All posts by Tom Yun

Managing Online Editor 2017–2018 News Editor 2016–2017 Associate News Editor 2015–2016

The value of a U of T degree

[dropcap]E[/dropcap]ver since I was a high school freshman, there was little doubt in my mind that I would end up at U of T. The campus environment, international reputation, downtown Toronto location, and vast range of programs were just some of the factors I took into consideration when choosing a university. On top of that, I knew that it would give me the option to commute from home.

Everyone at U of T sees value in the school for different reasons, so it’s difficult to put a dollar amount on how much a U of T degree — and the U of T experience —  is worth. The valuation of factors, such as the people you meet and how far away from home you are, are often personal, and the rewards relating to these factors are often intangible.

Nonetheless, I explored what students are receiving when they get a degree here, what it means to attend a highly ranked institution, and what a U of T education may look like under the province’s upcoming changes to its university funding formula.

Financial outcomes

Glen Jones, Professor of Higher Education and the Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, explained that data collected from Statistics Canada comparing salary and income levels between secondary school graduates and university graduates from various programs have found that those with undergraduate degrees do better than those without. Long-term income is more debatable, he said, because people often switch professional fields during their lifetime.

“The question is: what happens to you after your first job?” said Jones. “There’s been some data that suggests that those in liberal arts actually catch up along their way, so their initial jobs may have lower incomes but they may catch up along the way as they move onto other careers. The challenge is that the career structure keeps changing.”

A study published in July 2016 by the Education Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa looked into the earnings of 2005 graduates over eight years. It found that between 2005 and 2013, graduates with bachelor’s degrees saw earnings increase by an average of 66 per cent, from $45,200 to $74,900. For humanities and social science graduates, the figure was 73.8 and 70.5 per cent respectively. Although people like to picture liberal arts graduates working as baristas, the data shows otherwise.

“If your undergraduate degree is in philosophy or classics, you’re not heading in a profession that involves classics or philosophy,” said Jones. “But you have a set of critical thinking skills and maybe a set of communications skills and other skillsets that are quite attractive in, whether it’s business or some other field.”

Rankings and reputation

A major selling point for U of T is how highly the school ranks in various world rankings lists. In most major ranking lists, U of T has placed first in Canada and within the top 30 universities internationally. With each new ranking list released, the university’s communications department wastes no time showing off U of T’s position among fellow universities.

But aside from providing ego boosts for students and a steady supply of positive PR for the university, what do these rankings actually accomplish?

Jones noted that many of these rankings focus on research and reputation, rather than the quality of the education that students receive. “In terms of educational quality, I’m not sure it makes a big difference,” he said. “My general sense is that all Canadian universities are quite good.”

He explained further that “sometimes, the most important decision is moving away from home, and that’s a life choice. And maybe that’s more important than going to a university that’s number 12 or number 146.”

When it comes to choosing a school, Jones believes the rankings should only be a “modest factor” taken into account in comparison to other factors, such as relative program strengths and university location.

On the other hand, world rankings can make a huge difference when it comes to recruiting international students — who make up approximately 20 per cent of the student body at U of T.

“The existence of international students on campus has a big impact on the university’s revenue and that must have a big impact on what the university is able to provide to students,” explained  Jones. “If we didn’t have those international students and relied only on government money and domestic tuition, I think the university would look very different.”

The rankings, Jones argued, are fundamental to U of T’s ability to attract international students from around the world. “If the university was not in the rankings anywhere, our ability to attract international students from… other parts of the world would be highly diminished,” he said.

The day after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, U of T’s admissions website reported a spike in traffic. Subsequently, the university saw a 24 per cent increase in international applicants with a 71 per cent increase in applications from American students for the 2017–2018 cycle.

Jones also said, however, that it is too early to tell what the effects of increased attention to U of T as a result of political shifts in the US could be.

“It’s just a question on how big a change… and how long-lasting it is, and we just don’t know the answer to these questions,” he said. “That’s just the political reality. Whether that means that Canada will be advantaged by that, I’d like to think so, but we’ll see.”

A new funding formula

The province of Ontario has been in negotiations with post-secondary institutions to modernize its funding formula for universities. Currently, funding is provided to universities on the basis of enrollment — with more funding allocated to schools with higher enrolment — but the province is considering adding outcome metrics such as graduation rates. These stipulations are laid out between the province and each university in what are called strategic mandate agreements.

