U of T students, city advocates call on federal parties to invest in Toronto’s mental health

Advocates call for $300 million yearly investment in Toronto’s mental health services

U of T students, city advocates call on federal parties to invest in Toronto’s mental health

Content warning: Discussions of suicide.

Advocates from across Toronto, including executives of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), called on the federal parties to commit to expanding the city’s funding for mental health and addiction services.

At an October 10 press conference at City Hall, they specifically asked for $300 million per year in mental health service investments in Toronto. The community members included city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, as well as representatives of Gerstein’s Crisis Centre and the Canadian Mental Health Association Toronto.

“We know that 20 per cent of Canadians experience mental health and addiction issues,” said Wong-Tam at the conference. She remarked that the city needs the federal government’s support to expand its mental health services in order to better care for its growing population.

Joshua Bowman, UTSU President, further underscored the impact of the mental health crisis at U of T. He noted that 46 per cent of postsecondary students have reported feeling too depressed to function, and 65 per cent reporting persisting overwhelming anxiety.

“These aren’t just statistics — these are friends, these are family members. These are our classmates,” he said. “This is a reality that students at the University of Toronto have grown all too accustomed to.”

In an interview with The Varsity, Bowman recalled that Wong-Tam invited UTSU representatives to speak at the conference, as part of her call was for expanded mental health funding specifically at postsecondary institutions.

Mayor John Tory endorsed the advocacy efforts later that day, writing that he joins them in “calling on the federal parties to commit to meaningful investments… to address [the] growing mental health and addictions crises.”

Responses from federal parties

A Green Party spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that the Greens would commit $1 billion annually to community treatment programs for mental health, addiction, and autism in Canada.

The Greens would also mark $100 million for suicide prevention, and $100 million to address the opioid crisis, according to the spokesperson. It is further committed to providing pharma care.

A Liberal Party spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that it will “begin negotiations with the provinces and territories to establish clear national standards for access to mental health services.”

The New Democratic Party and the Conservatives did not respond to The Varsity’s requests for comment.

The Breakdown: LGBTOUT’s 50th anniversary

The history of Canada’s oldest LGBTQ+ student organization

The Breakdown: LGBTOUT’s 50th anniversary

Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Trans People of the University of Toronto (LGBTOUT) celebrated its 50th anniversary on October 24. Since its inception in 1969, the organization has undergone several major transformations, and is continuously evolving.

Yet another major transformation may be underway as the club contends with the effects of the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI).

History of LGBTOUT

Fifty years ago, in mid-October, an ad was put out in The Varsity seeking “anyone interested in discussing the establishment of a student homophile association.” By October 24, a small group of students had congregated and founded what was then called the University of Toronto Homophile Association (UTHA). Of the students present at the UTHA’s first meeting, only one was a woman. The majority of the other attendees were white, cisgender men.

During this time, it was still common for people to be fired from the workplace because of their sexual orientation. Many were also targeted on campus for their sexuality. In accordance with this context, the UTHA primarily worked toward promoting equality in professional spaces.

By 1984, the UTHA had renamed itself as the Gays and Lesbians at U of T. Although the club’s new name fostered a more inclusive environment, students in the LGBTQ+ community still faced many of the same challenges. During the club’s Gay and Lesbian Awareness Week, St. Michael’s College refused to play Michael, a Gay Son, a movie that follows a young man’s decision to come out to his parents and his experiences participating in an LGBTQ+ peer support group.

In 1998, the organization finally settled on its current name: LGBTOUT.

LGBTOUT’s current role

LGBTOUT has since expanded its reach at the University of Toronto. Today, it holds drop-in sessions on a daily basis where students can find community or confide in volunteers for peer support. The organization also holds a number of events throughout the year, including open mic nights, arts and crafts socials, and drag shows. LGBTOUT further works alongside the Sexual & Gender Diversity Office to bring Queer Orientation to the U of T community.

