All posts by Gabrielle Warren

Associate Arts & Culture Editor 2016-2017

POWERPOSE

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t one point during my first year at the University of Toronto, a few groups on campus blocked the Hoskin Avenue and St. George Street intersection in front of Robarts Library to protest the lack of representation of Black and brown people in academic spaces. At the time, I didn’t understand why these individuals were aggravated.

My perspective shifted when I entered one of my International Relations courses in second year. During the course, the professors sanitized political narratives by strictly teaching from a Western European approach. I only saw Black, Eastern European, or Asian people represented when they were looking despondent with swollen bellies to show the casualties of Western European action and thought. At this point in my academic career, that protest became personal.

If the University of Toronto is training the leaders of tomorrow, what does a lack of adequate representation say about the future?

My greatest frustration is the blatant intellectual dishonesty. In more than half the classes I’ve taken thus far, alternative perspectives have not been explored. As a woman of colour, the irony of the university is that it claims to be inclusive while actively excluding perspectives of marginalized people.

In class, those who are not white are frequently portrayed as victims. Non-Western European experiences and philosophies become compressed into one diluted identity that betrays vital complexities.

The exploration of these perspectives in the departments of International Relations, Political Science, and others is missing. When I sit in my classrooms, I hear and read content that does not consider my experiences or way of life. I am required to regurgitate and innovate in a space that refuses to allow me to be myself. As a result of this tension, students can become weary and despondent. There needs to be active integration of diverse global and gendered perspectives in all classes. Professors can include African philosophers or Asian political perspectives along with the Western European thought. There is no single way to see the world, yet by excluding non-European thought,  some ‘free-thinking’ professors have told me there is.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

POWERPOSE is an ode to women of colour in academic spaces. In a university that tells us that our experiences do not matter, I want to showcase women fighting back. By taking up space, we are taking back our stories. Angela Davis once said that “Black women have had to develop a larger vision of our society than perhaps any other group. They have had to understand white men, white women, and Black men. And they have had to understand themselves. When Black women win victories, it is a boost for virtually every segment of society.”

To be a woman of colour in an academic space and a world that have not been created for you means making room where there is none.

What Captain Janeway taught me

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]pace holds a futuristic perception in public imagination. The endlessness summons you to explore, and the vastness demands you to reach beyond your comfort zone. In the absence of matter, a dreamer can conjure up thoughts of what can be.

Star Trek encapsulated this mentality perfectly; from alien life to the potential for multi-species equality, anything was possible. That possibility provided a lens of what could be to the viewer.

At age 12, I was a viewer peering through the lens of possibility. I watched a lot of television as a child. One of the many shows I watched was Star Trek: Voyager, the fifth show of the Star Trek franchise and the first to feature a female captain as a main character: Kathryn Janeway, the commanding officer of the USS Voyager.

In the first episode, Janeway’s crew is lost in space and unable to return home — power struggles ensue and tensions run high. Throughout the episode, Janeway encounters hardships such as alien encounters and crew disagreements, but she ultimately prevails. By the end of the seven-season series, she becomes the first Federation captain to survive the Delta Quadrant, an unexplored quarter of the Milky Way. Not only did she bring her crew home, but her encounters with dozens of new planets and civilizations expanded the knowledge of Starfleet for generations to come.

I have always been drawn to strong, complex female characters. Janeway was a woman who commanded hundreds of people in unfamiliar territory, all while rejecting traditional gender roles. She made the unconventional status quo and overcame hurdles women traditionally face in leadership roles. She was assertive and respected, confident in her abilities and position, and used her voice without shame — Janeway was a woman of the future.

Being a leader requires a person to have a clear idea of what they want and where they want to go. Janeway did just this: she took risks, pushed away doubt, and charged for what she believed in.

Lack of confidence is often an inhibitor of women’s advancement in the workplace. While a voice draws people’s attention, confidence is what keeps them listening long enough for someone to make an impact. A sense of belonging is imperative in gaining and maintaining that confidence. Although men frequently rise to positions of power even when unqualified, it is common for women to remain silent and feel less effective in their roles.

Even in the middle of space, Janeway held strong. She remained confident in her ability to lead her crew back home and, although not immediately, she accomplished her goal. Without confidence, the outcome could have been much different.

To Janeway, being herself was not a political statement. It was ordinary. She existed in a world where being a woman and a leader was not novel. I often think of an imaginary daughter and wonder if she could live Janeway’s reality.

Today, there are still discussions surrounding if women can ‘have it all,’ if menstruation hinders work, and if child rearing is a distraction. If Janeway was inhibited by these discussions or these concerns, I do not believe she would have been so strong in her convictions.  She taught me that being a female leader was normal. Women deserve to be ordinary. We deserve to not have people shocked when we are in positions of leadership.

Space is daunting because it is seemingly endless, and the future is daunting because it is seemingly uncertain. However, regardless of endlessness or uncertainty, when we have a finite goal to achieve we are empowered to complete it. A goal makes our journey more concrete. For Janeway and her crew, it was finding their way out of the Delta Quadrant. For us, it is finding our way out of the clichés of popular rhetoric and finding the power within ourselves to break ancient insecurities and doubts that have plagued us.

Seeing Janeway made me feel that I could do, or be, anything I wanted. I didn’t have to worry about acting ‘like a man,’ or making myself seem more palatable. I could simply focus on getting the job done.