“It’s part of the strategy that the province wants to create a university sector where there are more differences between institutions, and they want the universities to essentially say what they think they’re really good at and what their priorities are, and the provinces are using that as a foundation for trying to differentiate the system,” said Jones.

In addition, the university is considering cuts to admissions over the next five to seven years. Given the fact that tuition and government funding tied to enrolment make up about two-thirds of the university’s revenue, it raises the question of what effects a new funding formula could have on the kind of education students can come to expect in the future.

“If your undergraduate degree is in philosophy or classics, you’re not heading in a profession that involves classics or philosophy”

“The last thing the province wants is to have a huge change to the funding arrangements that will cause huge instability to the system. So the changes will be incremental, and they will be relatively modest initially,” said Jones.

In an unpublished interview in April, The Varsity spoke to Andrew Thomson, U of T’s Chief of Government Relations, who weighed in on the prospects of a metric-based funding formula.

“We’ll each need to identify what [metrics] we think we need to be measured against and then, how does that fit our funding goals? We do have some unique pressures in the university because the way the funding formula recognizes each program as being relatively equal in weight,” he said.

Thomson also pointed out that some programs have smaller class sizes and more labs attached to them. With these distinctions, U of T would need to work with the province to make sure they can factor them in appropriately.

Jones does not believe there is a perfect funding formula; rather, he believes that the idea of a funding formula depends on what each university wishes to accomplish.

“My own sense is that it’s possible for governments to go overboard on using performance measures, and they sometimes end up with unintended consequences,” he continued. “If you suddenly decide that one thing is important  — and there’s a lot of money of the table — universities will do all they can to do that one thing. But they may neglect a whole bunch of other things.”

— With files from Aidan Currie

Outside the circle

February 12, 2017 was a Sunday. The roads were treacherous and the sidewalk was slippery. There was a snowstorm; the kind that encourages most people to stay in their homes, but that didn’t stop over 100 people from visiting U of T to talk about anything other than God.

The first gathering — service, meeting, it’s still not decided what to call it — of the Toronto chapter of the Oasis network was held in the Koffler House Multi-Faith Centre. The Oasis network, established in the US, provides a community similar to that of a church or a mosque for the non-religious, the secular, the skeptical, and the curious.

“Whether you are continuing within religion, or if you don’t identify with a religion, or if you don’t follow any religion or belief structure, it’s irrelevant. What we’re coming together to do is to focus on our core values and build our community,” explained Eve Casavant, one of the chapter’s organizers.

The core values Casavant references are authoritative: people are more important than beliefs; reality is known through reason; meaning comes from making a difference; human hands solve human problems; and people must be accepting to be accepted.

These values drew many to fill the Multi-Faith Centre, a room with wood-panelled walls and a ceiling that looks like marble. Minutes before the meeting, a bluegrass musician played his banjo, mothers helped young children into seats, and people pecked on an array of snacks at the back of the room. The audience demographic was skewed towards those white and older, but people of several races and ages were also in the crowd.

The banjo stopped playing, and the meeting began. A large projector displayed the Oasis logo.

Gretta Vosper is another organizer who helped bring Oasis to Toronto. The spectacled woman with short grey hair addressed the group; she explained why she was there, thanked the volunteers who made the event possible, and expressed the importance of the newfound community.

“People came from up to three hours away in one of the worst snowstorms of the year to come and talk about how isolated they felt, because whether they were members of a church, or they couldn’t find a church to go to, they were constantly outside the circle of belief. You are all outside that circle in one way or another,” said Vosper, who understands being outside of the circle very well.

An atheist church minister

Vosper is a minister at the United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

Vosper became the subject of national headlines after she publicly identified herself as an atheist, despite her position with the Church. She does not believe in a literal interpretation of God.

“My beliefs were formed in the United Church. So, when I was in Sunday school, I was taught about a God that was really love,” explained Vosper. “It wasn’t a being that I needed to obey or that was watching me all the time. The God that I was taught about was about what we needed to live out in the world.”

