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“We care deeply for their well-being”: U of T admin addresses Bahen Centre death at Business Board meeting

Students lambaste board members following protests outside Simcoe Hall

“We care deeply for their well-being”: U of T admin addresses Bahen Centre death at Business Board meeting

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

In response to what they perceive as U of T’s lack of action on mental health following a suicide at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology — the second death to occur in the building in the past year — students passionately argued for accountability and increased mental health services at yesterday’s Business Board meeting.

The latter half of the silent protest held yesterday afternoon to pressure U of T on its perceived lack of mental health support coincided with a meeting of the Business Board, a U of T body that handles financials, public and community relations, and alumni affairs.

The meeting was supposed to be held in the Governing Council Chambers in Simcoe Hall but was moved to the Medical Sciences Building last minute after students began a sit-in protest outside the rooms.

U of T students Lucinda Qu and Kristen Zimmer delivered stinging rebukes of the university’s mental health resources during the meeting.

Following the board’s open-session discussion on regular business, Qu was given permission to read a statement from an online document that she had shared in the Facebook event page for the protest.

She told the board that “the university is ignoring the needs of students in a blatant attempt to take the onus off of its administration for our mental health, safety, and well-being.”

Qu criticized long delays in mental health services, a lack of 24-hour support, unaccountable professors, and “deeply problematic and retraumatizing” counselling as unacceptable given the university’s “recklessly dangerous” competitive environment.

“To the thousands of us that will spend years of our lives here and to the handful of us who will end our lives here, this is disheartening and it must change,” she said.

U of T President Meric Gertler, who was attending his first Business Board meeting of the year, said that the university can and should do more to improve mental health support. He added that the university’s consultations have been in good faith and that significant investments have already been made for mental health support.

“I just want to signal here and now an openness and, indeed, enthusiasm to work with students in good faith and in a very open way to solicit your advice and your ideas on how to do better,” he said.

U of T Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr said that the university has “made many investments, but that those investments have not yet reached the point where [they are] meeting all the needs.”

Regehr cited the university’s mental health framework committee — responsible for managing the university-mandated leave of absence policy — and its expert panel on the undergraduate educational experience as two existing initiatives that support students.

The controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy was passed last year and allows the university to place students on leave if their mental health poses a risk to themselves or to others, or if it interferes with their studies. The policy drew criticism from the Ontario Human Rights Commission and was heavily protested by student groups.

After Regehr’s statement, Zimmer addressed the board, saying that “a student died this weekend and we can afford to spend a few extra minutes listening to students.” The board secretary granted her permission to speak, but asked her to keep her statement to one minute.

Zimmer gave an impassioned plea for the university to remove the “dangerous” policy, which she said “is clearly not working and clearly not for us.”

“We see this policy, we see it in print, we see it in writing, and we are afraid. The consequences of this fear, the consequences of being silenced is life-threatening,” she said.

In an interview with The Varsity following the meeting, Gertler emphasized that students’ mental health is a priority for the university and said that he wants to continue working on the issues and challenges that students face.

“Student well-being — mental, physical, emotional — is right at the top of the list. This is why we’re here. We are the university for students and about students. So clearly, we care deeply for their well-being.”

Gertler pointed to the lack of provincial and federal funding for creating new mental health supports for students, and that the university has advocated for increased funding for several years but never received sufficient funds.

He also said that there are numerous faculty and staff working to support students, and in response to requests from students for an open forum with university administrators, hopes to ensure “quality input and meaningful dialogue.”

In response to a question about whether the university is in any way culpable for the multiple suicides that have occurred on campus, Gertler said that he couldn’t address that question because the university needed much more detail.

“We know that these are adults we are talking about and we have to provide every opportunity for them to seek the kind of services that they require,” he said.

“But it’s a shared responsibility: families, friends, society more broadly, as well as the individuals involved. It’s part of a much broader conversation, a much broader effort.”


If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Ontario Human Rights Commission releases new policy on accessible education

Broader definition of disability, policy comes in wake of university-mandated leave of absence approval

Ontario Human Rights Commission releases new policy on accessible education

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released a new Policy on Accessible Education for Students with Disabilities on August 29.

This policy reflects a broader definition of disability, recognizes that education is important to a person’s development, and provides students with up-to-date information about their human rights and responsibilities.

It also reminds schools of their obligation to maintain accessible, inclusive, discrimination-free, and harassment-free spaces, along with recommendations on how to effectively meet legal obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Significance in relation to the UMLAP

The policy’s release comes months after U of T passed its new University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP) in June.

The UMLAP allows U of T to put students on a mandatory leave of absence if their mental health affects their ability to complete their schoolwork, or if it poses a risk to themselves or others.

An early version of the policy was criticized strongly by OHRC’s Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane, who sent a letter to the university asking it to delay the policy’s approval.

According to the letter, sent in January, “the Policy falls short of meeting the duty to accommodate under the Code, and as outlined in the OHRC’s Policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability.” 

The letter also said “the Policy appears to allow decisions to be made by University administration who do not have any specialized training on human rights or risk assessment.”

After this letter, the university withdrew that version of the UMLAP, but proposed another version in May, which was passed.

What’s in the new OHRC policy?

The new OHRC policy addresses “the evolving legal definition of disability and its implications for education providers.’

It also recognizes that “disability” includes “both present and past conditions,” as well as a subjective component based on the perception of disability.

The new policy also discusses ableism, negative attitudes, stereotypes, and stigma toward students with disabilities.

It states that “providers have a legal obligation under the Code to not discriminate against students with disabilities, and to eliminate discrimination when it happens.”

A major focus of the policy is on the “duty to accommodate,” which was also one of Mandhane’s main criticisms of the UMLAP.

“Under the Code, education providers have a legal duty to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities who are adversely affected by a requirement, rule or standard,” reads the policy.

The OHRC’s letter notes that “the decisions to exclude a student from school due to alleged health and safety risk without sufficient objective evidence… may constitute discrimination.”

It also adds that students with disabilities cannot be judged to be incapable of fulfilling their educational requirements unless proper accommodation has been provided and the capabilities of the students have been assessed.

The new policy also recommends that schools and postsecondary institutions collect quantitative and qualitative data to understand any barriers that may exist, and to identify and address any concerns that may lead to systemic discrimination.