Nothing will change as long as we deem ourselves unworthy. It is time for us to teach ourselves that we deserve to be in those positions. Whether it is promoting female camaraderie or heightening personal expectations — I believe this can be the generation where we can make Janeway’s reality our own.

Janeway reflected the strong women in my life on a large, space-sized scale. Her abilities were never questioned because of her gender, and she was instead seen by the content of her character. This is the future I hope my daughter would be able to see.

The definitive commuter survival guide

As a commuter, most of your time is spent on a bus, train, or streetcar, so finding ways to maximize productivity and comfort during these times is imperative. Here’s a useful guide to make those long trips home a little easier.

Things to do

With hours of your day spent travelling to and from home, finding ways to stay busy is crucial.

Music: There’s no better way to pass the time than listening to your favourite album. Apple Music and Spotify Premium are available ad-free with downloading features at discounted student prices, which is usually your best bet for seeking an infinite amount of music for an infinite commute.

Podcasts: Use your commute to learn about why Beyoncé’s Lemonade is iconic, discover historic European rebellions, or refresh yourself on the morning’s top news stories. Podcasting is by far one of the most entertaining and informative uses of time. Even better: most podcasts are free.

Readings: If you’re not in the mood for tunes or podcasts, spending time to catch up on your readings or assignments can be useful. Why? Because once you get home, you’re not opening up that laptop ‘til the AM.

Comfy fashion

The only way to tolerate the long and sweaty experience of commuting is to dress comfortably and keep handy accessories.

Invest in a good wallet: As a commuter, your wallet is your everything. From your house keys, your PRESTO card, and your Metro Pass, your wallet is your key to the world.

Good bag = happy back: Along with your wallet, your bag is with you the entire day. Like a best friend, choose your bag wisely. A bad bag can break your back, but a good bag will always have your back. My personal favourite is Fjällräven’s Kånken backpack.

Comfortable sneakers = happy feet: In my first year at U of T, I sprained my foot wearing fashionable yet uncomfortable shoes. You will thank yourself for investing in a good pair of sneakers when it’s 9:40 am and your train leaves at 9:43.   

Saving (and spending) money

If you don’t keep track, money will leave you and never come back.

Pack a lunch: Campus food isn’t cheap, and come finals time, you will love yourself for not spending all your cash. It may not be the most ideal, but you will thank yourself for saving some money.

Maintaining a social life

Living off campus can seem very isolating at a place as large as U of T, but there are plenty of ways to stay involved and make new friends.

Make friends during frosh: When it’s 12 am and you can’t make it home, having a friend on campus who will let you crash is integral to your well-being. Everyone is looking for friends during frosh, so take advantage and you might just find a new companion — and a future place to stay.

Go club-hopping: Joining student clubs is a great way to fight isolation at university. Unlike high school, there is a massive pool of people with a diverse range of interests. Find what works for you!

Utilize your college, faculty, and campus perks: Each college, faculty, and campus has offerings for commuters. From rentable non-resident rooms to free food and common rooms, check out their websites to see what they can do for you.

Schedule, schedule, schedule

As a commuter, staying organized is essential. With a two-hour commute, late night activities can be highly detrimental to your sleep schedule.

Find common areas and social spaces: Every college has a common area, so use them to nap, recharge, and hang out.

Midday classes are best: In university, you learn that classes before 11 am might as well be at 4 am, and classes after 6 pm might as well be at midnight. Try your best to schedule midday classes, and you’ll thank yourself later.

They have faith

For students of faith, the university space poses unique challenges regarding reconciliation with the self and the world. Faith is not erasable; for those who are religious, it exists at the core of their conscience and defines their sense of dignity.

When spaces that foster faith do not exist, are lacking, or are threatened at university, communities of faith become ‘othered.’

To build true inclusivity, it is important to reflect upon the unique experiences of people of faith and how it is possible to build new dialogues, relationships, and solidarities that can forge real plurality in Canada.

Why faith matters

Sarim Irfan, a Muslim first-year student at the University of Toronto, sees his faith and worldview as intertwined. His faith has played a major role in determining his morals, values, and general sense of conduct.

“The Islamic perspective influences me such that, where problems arise, I look for the outcome that satisfies the most people without compromising my religious rules and regulations,” Irfan reveals. “Islam preaches love and respect for others, as well as steadfastness in practice,” he explains.

Martha Nussbaum, an ethics theorist at the University of Chicago, argues for the importance of accommodating different belief systems. She writes that two elements make people equal: dignity and freedom of conscience. Though the sources of dignity may differ, possessing it always means having autonomy over your mind and body.

For Ifran and others like him, faith is a filter through which to reason, evaluate, and view the world, and to realize dignity in the sense that Nussbaum describes. To learn and embrace each other’s faith opens up a channel to mutual understanding.

Fady Andraws, an Egyptian Orthodox student, describes her faith in a similar way. She sees it as a vital part of her culture, family life, and value system. “It provides an ethical code, as well as a familial and national identity,” she reflects.

For others, the integration of faith and behaviour happens more gradually.

“I’ve begun the process of incorporating my religious beliefs in my day to day life,” comments Monique Gill of the Sikh Students Association. “Specifically, Sikhism places a high value on community service or ‘seva’ and for the past few years I’ve been restructuring my personal and career goals with seva in mind. This relationship between belief and action in Sikhism is what I’ve been focusing on implementing as an integral part of my worldview.”

