Why I didn’t root for Russia in the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Separating culture from nationalism in the age of Russian belligerence

Why I didn’t root for Russia in the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Though I have lived in Canada for almost my entire life, I am Russian*: My parents were both born in the Soviet Union, I have relatives all over Russia, I speak Russian, and I celebrate Russian holidays and celebrations.

But I cannot bear to call myself a Russian. Particularly, I could not allow myself to root for Russia at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Recently eliminated from the quarterfinals of the World Cup, the Russian national football team brought pride to over 100 million Russians and 600,000 Russian-Canadians for its heroic performance, doubling as both host nation and underdog.

Yet I could not stop supporting the host’s opponents. I cheered for Saudi Arabia and Egypt when they faced Russia in the group stage, although both lost. It was not until Uruguay handed Russia a 3–0 loss that my ‘unpatriotic’ stance was finally rewarded.

This wasn’t enough, as Russia made it out of the group stage to ultimately upset Spain in a penalty shootout. The win shocked football fans all over the world, but devastated me as if I were a die-hard Spaniard. In what ended up being Russia’s final match at the World Cup, I cheered endlessly for 120 minutes and into another penalty shootout for the Croatian team, when I finally got to witness Russia’s elimination.

I am grateful to live in Toronto and attend the University of Toronto, where I am able to engage with a culturally diverse population including a large group of Russian-Canadians. However, many have been confused as to why I would root against my own country, and many have told me that my actions are a betrayal to my very bloodline. But I have my reasons.

Russia is a country of historic greatness. It is the winner of the second World War, victor of space races, and builder of a great republic. Russia’s greatest achievement may be its ability to resist and challenge Western society and the United States.

Today, there is no urgency to send humans into space. But the Russian government still attempts to relive the glory days of the Soviet Union — dare I say, it wants to make Russia great again — and this has dire consequences.

My decision to distance myself from my Russian identity occurred in 2014. Russia had illegally intervened in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, where I have family. Eventually, the Russian government annexed Crimea from Ukraine in an allegedly illegal and fraudulent election.

This act of modern imperialism and apparent disregard for international law demonstrates how far Russia and its leaders are willing to go to reclaim their country’s place on the international stage. This has led to a divide between Ukraine’s western and eastern territories and a war in the Ukrainian region of Donbass. The war, which has been fought since April 2014, has claimed tens of thousands of lives.  

As the world continues to evolve, it becomes more and more evident that Russia is stuck in the past. While the world becomes more diverse and inclusive, many regions and citizens of Russia still hold homophobic, racist, and misogynist beliefs. Like the Soviet Union which preceded it, Russia continues to promote the idea of unity against the outside world to its citizens — specifically against the liberalism of the West.

This early twentieth century mindset has seen little improvement. In fact, much evidence has shown that Russia and its citizens are becoming more homophobic and more racist. According to Pew Research, 74 per cent of Russians believed that homosexuality is socially wrong in 2013, up from 60 per cent in 2002. Another study found that in 1998, only 45 per cent of citizens believed in a “Russia for Russians” ideology, which increased to 55 per cent in 2011.

I pride myself knowing that I’ve been able to meet and befriend people from all walks of life at U of T. But I cannot help thinking that a majority of them would be unwelcome in Russia simply because of their sexual identity, race, or religion.  

On top of politics, the Russian doping scandal, which saw the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspend the Russian Olympic Committee and ban many Russian athletes from the 2016 Summer and 2018 Winter Olympics, is an example of Russia’s attempt to achieve the historic Olympic success of the Soviet Union.

According to many reports, there were strong allegations of officials recommending and demanding that athletes participate in state-sponsored doping programs. The ban and the stripping of many medals proved that the IOC would not stand for cheaters and neither will I.

Adding to the list are countless other ways Russia remains untrustworthy, such as allegations of illegal elections in the country, lack of support for environmental protection, and the country’s possible role in interfering with the United States’ presidential election. Every win for Russia is a win against unity, against diversity, and against peace.  

While Russia continues to strive for ‘glory,’ I will continue to separate my national identity from the culture I follow. I cannot stand by a country that promotes human division as an element to achieve success.

I cannot use my culture as an excuse to support the Russian national team. These athletes have made the choice to represent their country, even under its current regime. Every minute of every game that these men were on the field of the World Cup, they must have known that they represent their country, and that their country also represents them. They promoted the ideologies of today’s Russia – even if they did not know it themselves.

