention. The fact that many of us get to choose what to care about or pay attention to is an incredible privilege.

Nevertheless, the constant onslaught can be a lot to carry.

Personally, the rotting trust fund club that is global politics smacks me in the sternum whenever I open my phone to a goddamn New York Times push alert. That alone gets tiring.

Now I open CBC — usually the home of classical music and soothing radio personalities — to distressing headlines from my home province, my home cities, my home schools. It’s a stark and startling change. How to cope?

1. Do something about it. If you care about health curriculum rollbacks, email the Education Minister. Thanks to bureaucracy, if there’s an issue, there’s a minister. So make your voice heard. Go to protests — heck, organize a protest. Sit on the lawn of Queen’s Park and just fart loudly for a few hours if it makes you feel better. But don’t sit still and complain. If you’re lucky enough to not be directly impacted by the Ford government’s new policies, care for those who are.

2. Okay, now you’ve done something. Keep doing the thing. Get others to do the thing with you.

3. Alright, you’re really doing the thing. So are your roommates and your mom and your chiropractor. Are you tired? Yes. Okay, I respect that. Go home! Make a big pot of pasta. Cover the pasta in something rich in cholesterol and low in nutrients. And have it with a glass of wine on the side and someone you love in front of you. Talk about something silly. Like farts. Can you tell I have a true weakness for scatalogical humour? Oops.

4. Another nice way to unwind? Queer Eye. Say what you will about the show, but there is something so precious and wholesome about its lovely cast that it makes everything seem a little lighter. Plus, with Jonathan van Ness around, you’re pretty much going to church.

5. Turn off the tech! I tend to roll my eyes at The Olds constantly bemoaning the rise of smartphones and the decline of ‘real, human interaction,’ but sometimes it’s nice to swipe over into airplane mode. You don’t need to dissociate entirely, but give yourself a few hours off the news cycle. The news will go on. Haven’t you heard? CTV never sleeps.

6. Do all the classic self-care ritual junk that has been floating around the internet like single use plastic on our oceans’ surfaces. Will a Korean face mask make Ontario Great Again? No, but it might clean out your pores. And honey, based on how stressed I’ve been lately, those boys are clogged!

7. Oh god, okay, I’m gonna have to hit you with another Wholesome Tidbit — but, exercise. I know, I know, I just mentioned heavy carbs. But balance! Yes, our bodies are just flesh vessels, but sometimes it’s nice to get the blood going. I am the kind of embarrassing person who lip syncs along to my music while on the treadmill and occasionally — okay, often — air drums. I also sometimes upper-body dance, which manifests in a strange abdominal wiggle. Do I get hit on at the gym? Rarely.

8. Sit in the park with someone you love, or could love, or might be falling in love with. Friends or otherwise, INTJ or ENTJ, sometimes we all need a little human connection.

9. I am earnest to a fault and can’t help myself with this one, but don’t lose heart! We’ve got a long road ahead, and speaking out can get tiring. Don’t try to do everything all the time. You’re only human and you only have so many hours in a day.

If you’re lucky enough to be ensconced in privilege and emerge intact from Ford’s rollbacks, congratulations! But that’s no free pass. We need to stick up for each other, whether it’s with our time, words, or money. Just remember to put your own oxygen mask on first, too.

Op-ed: Enhancing internationalization at the University of Toronto

Keeping politics aside, U of T must globalize in spirit, practice, and implementation

Op-ed: Enhancing internationalization at the University of Toronto

The University of Toronto proudly promotes the notion that it is a diverse, multicultural, and innovative research-oriented institution. The institution has grown to be a symbolic manifestation of the values of openness, progressive thought, and inclusivity imbued in the very idea of Canada as a country.

To a large extent, this is true. Our university has one of the largest student bodies in Canada, with approximately 25 per cent registered as international students. Furthermore, the wide-ranging cultural and disciplinary backgrounds of academics and staff at U of T have allowed others to regard the institution as one promoting global thought leaders.

Yet it is imperative that all stakeholders at the university pay further attention to engaging with international students through more comprehensive platforms. International student fees remain uncapped and unregulated, which has resulted in the university having one of the highest nominal undergraduate fees in the country. Moreover, problems adjusting to language, religious customs, social engagements, and other socio-economic differences, in addition to a worryingly growing unease around mental health concerns such as homesickness, depression, and anxiety, have manifested in a lack of interest among international students in the university’s governance and student politics.