However, when people of faith’s personal experiences, worldviews, and dignities are subject to reduction and homogenization, the consequences are alarming. This is evident in the way popular Western culture commonly portrays Islam — not as a faith comprised of unique individuals and diverse communities, but as a monolithic, dangerous ‘ideology.’

religion-2

Being the ‘other’

It is clear that religious beliefs are not just individual and personal. They are subject to politicization, which may result in exclusion and even violence.

At a Québec City mosque in February, a white university student massacred six praying Muslims. Atrocities like this shed light on the skepticism people of faith may have surrounding the Canadian narrative of multiculturalism, progressiveness, and tolerance.

The regularity with which the Muslim community is described as separate from a Canadian identity accentuates a pitfall of Canada’s multiculturalism myth.

At a vigil held at the University of Toronto for the Québec City attack, Muslim third-year Afghan Students Society Vice-President Madina Siddiqui vocalized the challenge of her own competing identities. “I grew up with little knowledge of my own culture. And my parents always pushed me to be more Canadian. To learn English. To forget my own culture,” she said.

One way to understand Siddiqui’s experience is to conclude that the visibility of visible minorities of faith — whether at mosques, in the appearance of niqabs or beards, or in foreign names — is not always accepted as ‘Canadian.’

That Muslim Canadians are made to view their faith and their Canadian identity as competing attributes demonstrates how assimilation marginalizes these minority groups.

The Québec attack is part of a broader history of Islamophobia; it is not new on campus, let alone in other spaces in Canada. Siddiqui’s speech cited an event that took place in 2006, when a female Muslim student was assaulted at Hart House. The following day, on International Women’s Day, female Muslim students were egged.

Ten years later, in late 2016, St. Michael’s College student executives were exposed for Islamophobic behaviour via leaked Snapchat videos. Despite how internationally-accepting the University of Toronto appears to be, it is clear that Islamophobia systematically thrives here.

What is more, the response to Islamophobia is not sufficient, as the denunciation of Islamophobia by public officials has been criticized for being superficial.

For example, York University-based spoken word poet Nasim Asgari told CP24 that the presence and speeches of Mayor John Tory and Liberal Member of Parliament Bill Morneau at the Québec City vigil were merely symbolic and hollow.

Asgari argued that politicians are complicit in the lack of police accountability in the deaths of racialized folks in Toronto and contribute to a largely obscured but real structure of Islamophobia by crafting legislation like the Cultural Barbaric Practices Act and Bill C-51 — both of which, it has been argued, target Muslims.

The Toronto police killing of 18-year-old Muslim Sammy Yatim in 2013 serves as a painful reminder that an Islamophobic structure exists in this city. Hence, the veneer of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ at vigils and descriptions of attacks as ‘senseless’ do not mask the underlying structural cause of such violent attacks: the othering of visible faith minorities.

The Toronto police killing of 18-year-old Muslim Sammy Yatim in 2013 serves as a painful reminder that an Islamophobic structure exists in this city.

Belief in the university space

Finding spaces where solidarity between communities develops is wonderful in theory, but carving out spaces of mutual respect and tolerance remains challenging. The reality of existing as an other means looking for safe spaces where your values are not only shared, but considered.

A central challenge for people of faith in Canada is the clash between their deeply rooted beliefs and a secular culture that demands assimilation. In the midst of this tension, people of faith are compelled to learn to mediate between worlds, reshape their identities, and form communities.

The university space may be the first place that many students are challenged to actively practice their beliefs away from their families or communities.

Joining a student association lent Gill a sense of community within Canada. Since Sikhism is often tied geographically to the state of Punjab in India, Gill says it is quite common to see a person of Punjabi culture practicing Sikhism. This sentiment led her to the Sikh Students Association in hopes of meeting people with a similar background.

“Being a part of this faith group has opened me up to a process in which I examine the intertwining of culture and faith specifically in looking at gendered practices in this Punjabi-Sikh community,” Gill says. “That being said, the Sikh Students Association goes out of our way to distinguish between practices of religion and practices of culture as we find it makes the space more inclusive by encouraging people of any race to join.”

She adds that reaching out to her faith community and discussing how fellow second generation immigrants practice their faith has helped her navigate the Western and South Asian binary. “I’ve always needed support in coming to terms with my contemporary Toronto lifestyle while also balancing the way I practice Sikhism so this community that I’ve reached out to has really supported me in that,” Gill says.

These spaces help students of faith feel supported and affirmed and provide them with a venue to have their concerns addressed.

Andraws feels that having a faith group is important to her on both spiritual and social levels: “Being part of a faith group gives me more friends, more support, and more people who have my struggles. In general, it’s just really hard to meet people on campus.”

“[The Egyptian Orthodox Student Group has] a lot of people downtown who help each other and pray for each other,” Andraws says.

University is meant to be a space that encourages students to explore new ideas. For faith perspectives, this can mean an opportunity for philosophical exchange, dialogue, and inquiry.

Alternative worldviews can initially create discomfort, alienation, and fragmentation. Where ideas and beliefs diverge, we can turn to Nussbaum’s ideas about dignity, which remind us that mutual respect and tolerance are possible.

In some cases, the proliferation of new ideas and perspectives can be the very thing that fosters faith.