On the other hand, culture is for the most part unconnected from modern politics, as it has been passed down through generations. While I cannot change the fact that I have Russian blood coursing through my veins, I can pursue an identity that acknowledges both my family’s roots and culture, and my personal protest against the nation I call the motherland.

So I am Russian*. The asterisk will continue to denote my separation from personal national identification.

George Moshenski-Dubov is a fourth-year Criminology and Sociology student at Woodsworth College.

U of T approves contentious university-mandated leave of absence policy

Policy to be implemented effective immediately

U of T approves contentious university-mandated leave of absence policy

In a near-unanimous vote, Governing Council — U of T’s highest decision-making body — passed the contentious university-mandated leave of absence policy amid protests from students. It will be implemented effective immediately.

The motion passed with only three people voting against, out of more than 40 governors who were eligible to vote. Immediately after its passing, student protestors who had gathered outside began shouting their dissent.

The policy allows the university to place students on a nonpunitive, but mandatory, leave of absence from U of T if their mental health either poses a risk of harm to themselves or others, or if it negatively impacts their studies.

For the latter, the policy states that “this scenario is not intended to apply to situations where a Student is academically unsuccessful,” but to instances when a student is unable “to fulfill the essential activities required to pursue their program.”

Professor Cheryl Regehr, U of T Vice-President and Provost, defended the updated policy and the consultation process, saying that she has spoken with “students who have wished there had been a policy like this in place for themselves, their friends, or their families.”

During the meeting there was also a motion to postpone discussion on the policy, to which Chair of Governing Council Claire Kennedy said that the university would drop the policy if the motion passed.

Regehr defended this decision, citing key philosophical divides and fundamental differences that “cannot be addressed through further revisions or consultations.” The motion failed with only four governors voting in favour.

Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, a student governor on Governing Council and one of the three ‘no’’ votes, told The Varsity that “this ultimatum of ‘my way or the highway’ is disappointing and not conducive to productive dialogue between students and the administration.”

“I am especially troubled by the view propagated repeatedly by some members of the administration that the disagreements between students and the administration are irreconcilable and that further consultation would be pointless,” stated Harvey-Sanchez.

Before and during the meeting, around 50 students gathered outside Governing Council’s offices at Simcoe Hall to protest the policy, carrying signs that included criticisms of the limited consultation the university undertook.

Chants, such as “Whose campus? Our campus!” or “Hey hey, ho ho, MLAP has got to go!” were audible from within the Governing Council chamber throughout the meeting.

The demonstration drew students from all three U of T campuses, as well as others from Ryerson University and York University. Nour Alideeb, Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–Ontario), was also in attendance.

Five representatives of student governments at U of T were given three minutes each to address the council: Ayaan Abdulle, Vice-President Academics and University Affairs of the SCSU; Joshua Grondin, Vice-President University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU); Jamie Kearns, Vice-President External of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students; Andres Posada, Vice-President University Affairs of the U of T Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU); and Lynne Alexandrova, Internal Commissioner at the U of T Graduate Students’ Union.

All speakers from the five student unions shared their concerns and disapproval with the policy. Grondin alleged that the administration exhibited “tendencies to dismiss the voices of students” and portrayed protestors as “uneducated on the issues.”

Abdulle emphasized the SCSU’s concerns about cultural ignorance regarding the policy, saying that “Black and Indigenous students should be at the table.”  

U of T Ombudsperson and Professor Ellen Hodnett also spoke during the meeting: “In my view the proposed policy is long overdue.” The policy originated from her 2013–2014 report, recommending increased mental health services for students.

After the vote, Anne Boucher, President of the UTSU, said that although the UTSU had been opposed to the policy, they will “work with the university” to address student concerns.

“It is disappointing to see that consultations weren’t fully considered,” said Boucher. She considers the policy as “an improvement from what we have with the [Code of Student Conduct.]”

Prior to this policy’s passing, the U of T Code of Student Conduct already put students on a punitive leave from school if they broke the code. The mandated leave of absence policy will put students on a nonpunitive leave.

“It’s very frustrating, extremely upsetting, and I’m really, really angry right now,” said Felipe Nagata, President of the UTMSU. He added that he hopes to “fight for an updated policy that can actually protect students instead of a policy that just has vagueness and harms our autonomy.”

