All posts by Ibnul Chowdhury

Editor-in-Chief 2020-2021 Managing Editor 2019-2020 Comment Editor 2018-2019 Associate Comment Editor 2017-2018

No credit, please

Journalism is a public practice: it requires serving the public interest and in turn earning public trust. But what happens when a story that is of public interest requires a level of privacy that seems to undermine credibility and public trust? That is the ethical dilemma of anonymity that journalists face.

As student journalists, it is no less important for us to reflect on the decision-making procedures that go into the use of anonymity. Despite all the costs and risks, anonymity is sometimes worth it.

The straight story

Aversion to anonymity in a public practice like journalism is understandable, but arguably ahistorical. The most famously cited example of such reporting is that of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. In 1972, the Washington Post reporters covered the Watergate scandal, which led to the downfall of the Nixon presidency. The catch is that they relied on anonymous sources to break the story.

It is important to clarify that anonymous sources mean confidential, unnamed, or background sources. Their identities are known by the reporter, but the information they provide is not ultimately attributed to them.

Revealing a given source’s identity can lead to retribution for both source and reporter, whether in their physical safety or employment prospects. Without source anonymity, some stories may otherwise never be told.

But public trust is always at stake. Readers have reason to be skeptical: if a claim is not attributed to any named person, it is difficult to know if they are telling the truth and how to hold them accountable. The public may especially scrutinize organizations that do not have a long-established reputation or record that justifies trust in anonymous sources, which may be particularly true for campus newspapers. It is therefore incumbent on journalists to use anonymous sources cautiously and sparingly, and to follow strict guidelines when doing so.

Double obligation

Organizations like the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) or the Society of Professional Journalists elaborate on when journalists should decide to use anonymous sources. According to the CAJ’s Ethics Guidelines, if there is a high public interest in what the source has to say and there is no alternative access to that information, then the journalist has reason to use such sources.

But journalists can nonetheless take steps to increase credibility and ensure that what they are gathering is indeed true. For example, they might gain the permission of a senior editor and ensure that they are aware of the identity and material of the source.

The source should be carefully vetted for their reliability and reasons for coming forward. There should be no malicious motive underlying the information they provide. For instance, as the CAJ notes, they should not “take cheap shots at individuals or organizations.” Given the lack of accountability, anonymity could perhaps give the source licence to make exaggerated, opinionated, or speculative assessments.

When describing the source in their reporting, the journalist should ensure that they contextualize the person in question as transparently as possible without exposing their identity altogether. If the journalist fails to protect their source, they risk damaging the reputation of the entire publication and any future prospects of anonymous sources coming forward. As The Varsity’s Code of Journalistic Ethics clearly states, “Journalists must protect the anonymity of sources to whom they have given such assurances.” Ultimately, journalists are obligated to the trust of both the readership and their source.

Due diligence

The Varsity’s News Editor Josie Kao explained the customary process that the News team undergoes in such scenarios.

According to Kao, anonymous sources are used as little as possible and anonymity is granted “on a case-by-case basis.” Editor-in-Chief Jack Denton elaborated that fear for safety, security, and reputation are good reasons for granting it. Other student-run campus papers also cite justifications like the prospect of mental, physical, sexual, or financial harm.

Kao gives the example of her September story on Test and Exam Services invigilators who spoke out against training sessions that included discriminatory content about students with disabilities.

Although an initial invigilator had already been public about the issue on social media and spoke on the record for Kao’s story, she connected Kao to co-workers who were willing to corroborate. However, they only agreed to proceed if guaranteed anonymity, given their fear of losing their jobs.

“For any anonymous source, the section editor and the editor-in-chief have to know about their entire background,” Kao stressed. “We don’t publish without doing our due diligence.”

This introduces particular challenges to the writing process. “For anonymous sources, we usually confirm with them about how they want to be described. For the invigilators’ story, this was already very difficult because they are a small group of people and any information can be easily identifiable,” she explained. “We definitely spent a lot of time working with them, getting their consent about their description… it took much longer than the regular one-week cycle.”   

Kao admitted that “maybe there’s a better way to be transparent about the editing process” to ensure readers are aware of the intense process behind the decision. At the University of Ottawa, Features Editor of student paper The Fulcrum Matt Gergyek is currently using anonymous sources to cover a story on student involvement in sugar dating for income. Gergyek suggested attaching the paper’s policy on anonymity alongside an explanation about how sources were vetted and why identities are being concealed to the article in question to preemptively address issues of public trust.