Gill speaks on how the university environment helped her find faith. “Being in Equity Studies has really developed my self awareness (ideologically) alongside an understanding of how I situate myself in the world socially, economically, geographically,” she says. “I feel like the growth of my character coincided with the growth of my faith because in addition to acknowledging my privilege and positionality, I explored my identity through analyzing my worldview and religious roots.”

However, not all students find the freedom to express their beliefs. It can be hard to find like-minded people, and it can be exhausting to constantly defend one’s own beliefs.

“This may also be due to the fact that I’m a first-generation immigrant,” Andraws says, “But I find that I’m continuously experiencing a culture shock with the things my peers do and say. I also find it difficult to stand up for things I believe in. I find myself being unable to confidently answer questions about my faith. Some people ask questions for really sinister reasons, or to find faults in you as a person, so they can push academic faults on you as well.”

For some, the juxtaposition of faith and an academic university setting makes for opportunities as well as tensions.

“If a prayer time comes about while I’m with friends at [university], I’ll excuse myself from the conversation and pray right there in my seat,” Irfan says. “People respect that I am in prayer and do not talk loudly or play music while I pray, and ask polite questions afterwards,” he explains. “Being a person of faith in a secular university space is a conversation starter.”

religion-3

Towards pluralism

Earlier this year, grassroots organization Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East hosted Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan to speak to the University of Toronto community on “Creating Thriving Societies in Troubling Times.”

The phrase “Troubling Times,” as it pertains to religious discrimination, does not refer exclusively to the state of affairs south of the border where President Donald Trump has assumed office. In 2015, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government supported policies that marginalized womens’ choices to wear a niqab and defended the securitization of Syrian refugees as potential terrorist threats.

It has been over 15 years since past American President George Bush declared a ‘War on Terror,’ which has emphasized radical Islamic terrorist groups.

Since then, the West — including Canada — has continually deployed discourse about ‘terrorism’ and ‘jihad’ that inadvertently or explicitly criminalizes Islam.

Ramadan challenges Muslims and non-Muslims alike to reclaim the discourse of jihad in terms of its original meaning: a dual struggle to resist bad and promote good in every dimension. Doing this, Ramadan argues, would help to illuminate the fact that Islam’s values are part of universal values that can help us offer solidarity and humanize one another.

In a deep condemnation of the global rise of nationalism and discourses surrounding ‘my people first,’ Ramadan insists that a pluralistic society with multiple narratives should and can prosper when we fight for each other’s communities.

He calls us all to wage a jihad in struggles like Black Lives Matter, gender equity, and climate justice, because ultimately, they are all rooted in philosophical and faith communities that converge toward a defense of human dignity.

Ramadan’s call for pluralism is, importantly, centred in the recognition that having or practicing faith does not preclude holding other identities. Embracing the plurality of society means embracing the plurality of our own identities.

Hence, to be Muslim does not mean to either not belong in Canada or to practice Islam with a monolithic standard. With nuance and a will to reject popular generalizations, we can better understand ourselves and others and define our own identities.

It is on this land that interconnected relationships and communities form — communities which are not marked by shared values, but by time spent together.

New Solidarities

Fostering mutual respect first means respecting the original faith communities of Canada, as well as the land upon which such respect can develop. Namely, we must defer to Indigenous worldviews.

At this year’s Hart House Hancock Lecture, Anishinaabe artist Susan Blight spoke on “Land and Life in Tkaronto: New Solidarities Toward a Decolonial Future.” Blight, who works to rename roads and landmarks as a means to visibilize the Indigenous history of Toronto, emphasized that Indigenous worldviews are centred around land.

It is on this land that interconnected relationships and communities form — communities which are not marked by shared values, but by time spent together.

In Toronto, cultural diversity and Indigenous resurgence make for a fertile moment in which vibrant relationships are being formed. For example, in 2016, Black Lives Matter and Indigenous communities in Toronto formed conspicuous solidarities against anti-Black police brutality and the Attawapiskat suicide crisis.

It is faith within and between these communities that reminds us that “Black Lives Matter on Indigenous land.”   

Whether in the form of street signs or protests, increased Indigenous visibility compels settler Canadians to acknowledge the worldviews of those who have ancestral connections to the land. These encounters can prove fruitful in the quest to form strong interpersonal relationships and communities.

As Blight urges, such relationships can reaffirm the “Dish with One Spoon” treaty: that we must share, protect, and preserve the land together, peacefully. Given that settler colonialism is a living history that concerns all of us, it must be dismantled by all of us if we are to create a more sustainable, inclusive future.

At the University of Toronto, the Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee has just released its report of 32 recommendations on how the university can respond to the legacies of residential schools and ongoing systemic racism against Indigenous peoples.

President Meric Gertler stated that the university “acknowledges its responsibility in contributing to the plight of Indigenous peoples, and we embrace the opportunity to engage with Indigenous communities and, together, lead the process of reconciliation.” The report advises Gertler to create visible Indigenous spaces on campus, hire more Indigenous faculty and staff members, and integrate Indigenous curricula into university education.

Moving past stereotypes, misconceptions, and isolation, it is important to recognize that the Indigenous population of Canada is comprised of plural communities, whose worldviews about interconnectedness and land protection can inform a more harmonious future for the University of Toronto and Canada more broadly. It is not Indigenous beliefs that require scrutiny and dismissal, but rather our disbelief in them.

One can consider the case of Professor Brenda Wastasecoot, a member of the York Factory Cree Nation. In teaching the course “Indigenous Worldviews, Spiritual and Healing Traditions,” she implements Indigenous pedagogy in the most uplifting forms.