These beliefs continued to manifest during her years at Queen’s Theological College. “We were invited to explore the Bible as it were written by humans, for humans, for very human reasons, to explore the variety of ways that people had struggled with the concept of God and articulated that,” she said. “And liberal theologians for decades and decades have been talking about God as a human concept or a construct of some kind of or another.”

Initially, Vosper called herself a ‘non-theist’ but took on the atheist label in 2013. At the time, she wanted to become more explicit about her beliefs and join in solidarity with persecuted atheists in other countries.

“We’re taught to speak about what we believe in in softer terms. In my first book, I refer to myself as a non-theist. In my second book, I realized that non-theist didn’t really cut it because some people called themselves non-theist even though they had a supernatural idea,” said Vosper.

“The short of it is, when authors started getting killed by machetes in Bangladesh because they were being called atheists, I had to take a look at my beliefs and said, ‘Well, my beliefs are consistent with atheistic beliefs, so in order to express solidarity, I’m gonna take that label,’” she said.

Vosper’s church, West Hill United Church in Scarborough, is also quite secular. She speaks every Sunday — a commitment that mostly prevents her from taking part in Oasis meetings — and calls her talks ‘perspectives’, rather than ‘sermons’.

“You don’t hear us read from the Bible very often,” said Vosper. “You don’t hear me talk about Jesus as a moral standard and you don’t hear the word God shared regularly, but we still talk about values, a commitment to live.”

It is unclear how many clergy within the United Church have similar views, but Vosper claims that such interpretations of God and the Bible are common.

“If you go into any United Church congregation and many other liberal denominations… in Canada, and you listened to a service, you would hear language that [refers] to a pre-Copernican order of the universe, with heaven and earth and hell,” she explained.

Vosper continued, “You would hear about the divine Son of God through whom we are saved. You would hear about a God who was a supernatural God, who listens to our prayers and acts on our behalf, but then if you sit down on Tuesday morning and had coffee with the person who led that service and asked them if they actually believed in all of those things, I think you would get a very, very different answer.”

Vosper’s position as minister despite her atheistic views, proved to be quite controversial in the United Church. A review committee within the Toronto Conference of the United Church recommended defrocking Vosper in a report released September 2016, stating, “In our opinion, she is not suitable to continue in ordained ministry because she does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.”

The findings were subsequently presented to the sub-executive committee of the Toronto Conference, who asked the United Church’s general council to conduct a hearing about defrocking Vosper and placing her on the church’s Discontinued Service List. It is unclear when the general council will make its final decision.

Setting the stage for Oasis

Vosper’s involvement with Oasis began in 2015, at which point she was already looking into creating a community like West Hill in the downtown core.

“We have a lot of people who travel a lot of distance to come to West Hill, so in 2014, we wanted to start a community on the west side of the city and we did that. They meet monthly. In 2015, we wanted to start in the community in the core of the city, but we realized that we needed to have more than monthly gatherings,” Vosper explained.

Much like a church, Oasis meets on Sunday mornings, despite attempts from organizers to meet at a different time.

“The first time we started talking about when it would be, people said, ‘Anything but Sunday morning! I just want to sleep in and have my coffee.’” Vosper explained. “But as we started talking about time, it became apparent that if you want to have children involved, you can’t do anything in the evening. That took all the evenings out. The only mornings are Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings. Well, nobody wanted it to be Saturday morning. So, it ended up on Sunday morning.”

Vosper said that she was looking for an organizational model that wouldn’t focus on a single leader. Her search led her to Oasis, a pre-existing network of secular congregations located in several US cities.

Vosper expects religious discussions at Oasis to be “limited” and notes that it will not be an “atheist” community. “There may be groups that form that want to have conversations about religion,” she said. “There may be groups that form for people who have left a fundamentalist religion and they’re trying to recover from the realities of that.”

Raihan Abir, an atheist writer from Bangladesh, fits this description. Although he wore a smile for most of the day, he had many difficult stories to tell.

Abir came to Canada as an asylum seeker in 2015 and is now a permanent resident, living with his wife and daughter in Toronto. His journey to Canada was necessitated by his beliefs, which put his life at risk in Bangladesh. Atheist thinkers like Abir are common targets for violent religious extremists.

“Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, they established themselves in 2012 with the hope in mind that they would convert the whole Indian subcontinent including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, this whole region,” Abir explained. “To do that, Al Qaeda’s strategy is [that] they will attack people who are generally seen as a taboo, like, they will attack atheists, gays. They will attack any secular activist.”