Procedures at other campus newspapers vary. At the University of Calgary, student paper The Gauntlet follows a similar process to The Varsity in that the editor-in-chief, news editor, and reporter in question must be fully aware of the background of the source.

At The McGill Daily, one of McGill University’s student papers, Coordinating Editor Lydia Bhattacharya indicated that an editor using anonymous sources has to consult with management to verify credibility — contact is made with the source — and ensure anonymity is maintained. The Fulcrum’s Editor-in-Chief, Anchal Sharma, doesn’t believe that using anonymous sources undermines the credibility of an article, especially when multiple sources corroborate the claims.

At The Ubyssey, the University of British Columbia’s main student paper, the process is somewhat more rigorous. Coordinating Editor Sam McCabe explained that if a reporter wishes to use an anonymous source, it must be approved by the section editor, followed by the coordinating editor, and ultimately two-thirds of the entire editorial team.

Given that anonymity undermines credibility, McCabe explained, this lengthy process “forces writers and editors to really consider why they may or may not grant certain requests.” Furthermore, The Ubyssey always seeks on-the-record and background sources to verify claims made by anonymous sources for due diligence.

For some smaller papers here at U of T, anonymous sources are not allowed. The Mike’s Editor-in-Chief Aaron Panciera explained that this is due to a lack of experience with anonymous sourcing, resources required to vet anonymous sources, and reputation to legitimize their use.

SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Telling a story that doesn’t point fingers

While the credibility of anonymous sources is particularly important for hard news, there is a distinction to be drawn for other forms of writing. The respective Editors-in-Chief for Ryerson University’s Eyeopener and Western University’s Western Gazette, Jacob Dubé and Michael Conley both agree that a source’s personal experience or feelings about an issue do not pose as much of a liability as, for instance, allegations against an individual or organization.

In this regard, narrative-style feature reporting is usually more flexible than hard news: it tells a story that does not point fingers, but provides voice to vulnerability.

For instance, with the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, former Varsity Comment Editor Teodora Pasca has written a series of pieces on ordinary people’s experiences of online sexual harassment.

The guarantee of anonymity — in the form of a pseudonym — was crucial to bringing forward respondents when she sent out requests, especially in big U of T Facebook groups. “When you’re dealing with moments of vulnerability and uncomfortable sexual experiences, a lot of people won’t want to share them, especially if you’re printing them. A Google search can be uncomfortable since the narrative gets associated with their name,” said Pasca.

Pasca’s interviews asked open-ended questions that enabled respondents to speak openly and “tell their story from start to finish.”

“They rarely get an opportunity to explain everything that has happened,” said Pasca, “and then have that narrative be incorporated with other [people’s].” Pasca also made sure to share transcripts with respondents to ensure that they were pleased with the product, even though anonymity was already guaranteed. Transcripts  were also made available for readers to “hear” the full story.

As a journalist, Pasca had to approach with care, because “people were sharing things with me that they didn’t share with a lot of people in their lives — there’s an element of trust.” Given that the material was “heavy, disappointing, and infuriating… you don’t want to have people share something with you and then not relay it properly or do anything at all.”

Clearly, the responsibility of the journalist goes beyond just sharing something of public interest — like harassment — while also respecting the privacy of the source. In some cases, public interest is secondary, and the goal is instead to have the story and the person who lived the story be recognized. When asked if her intent was to spark a conversation about sexual violence, Pasca explained that, instead, “it’s about listening. I want people to listen to other people’s experiences, and acknowledge that it happened.”

While a news reporting perspective  on sexual harassment often involves an accusation, which requires  getting comment from the accused, corroboration, and using words like “alleged,” the feature format allowed Pasca to focus on one side of the story that was “cathartic and meaningful for people to read.” In this sense, anonymity didn’t undermine credibility, since it’s not primarily about whether or not you believe a source experienced an incident. It’s simply about ensuring that their story is heard.

A similarly sensitive issue is youth homelessness in Toronto, which former Photo Editor Steven Lee and and current Deputy News Editor Ilya Bañares wrote about in last year’s winter magazine. They wrote this story to address education systems that don’t adequately support their students. They are “ignored if unsuccessful, revered if successful,” noted Lee.

Lee found that it was imperative to protect the identity of the youth who were interviewed, given the stigma of “uselessness, laziness, [and] desperation” associated with homelessness that could further expose them to bullying and discrimination. According to Lee, many of them “have worked really hard to distance themselves from said stigma in certain company,” including friends and teachers, “to retain a semblance of normalcy in their life.” Hence, they were asked how they wanted to be described in the piece and given untraceable monikers.