Wastasecoot uses circle teaching by which method all students are given a chance to speak. She emphasizes that everyone’s voice, presence, and story must be valued. She is also very candid about her own personal experiences with trauma and abuse and their connections to settler colonialism. Her openness is a radical call to believe in the lived experiences, worldviews, and right to human dignity of marginalized communities of faith.

Wastasecoot also compares the Western mental health system, which bases itself on individual treatment and pharmaceutical drugs, to the Indigenous sweat lodge, which focuses on natural medicine and community healing. Last year, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto opened a sweat lodge — the first of its kind in Ontario.

At the university and in Toronto generally, reclamation of Indigenous spaces and traditions is important for decolonization and how we conceive Indigeneity. When othered people of faith build solidarities with one another under an Indigenous framework of interconnectedness, community, and respect for the land, we can begin constructing a more inclusive future for all.

religion-1

Learning to listen

People of faith do not exist in a bubble. They learn quickly that disagreeing with a point of view does not disqualify them from creating communities of respect. Not only do students of faith learn from others, but others can learn from them.

“I think I’ve become more open,” Andraws says in reference to her faith practice. “I have a lot of friends that have converted, and I think understanding all faiths is incredibly important. Not only to ‘defend’ your own, but to [understand] what is out there. It makes you appreciate other people, and it gives you an opportunity to solidify your own beliefs.”

So, perhaps there is hope for Ramadan’s call for an intersectional jihad. At the National Day of Action against Islamophobia and White Supremacy in downtown Toronto for example, the Sikh community demonstrated solidarity by serving samosas, tea, and hot chocolate to protesters in cold February weather. The Sikh community is frequently confused for and attacked as Muslims, and it remains a leading ally in the anti-Islamophobia struggle.

By understanding the plural communities of faith and their politicization, we can better understand the unique experiences of those we come across.

Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter Toronto led the rally itself, given the existence of Black Muslims and more importantly, their commitment to anti-racism in general. University of Toronto student groups led several contingents to the rally, including the ASSU and [email protected] Hope is highest where solidarity between othered communities flourishes, in defense of the right to faith, self-determination, and dignity.   

By understanding the plural communities of faith and their politicization, we can better understand the unique experiences of those we come across.

At university and in Canada, making sustainable learning spaces does not mean that we only believe in the validity of our own communities, but that if we believe that we are valid, others can be as well. Only then, perhaps, can ‘they’ become ‘us.’

They have faith

For students of faith, the university space poses unique challenges regarding reconciliation with the self and the world. Faith is not erasable; for those who are religious, it exists at the core of their conscience and defines their sense of dignity.

When spaces that foster faith do not exist, are lacking, or are threatened at university, communities of faith become ‘othered.’

To build true inclusivity, it is important to reflect upon the unique experiences of people of faith and how it is possible to build new dialogues, relationships, and solidarities that can forge real plurality in Canada.

Why faith matters

Sarim Irfan, a Muslim first-year student at the University of Toronto, sees his faith and worldview as intertwined. His faith has played a major role in determining his morals, values, and general sense of conduct.

“The Islamic perspective influences me such that, where problems arise, I look for the outcome that satisfies the most people without compromising my religious rules and regulations,” Irfan reveals. “Islam preaches love and respect for others, as well as steadfastness in practice,” he explains.

Martha Nussbaum, an ethics theorist at the University of Chicago, argues for the importance of accommodating different belief systems. She writes that two elements make people equal: dignity and freedom of conscience. Though the sources of dignity may differ, possessing it always means having autonomy over your mind and body.

For Ifran and others like him, faith is a filter through which to reason, evaluate, and view the world, and to realize dignity in the sense that Nussbaum describes. To learn and embrace each other’s faith opens up a channel to mutual understanding.

Fady Andraws, an Egyptian Orthodox student, describes her faith in a similar way. She sees it as a vital part of her culture, family life, and value system. “It provides an ethical code, as well as a familial and national identity,” she reflects.

For others, the integration of faith and behaviour happens more gradually.

“I’ve begun the process of incorporating my religious beliefs in my day to day life,” comments Monique Gill of the Sikh Students Association. “Specifically, Sikhism places a high value on community service or ‘seva’ and for the past few years I’ve been restructuring my personal and career goals with seva in mind. This relationship between belief and action in Sikhism is what I’ve been focusing on implementing as an integral part of my worldview.”

However, when people of faith’s personal experiences, worldviews, and dignities are subject to reduction and homogenization, the consequences are alarming. This is evident in the way popular Western culture commonly portrays Islam — not as a faith comprised of unique individuals and diverse communities, but as a monolithic, dangerous ‘ideology.’

religion-2

Being the ‘other’

It is clear that religious beliefs are not just individual and personal. They are subject to politicization, which may result in exclusion and even violence.

At a Québec City mosque in February, a white university student massacred six praying Muslims. Atrocities like this shed light on the skepticism people of faith may have surrounding the Canadian narrative of multiculturalism, progressiveness, and tolerance.

The regularity with which the Muslim community is described as separate from a Canadian identity accentuates a pitfall of Canada’s multiculturalism myth.

At a vigil held at the University of Toronto for the Québec City attack, Muslim third-year Afghan Students Society Vice-President Madina Siddiqui vocalized the challenge of her own competing identities. “I grew up with little knowledge of my own culture. And my parents always pushed me to be more Canadian. To learn English. To forget my own culture,” she said.