Abir continued, “[Al-Qaeda’s] greatest enemy is the United States. It’s not right now, but when they started, their greatest enemy was the United States. So they think [of us] as Western agents who are polluting Islam. So they think of us as anti-Islamic spies from the West. And with that accusation, they killed us.”

Many of Abir’s friends and colleagues were killed by Al-Qaeda for blogging about atheism. Abir himself was attacked. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was largely indifferent to such attacks, criticizing atheists for writing “pornography.” The Islamic State (IS) would join Al-Qaeda in Bangladesh soon after.

“IS started their operation in 2014 in Bangladesh because they started out around that time in Syria as well,” said Abir. “And they also wanted to make the whole Indian subcontinent as an Islamic state. Same as Al Qaeda. And they have India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, that region, the whole region.”

The two groups share the same mission but employ different tactics.

“IS wasn’t actually making any list of atheist bloggers. They still hate us, but they’re kind of [an] authoritarian movement,” he continued. “On the other hand Al-Qaeda is a populist movement. So that’s the difference between them. So the government is  very hard on IS, but very soft on Al-Qaeda.”

Abir grew up in a Muslim family, but found other worldviews and perspectives online.

“When I first started blogging in 2007, in a post people were mocking Allah. And I thought ‘Whoa, you can mock Allah?’” Abir said. “So literally I thought that you can’t mock Allah before something bad will happen… So many religions had that capability of making people think this way. But when you just say, ‘Well, we didn’t come from Adam and Eve,’ many people say ‘Really?’… I try to do that, feeling that it’s my responsibility.”

Abir is a fan of ‘New Atheists’ like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, all of whom have gained massive followings for criticizing and advocating against religious ideas and supernatural beliefs.

On its online FAQ page, Oasis notes that it is not a place to “denigrate” religion. “I have an incredible amount of respect for many religious people,” said Vosper. “If someone is going to use their [religious] beliefs to get in the way of someone else’s human rights, then I’m going to get in the way of them, opposing them.”

In time, Oasis may provide a platform for Abir’s ideas to challenge Vosper’s and vice versa, but the first gathering had little to do with religion. Rick Miller, a playwright who resembles famous American preacher and televangelist Joel Osteen, delivered a talk called “The Architecture of Creativity.” He has taught a class at U of T based on this concept.

“If we can get our butts out of bed on a Sunday morning, it’s always valuable to see yourself amongst a community of people who don’t so much share similar beliefs but [are] at least on a journey of trying to expand and understand each other a little bit better and that’s what I feel here,” said Miller. “These are inquisitive people. They’re not just here accepting anything by rote.”

Top news stories

UTSU lawsuit

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) launched a lawsuit against former Executive Director Sandy Hudson in October 2015. The union alleges Hudson deliberately destroyed confidential information and was improperly issued $247,726.40 severance pay — about 10 per cent of the UTSU budget. The union is suing Hudson for the alleged fraudulent money, plus $200,000 in damages.

UTSU previously sued former President Yolen Bollo-Kamara and former Vice-President, internal & services, Cameron Wathey. The union has since reached settlements with both former executives. In December 2015, Hudson countersued the union for $300,000 in damages, claiming the union violated a non-disparagement and confidentiality agreement. UTSU has expressed a desire to reach a settlement; the legal dispute is still ongoing.

Campus revitalization

The Landmark Committee at UTSG is redesigning the Front Campus area by: eliminating motorized traffic from King’s College Circle; replacing surface parking with underground parking; planting more trees; and realigning traffic at Hart House Circle. A final draft of the proposal is expected in September.

The UTSC Master Plan was released in 2011 and includes: realigning Military Trail; adding more pedestrian-friendly green space; and constructing new buildings. Highland Hall is scheduled to open in spring 2018 and will house the Social Sciences departments and the registrant’s office.

At UTM, the university is working on the second phase of the new North Building, which is set for completion in summer 2018.

Victoria University’s property taxes

In April 2016, the City of Toronto Treasurer and Solicitor issued a staff report advising City Council to request provincial government changes to the Victoria University Act. Victoria University leases out land to several private companies, which use the land for office buildings and a condominium under construction.