Whether in the cases of Pasca or Lee, the style for feature writing did not require a rigorous vetting process for the sources because they were not making accusations that heightened liability. They were just telling their stories. Given the sensitivity of these subjects, the position of the journalist and the personal stake they have in the subject also matters.

For instance, Pasca is a woman, and as such acknowledged that this likely had something to do with sources — mostly also women — being willing to speak to her. She was also invested in the subject given her own experiences of harassment. Likewise, Lee’s own experience of homelessness informed his interest in and ability to access homeless youth sources.

Authorless

But anonymous sourcing isn’t the only form of anonymity in journalism. An overlooked but equally important discussion is of anonymous bylines.

Last fall, The New York Times published an anonymous op-ed entitled, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” A note prefaces the article to explain the byline. “We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”

Among other matters, the op-ed drew controversy and criticism for its anonymity. Readers argued that an author should not just stand by but defend their own words, especially where accusations are concerned.

Other campus papers are also ambivalent toward anonymous bylines, although exceptions are made in the case of personal opinion pieces that could lead to significant retribution for authors. For example, Bhattacharya noted that The McGill Daily is willing to give anonymous bylines to protect an author’s personal safety, referring to instances when authors feared being doxxed by Canary Mission after criticizing Israel’s occupation of Palestine in their articles.

In 2017, The Varsity did grant authorial anonymity — for a photo-essay. The series was of Honest Ed’s prior to its complete demolition. To take the photos, the photographer, referred to as Cameron*, had to trespass. They described how it was “an impulsive decision for what I consider historically vital photos.” In recognizing the risks, Cameron “wanted to retain anonymity to avoid any potential legal ramifications.”

Collective voice

Editorials, which are opinion pieces written by the masthead, offer another avenue to examine anonymous bylines. Some campus papers use unsigned editorials, in which the article is accredited to the editorial board of the paper, as is the case with major publications like The New York Times or Toronto Star. In these cases, the individual authors of the editorial remain anonymous.

The Varsity’s operating policy mandates the practice of unsigned editorials to “represent the opinion of the newspaper as a whole.” Every semester, the masthead elects a group of individuals to serve on the editorial board, of which the Comment Editor is always chair. The identities of the other members are not made public, to ensure a confidential process in which members are free from external influence and scrutiny.

The benefit of unsigned editorials is that readers are focused on the argument and analysis at hand rather than the authors and their potential biases. This unity as the collective voice of a journalistic institution projects authority and power in advocacy.

The importance of the editorial board is further accentuated by the fact that, while conflict may exist privately, Varsity masthead members cannot publicly write individual opinion pieces to ensure that they don’t potentially conflict with the editorial position.

The Gazette also uses unsigned editorials, but always finds a way to incorporate the opinions of minority voices. It’s important that the public cannot identify any one individual author because, as Conley noted, “our organization is, like any organization, an organism in of itself.”

Papers with coordinating editors, like The McGill Daily and The Ubyssey, also use unsigned editorials, but claim to be less hierarchical and more democratic in that consensus from the entire editorial team is necessary.

However, some, like The Eyeopener, prefer signed editorials. These are accredited to individual writers because, as Dubé put it, “knowing the previous work, opinions, and interests of an editorial writer allows the reader to place their opinion within the greater context of the issue and consider its impact accordingly.”

Whether a paper uses an unsigned, signed, or hybrid system for editorials, considering the power and limitations of anonymity is essential as the writers grapple with public trust and transparency.

Who said, or what is said?

When it comes to anonymity, we are often focused on credibility. Readers want to know who is behind the stories they read. Without an answer, there is less accountability and trust. Nevertheless, a story or perspective should not be discounted simply because the identity of the source or author is concealed.

There is no question that due diligence is essential and papers should be transparent about their editorial decisions. But sometimes, to best serve the public interest, readers should read carefully for a moment before asking questions and making accusations. Otherwise, some stories might never be told.

*Name changed, for reasons explained above.

Travelling the coloured lines

Toronto is often lauded as a global, dynamic, and diverse metropolis that brings together the best of all backgrounds — especially, so the story goes, on the city’s touted public transportation system. But the more interesting question isn’t what the city looks like, but rather for whom the city is made and  whom it serves. Just as infrastructure can connect us, it can also divide us. Transit, in particular, is a central site in and through which belonging is determined and negotiated. 