One way to understand Siddiqui’s experience is to conclude that the visibility of visible minorities of faith — whether at mosques, in the appearance of niqabs or beards, or in foreign names — is not always accepted as ‘Canadian.’

That Muslim Canadians are made to view their faith and their Canadian identity as competing attributes demonstrates how assimilation marginalizes these minority groups.

The Québec attack is part of a broader history of Islamophobia; it is not new on campus, let alone in other spaces in Canada. Siddiqui’s speech cited an event that took place in 2006, when a female Muslim student was assaulted at Hart House. The following day, on International Women’s Day, female Muslim students were egged.

Ten years later, in late 2016, St. Michael’s College student executives were exposed for Islamophobic behaviour via leaked Snapchat videos. Despite how internationally-accepting the University of Toronto appears to be, it is clear that Islamophobia systematically thrives here.

What is more, the response to Islamophobia is not sufficient, as the denunciation of Islamophobia by public officials has been criticized for being superficial.

For example, York University-based spoken word poet Nasim Asgari told CP24 that the presence and speeches of Mayor John Tory and Liberal Member of Parliament Bill Morneau at the Québec City vigil were merely symbolic and hollow.

Asgari argued that politicians are complicit in the lack of police accountability in the deaths of racialized folks in Toronto and contribute to a largely obscured but real structure of Islamophobia by crafting legislation like the Cultural Barbaric Practices Act and Bill C-51 — both of which, it has been argued, target Muslims.

The Toronto police killing of 18-year-old Muslim Sammy Yatim in 2013 serves as a painful reminder that an Islamophobic structure exists in this city. Hence, the veneer of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ at vigils and descriptions of attacks as ‘senseless’ do not mask the underlying structural cause of such violent attacks: the othering of visible faith minorities.

The Toronto police killing of 18-year-old Muslim Sammy Yatim in 2013 serves as a painful reminder that an Islamophobic structure exists in this city.

Belief in the university space

Finding spaces where solidarity between communities develops is wonderful in theory, but carving out spaces of mutual respect and tolerance remains challenging. The reality of existing as an other means looking for safe spaces where your values are not only shared, but considered.

A central challenge for people of faith in Canada is the clash between their deeply rooted beliefs and a secular culture that demands assimilation. In the midst of this tension, people of faith are compelled to learn to mediate between worlds, reshape their identities, and form communities.

The university space may be the first place that many students are challenged to actively practice their beliefs away from their families or communities.

Joining a student association lent Gill a sense of community within Canada. Since Sikhism is often tied geographically to the state of Punjab in India, Gill says it is quite common to see a person of Punjabi culture practicing Sikhism. This sentiment led her to the Sikh Students Association in hopes of meeting people with a similar background.

“Being a part of this faith group has opened me up to a process in which I examine the intertwining of culture and faith specifically in looking at gendered practices in this Punjabi-Sikh community,” Gill says. “That being said, the Sikh Students Association goes out of our way to distinguish between practices of religion and practices of culture as we find it makes the space more inclusive by encouraging people of any race to join.”

She adds that reaching out to her faith community and discussing how fellow second generation immigrants practice their faith has helped her navigate the Western and South Asian binary. “I’ve always needed support in coming to terms with my contemporary Toronto lifestyle while also balancing the way I practice Sikhism so this community that I’ve reached out to has really supported me in that,” Gill says.

These spaces help students of faith feel supported and affirmed and provide them with a venue to have their concerns addressed.

Andraws feels that having a faith group is important to her on both spiritual and social levels: “Being part of a faith group gives me more friends, more support, and more people who have my struggles. In general, it’s just really hard to meet people on campus.”

“[The Egyptian Orthodox Student Group has] a lot of people downtown who help each other and pray for each other,” Andraws says.

University is meant to be a space that encourages students to explore new ideas. For faith perspectives, this can mean an opportunity for philosophical exchange, dialogue, and inquiry.

Alternative worldviews can initially create discomfort, alienation, and fragmentation. Where ideas and beliefs diverge, we can turn to Nussbaum’s ideas about dignity, which remind us that mutual respect and tolerance are possible.

In some cases, the proliferation of new ideas and perspectives can be the very thing that fosters faith.

Gill speaks on how the university environment helped her find faith. “Being in Equity Studies has really developed my self awareness (ideologically) alongside an understanding of how I situate myself in the world socially, economically, geographically,” she says. “I feel like the growth of my character coincided with the growth of my faith because in addition to acknowledging my privilege and positionality, I explored my identity through analyzing my worldview and religious roots.”

However, not all students find the freedom to express their beliefs. It can be hard to find like-minded people, and it can be exhausting to constantly defend one’s own beliefs.

“This may also be due to the fact that I’m a first-generation immigrant,” Andraws says, “But I find that I’m continuously experiencing a culture shock with the things my peers do and say. I also find it difficult to stand up for things I believe in. I find myself being unable to confidently answer questions about my faith. Some people ask questions for really sinister reasons, or to find faults in you as a person, so they can push academic faults on you as well.”

For some, the juxtaposition of faith and an academic university setting makes for opportunities as well as tensions.