This is not to say that international students remain completely uninvolved in student life. In fact, U of T has one of the largest networks of globally themed student organizations in the world, which remains a testament to the desire for students from around the world or with an interest in global affairs, cross-cultural learning, and diversity to be active members of the student community. However, we as a university need to question what is holding these organizations or individuals back from partaking in student governance. Perhaps it is the volatile nature of student politics at our university. Perhaps it is the personalization of political choices by our student leaders. We leave that up to our constituents to decide.

With respect to student politics — and particularly with respect to the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), which I am a part of — international student issues have formed a key portion of our aim to be effective representatives of our constituents. Yet, for various reasons over the course of our history, we have fallen short with regard to putting international student issues front and centre. It is a collective failure for which there is little excuse. But we recognize that this issue exists, and we want to change it.

One of the platforms that the UTSU is developing is called the Global Dialogue Series (GDS). Engaging student organizations, academics, and other stakeholders in town hall-style, discussion-based events, the UTSU organized its first GDS through a series of four events during the fall semester, with a focus on immigration, migrant rights, and minority rights in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Syria, South Sudan, and Canada. The collaborators were comprised of student clubs like the Bangladeshi Students’ Association, academics from the Munk School of Global Affairs, and even a filmmaker working with Rohingya children based in Canada. It seemed to me like a good starting point to push student-centred global issues to the forefront of the UTSU’s relationship with its constituents.

Keeping up with this philosophy, the UTSU is planning to continue its GDS series, with a primary focus in student activism and education in countries ranging from Turkey to the United States. While the planning of the event series is still in its preliminary process, with the active engagement of on-campus student clubs and external stakeholders, we hope to make this event — and, from a long-term perspective, the GDS in general — a permanent platform for student politicians to carry forward, irrespective of political differences.

I invite all interested parties to partake in this endeavour. Conversations spur conversations, which ultimately lead to a better informed student body — better informed about foreign cultures and varying ideologies and lifestyles. Maybe one day, we at the university will be able to say that rather than international students adjusting to the Toronto culture, we all should collectively adapt to and celebrate diversity. If we can do that, we will truly be able to call ourselves a comprehensively diverse institution, not just in terms of numbers, but in the way we talk about and represent ourselves.

For far too long, student politicians and activists at this university have engaged in hostile politics, sometimes just for the sake of doing so. Differences in ideologies will remain, but they do not give us the right to ignore core issues for students, including Islamophobia, mental health concerns, homophobia, and academic difficulties.

My demand as an international student is that we come together to project genuine internationalism, from engaging with platforms such as the GDS to participating in activities hosted by bodies like the Centre for International Experience. Let us put aside partisan disparities across political slates, socio-cultural organizations, and academic disciplines and unite in the spirit of putting issues affecting international students front and centre.

 

Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a fourth-year student at University College studying Economics and International Relations. He is the Associate Vice President-University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

In conversation with the director of SponsorLand

Michèle Hozer's latest documentary examines the relationship between a Syrian refugee family and their Canadian sponsors 

In conversation with the director of <em>SponsorLand</em>

Michèle Hozer is an Emmy-nominated and Gemini-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker, known for films including Sugar Coated, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, and Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire. Her newest documentary, SponsorLand, follows the relationship between a Syrian refugee family and their sponsor group in Picton, Ontario. The film explores themes of belonging, diversity, and community. 

The Varsity spoke to Hozer before the film’s premiere on November 8 to discuss the importance of gaining the family’s trust and authentically documenting their collective and individual stories while maintaining respect for their privacy. 

The Varsity (TV): What inspired you to create this documentary?

Michèle Hozer (MH): In 2015, at this time exactly, TVO threw a national callout to filmmakers across the country, looking for films for Canada’s 150th birthday. They were looking for films that explore the theme of Canadians having one foot in one culture and one foot in the other. And I totally responded to that. 

At the time of the TVO call, the Syrian refugee crisis was in full force. Canadians were responding. We were bringing in 25,000 refugees. I thought [it was] great to sort of see how refugees deal with coming into Canada. 

I wanted to move away from the 30-second, feel-good news items and TV items. What really goes on? What happens to the refugees? They are very grateful for being in Canada, but they really miss their home country. Is there a line between care and control when it comes to sponsors, even the well-intentioned?

That’s the basis of the documentary. How much, as refugees, do they have to sort of give up in order to fit in? I was trying to stay [out] of the politics of the war, and I wanted to go beyond ‘they left hell and came to heaven and we lived happily ever.’ No. There are issues. Do we have, as Canadians, ingrained biases in terms of refugees and in terms of ‘we’re the best country in the world?’