Expulsion from within 

Documenting the perspectives of the most excluded individuals in political configurations of the city is scholar-activist Punam Khosla’s 2003 report, entitled, “If Low Income Women Of Colour Counted in Toronto.” The stories that Khosla records in her report show how racism, in its most blatant form, comes alive on the TTC. 

When I recently caught up with Khosla, currently a U of T instructor, to discuss her report, she recalled how, as soon as transit came up as a topic of discussion, the women “lit up with an enormous amount of stories… about getting spit on, being called names, and [being] harassed on the transit system.” 

In her report, Khosla articulated that the “passionate and unanimous anger” of women of colour with whom she spoke was directed at the discriminatory behaviour of transit drivers and fare collectors. She documented how drivers humiliated them, especially those who couldn’t speak English, and engaged in such practices as refusing to stop for them, to help them if they had a stroller with children, or to board them if they wore a hijab. Drivers also viewed them to be criminals and fare evaders — for instance, by refusing to accept their transfer. The report also found that racism by drivers and fare operators often emboldened passengers to do the same. 

Years since the 2003 study, Toronto university students who rely on the transit system continue to share many of these experiences. 

Ann, a Filipino-Canadian woman and U of T student, identifies as a “native Torontonian” who grew up in the suburbs of North York. She never expected to feel like she’s “not from around here.” But recently, while she was commuting home on the subway, a white man targeted her when she was the only person of colour in the vicinity. He rambled about how “she’s not Canadian” and that “immigrants should go back to where [they] came from. We Canadian taxpayers should not be paying for you.” 

Given her close connection to the city, Ann is terrified by the experience of racism in a place as diverse as Toronto — a fear that comes alive every time that she goes on the subway. 

Ayesha*, a Black Muslim woman and York University student, recalls several incidents that brought the intersectionality of her identities to the forefront. In several instances, she was called the n-word and at one point, told to “get to the back” of the bus — a reference to Rosa Parks. 

Another time, while taking a bus near Jane  Street and Dundas Street, she was told to remove her hijab because she could be “free” and “so much more beautiful without it.” She felt as if she was “nothing more than an ‘exotic’ woman who existed for [a male passenger’s] viewing pleasure.” In most cases, other passengers merely stood by, watched, and did nothing as she endured anti-Blackness, anti-Muslim racism, and misogyny. Because of her experiences, Ayesha is hyperaware of her surroundings when using transit.

While not directly experiencing racism on transit, other racialized passengers regularly witness it. Angela, a Chinese-Canadian woman and U of T student, has taken the 89 Weston at least twice a day this past year. She noticed how Mayor John Tory’s policy, which allows kids under 12 to ride for free, is not applied fairly. Specifically, racialized children are frequently questioned by bus drivers for their age and ID — sometimes having to pay a fare anyway. 

On the other hand, Angela said she has “never seen” white children IDed or forced to pay fare. She notes that the 89 bus is interesting because it passes through both affluent and racialized areas, which may inform differential treatment of passengers depending on their location. 

Angela also noticed how men frequently harassed Black teens late at night on the 89 bus, based on their age, gender, and sexuality. She observed how “naturally they responded, with confidence and anger that seemed far too routine.” 

What is clear is that women of colour, in particular, bear the brunt of open racism on the TTC. However, why racism occurs so particularly on the TTC is open to debate. Angela doesn’t believe that it does. “Transit is just something we frequently use, so it makes sense that racism, which is entrenched in our society, would manifest itself in this ordinary setting.” 

Ann claimed that on transit, passengers feel inclined to remain quiet rather than stand up to aggressive behaviour. Ayesha added that the “courage (or cowardice)” of attackers derives from the feeling that they can get away with it, without any repercussion. Filip*, a Hong Kong-Canadian man and U of T student, added that transit allows for quick exit and escape, thus enabling racism. 

According to Khosla, there is always an unspoken contest about who has access to public spaces, including transit. Spaces are hierarchized according to race, gender, and class, among other categories. Those who are privileged in these embedded fragmentations can express their entitled positions through openly racist, homophobic, and sexist vitriol — and usually are able to get away with it. 

The underlying reality is that their belonging in public spaces — such as transit — is fundamentally in question. People of colour, especially women, should expect to use transit as safely as everyone else does. But the city, while on the one hand claiming an identity based on strength in diversity, also contains a hidden order that bars certain groups from benefitting from the resources that are purportedly for everyone. 

Scanning the outer suburbs 

The Toronto subway system is well set up to connect commuters between the downtown core and the outer suburbs, like Mississauga, Brampton, and Markham. But it is important to note how connecting transit systems are not immune to similar issues of race, especially for Toronto commuter students. 