“If a prayer time comes about while I’m with friends at [university], I’ll excuse myself from the conversation and pray right there in my seat,” Irfan says. “People respect that I am in prayer and do not talk loudly or play music while I pray, and ask polite questions afterwards,” he explains. “Being a person of faith in a secular university space is a conversation starter.”

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Towards pluralism

Earlier this year, grassroots organization Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East hosted Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan to speak to the University of Toronto community on “Creating Thriving Societies in Troubling Times.”

The phrase “Troubling Times,” as it pertains to religious discrimination, does not refer exclusively to the state of affairs south of the border where President Donald Trump has assumed office. In 2015, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government supported policies that marginalized womens’ choices to wear a niqab and defended the securitization of Syrian refugees as potential terrorist threats.

It has been over 15 years since past American President George Bush declared a ‘War on Terror,’ which has emphasized radical Islamic terrorist groups.

Since then, the West — including Canada — has continually deployed discourse about ‘terrorism’ and ‘jihad’ that inadvertently or explicitly criminalizes Islam.

Ramadan challenges Muslims and non-Muslims alike to reclaim the discourse of jihad in terms of its original meaning: a dual struggle to resist bad and promote good in every dimension. Doing this, Ramadan argues, would help to illuminate the fact that Islam’s values are part of universal values that can help us offer solidarity and humanize one another.

In a deep condemnation of the global rise of nationalism and discourses surrounding ‘my people first,’ Ramadan insists that a pluralistic society with multiple narratives should and can prosper when we fight for each other’s communities.

He calls us all to wage a jihad in struggles like Black Lives Matter, gender equity, and climate justice, because ultimately, they are all rooted in philosophical and faith communities that converge toward a defense of human dignity.

Ramadan’s call for pluralism is, importantly, centred in the recognition that having or practicing faith does not preclude holding other identities. Embracing the plurality of society means embracing the plurality of our own identities.

Hence, to be Muslim does not mean to either not belong in Canada or to practice Islam with a monolithic standard. With nuance and a will to reject popular generalizations, we can better understand ourselves and others and define our own identities.

It is on this land that interconnected relationships and communities form — communities which are not marked by shared values, but by time spent together.

New Solidarities

Fostering mutual respect first means respecting the original faith communities of Canada, as well as the land upon which such respect can develop. Namely, we must defer to Indigenous worldviews.

At this year’s Hart House Hancock Lecture, Anishinaabe artist Susan Blight spoke on “Land and Life in Tkaronto: New Solidarities Toward a Decolonial Future.” Blight, who works to rename roads and landmarks as a means to visibilize the Indigenous history of Toronto, emphasized that Indigenous worldviews are centred around land.

It is on this land that interconnected relationships and communities form — communities which are not marked by shared values, but by time spent together.

In Toronto, cultural diversity and Indigenous resurgence make for a fertile moment in which vibrant relationships are being formed. For example, in 2016, Black Lives Matter and Indigenous communities in Toronto formed conspicuous solidarities against anti-Black police brutality and the Attawapiskat suicide crisis.

It is faith within and between these communities that reminds us that “Black Lives Matter on Indigenous land.”   

Whether in the form of street signs or protests, increased Indigenous visibility compels settler Canadians to acknowledge the worldviews of those who have ancestral connections to the land. These encounters can prove fruitful in the quest to form strong interpersonal relationships and communities.

As Blight urges, such relationships can reaffirm the “Dish with One Spoon” treaty: that we must share, protect, and preserve the land together, peacefully. Given that settler colonialism is a living history that concerns all of us, it must be dismantled by all of us if we are to create a more sustainable, inclusive future.

At the University of Toronto, the Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee has just released its report of 32 recommendations on how the university can respond to the legacies of residential schools and ongoing systemic racism against Indigenous peoples.

President Meric Gertler stated that the university “acknowledges its responsibility in contributing to the plight of Indigenous peoples, and we embrace the opportunity to engage with Indigenous communities and, together, lead the process of reconciliation.” The report advises Gertler to create visible Indigenous spaces on campus, hire more Indigenous faculty and staff members, and integrate Indigenous curricula into university education.

Moving past stereotypes, misconceptions, and isolation, it is important to recognize that the Indigenous population of Canada is comprised of plural communities, whose worldviews about interconnectedness and land protection can inform a more harmonious future for the University of Toronto and Canada more broadly. It is not Indigenous beliefs that require scrutiny and dismissal, but rather our disbelief in them.

One can consider the case of Professor Brenda Wastasecoot, a member of the York Factory Cree Nation. In teaching the course “Indigenous Worldviews, Spiritual and Healing Traditions,” she implements Indigenous pedagogy in the most uplifting forms.

Wastasecoot uses circle teaching by which method all students are given a chance to speak. She emphasizes that everyone’s voice, presence, and story must be valued. She is also very candid about her own personal experiences with trauma and abuse and their connections to settler colonialism. Her openness is a radical call to believe in the lived experiences, worldviews, and right to human dignity of marginalized communities of faith.

Wastasecoot also compares the Western mental health system, which bases itself on individual treatment and pharmaceutical drugs, to the Indigenous sweat lodge, which focuses on natural medicine and community healing. Last year, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto opened a sweat lodge — the first of its kind in Ontario.

At the university and in Toronto generally, reclamation of Indigenous spaces and traditions is important for decolonization and how we conceive Indigeneity. When othered people of faith build solidarities with one another under an Indigenous framework of interconnectedness, community, and respect for the land, we can begin constructing a more inclusive future for all.