Speaking to The Varsity, Alideeb took issue with the consultation process, criticizing its lack of engagement with the student body and neglect of students’ schedules. She also added that CFS–Ontario would continue “supporting student groups on campus to continue this work on the ground.”

In a written statement to The Varsity, Sandy Welsh, Vice-Provost Students, said that the university was aware that there are people who are “deeply opposed” to the policy and others, such as the ombudsperson, who are “strongly supportive of this approach, motivated by their overriding concern for the wellbeing of our students.”

“We will to continue to meet with students to talk about the policy, work together on this issue and make sure we can do everything we can to support students who are going through a serious health or mental health issue,” added Welsh.

According to the 2018–2019 operating budget, accessibility advisors “will provide services on location within academic divisions on the St. George campus.” The $1.5 million allocations make up approximately 0.06 per cent of the university’s $2.68 billion budget.

Op-ed: We must organize against the Trans Mountain Pipeline

The Canadian government’s investment in the oil industry exposes the pitfalls of centrist politics and the dire need for mass resistance

Op-ed: We must organize against the Trans Mountain Pipeline

On May 29, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline from Texas oil company Kinder Morgan at a price of $4.5 billion. Kinder Morgan’s plans to add a second line to this pipeline, which carries oil from the Alberta tar sands to the BC coast, have faced months of active resistance from Indigenous nations and allies in BC and across the section of Turtle Island now known as Canada.

After a series of delays since the construction was expected to start in September, the company decided the expansion was not worth the effort and expense. The week after the Trudeau government’s decision, snap actions at MP offices took place around the country as part of a National Day of Action against it. One of several Toronto actions was organized by climate justice group Leap UofT outside the office of Chrystia Freeland, the University—Rosedale MP and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In the lead-up to the action, as one of the organizers, I talked with friends and family who have supported the Trudeau government, and who had been willing to overlook Trudeau’s support for the pipeline as, at worst, an unfortunate political necessity. Until this recent decision, such discussions would generally stall: I would talk about how building a pipeline without consent from impacted First Nations communities violates inherent Indigenous rights, and about how committing to decades of further tar sands extraction is incompatible with doing our share to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. They would have agreed, but they responded that politics requires compromise. In other words, as long as it looked like the pipeline might be economically viable, the centrist position — which avoids declaring any action as simply unacceptable — could appear justified.

But this time was different. At the last Kinder Morgan rally I attended before the buyout decision on May 7, the message was clear: the Trudeau government is selling our futures to the oil industry. This time, we prepared an oversized eraser labelled “Kinder Morgan Buyout” so that MP Freeland could ‘erase’ Canada’s signature from the Paris Agreement. While this message was clear — if we buy pipelines, we forfeit our international climate obligations — it was also less targeted. Who, in this scenario, is the Trudeau government selling us out to?  

The language of Trudeau supporters generally focuses on his promise to back Alberta’s energy sector and create “thousands of good, well-paying jobs,” in the words of Bill Morneau, the Minister of Finance. However, the Canadian government vastly inflated its job creation numbers, and it is unclear how a project a Texas oil giant couldn’t profit from would benefit Alberta. There is no political calculus, no matter how cynical, that necessitates sacrificing the interests of the global community for Alberta’s oil industry. That inability to locate a clear target was palpable at the rally, and culminated in a general sense that we have crossed a line. Trudeau’s supposed simultaneous support for the tar sands and ‘climate action’ is a whole new level of centrist hypocrisy.

Instead of supporting a company waging war on Indigenous rights and the climate, Trudeau has taken up this battle himself, beyond economics. Until now, it was possible to understand the political calculus: being hostile to oil companies can make leaders look dangerous to all the powerful interests that contribute to upholding the economic status quo. In the air of bewilderment and cynicism surrounding the Day of Action, there is an emerging awareness that the centrist response — that there are always ways to compromise with those driving the crisis, that one can always pick and choose which promises are kept and which are sacrificed — is self-destructing and devolving from sinister political calculus into equally terrifying political farce.

In buying an unviable, unneeded, unconsented pipeline that locks us into extractions we cannot afford, especially after the company itself ran away, Trudeau has compromised with the economic status quo. His government has acceded to the dangerous logic of extraction and colonialism without an oil corporation to force his hand.