LGBTOUT’s current mission aims to promote awareness about LGBTQ+ issues, as well as advocate for the fair treatment of LGBTQ+ students. The incumbent executive team has also extended LGBTOUT’s goals to support other equity-seeking organizations. Administrative Director Cheryl Quan wrote to The Varsity, “LGBTOUT is an inherently political organization and as such we should not shy away from affirming our support for other marginalized communities and their causes.” 

In the wake of the SCI

Since being elected to office in 2018, Premier Doug Ford has introduced several reforms that affect postsecondary education. A cornerstone policy is the SCI, which allows students to opt out of paying incidental fees for student groups that are considered “non-essential” under the government’s framework.

For the fall 2019 term, 25 per cent of students opted out of LGBTOUT’s $0.50 levy. This means that the club will receive significantly less funding than in past years.

Quan recounted, “After 17 years of fighting and four failed referenda, 2016 was the year things finally changed, and the 2016-2017 academic year was the first time we actually had sufficient funds with which to run events and programming.”

The SCI has been enacted just three years after LGBTOUT first raised their levy. “Now, with the introduction of the SCI and, of course, the rise of right-wing hate groups at UofT and in Toronto, our work and safety are in jeopardy now more than ever,” wrote Quan.

Although LGBTOUT may be in a more financially vulnerable position, it is still confident that it will be able to continue offering great programming for the U of T community.

“You have power that students don’t”: protests continue as students demand better mental health support

Calls for repeal of university-mandated leave policy, majority representation in policy consultations at Business Board

“You have power that students don’t”: protests continue as students demand better mental health support

As part of a continuing effort by the U of T Mental Health Policy Council (UTMH), an advocacy group created in the wake of a student death in September, students protested outside of Simcoe Hall during a meeting of the Governing Council’s Business Board on October 7. Speakers included student representatives from the Black Students’ Association, Leap UofT, independent student activists, and local elected officials.

Bhutilla Karpoche, MPP Parkdale–High Park, spoke at the rally in support of greater access to mental health care: “In the past year, I have listened to young people, listened to families, listened to frontline workers, and the state of our mental health care system in this province is shameful.”

Even with the resources that are available, mental health support “is virtually non-existent for young people. It is a group that has been completely ignored,” said Karpoche. “We have to continue to organize so that we don’t just leave today’s rally and come back next time when there is another crisis.”

Chris Glover, MPP Spadina–Fort York, agreed with Karpoche, saying, “Absolutely, the university must do more to support mental wellness on this campus.”

He additionally criticized the provincial government’s cuts to education as being a factor in the rise of mental health issues. “Cost and access to education is an incredible stress on students,” said Glover.

Inside the Business Board meeting, four students were given speaking rights, though comments were heard from other students who attended the meeting.

One of the four students, Sarah Colburn, appealed to the Business Board and its financial power at the university: “You have power that students don’t.”

She criticized the Boundless fundraising campaign, which raised $2.6 billion, while the university has only allocated $3 million for mental health in the past three years.

“We are here because we are asking you to use your power and your position to enact the changes that we can’t,” said Colburn. “It is clear from your public posturing and media stance that you have the money.”

She pointed out that between 2014 and 2019, the number of students registered with accessibility services with a mental illness as their primary impairment doubled. “But we have not seen the staff and funding capacities of those bodies double.”

“We are equally as concerned about the issues that you raised. We do need to do better when it comes to issues around anti-Black racism, when it comes to issues around mental health,” responded Kelly Hannah-Moffat, Vice President, Human Resources and Equity.

In an interview with The Varsity, Mercer Palmer, an organizer with UTMH and recent U of T graduate, explained what the protestors are demanding from the administration.

Their first demand is that the university accepts “students with the intention of having them graduate,” meaning that the university needs to provide better services for students’ mental and physical health. Secondly, they demand “serious policy change,” such as the repeal of the university-mandated leave of absence policy.

“The third demand is nothing about us without us,” he said, referencing the eponymous report put out by U of T students last April, where they demand majority representation in all mental health policy creation.

“We cannot allow the university to continue to make decisions on our behalf without consulting us.”