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Learning to listen

People of faith do not exist in a bubble. They learn quickly that disagreeing with a point of view does not disqualify them from creating communities of respect. Not only do students of faith learn from others, but others can learn from them.

“I think I’ve become more open,” Andraws says in reference to her faith practice. “I have a lot of friends that have converted, and I think understanding all faiths is incredibly important. Not only to ‘defend’ your own, but to [understand] what is out there. It makes you appreciate other people, and it gives you an opportunity to solidify your own beliefs.”

So, perhaps there is hope for Ramadan’s call for an intersectional jihad. At the National Day of Action against Islamophobia and White Supremacy in downtown Toronto for example, the Sikh community demonstrated solidarity by serving samosas, tea, and hot chocolate to protesters in cold February weather. The Sikh community is frequently confused for and attacked as Muslims, and it remains a leading ally in the anti-Islamophobia struggle.

By understanding the plural communities of faith and their politicization, we can better understand the unique experiences of those we come across.

Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter Toronto led the rally itself, given the existence of Black Muslims and more importantly, their commitment to anti-racism in general. University of Toronto student groups led several contingents to the rally, including the ASSU and [email protected] Hope is highest where solidarity between othered communities flourishes, in defense of the right to faith, self-determination, and dignity.   

By understanding the plural communities of faith and their politicization, we can better understand the unique experiences of those we come across.

At university and in Canada, making sustainable learning spaces does not mean that we only believe in the validity of our own communities, but that if we believe that we are valid, others can be as well. Only then, perhaps, can ‘they’ become ‘us.’

Suburban angst, city dreams

For the past 20 years, home for me has been the suburb of Oakville, Ontario. Nestled between Burlington and Mississauga, it is where I made many of my first friends and had many of my first experiences, yet I always had a desire to go to Toronto: the city.

As a kid, driving into Toronto from the west on the Queen Elizabeth Way felt like entering the Emerald City. It was as if the CN Tower was the light guiding me to the place where I could be who I wanted to be.

Growing up, I heard kids from other areas surrounding Toronto — Whitby, Ajax, Brampton, Mississauga, and beyond — claim that they were from Toronto. At first, it seemed ridiculous. To Toronto natives, people who claim they are from Toronto and are not may seem like posers. Nevertheless, as I began to think about it, I realized that this declaration was more layered than it seemed.

As human beings, we always yearn for something that we don’t have. If we’re walking, we’d rather be riding a bike. If we’re riding our bike, we’d rather be in a car. If we’re in our car, we wish we could teleport. A similar state of mind is at work when suburban youth want to cut themselves off from where they are from in order to achieve something more. Seeking this self-improvement, they often look to places where they believe they can better find or shape their identities.

These places contain a combination of people and things that are new and innovative. They are exotic — they are where anyone who is anybody resides, where anything worth mentioning takes place. It does not matter if this is reality or not; what really matters is that there is a place to feel free from familial obligations and suburban angsts. In books and films, ‘the big city’ is a common trope. It acts as a cornucopia of promise and freedom. For young people living in the Greater Toronto Area, Toronto is that city.

Toronto is a symbol for people who do not feel part of traditional suburban culture. While the suburbs are built on uniformity, Toronto is built on individuality. If you are a kid who feels like you do not fit into the mould of suburbia, tired suburban scenes can feel like a prison keeping you from where you want to go.

If you relate to this, you probably feel that your identity is vastly different from your family’s reality. To them, a house in the suburbs is the pinnacle of familial success. It’s in a friendly neighborhood and has good schools, numerous public programs, and lots of open space. It’s the best place for them to raise children. But you are no longer a child, and leaving the suburbs to go to the city gives you space to find and reach your own pinnacle of success.

In the suburbs, there is often a disconnect between the people who surround you and the lifestyle you desire to have. There is never an interesting place or activity in your town — it’s all in the city.

For suburban kids, claiming Toronto as their own helps to divorce them from the connotations of their hometowns. In many cases, it is not that these people don’t love where they’re from, but instead, they do not want to be associated with the stereotypes attached to their towns, even though these are usually only exaggerations that fail to reflect the complexities of the places they label.

Having grown up in Oakville, I noticed that people outside my town would make comments about it, saying that everyone there was snobby and stuck-up. I was taken aback. I wasn’t like that, but I lived there. I grew to see that the stereotype wasn’t without merit, but it wasn’t how I wanted to be represented either.

These connotations can also enforce the idea that the suburbs are ‘less ethnic.’ As a person of colour, this idea adds another layer to the suburban stereotype. Saying you are from Oakville, London, or other certain towns may cause people to see you as ‘white-washed.’ Although the place where you grew up is a part of you, your desire to seem more a part of your ethnic culture is often stronger.

This desire spurs people to remove themselves from their hometowns and claim Toronto, a well-known cultural hotspot, as their own. It is problematic that society sees suburbia as synonymous with a lack of culture, but suburban kids can’t be blamed for not worrying about that. When they say, ‘I am from Toronto,’ it is because they have a strong desire to belong.

At the end of the day, there are many reasons why people claim they are from Toronto when they are not. These reasons may stem from a lack of personal and cultural representation in suburban communities. Perhaps hockey isn’t their sport, they have never played YMCA soccer, or they prefer artisan coffee shops to Starbucks. Regardless of the reason, Toronto becomes the place where a fragmented sense of belonging becomes whole.