Most universities are required to pay property taxes on non-university buildings; the Victoria University Act does not require this. Victoria University has been exempt from paying over $12 million in taxes from 131 Bloor Street West since 2009 and almost $3 million since 2013 from other properties.

City Council has requested a meeting between the City Treasurer and the Victoria University administration; the findings will be brought back to the city’s Government Management Committee in November.

Transit developments

In January, John Tory announced his plan to extend the under-construction Eglinton Crosstown Light Rapid Transit eastward to UTSC and to replace the Scarborough Rapid Transit with an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway line to Scarborough Town Centre. Projected costs for the extensions increased after further analysis. In July, City Council voted to move forward with the project. In the west end, Brampton Transit is launching an express bus route from Brampton Gateway Terminal to UTM as part of a pilot project.

Names to know


Meric Gertler: President

An urban theorist who has conducted authoritative research on cities and urban geography, Gertler is the sixteenth president of the University of Toronto. He is responsible for overseeing the university’s operations. Prior to his appointment in 2013, Gertler served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science.


Cheryl Regehr: Vice-President and Provost

Regehr oversees the university budget, as well as academic priorities. She previously served as the university’s Vice-Provost, academic and as Dean of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. Regehr’s extensive professional and academic background is in forensic social work and mental health programs.


Sandy Welsh: Vice-Provost, students

Welsh is responsible for supervising programs, services, and policies relevant to students and student groups. This includes enrolment, financial aid, international student services, and programs and services at Student Life. Welsh has previously held numerous administrative roles in the Faculty of Arts & Science and in the Department of Sociology.


Jasmine Wong Denike: President, UTSU

Denike previously served as vice-president, external of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) for the 2015–2016 year. During the election cycle, Denike pledged to make the union’s operations more accessible to students. The UTSU represents and collects fees from all full-time undergraduate students at UTSG and UTM.


Nour Alideeb: President, UTMSU

Alideeb was previously the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union’s (UTMSU) vice-president, university affairs. Alideeb ran on a platform that included supporting ethical divestment, creating nap spaces on campus, and combatting tuition and fee increases.


Jessica Kirk: President, SCSU

Kirk served as vice-president, equity of the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) last year after being the only independent candidate to have won in the election. She has prioritized community involvement and engagement for students.

Three demands

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE GLOBAL BDS MOVEMENT makes three demands of Israel that together form the core objective of the movement. Disagreements about the legitimacy of these demands explain some of the divergence of opinion on BDS.

Demand one:

Withdraw from the West Bank settlements, and tear down the wall along the Green Line

The first demand calls on Israel to withdraw from its settlements in the West Bank and tear down the wall along the Green Line — the border drawn following the 1949 armistice agreement between Israel and its neighbours.

Approximately 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank, with 75 per cent of settlers living near the Green Line. Many settlers are drawn to the lower cost of living, as housing is subsidized. Others choose to settle there for religious reasons.

Several United Nations  Security Council and General Assembly resolutions have considered the settlements illegal, as has the Canadian government, despite its otherwise steadfast support for the state of Israel.

The basis for this conclusion may be found in Article 49(1) and 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that: “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive” and “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

Additionally the barrier set by the Green Line was found to be in violation of international law by the International Court of Justice. Israel maintains that neither the barrier nor the Green Line are illegal. Israel argues that the Green Line was put in place due to security concerns and the threat of terrorism.

“[T]he settlements are illegal by any standards of international law,” says Hanssen. “[The fact that] they still get… built even during [the] Oslo [process] and actually enhanced in the 2000’s is not because they’re legal. It’s because the… state of Israel gets away with it. It’s because it’s politically powerful enough or it has enough backing to get away with it. Even though it is illegal, it still happens.”

Fishman argues that the language in the Fourth Geneva Convention only refers to forcible movements by an occupying power on a foreign civilian population. “[I]t would be illegal for Israel… [to] force them militarily to move to the West Bank. That’s not allowed and that’s not what Israel’s doing.”

Swirsky also sees Israel’s settlements as illegal and as a barrier to peace. Because of this, he supports a boycott of products made there.