Astronomy PhD student named a 2019 Vanier Scholar for research on exoplanets

Emily Deibert studies exoplanet atmospheres, while writing as a science journalist

Astronomy PhD student named a 2019 Vanier Scholar for research on exoplanets

Emily Deibert, a third-year PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, supervised by Dr. Suresh Sivanandam and Dr. Ray Jayawardhana, was named a 2019 Vanier Scholar.

The highly prestigious distinction, granted by the Government of Canada, awards $50,000 per year over three years to doctoral students, who exemplify leadership and excellence in scholarly achievement, to support their research.

Deibert’s research on planets in the far-flung reaches of the universe

Deibert studies the atmosphere of exoplanets — planets that orbit stars outside of our solar system. Some of her research has focused on the atmospheric sodium of exoplanets smaller than Saturn, as well as enigmatic rocky planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission.

Astronomers have extensively studied the atmosphere of planets closer to home, but there are many unknowns about those of exoplanets. Such exoplanets include those that are larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune, as well as those the size of Jupiter, which are very close to their stars.

The lack of planets with similar parameters in our solar system presents a gap in our knowledge of the atmosphere of extraterrestrial planets, which Deibert is working to bridge with her research.

Telescopes grounded on Earth, which Deibert uses to study the exoplanets’ atmospheres, are more powerful than those in space. However, a disadvantage of their placement is that it causes them to capture information from the Earth’s atmosphere as well as those of exoplanets.

The interference is caused by data from small particles in Earth’s atmosphere that are captured in measurements, noted Deibert. A focus of her thesis will be on developing ways to sift through this noise from the Earth-based particles to find the desired information from exoplanets.

Deibert’s research will enable us to understand the universe at large. It might also have important applications for Earth. A better understanding of how atmospheres work in distant planets, she noted, could inform our understanding of Earth’s atmosphere as well.

Deibert’s work in science communication

Apart from her work in research, Deibert also focuses on science journalism and science communication.

Having studied English during her undergraduate degree at U of T, Deibert aimed to continue writing while completing her doctorate. As an undergraduate, she has contributed to The Strand, Victoria College’s student newspaper, and several creative fiction journals.

As a writer with The Varsity, she has also covered events such as ComSciConCAN conference, Canada’s first science communication conference for graduate students. She said that her Varsity experience helped her gain confidence when reporting on scientific issues and developments.

Currently, Deibert works for Research2Reality, a publication focused on research and innovation, as well as other media outlets.

Science journalism is important to Deibert: “A lot of our day to day lives revolve around science and technology,” she said, “[but] people aren’t always necessarily informed about that, or don’t know how science and technology impacts their lives.”

Through another lens, Deibert said, “It’s important that people are interested and care about what we’re doing because a lot of it relies on public funding.”

Science communication could also help inspire the next generation of women scientists.

“I definitely think that with science journalism and science communication, we have the power to highlight women in science,” said Deibert. “I think that’s really important not only for people in the field now, but then for younger people wanting to get into the fields.”

How to get crackin’ as an engineering student at U of T

Eight pro tips to make the pinkie ring worth it

How to get crackin’ as an engineering student at U of T

Like the coming of the new year, it was always inevitable. Starbucks’ pumpkin spice lattes make their seasonal reprise as autumn takes hold, drawing a heavy curtain on the last sultry summer days.

You look back, lamenting the end of your halcyon high-school era. Your first year of university is a period you spend preparing to propel yourself into your next academic epoch. The whole year is a limbo between high school and university, which was best described by Alice Cooper in 1970: “I’m a boy and I’m a man… I’m eighteen and I like it.”

It’s an exciting, albeit unsure time in your life. On one hand, you’re flushed with fortitude, having emerged from high school unscathed. On the other, you stare ahead at the uncharted waters of your college campus in trepidation at what scholarly turbulences lie before you.

If this mental cocktail of eagerness and apprehension sounds at all familiar, don’t worry. For those of you who have been admonished of the difficulties of engineering, I hope to quell those fears with some advice and tips I wish I’d have had when I was in my first year.