Nadine, a Black woman and U of T student, uses the Brampton and Mississauga transit systems. While taking the 502 bus from Brampton to Mississauga, she noticed that the driver was being difficult with an elderly Black woman who wanted to board the bus. The driver ultimately refused to drive the bus with her on board. 

Another time, at the intersection of Dundas and Hurontario Street, she observed a man’s reaction on the bus as a woman in a burka was crossing the street. He told the driver to “run them over — we don’t need them in our country anyway!” The bus was full of people of colour because it was travelling from Brampton. When they turned and questioned him about his behaviour, he only yelled back. It was not until another white man stood up to him that he stopped. 

Nadine also shared how bus stops in Mississauga are spray-painted with Islamophobic messages. She believes that racism is prevalent, especially during rush hour, because people are tired and don’t want to bother with incidents that won’t affect them after they leave the bus. Travelling on transit, therefore, is perceived as a momentary state that justifies disengagement from our obligations to one another as human beings. 

Earlier this year, Filip reported an incident of racial and sexual harassment to GO Transit authorities. One night, while taking a bus from Union Station to Markham, a drunk white man was making vulgar sexual comments toward the women who were with him. At one point, he turned his attention to Filip, accusing the woman beside him of having “yellow fever” — a racial trope referring to an Asian fetish.

The man followed with further vulgar remarks, which unnerved other passengers. Filip felt compelled to leave the bus, and informed the driver that he needed to handle the man’s behaviour. He is unsure if the driver was able to hear him clearly, as he was “shaken.” 

The downtown core versus the inner suburbs 

The intersection between racism and transit is not limited to experiences derived from the use of transit itself. The current transit infrastructure also reflects racial divisions between low-income communities — especially the inner suburbs — and other Torontonians. These divisions are concerned with affordability and accessibility.

Khosla indicates how transit costs are out of reach for low-income women. Public transit is the only option for this demographic, and working women make up 60 per cent of those who rely on transit to commute to and from work. Yet compared to other major cities, a large portion of the TTC’s operating costs — 70 per cent — are covered by the fare box, as opposed to provincial subsidies. 

This means that the working poor largely pay for the TTC. This issue is accentuated as fares continue to hike year after year, essentially operating as a regressive tax on transit-dependent communities. They are forced to make choices between transit and other essential needs.

Furthermore, because the TTC operates on the basis of maximizing the fare box, it favours the routes that generate the most revenue. This justifies cuts to less travelled routes that are used by the racialized working class in inner suburbs, like Scarborough. This leads to declining service, overcrowding, and longer wait times. Together, a lack of affordability and accessibility restrict the mobility of inner suburban communities — whether to find employment, socialize, or do groceries.  

The TTC even maintains the position that it is “beyond its mandate” to “resolve broader social and community issues related to income distribution” — that is, to serve the needs of its most vulnerable citizens.

In her report, Khosla noted how women of colour need subway service because of the long travel times on buses. Women in York saw the need for an Eglinton subway line, while women in North York wanted the Sheppard subway extended to Jane Street. The subway service that was demanded by women of colour 15 years ago has either not materialized or has yet to materialize. 

In a 2015 paper entitled “Environmental Justice, Transit Equity and the Place for Immigrants in Toronto,” Ryerson researchers Amardeep Kaur and Cheryl Teelucksingh corroborated many of Khosla’s findings. Immigrants are a large source of population growth in Toronto, and low-income immigrants — especially women — rely heavily on transit to navigate the city. But the transit system is largely set up to support the downtown core. A rapid transit network does not exist to support the inner suburbs. 

Meanwhile, low-income immigrant communities, who often only find affordable housing in inner suburban communities, are compelled to live far away from access to transit. Immigrant women with children face particular barriers. Buses and subways are not generally catered to accommodate their strollers or their need for functioning elevators and escalators, once again pointing to the issue of accessibility on transit services. This reinforces the isolation of communities within their immediate neighbourhoods and restricts access to various services, institutions, and needs.

One example of poor service in the inner suburbs is the notorious 41 Keele bus, which is frequently late and crowded. Since this summer, the Action Keele campaign has been canvassing on issues surrounding the bus and advocating for better public transit. 