But if the politics seem farcical, the results of such decisions will be real and destructive. If the 173 billion barrels of oil in the tar sands are dug up and burnt, Canada will have used up a third of the carbon the entire world can afford to burn without exceeding two degrees of warming. As students, if we want a future where politics are anything other than outright rule by corporate oligarchy, we need to get out of the crumbling centre, quickly, and call out those who try to keep us there; we have to build a different kind of politics, one that refuses to accept untempered centrism.

In less than a month, the buyout will be finalized — but there is time. Rallying outside Freeland’s office, we were linked not only to more than 100 other actions that day, but to the years of organizing both in and out of BC that made it possible to pull together that many actions in only a few days. In the coming days, weeks, and months, it is imperative that we grow this resistance, that we make clear the political consequences of decisions like the Kinder Morgan buyout — that we do not allow the Trudeau government to cling to its eroding middle ground.

Julia DaSilva is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Literature and Critical Theory, Philosophy, and Indigenous Studies. She is a co-founder and core team member of Leap UofT.

Why is Students in Support of Free Speech defending the Proud Boys?

While the group purports to be in favour of protecting free speech for all, recent events demonstrate they are only concerned with doing so for certain people

Why is Students in Support of Free Speech defending the Proud Boys?

Picture this: a group of people have come together to organize a demonstration. They are interrupted by a second group of people, who try to stop them because they feel that the demonstration is offensive to their beliefs. In this situation, you’d think that a group like Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) — who claim, according to their website, to support “every person’s right to free speech” — would jump to the defence of the individuals whose right to protest was being threatened.

SSFS is a “non-partisan” group that wishes to uphold “personal freedom of expression, conscience, and belief,” and “political freedom in expressing beliefs, opinions, and viewpoints.” Their mantra was put to the test when SSFS found themselves in a controversy relating to an incident in Halifax that occurred earlier this month.

On July 1, a group of Indigenous activists held a mourning ceremony in front of a statue of Edward Cornwallis, the founder of the city of Halifax. The Indigenous group staged a protest in reference to Cornwallis’ unrestrained violence and persecution of the Mi’kmaq people. During one part of the ceremony, dozens of people gathered around the statue to watch Chief Grizzly Mamma shave her head in an act of mourning — an especially symbolic act as Cornwallis infamously issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps.

As this happened, however, a group of five men approached the group with the intention to disrupt or interrupt the ceremony. The so-called “Halifax Five” identified themselves as members of the Maritime Chapter of the Proud Boys, a far-right group founded by Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice Media. The group identifies themselves as a “pro-Western fraternal organization” for men who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” They hold that “The West is the Best” and oppose feminism.

McInnes himself is no role model; one of his claims to fame is an extremely offensive video rant published in March of 2017, in which he stated he was “becoming anti-Semitic.” This video was praised by white supremacists like David Duke and Richard Spencer.

Not only was the Halifax Five incident horribly disappointing in light of Canada’s colonial past, it also meant drawing a great deal of attention away from what the activists were actually trying to say. Canadians need to learn how to acknowledge the violent colonial actions of well-respected figures like Cornwallis, but instead of opening up a dialogue about Halifax’s past and Cornwallis’ actions, media attention on the Proud Boys and the fallout from the incident drew the public’s eyes away from the purpose of the ceremony itself.

The exact nature of what the Halifax Five did and said isn’t precisely clear. Some reports characterized their actions as a disruption of the Indigenous protest, while others, including SSFS, seemed to say that the news reports were skewed with left-leaning bias. Perhaps the Proud Boys perceive criticism of Cornwallis and the actions undertaken against Indigenous people under colonial rule to be offensive to their belief that “The West is the Best.” Had the Halifax Five held some type of pro-Cornwallis demonstration the next day, or even restricted their disagreement to the internet or to a different place away from the ceremony, this would be a different conversation. It is clear, however, that the Proud Boys sought to at the very least interrupt the ceremony by singing, waving a flag, and ultimately making a scene that disrupted the proceedings.  

In light of this, one could argue that the actions of the Proud Boys ought to at least trigger conversations about the rights of the Indigenous group to protest peacefully and express their views freely. Accordingly, you might expect that SSFS would decry the attempt of the Proud Boys to try to suppress the free expression of the Indigenous protesters — but the exact opposite happened. On July 15, SSFS took the side of the Halifax Five and organized a rally in their support at Queen’s Park.  