Forgot high-school calculus? Don’t sweat it

There is always a group of first-year students flushed with anxiety at the thought of walking into a first-year math course with the everything-I-learned-in-high-school part of their brains scrubbed spotless over the summer, like one of Dexter Morgan’s crime scenes.   

If this sounds like you, you might even be thinking, “Who needs a social life? I’d better spend my fall semester poring over old calculus textbooks, and maybe even read ahead.” Stop right there.

Your professors are not expecting you to remember every nuance of last year’s math. On the contrary, they assume you spent your summer like any 18 year old who just graduated from high school, and, as a consequence, forgot everything. They teach you exactly what you need to know from scratch, which brings us to the second point.

Don’t fall behind

Warren Buffet has two rules when it comes to investing. The first is to never lose money, and the second is to never forget rule one. In engineering, the first rule to follow is to not fall behind. You can guess the second. Just because your professor starts the semester in first gear does not mean you should be fooled into thinking that you’ll be coasting into final exams.

If you think the class is moving too slowly, miss lectures at your own risk; speaking from experience, skipping lectures by telling yourself you already know everything is a sure way to place yourself in academic peril. Sure, today you are sleeping through an introduction to limits, but within a week the chalkboards look like the set pieces from Good Will Hunting.

Be resourceful!

At one point or another, students in pursuit of their iron rings will wallow in frustration and angst, and think, “How on earth am I going to pass this?” Not to worry! At U of T — and at university more broadly — there is a plethora of resources available to you.

Professors’ office hours

The one thing all your first-year lectures will have in common is a professor eager to lend a helping hand. But it’s a two-way street. While professors have been in your shoes before, and understand the trials and tribulations of first-year engineering, they also need new bright candidates for graduate research. That’s where you come in: professors always start the first lecture of the semester by writing their office location on the board.

If something isn’t clear in a subsequent lecture or in your problem sets, don’t hesitate to drop by and ask the professor any questions that pop into your head. Just be sure to attempt to understand the problems by yourself first. Professors, like pro-sports talent scouts, are always looking for hard-working, ambitious students.

There’s no better way to put yourself on their radars than attending their office hours and showing your ravenous appetite for learning. Years later, one might just reach out to you with a job opportunity or research position. If nothing else, you’ll have a deeper understanding of the course material.

Teaching assistants

Whatever the course, its teaching assistants (TAs) will likely be graduate students who took it themselves as undergraduates. Like Sherpas who guide climbers up the Himalayan mountains, the TAs have scaled the hills and valleys of your course syllabus, and are there to guide you through them.

Moreover, if they have taught the same class multiple times, they will have marked previous assignments and exams, and seen where students tend to struggle. They are an invaluable resource, and can help you overcome any hardship.

courses.skule.ca

You may or may not have heard about it yet, but aside from Quercus ­— and Stack Overflow, for you electrical and computer engineering students — the most useful website during your time here is courses.skule.ca. This website contains past years’ final exams and midterms, many of which also contain solutions, for nearly every course you will be taking in your undergraduate years.

It’s a vital resource; not just in studying for exams, but also for gauging the course itself as it progresses. How do you know which lectures are the most important? Which topics to pay more attention to? You can find out all this by simply glancing over old midterms and exams. Based on the types of questions your professor tends to ask, you should have a good assessment of how your understanding of the course even before the midterm approaches.

Make friends

You are entering a program with hundreds of classmates of whom, at best, you know a handful. But fear not: making friends is the easiest thing you will do as an engineering student. Orientation week is a great opportunity to get to know your peers, so be sure to socialize.

The person sitting next to you in orientation may be the person you’ll be asking to help with problem sets in a few weeks. Before you go to a professor’s office hours or emailing the TA, the first and best way to tackle a challenge is by sitting down in one of the many large libraries on campus with a study group.

The key point is that you should not worry. Sure, engineering is a challenging program, but you probably did not come here because it was going to be easy. You wanted a challenge — and a job, upon graduation.

You are now part of a community of hard-hat-wearing students who can chant gleeful engineering cheers. Those of you with early birthdays can take special joy in the paeans to Pilsner, and you can all prepare for the next chapter of your academic lives.