In the October 13 Action Keele talk, Transit Justice in the Inner Suburbs, campaigner Steve Maher spoke about how central transit is to the lives of working people — but how they are the least connected to the city because the subway system is set up for the downtown area. Indeed, the suburbs are connected to the downtown core, but not to each other. All the “lively” and “desirable” parts of life happen downtown. For this reason, he lamented that the two regions appear to be completely different cities. In their transit experiences, both Ann and Angela observed that for locations populated by racialized communities, such as Jane and Finch, Weston Road, or Kennedy Road in Scarborough, there is a lack of reliable transit routes and service is infrequent, even though these are the areas that need transit the most to get around the city.

One of the most heated issues on subway expansion in the inner suburbs relates to the construction of the one-stop subway at Scarborough Centre, a plan supported by Tory. Critics pointed to the fact that politicians exploit the transit issues faced by suburban Scarborough citizens — many of whom are racialized immigrants — and offer the construction of a subway as a solution to a city that has otherwise neglected them.

But this is not a reflection of good policy; rather, it is a political strategy for votes and re-election. After all, the alternative plan — light rail transit — would offer more stops, service, and connectivity to more people in Scarborough, and it could be implemented much faster. The Scarborough subway, on the other hand, is viewed by critics as a costly, fiscally unjustifiable plan. Yet Tory accused his critics of not caring as much about immigrant communities as he does. 

Part of the optics of subway politics, then, is the invocation of race — even when it is not in the best interest of those whom the politicians claim to be representing. 

Khosla shared that, today, big capital projects have been undertaken or are underway, such as the York University subway expansion or the upcoming Eglinton line. Yet she cautioned that transit planning must reflect those who really need them and have no choice, namely, working-class people of colour. 

She criticized the mainstream environmentalist position on transit policy, which focuses on encouraging middle-class commuters to leave their cars at home and take transit as a means to reduce carbon emissions. This demographic operates on choice, unlike many inner suburbanites, who can only use transit. This only reinforces the downtown-commuter dynamic on which the transit system is already built. 

Moving forward

“What could our lives and our finances be like under a free, high-quality public transit system?” asked moderator Sadia Khan at the Action Keele talk. This was a timely question, as one of Toronto mayoral candidate Saron Gebresellassi’s platform points was, in fact, free transit. This idea, although dismissed as unrealistic, could theoretically address many of the affordability issues that low-income communities face. 

Khosla, Kaur, and Teelucksingh all agree that transit planning and decision-making need to include, consult, and focus on marginalized, inner suburban voices. This process can help reflect the needs of transit-dependent communities and also document experiences of racism on the transit system. For instance, Kaur and Teelucksingh also call for the planned downtown relief plan to connect to the inner suburbs, like East York and Etobicoke. Indeed, the future of transit needs to reflect those who need and use it the most. 

The reality, though, is that progress is slow and inelastic. For instance, Khosla’s recommendation for a discounted pass for social assistance recipients 15 years ago was only implemented earlier this year. 

At the Action Keele talk, TTCriders member Vincent Puhakka called for a transit system that delivers dignity to its users. He noted how riders feel disconnected and that the work of TTCriders is to engage in conversation and mobilize transit users as a political constituency that can reach out to elected officials — especially around provincial and municipal budgets and elections. 

Transit cuts across a variety of issues — like housing, poverty, and wages — so examining intersections in advocacy work is also key to long-term organizing. Puhakka also views the King Street Transit Pilot in downtown as a model for how transit could look like in the inner suburbs, where public transit receives priority over private motorists. 

On the subject of racism on transit, the TTC recently launched the #ThisIsWhere campaign, which showcases ads that raise awareness of harassment. The TTC also launched an anti-harassment app which enables passengers to share reports of harassment and allows TTC employees to respond. 

These new programs receive scrutiny. For one, the ads for the campaign may be triggering and uncomfortable for those who have experienced harassment or assault before, while those who haven’t might not be affected much at all. The question, then, is to what end these ads serve in terms of addressing racial harassment, beyond just “awareness.”

Furthermore, passengers of colour may feel uncomfortable using the app if there are concerns over police involvement. The app also suggests that it is the responsibility of the victim to address what could be a traumatic experience for them, making it difficult to engage in the reporting process. What is necessary for any such anti-harassment campaign is that marginalized voices are adequately consulted. Furthermore, there is a need for thorough anti-racism training for TTC employees and operators so that they are equipped to handle harassment appropriately and do not engage in it themselves. 

In February this year, the use of excessive force against a Black teen on a streetcar by fare inspectors was highly scrutinized. Similar to the aforementioned drivers, the behaviour of TTC employees can justify the perception that they are the perpetrators of racism, as opposed to interveners. 