SSFS might argue that they only intended to express support for the right of the Proud Boys and the Halifax Five to organize peacefully. This is indeed what the rally itself seemed to be about, and would certainly align with SSFS’s stated philosophy. According to SSFS member and rally organizer Simon Capobianco, “The major purpose [of the rally] was… to defend the Constitutional rights of the Halifax five… One of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the charter is the right to freedom of assembly, and… [the military members] were in a public space, they were assembling peacefully.”

However, this seemingly noble purpose is misguided, and potentially reveals the true motivations behind the actions the group has taken in favour of free speech. Capobianco’s statement is somewhat confusing, considering that you could very easily say the same of the Indigenous activists — they were also assembling peacefully, and were well within their right to do so. In the past, SSFS has even decried interruptions of their own proceedings, such as when the Toronto Action Forum, an event co-hosted on campus by SSFS and Generation Screwed on February 4, was interrupted and ultimately halted by protestsWhy would they jump to defend the disruption posed by the Proud Boys, but condemn the protests in response to their own events?

It should also be noted that while there was thankfully no violence as a result of the confrontation between the Halifax Five and the Indigenous activists, back in April, the Proud Boys announced the formation of a “military division” to be headed by Kyle Chapman, who had been released from jail the previous month on suspicion of a felony assault with a deadly weapon.

What makes things worse is the fact that much of the focus of this rally has been on the presence of white supremacist Paul Fromm and SSFS’s ever-shifting explanations and apologies for his presence. Though SSFS’s claim to fame is supporting free expression regardless of the content of the messages, in this case, they appeared to waver in their stance. First, they made a statement on Facebook claiming that they did not know what Fromm looked like and hadn’t been aware that he was attending the rally. The statement was later deleted from their Facebook page, and replaced with a YouTube apology, after receiving numerous negative comments from skeptics.  

Let’s give SSFS the benefit of the doubt and say that they really didn’t know Fromm was there, or at least that they did not intend for him to be there and do not in any way endorse his views. At the least, the fact that SSFS jumped to backtrack when faced with a real-life white supremacist demonstrates some serious inconsistencies in their logic. In their initial post, SSFS stated that “if we had been aware of Paul Fromm’s identity and affiliations at the time of the rally… we would have prevented him from using our megaphone.”

This particular statement seems at odds with the group’s alleged commitment to the importance of free and unbridled speech, regardless of the nature of the messages — does this mean that SSFS is recognizing the danger of giving a platform to white supremacists and other hateful people and groups?

If you’re keeping score, here’s the deal: Indigenous activists chose to exercise their freedom of speech and assembly to protest a statue of a man who ordered many acts of violence to be committed against the Mi’kmaq people after founding a city on territory that hadn’t been ceded. They held a protest and a mourning ceremony for Indigenous people who had been hurt or killed. The activists were interrupted by five men connected to a “pro-Western” chauvinist group with a paramilitary branch founded by a far-right, possible anti-Semite. Finally, SSFS, a “non-partisan” student group, decided to hold a rally supporting those five men in their brave quest to interrupt an Indigenous ceremony — and a notorious white supremacist just happened to show up and speak. SSFS then apologized for his presence.

What’s perhaps most ironic about this whole thing was that, in the apology video, SSFS president Marilyn Jang also apologized for holding the rally at the 48th Highlanders of Canada Regimental Memorial, saying it was “an extremely unthoughtful choice of venue for any rally… Memorials should solely be seen as a symbol of remembrance and a way to honour the fallen.” I agree: it seems like memorials and memorial ceremonies are inappropriate places to espouse political ideologies. Surely this logic should also apply to the activists memorializing fallen Indigenous folks as well?

SSFS has always argued that their only goal is to support freedom of speech, regardless of political affiliation. But this incident seems to prove that the group is cherry-picking whose rights to support — and that everyone else needs to step back and, well, be quiet.

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

The UTSU should listen, know when to stand its ground

Resolving recent board meeting disputes requires communication and principled decision making

The UTSU should listen, know when to stand its ground

On April 29, 2017, members of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) 2017-2018 Board of Directors were welcomed into their new roles with protest. At the board’s transition meeting, members of the Black Liberation Collective (BLC), alongside supporters of CUPE 1281 and the ‘Save our Services, Support our Staff’ campaign, protested the UTSU’s ongoing lawsuit against Sandra Hudson, former UTSU Executive Director and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO). 