Literature Matters with Karen Connelly and Tanya Tagaq

The Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature in the Department of English at University of Toronto, presents the annual Literature Matters lecture on Wednesday, October 16 at the Isabel Bader Theatre.

Poet, novelist and creative non-fiction writer Karen Connelly and singer, avant-garde composer and author Tanya Tagaq discuss the value of literature and share their views about their creative process. Challenging stereotypes of culture and genre, Connelly’s and Tagaq’s work offers inspiring, provocative and timely ways of thinking about human rights, the environment and the legacy of colonialism.

Admission is free though registration is required. For full details and to register, visit https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/literature-matters-karen-connelly-tanya-tagaq-tickets-72178851889.

The Breakdown: U of T’s rise and fall among university rankings

The methodology behind the university’s global ranking

The Breakdown: U of T’s rise and fall among university rankings

U of T has been ranked the world’s 18th best university by Times Higher Education (THE) and 29th by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) — all while remaining the top university in Canada for both publications’ 2020 university rankings. The jump from the 21st to 18th spot on the THE ranking system and the decline from 28th to 29th on the QS system raises questions regarding the methodology behind university rankings. Why has U of T risen in one and declined in the other? 

Methodology

THE and QS look at some of the same factors when deciding the overall ranking of universities worldwide. However, the biggest difference arises in the system used to weigh each category. 

The THE ranking places a 30 per cent emphasis on teaching, 30 per cent on research, 30 per cent on citations, 7.5 per cent on international outcome, and 2.5 per cent on industry income. 

The QS breakdown follows a different path: 40 per cent is allocated to academic reputation, 10 per cent for employer reputation, 20 per cent for faculty-student ratio, 20 per cent for citations per faculty, 5 per cent for international faculty ratio, and 5 per cent international student ratio. 

The most pronounced difference between the two ranking systems is the score that U of T received for the category of citations. THE calculates total citations, while QS calculates citations per faculty. While THE awarded a score of 93.6, U of T received nearly half that score from QS, a 43.9. 

This disparity occurred due to the process by which citations per faculty is calculated. QS recognizes that different departments, such as natural sciences and medicine, tend to get more citations than arts and humanities departments. Therefore, after 2015, it adjusted its calculation by weighing five subjects — Arts & Humanities, Engineering & Technology, Life Sciences & Medicine, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences & Management — equally and attributing a 20 per cent weight to each subject area. 

Following this change, from 2015 to 2016, U of T’s rankings dropped significantly in the QS system, from 20th to 34th. During this same time period, U of T remained consistent on the THE rankings, and even jumped up a spot from 20 to 19. 

In addition, the ratio of students to faculty members has a 20 per cent weighting in the QS ranking. THE considers this category to fall under the umbrella of “teaching” and only ascribes it a 4.5 per cent weighting. 

Criticism of ranking systems 

A qualitative factor that is constantly left out of popular ranking systems is student life and student satisfaction. The 2020 Maclean’s student satisfaction survey of Canadian undergraduates saw U of T failing to even crack the top 19.  

However, Maclean’s itself faced criticism in 2006 when 11 Canadian universities declined to provide direct information to the magazine — citing their dissatisfaction with Maclean’s methodology as the cause for the boycott. 

In a 2013 Varsity article, David Naylor, former U of T president, touched on another failing of the ranking system. He talks about a ‘catch-22’ situation, whereby universities who increase their citations per faculty score see a decrease in their faculty to student ratio score. 

These various methodologies highlight concerns with ranking — particularly just how subjective they can be in measuring a university’s value. There is no widely agreed set or system of variables, calling into question how much stock should be put into such lists. 

U of T hires two Indigenous academic advisors in response to TRC

Breaking down the university’s path toward reconciliation

U of T hires two Indigenous academic advisors in response to TRC

In an attempt to further integrate Indigenous perspectives of education and research in accordance with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations and its own TRC Steering Committee report, U of T appointed two advisors on Indigenous research and curriculum: Professor Suzanne Stewart and Professor Susan Hill.