We don’t use [the family’s] last name because they asked us not to use it — they fear retribution back in Syria. In fact, we geo-blocked the film, and our Facebook page and everything else, so it doesn’t appear in either Syria, Lebanon, or Turkey. That’s why we don’t use their last name. But I thought, ‘What a great story.’ 

Picton, like my hometown of Laval, is kind of immune from diversity. Multiculturalism hasn’t come to Picton. We thought that was a great story to follow, but in order to do it properly, I had to be embedded in the community. My husband and my dog, we were there from January to July. I set up my edit room there. I needed to get the trust of the community. I needed to get the trust of the family. 

TV: While you were filming the documentary, what were some of the setbacks or obstacles you had to overcome to depict the right kind of story and tone?

MH: I couldn’t really bring my team in all the time. It was very invasive. So I got my DOP [director of photography], John Tran, one of the best in the country. I got a camera from him, got a mic, got Camera 101 course. I got two sessions from him — school of filmmaking. I started filming myself with my supervising producer. 

It was much easier to do it that way, much less intrusive. We had spent many hours around [family members] Abdel Malek and Sawsen’s kitchen. That way we were able to take out the camera when the time was right. It was always in my car, always in a bag in the corner of my house. At one point, we gained so much of their trust that Sawsen, one of the evenings, said, “Michèle, take out your camera.” 

The other challenge, too, is that I had to wait to see who wanted to share their story, and that took time. Sawsen was interested, [sons] Slieman and Ramez were interested. They were really interested in speaking English with me. Some of the interviews were in English. But to really get the nuance of what they were feeling, and the struggles that they had, we had to do the interviews in Arabic. I had two really good, trusted counsellors and translators with me, Rasha Elendari, who’s a PhD in Toronto at U of T. She runs the NMC-CESI Language and Cultural Exchange group — it’s very big in the Syrian community. She helped with those interviews, especially with Slieman, who really gets a lot in that interview. 

I think Slieman is really an interesting guy because he’s really quite charming and tons of fun, but he carries a lot from the war. And to show that duality was really, really important. It took a long time to get him to trust us, to get him to open up to us, and I think it was just spending time with him, just hanging out, listening to him, going out with him. So, that was the big challenge. 

Also, the nuances with the sponsors and the family. It’s very easy to sometimes want to sit back and have a critical eye, but it’s not easy to sponsor a family. It’s almost like an arranged marriage, right? They don’t know each other, and then they’re in this intense relationship that’s only supposed to be a year. 

The nuance was really important and a challenge in terms of getting it right with the camera and with the perspective. It’s not an easy relationship; there’s no road map. It just takes time and patience and effort to make that relationship work. 

TV: Are you still in contact with the family? 

MH: Oh yeah! I haven’t been there in a while because we’re just finishing the film. They keep saying, ‘Where are you?’ They kept calling me ‘okhti,’ which means sister. I became very close to them. I hope to go back. Actually, we loved it so much that we hope to get a place there — not leave Toronto completely. I mean, eventually. It’s a great community. It’s really, really great. 

TV: What are you hoping this documentary will achieve on a grander scale?

MH: There are two answers to that question. 

There is this fear of others. We did elect the Liberal government, and we got them in, but there are still a portion of Canadians who are worried and weary. The first thing we wanted to do is to really get people to understand who Abdel Malek and Sawsen are — they’re like you and me. They’re a normal family, a bit larger, bit more rambunctious, but they have the same kind of needs and concerns that we do. 

Now, they lived through a civil war and hardships that we didn’t live through, but I think our goal was to get a sense that they’re not a family we need to fear, especially the boys. Ramez and Slieman are of the age, those young men, who we’re the most fearful of. If they didn’t belong in the family, maybe they wouldn’t have been able to be accepted as refugees. Meanwhile, they are so loving. They’re like normal teenagers, and even that scene when, in January 2017 I guess it was, the killings in the mosque in Québec City, Ramez’s response: ‘I’m not going to judge all Canadians based on this one guy who killed in the mosque. Don’t judge all of us based on a few terrorists.’ He wants to stand like Canadians, he cares about his family. He wants their safety and he will stand with Canadians against global terrorism. I think that’s one answer. 