The BLC claims that the UTSU’s continuation of the lawsuit against Hudson perpetuates anti-Black racism and that the ongoing legal proceedings have inflicted serious harm on Hudson’s public image.

In the midst of this conflict, the UTSU must take a balanced approach to dealing with the unrest it currently faces. Such a balance requires cooperating with and listening to disgruntled students while simultaneously taking a principled stance that protects students’ interests.

The magnitude of students’ dissatisfaction can be attributed to the UTSU’s past ineffectiveness at listening to and collaborating with dissenting voices. Board meetings have been held during times that were inviable for many students, while other meetings have prohibited livestreams, preventing students who could not attend from seeing the events that transpired. In November of 2016, the UTSU hosted a poorly-publicized Anti-Black Racism Town Hall, which Black students did not attend, drawing criticism from the BLC.

The BLC is not the only group to critique the union lately, either. Supporters of CUPE 1282 and the ‘Save our services, Support our staff’ campaign have also been highly critical of the UTSU over proposed cuts to services. These groups have substantial strength in numbers and the potential to influence newer members of the UTSU board.

As these groups gain strength, it is in the best interest of the UTSU to listen to them.

The UTSU must foster an ongoing dialogue between the union and its members, and any issues that arise should be addressed properly and in a timely manner.

Regarding what transpired at the transition meeting, it is encouraging that UTSU President Mathias Memmel — after voting to give speaking rights to everyone in the room — encouraged the board to listen to the protesters that were speaking. Although the protesters mocked him for this, it was a necessary step in trying to bridge the divide between the opposing groups. Suppressing dissenting speech only gives more ammunition to those trying to oppose you.

However, while the UTSU must listen to these groups, it must also stick to its principles and prioritize the best interests of students. Being open to dissenting views and taking strong stances are certainly not mutually exclusive, but it is still important to recognize that sometimes there is nothing you can do about disagreement.

It is difficult for the union to compromise with the #ImWithSandy campaign given that the campaigns primary goal is for the union to drop the lawsuit. What the UTSU should do instead is work to better define and communicate the reasoning behind the lawsuit, ensuring that it is transparent in its motive in order to gain further support and traction. Communication is key, and the actions taken by Memmel at the board meeting are only a first step. The UTSU must present the facts of the case to the student body and do so without engaging in the character assassination of Hudson — a method achievable by separating the good that Hudson has done within student life circles and BLMTO from the allegations of financial fraud that have been made against her.

Moreover, the UTSU can effectively foster dialogue with Black students by reaching out to other organizations and student groups on campus like the Black Students Association and the Black Ties Association.

Communication is just as important internally as externally; individual UTSU board members should not feel pressured into adopting certain political positions or stances, and should act and engage in conversation in a manner that is congruent with their roles as student representatives.

The problems that the UTSU will face in the coming year are not going to be easy to solve — but by keeping a line of communication open while sticking to its principles, the union can save itself from further unrest.


Haseeb Hassaan is an incoming fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science. He is a former Associate Executive Vice-President of the UTSU, and a current Arts and Science Students’ Union executive. The views expressed here are his own.

Protests erupt after UTSU board meeting

CUPE 1281 members, supporters protest reduction in services provided by two staff positions

Protests erupt after UTSU board meeting

Protests broke out at the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board of Directors meeting following a vote to approve the minutes of the Services Committee which had decided to reduce the services provided by the Health and Dental Coordinator and the Clubs and Service Groups Coordinator.

The motion that was passed at the Services Committee states that the UTSU would “cease to offer the services of a designated member of the full-time staff to recognized clubs and service groups” and “cease to offer the services of a designated member of the full-time staff to students seeking assistance with the Health and Dental Plan.”  

The Health and Dental Coordinator and the Clubs and Service Groups Coordinator are represented by CUPE 1281, like most full-time staff positions within the UTSU.

As the vote to approve the minutes was being called, members from CUPE 1281 and several students, including Amanda Harvey-Sánchez, an incoming board member, and Andre Fast, who ran for UTSU President with the We the Students slate began chanting and shouting down the vote. Amidst shouts of “Shame!” and “Support our workers!” the motion was passed and immediately after, a motion to adjourn was brought forward and passed.

Just before the minutes of the Services Committee were to be debated, Mathias Memmel, VP Internal and Services and UTSU president-elect, brought forward a motion to call for orders of the day, which would have effectively made the items non-debatable and the allotted time for debate for the items have passed. He cited time pressures as the UTSU only booked the room until 9:00 p.m.