Aside from anti-racism training for operators, the responsibility of bystanders is a main focus of those who experienced or observed racism on transit. Nadine, Ann, and Ayesha all emphasized the importance of bystanders standing up to racial harassment — especially if the bystander is white, as they appear to mitigate offenders who are white. Filip advocated for better bystander training in transit use, so that passengers are aware of how to intervene, de-escalate the situation, and help those being racially harassed.

Racialized folks in Toronto, like everyone else, wish to be a part of all the city has to offer, in terms of employment, services, culture, and social life. To do so, many need and use transit. Yet they continue to face structural barriers on the transit system — from discrimination to affordability and accessibility. This is a question about who belongs and who matters in the city. 

It is imperative that transit planning and policy reflect their experiences, concerns, and needs — if people of colour are to belong to the city, then the city is to belong to people of colour. 

*Names have been changed at the individual’s request

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.”

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.’

‘All my relations’

“We wish to acknowledge this land on which the University of Toronto operates. For thousands of years, it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.”

From the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s Annual General Meeting to special guest speaker events, the Statement of Acknowledgement of Traditional Land has become crystallized into words that are frequently used to open functions on campus. Perhaps, it was last year’s release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report that sparked a marked rise in our acknowledgment of how the places we call home are the original homes of Indigenous peoples: the First Nations, the Métis, and the Inuit. After over a 100 years of residential schools and the intergenerational degradation of the Indigenous sense of home, it is timely that we — the settler Canadian majority — make a change to our cultural ethos; that we enable ‘re-Indegenization’; and that we assess what home must mean to those who were here long before us.

To understand the Indigenous sense of home, we must first conceptualize its negation: homelessness. However, the popular understanding of homelessness as the absence of physical shelter is Western-centric and limited in the Indigenous context. Indeed, a more intersectional and nuanced definition is needed.

Jesse Thistle, a Trudeau Scholar of Métis-Cree identity who was formerly homeless and addicted to drugs, leads the development of a definition of Indigenous homelessness that is set to be finalized by 2017 on behalf of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Rather than homelessness in terms of physicality, property, or possessions, which aligns with the government’s definition, this new definition consults Indigenous worldviews and methodology by centring on ‘all my relations.’

Indigenous homelessness is “fully described and understood through Indigenous worldviews as individuals, families, and communities isolated from their relationship to land, family, kin, each other, place, cultures, languages, and identities, and who do not possess or have the ability to culturally, spiritually, emotionally, and/or physically reconnect with their Indigeneity or lost relationships.” The work further identified 10 typologies that describe the nuanced experiences of Indigenous peoples and the loss of their relationships.

This revolutionary conception of homelessness based on Indigeneity can help contextualize the history of colonization and its impacts on Indigenous peoples and their sense of home. This work is useful for settler Canadians seeking to address their own complicity in the disturbance of that home.

Home is complex, layered, and multidimensional in the Indigenous experience. Consider the individual story of Darlene Necan: after three years of using donated materials, Necan finally completed the building of her home this year in the unorganized township of Savant Lake in Northern Ontario on grounds which were significant to her childhood. However, this individual story of accomplishment includes incredible struggle that speaks to the broader issue of Indigenous homelessness.

Twenty kilometers south of Savant Lake is Necan’s reserve, belonging to the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen. Due to a shortage in housing, she was unable to find adequate shelter on-reserve. Furthermore, Necan claims that her own Indigenous government and Chief lacks the willingness and accountability to help off-reserve members like her. Comparatively, off-reserve housing is not much better. In the nearest city of Thunder Bay, she complains of high rents and a “vicious cycle of welfare” that renders impoverished Indigenous peoples “paralyzed in the Ontarian provincial system.”

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With hostility from both the reserve government and the provincial government, she opts for her own housing at a place known to her past: Savant Lake. Even on Savant Lake, however, she met legal challenges from the government, which claimed that the Public Lands Act forbade her from building a home there. Eventually, this threat was dropped. Thus, in 2016, she was able to complete and move into her home and reconnect with her Anishinaabe, familial roots.

Both urban living and reserve living highlight the intersections of colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism that uniquely hurt and displace Indigenous women. Necan considers urban living to be a source of “desperation.” She has considered selling drugs to make enough money in order to survive. On-reserve, she and other women have been attempting to reclaim ownership of the land. In both urban and on-reserve cases, Indigenous women fight the hardest for homes in societies that actively marginalize them.