In 2015, the TRC released its final report, which documented the history and intergenerational impact of the residential school system on Indigenous children and families. It described Canada’s assimilation policy — at the heart of which was the residential school system — as “cultural genocide.”

Education remains central to the disadvantages faced by Indigenous people. Indigenous youth face systemic barriers in accessing education, including at the postsecondary level, relative to non-Indigenous youth. In response, the TRC dedicated four out of 94 calls to action specifically to postsecondary institutions.

The new advisors

Stewart, a member of the Yellowknife Dene First Nation, has been a faculty member at U of T since 2007. She is now the director of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and an Academic Advisor on Indigenous Research.

Her new role will have her focusing on how researchers should go about working with Indigenous communities, in part by developing documents that provide guidance and best practices on how to conduct research respectfully within them. Stewart will also serve as a guiding hand for those who are interested in conducting collaborative research with Indigenous communities. 

Hill began her U of T career in July 2017 and holds a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Centre for Indigenous Studies. She is a member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy — specifically the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation.

Her position as academic advisor of Indigenous curricula and education has her focusing on designing and redesigning curricula, developing collaborative teaching opportunities in Indigenous Studies, and establishing a database of Indigenous content and educational materials.

In response to these new appointments, Cheryl Regehr, U of T’s vice-president and provost, said to U of T News: “I am looking forward to working closely with Susan Hill and Suzanne Stewart to further the university’s commitment to U of T’s Calls to Action.”

“Their expertise will be invaluable in ensuring the university is moving forward on the most respectful path towards truth and reconciliation.”

In recent years, U of T has made steps to create Indigenous-focused initiatives: including the Deepening Knowledge Project at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, the Indigenous Education Network founded by Indigenous students, and the TRC Implementation Committee at the Faculty of Law. In addition, a handful of master’s programs at the university have committed to integrating Indigenous education, such as the Masters in Social Work, Indigenous Trauma and Resiliency and the Masters of Public Health in Indigenous Health.

In conversation with Professor Suzanne Stewart

In an interview with The Varsity, Stewart reported having faced systematic and personal racism in Canada, including in postsecondary institutions. However, Stewart believes that due to the TRC, some positive changes in the education system are occurring — such as conversations about increasing Indigenous student support and funding.
Indigenous students still face racism, oppression, and barriers to higher education. While 63 per cent of non-Indigenous people have a post secondary diploma, that number drops to 44 per cent for Indigenous people. Stewart sees self-determination and racism as the chief issues for the Indigenous community.

Stewart suggests that the university should create “a system of special package funds” to break financial barriers for students who identify as Indigenous. In addition, she believes that people across the country “need to be more aware of Indigenous history and the privileges non-Indigenous people have in Canada.”

Reflecting on U of T and reconciliation

Another new Indigenous faculty member at U of T is Professor Heather Dorries. She holds a joint appointment in the Department of Geography and Planning and the Centre for Indigenous Studies, and is Anishinaabe. In an interview with The Varsity, Dorries admitted that when she was a student at McGill University, she felt that Indigenous education was not “something that the administration really ever put any energy into,” but now she is seeing positive changes in the general attitude toward it in the university setting.

Dorries firmly believes that the university can benefit greatly from Indigenous knowledge: for instance, the traditional Indigenous understanding of the environment can be valuable in the field of geography. She also acknowledged the pressures and stress constantly faced by students and suggested that Indigenous perspectives may be helpful in considering different perspectives on life and dealing with challenges.

In the future, Dorries hopes to see universities as “a place of empowerment for everyone, where we create and disseminate knowledge [and] educate ourselves in ways that help us to understand how we can support the flourishing of life.” She concludes that post secondary institutions will have to reconsider their priorities in order for reconciliation to happen.

According to Dorries, continuous student involvement is key to successful incorporation of Indigenous knowledge. If the university sees a demand for courses in Indigenous Studies, or other “events” relating to Indigenous education, the university will try to respond to that demand. In her previous position, she noticed that student action was the driving force behind the university’s initiatives towards reconciliation.

“Students shouldn’t underestimate the influence that they can have on the institution.”