Various people raised issues with the motion, many making points of personal privileges and points of orders to argue against the proposed lack of debate. Eventually Memmel relented and brought forward a motion to extend debate on the minutes of the Services Committee to 10 minutes.

Susan Froom, who is the Vice-President Internal of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students, spoke first, saying that UTSU members had been coming to the APUS office asking about the the recent change in health insurance providers that was made last year. Froom says that they refer these students the UTSU Health and Dental Coordinator and warns that cutting this service would result in “a lot of dissatisfied students and [the UTSU] may be creating tension this year between APUS and UTSU.”

Orion Keresztesi, President of CUPE 1281, urged the board to reconsider cutting the positions.

“I want us all to remember that we’re talking about folks’ livelihoods here,” Keresztesi said at the meeting. He also said that “the people moving this motion are trying to be clever,” adding that “[the UTSU is] trying to frame this as a layoff, when they know very well it is not a layoff… it’s an attempt at a backdoor firing.”

A motion was also called to extend time to Nour Alideeb, President of the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), to speak on the Services Committee minutes, but the motion failed.

Today’s meeting, I think, could have gone in a different way had people not had previously made up their minds, who were willing to listen to people’s perspectives,” said Alideeb. “It’s hard when it comes to things like this because we’re not only talking about the service itself but we’re also talking about people’s lives.”

Protests continued after the meeting was adjourned as the UTSU directors left.

The Varsity is awaiting comment from Memmel, who declined to comment in-person and requested that The Varsity reach out via email. The paper has also reached out to UTSU President Jasmine Wong Denike.

This story is developing. More to follow.

—With files from Kaitlyn Simpson and Tom Yun

Clarification: An earlier version of the article stated that Memmel motioned to limit debate to zero hours. Although this is how Graydon described the motion, the article has been amended to clarify that the motion was for orders of the day.

White noise and public representation do not mix

Cassandra Williams’ actions at the U of T Rally for Free Speech are inappropriate for a UTSU executive

White noise and public representation do not mix

At the Rally for Free Speech on October 11, UTSU’s Vice-President, University Affairs Cassandra Williams suppressed the free speech of the students she is supposed to represent. The rally was meant to promote freedom of speech in the U of T community and in society at large. Anyone was allowed to take the microphone and speak their mind. The organizers strove to ensure no opinion was silenced, and that whoever spoke was heard without disruption.

However, some individuals, including Williams, used speaker systems to blast very loud white noise while people were speaking. Not only was the sound unappealing, it became difficult, or sometimes impossible, to hear what people were saying. Organizers asked for the noise to stop, but Williams and other anti-rally protesters sat on the speakers, preventing anyone who wanted to shut off the sound from doing so.

The hypocrisy of Williams’ actions was evident after considering that she helped out one week earlier at a different rally, when a group of students came together to give out “basic 101 information about trans folks and non-binary folks,” as she explained. Anyone who spoke at that rally was heard without any disruption close to what she imposed at the Free Speech rally. Photo and video evidence of the Free Speech rally showed Williams at one point publicly communicating her opinions to Professor Jordan Peterson, a promoter of and speaker at the rally, while later playing white noise when Peterson spoke out to promote freedom of speech.

Free speech is not only a fundamental right granted to us by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but also central to student life at the University of Toronto. The university’s Statement on Freedom of Speech states that the members of the school have “the right to examine, question, investigate, speculate, and comment on any issue,” and to “criticize the University and society at large.” It further states that the University “should not limit that debate by preordaining conclusions, or punishing or inhibiting the reasonable exercise of free speech.”

Anti-rally protestors cannot argue that the dialogue was ‘unreasonable’ if they shut down speech before any voices are even heard. By creating an environment where we cannot hear the opinions of the members of our community, the actions of the protestors inhibited the ability for free speech to be exercised at the university.

Most importantly, as a member of the UTSU executive team, Williams’ role on campus is different from that of any other student. She is paid just under $30,000 a year from mandatory fees by over 50,000 undergraduate students. Her mandate as Vice-President of University Affairs includes representing all students, and being highly involved in the Academic and Student Rights Commission. These students did not pay fees to have one of their most important rights stifled on campus. The fact that Williams is a public official, paid from students’ fees, and making such a drastic statement against a large portion of the student body calls the legitimacy of these actions into question.