In a historical context, the primary example of disenfranchisement and Indigenous homelessness is residential schools. This colonial assault not only physically separated children from their communities into abusive conditions but also enacted cultural genocide. Those who survived and returned to their communities were given housing, but nonetheless remained ‘homeless’ in their inability to practice their culture, speak their language, enact traditional economic methods, or connect with their families. Likewise, the is ‘Sixties Scoop’ re-enacted the displacement of Indigenous children into the child welfare system, and further degraded any sense of stable, traditional, Indigenous home.

The colonial targeting of Indigenous children has left a profound impact in terms of intergenerational trauma, such as family violence and drug addiction; it has exacerbated systemic gaps in terms of employment, education, and health that undermine Indigenous communities and homes.

The alarming rate at which Indigenous women experience violence — especially given the high numbers of missing and murdered women today — has devastated Indigenous communities, given the centrality of mothers and girls in such societies. This historical culmination of separation, isolation, and trauma have often manifested in extreme forms of hopelessness, such as the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat earlier this year. Clearly, the deprivation of relationships and culture continue to contribute to Indigenous homelessness.

The damage to Indigenous homes does not stem merely from historical forms of trauma but also from direct aggression upon homes that are sanctioned by government and industry. For hundreds of years, ‘nation-building’ and ‘economic development’ have rationalized colonization and unwarranted encroachment on Indigenous land. This continues today. For example, the proposed chromite mining in Northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire risks water poisoning and disables Indigenous peoples from exercising their right to fish on their traditional lands.

Necan’s cousin, Neecha, urges that future Indigenous generations should still have access to their land and inhabit it in their traditional ways; she also criticizes chief leaderships that permit corporate extractions of the land in the name of development.

Perhaps the most urgent threat to Indigenous homes is the continued pursuit of pipelines to transport oil and natural gas. The inherent risk of ruptured pipelines disproportionately concerns Indigenous communities and their attachment to local ecosystems and the environment. Furthermore, a continued reliance on a fossil fuel economy contributes to severe climate change, which deeper undermines the Indigenous connection to environment and, at its worst, causes natural disasters that create ‘emergency crisis homelessness.’

Indigenous struggles for home concerns the city life too. With up to 37,000 Indigenous Torontonians, who are eight times more likely than non-Indigenous Canadians to endure physical homelessness, the latter have a responsibility to bridge the gap between their isolated urban consciousness and urban Indigenous issues.

To this end, the Indigenize or Die workshop series informs the City of Toronto’s Park and Public Realm Plan — a plan that intends to enrich public spaces. The inclusion of an Indigenous lens aims to recreate urban space in such a way that respects traditional usage of the land — for ceremonies and gatherings around fires, as an example — and include Indigenous voices in urban planning.

With regard to such momentum for urban re-Indigenization, the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett acknowledges the invisibility of Indigenous Torontonians. She concedes that there must be more ‘on-the-land’ space for further exposure. For example, the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto and the First Nations House at the University of Toronto serve as prime educational hubs for settler Canadians. Street signs near campus are also examples of reclaimed Indigeneity: for example, the Anishnaabe name ‘Isphadinaa’ for ‘Spadina.’ It is crucial that we cede the urban space, in which public consciousness is most impressionable, to Indigenous heritages and the knowledge that we are settlers on their home lands.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission demands that Canadians address the dark history of residential schools and the impact of intergenerational trauma on Indigenous homes. Of course, our apologies are insufficient; there must be action. The systemic gaps in education, employment, and health are stark; they illustrate the greater problem of Indigenous homelessness by which Indigenous peoples are deprived not only of physical shelter but also of their connection to land, culture, and spirituality.

Bennett also affirms that beyond just economic resources as the basis for successful Indigenous self-determination, there must be “secure, personal cultural identity.” In other words, only a reconnection to language and culture can empower an Indigenous sense of confidence and home.

However, cultural vibrancy cannot exist when we Canadians continue to commit aggression, settlement, and displacement without the consent of Indigenous peoples. As we extract resources, pursue economic development, and contribute to climate change, we continue colonization and sanction Indigenous homelessness.

It is our responsibility, then, to act upon the knowledge that we are fundamentally settlers on lands that do not belong to us. The struggles, leaderships, and triumphs of Thistle and Necan accentuate the issue of Indigenous homelessness and our complicity in its continued existence today.

Ultimately, home is more than just housing: it is about preserving our core selves and relationships. If we are to reconcile our relationship with Indigenous peoples, we must enable the self-determination of their most valued relationships — with communities, cultures, spirit, and land.