The second answer is, what does it mean to be a refugee? What is the relationship between the refugees and the sponsors? When we give help for free, is there this inherent sort of expectation in return? As a refugee, how do you be grateful but at the same time, give agency to your needs? How much do we have to give up as a refugee or immigrant to fit in? I think these are all important questions. We don’t pretend to answer all of them, but it’s something to explore, so that there’s a greater understanding of different culture and acceptance. 

 This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

An international student’s perspective on the Canadian healthcare system

International healthcare debates can put benefits, drawbacks of Canada’s approach in perspective

An international student’s perspective on the Canadian healthcare system

It is common for strangers in a foreign land to feel disinclined to critique its customs and practices. Sharing my experience with the Canadian healthcare system here makes me an exception to the rule.

Discussions about healthcare in Canada often focus predominantly on the strengths of the current system, particularly when compared to complementary systems around the world. As the debate around healthcare rages on in the United States, many references are made to the successful Canadian alternative. Nevertheless, significant evidence suggests that the system is not as flawless as it is made to appear.

In August 2016, I rushed to the emergency room at Mount Sinai Hospital. As a result of a freak accident, I had gotten a papercut in my eye. I found a receptionist behind a desk and a couple of doctors in the hallway, all of whom seemed utterly unaffected by my red eye and tearful pleas for urgent help. The fact that I waited for two and a half hours to receive medical attention was an unexpected surprise — I had heard many people speak highly of the Canadian healthcare system in the past.

Dr. Andreas Laupacis, Executive Director of the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital, wrote an article in the Toronto Star that accurately sums up my experience. Laupacis argues that the staff within the medical system have become so accustomed to the endless waiting line within and outside the ER that they have become desensitized to its heartbreaking impact on patients.  

Unaffected staff seem to be the just the tip of the iceberg that plagues the Canadian healthcare system. It is also extremely difficult to book an appointment the day a medical problem occurs, or even on the day after. Furthermore, timely access to specialists for patients seems like a luxury. The problem is further compounded because long-term medical care facilities, such as hospitals and nursing homes, are overburdened, while home care options for patients are limited. This creates a vicious cycle — patients who require a lower degree of care cannot leave the healthcare system, while others in need cannot enter it.

As illustrated by my experience, and those of many others, the Canadian system faces some serious problems that need to be addressed. At the same time, if we are to engage in a balanced, productive debate about healthcare reform, it is also important to acknowledge what Canada is doing right.

Notably, I cannot help but admire the principle of universal, equal access to medical care. When compared to the developing world, Canada’s system becomes even more pronounced. In my home country, India, for example, an underfunded and inadequately staffed public healthcare system makes access to proper medical care extremely difficult for most people.

There are also some things that the United States can learn from Canada. In the context of the present debate on healthcare accessibility, the best example is the principle of universal coverage. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as “Obamacare,” reflects this principle to a degree, given that the act expanded the scope of Medicaid to adults who could not afford adequate healthcare and made universal health insurance mandatory. However, The Republican Party, who currently hold a majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate, want to overturn this legislation on the grounds that it hinders job creation and burdens too many business enterprises.

This also raises several questions about how public healthcare should be managed, the most of important of which was whether it should be publicly or privately insured. In the US, as in India, private insurance companies dominate the healthcare sector.  To remedy this, Obamacare made it illegal for private insurance providers to deny coverage to those insured based on pre-existing terms and conditions included in policy documents.

Though many people in Canada also have private health insurance, most Canadians are not dependent on their employers for the healthcare benefits and security they need, unlike their American counterparts. It is incredible to me that the medical costs of Canadian citizens and permanent residents are covered by taxes paid to the government. This means that the average Canadian pays less than the average, insured American for the healthcare they receive. Even international students attending Canadian post-secondary institutions in Ontario are covered by the University Health Insurance Plan.

Moreover, the federal government subsidizes the cost of several non-prescription medical drugs. The flip side of this is that prescription drugs in the country are exorbitantly priced,  making them inaccessible for many people. The CBC estimates that Canadians wasted approximately $15 billion — of $81 billion spent — on prescription drugs in the last five years.

The divergences in healthcare regulation strategies adopted by Canada, the US, and India shed light on the fundamental question of how to make access to healthcare simultaneously efficient and low-cost. There is little difference between Canada and the US in this regard: a study conducted by the Commonwealth Fund placed the Canadian healthcare system ninth out of the 11 developed countries surveyed, while the American system ranked 11th.