Consequently, many students have realized that what she did was not appropriate for a public official that is supposed to represent them, and went online to voice their concerns. Facebook posts condemning Williams’ actions were posted, and the video showing her taking part in creating the noise became one of the top Reddit posts of all time in the U of T subreddit. Calls to impeach Williams were even made on social media, and a petition to this effect garnered over 300 signatures.

In comparison, Williams has remained relatively silent. Her only public statement on the matter thus far was in an article in The Medium, where she explained that it was “noise-music,” and not white noise, as if this excused her actions. The UTSU, in turn, has yet to make any public statement about her actions. When asked directly about her actions, her thoughts on the calls for impeachment, or whether she would consider resigning, for the purpose of this article, Williams did not comment.

A member of a student government should not take part in disrupting reasonable discourse. Student politicians do not have executive power over the students they serve, and they are given a salary not to oversee or impose restrictions on the student body, but to fulfill their duties and responsibilities in line with the university community.

Of course, student officials have their own beliefs and opinions, but raising those above the thoughts of the students they claim to represent, and acting as if those ideas are not as important, is unacceptable, indefensible, and not what student governance is about. If the UTSU purports to represent the student body as a whole, Williams’ actions at the rally greatly failed to promote that mission.

Robert Tran is a third-year student at New College studying Geography.

Op-ed: Why risk arrest?

Canada’s youth won’t stand for Kinder Morgan, and it’s time for the government to listen up

Op-ed: Why risk arrest?

When I was 12 years old, I wrote a speech about climate change for a primary school speaking contest. Unfortunately, as I would soon learn, it takes a lot more than giving a speech to move governments. For the next eight years, impassioned by the same goals, I wrote petitions, signed letters, attended rallies and marches, and spoke up at climate town halls. I have used every available traditional forum to voice my concerns, and yet the politicians that are supposed to protect my future have consistently failed to take necessary action on climate change.

When an opportunity presented itself to take my demands to the next level, I took it. For the past two months I have recruited students and youth for Climate101, a civil disobedience action calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reject the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Last Monday, that action culminated in 99 young people being arrested on Parliament Hill — the largest act of youth-led climate civil disobedience in Canadian history.

Opposing Kinder Morgan is a matter of climate justice. As students, many of us with experience in fossil fuel divestment campaigns, we know that expanding the tar sands means trampling on the rights of people across Canada and around the world. Canada made commitments in Paris last year to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, but if Kinder Morgan and other tar sands pipelines are built, we will be on track to use up almost one quarter of the world’s remaining carbon budget. Approving Kinder Morgan means standing by as small island nations are drowned, people die of famine, and increasingly prevalent and dangerous natural disasters destroy communities.

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approves Kinder Morgan, he will also be breaking his campaign promise to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples. Cedar Parker-George of the Tslei-Waututh First Nation, one of the youth speakers at the action on Monday, says it best: “Justin Trudeau promised to listen to Indigenous communities. Well, my community has been pretty clear; reject this pipeline and protect the water, the land and the climate.” Tslei-Waututh and other members of Indigenous communities protecting the land are protecting their right to survive, and we need to stand with them.

Young people took action on Monday because the stakes are high, and because it just might make the difference. We know that when young people come together, we are powerful. For instance, the fossil fuel divestment movement, led by students, has collectively led to $3.4 trillion in assets being divested thus far. In the United States in 2014, dozens of youth were arrested outside the White House protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. A year later, after dozens of other actions and fierce opposition from Indigenous peoples, Obama rejected the pipeline.

Climate 101, similarly, drew on the power of young voices to influence change. Last election, 45 per cent of people aged 18–25 voted Liberal and helped along the formation of a majority Liberal government. That same demographic, spanning all the way up to 35, is overwhelmingly opposed to pipelines and supports strong climate action and respect for Indigenous rights.

Those of us arrested on Parliament Monday came with a plea, but also a warning: if Trudeau wants the support of millennials next election, he needs to reject Kinder Morgan. Perhaps seeing 99 youth arrested on his doorstep will be the tipping point he needs to make that decision.

Amanda Harvey-Sanchez is a third-year student at Trinity College studying Environmental Studies, Social Cultural Anthropology, and Equity Studies. She was one of three youth organizers working on recruitment and planning for Climate 101 with 350.org.