This indicates that both systems yield inefficient results, despite being driven by different economic principles. Furthermore, the case of uninsured prescription drugs shows that economic barriers can sometimes make healthcare just as inaccessible in Canada as it is in the US.

Considering Canada in international context is beneficial, for there is much that Canada can learn from ongoing healthcare debates. For one, the American example shows us that policy changes in healthcare cannot be made suddenly, which is something the Canadian government must realize when it modifies the existing system.

Ultimately, the Canadian healthcare system is a mixed bag of benefits and drawbacks — all of which must be acknowledged if we are truly committed to improving our system. When we have conversations about healthcare in Canada, we should adopt a balanced perspective or risk disregarding the areas that are most in need of reform.

Rohit Khanna, writing for The Walrus, observes that “Healthcare becomes the embodiment of a nation,” and therefore it too, must be looked after. The alternative is painful, hazardous disillusionment.  

 

Sonali Gill is an incoming fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Criminology and International Relations.

Why hasn’t Canada responded to anti-gay violence in Chechnya?

If the Liberals are true allies to LGBTQ people, they must provide assistance to persecuted groups in Chechnya

Why hasn’t Canada responded to anti-gay violence in Chechnya?

Reports of extreme government-sanctioned violence against gay men in Chechnya have quickly spread around the world. Over 100 men have reportedly been detained in concentration camp-style prisons and subjected to brutal torture methods. Three men have reportedly been killed.

Although some gay men have successfully escaped Chechnya thanks to help from the Russian LGBT Network, gay men continue to find themselves in a position of danger within the country. And despite seeing itself as a compassionate country that takes its moral obligations to its LGBTQ people seriously, Canada has done nothing to assist Chechens in crisis.

This is hypocritical and concerning on a number of fronts. While LGBTQ people face danger and violence all over the world, gay men in Chechnya are facing authorities who have urged families to kill their own gay children, and a leader who has set out to kill the entire LGBTQ community before the start of Ramadan. This crisis is time-sensitive and could result in further tragedy, making it all the more prudent that the Canadian government prioritize its cases.

Canada has developed a rather noteworthy reputation for stepping in during humanitarian crises like this one. Yet if we as a country truly believe ourselves to be a beacon of tolerance and acceptance, why aren’t we doing the tolerant thing, like offering refuge?

It’s not impossible to imagine speeding up the resettlement process via the creation of special visas, or a program similar to the one used to bring Syrian refugees to Canada. Such proposals should be given serious consideration in light of the situation’s urgency.

Still, the Canadian government doesn’t show any sign of doing so. In a statement to The Globe and Mail, a spokesman for the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship said that these men do not qualify for refugee status, and did not mention the possibility of giving them special visas to allow them to come here. Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen also did not promise any specific action to help them.

As individuals facing extreme violence and persecution, it might seem like gay men in Chechnya are in a position analogous to some refugee cases. Yet the Canadian government has labeled them as unqualified for resettlement, because — given that Chechnya is a semi-autonomous republic of Russia — they have not left their country of origin, making them internally displaced people (IDPs), not refugees.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that IDPs are not necessarily in any less danger than refugees. As explained on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ website, IDPs “have not crossed a border to find safety. Unlike refugees, they are on the run at home.” This means that “IDPs stay within their own country and remain under the protection of its government, even if that government is the reason for their displacement. As a result, these people are among the most vulnerable in the world.”

In this particular case, Chechen individuals certainly face danger in Russia, which is known for its hostile attitude toward LGBTQ people. A 2013 Pew Research Centre study found that 84 per cent of Russians do not believe that society should accept homosexuality.

In the past, the Liberals have posted highly publicized photos of Prime Minister Justin Trudea marching in the Toronto Pride Parade and raising the rainbow flag on Parliament Hill in June 2016. On the latter occasion, Trudeau stated that “Canada is united in its defence of rights and in standing up for LGBTQ rights.” Knowing this, it’s surprising that the Liberal government is ignoring the crisis that gay Chechens face when the party has made such a show of their support for the LGBTQ community.

Canadians should be wary of politicians who present themselves as allies to the LGBTQ community yet fail to take action that would actually help the LGBTQ community.

In this case, action means accepting Chechen gay men who need to leave Russia as refugees, and doing so quickly. Students can put pressure on the federal government to take action by getting involved with political organizing and lobbying Members of Parliament. In turn, how the government chooses to navigate those regulatory waters is up to its discretion — but something needs to be done, and soon.

 

Adina Heisler is an incoming third-year student at University College, studying Women and Gender Studies and English.