“The settlements are constructed, and its inhabitants, by and large, living there for messianic reasons that are incompatible with not only the UN’s designated borders of Israel, but with the sustenance of a modern, democratic state, especially when there are Palestinian people living in deplorable conditions with uneasy access to livelihoods,” he says. “The settlements add no discernible economic benefit to Israel, and gives them everything to lose in terms of global diplomacy, goodwill, and in general a mind to what is right for the Palestinian people, especially those oppressed by the status quo in the West Bank.”

Hanssen shares a similar view and believes that the infrastructure within the settlements that was built by Israel should remain in place as a form of reparations.

Demand two:


Equal rights for Palestinian Arabs in Israel


The second demand of the BDS movement calls for equal rights for Palestinian Arabs living in the State of Israel, proper.

Opponents of BDS claim that this demand is already fulfilled. “There are equal rights for the citizens of Israel,” Fishman says.

Swirsky says, “As it stands now, however, Arab citizens of Israel proper do indeed enjoy equal rights on the surface, as evidenced by countless Arab university students and graduates… the presence of Arab justices on the Supreme Court, and the status of the Joint Arab List as the third party in the Knesset.”

Sa’adeh contends that equality for Arab Palestinians in Israel is superficial at best. “Well, Netanyahu’s campaign that got him elected was saying, ‘look at all the Arabs that are going to the polls. We should do something about it.’ That’s the current Prime Minister of Israel,” he says, “so you have a racist system of apartheid that actually does discriminate against the Arab population within Israel.”

Comparison between Israel’s role in Palestine and South African apartheid has been a point of contention within the BDS movement.

“[I]n Israel proper I can’t imagine something more opposite to apartheid, because you actually have Jews, and Muslims, and Christians, people from all over the world, mingling, and getting along in Israel itself, relatively well,” says Fishman.

Hanssen has a different view. “You can argue that they have more rights than the blacks had in South Africa but in some ways, they have less rights,” he argues. “Buying property is impossible for them. There are no benches marked ‘Jews only’ so these egregious kind of forms of racism that existed in south Africa don’t exist, but structurally… it’s quite comparable.”

Sirri also points to Israel’s immigration laws and the Law of Return that allows Jews from anywhere in the world to immigrate to Israel and obtain Israeli citizenship, which he says is a discriminatory practice.

“Any Jewish person in the world today who can claim that they’re [Jewish] has the right to immigrate, no questions asked, with full rights and equality, quote unquote, in Israel,” Sirri explained. “And yet, someone who is native, indigenous Palestinian to this land doesn’t have the same right.”

Fishman acknowledges that there is societal racism against Arabs in Israel, but maintained that Israeli policy continues to support equal rights.

“The way to remedy this, as in the United States, would be for the government to recognize that these incidents occur, and work with marginalized communities to create a culture within its enforcement bodies that respects and considers all people equally in all circumstances,” Swirsky suggests.

Demand three:


Right of return for Palestinian refugees


The third demand of the movement calls for the right of return for all Palestinian refugees who were displaced during the wars following Israel’s independence. This demand has been a particular point of contention between the supporters and opponents of BDS. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency defines a “Palestinian refugee” to be any Palestinian who was displaced from their homes after the wars in 1948 and 1967, as well as their descendants, which brings their estimated total population to over five million.

Benezrah believes that, should this demand be fulfilled, Israel could no longer be classified as a Jewish state. She points to a statement made by Omar Barghouti, an Egyptian BDS leader from Tel Aviv University, in which he says, “If the [Palestinian] refugees were to return [to Israel], you would not have a two-state solution, you’d have a Palestine next to a Palestine.”

“The BDS movement… seeks not to create a neighbouring Palestinian state, but to replace Israel completely by transferring millions of Palestinians into Israel,” contends Benezrah.

BDS activists point to the Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country,” as well as Article 49(2) of the Geneva Convention, which states, “Persons thus evacuated shall be transferred back to their homes as soon as hostilities in the area in question have ceased.”

The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, which was passed shortly after the conclusion of the war in 1948, stipulates that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible” Some interpret these documents as a guarantee of right of return for Palestinian refugees.

“International law grants all refugees who were displaced as a result of occupation or form of military violence their right to return to their homelands,” says Sa’adeh. “So, I do not think that Palestinians should be an [exception] to that international law.”

Sirri concurs, “that’s a right, period, full stop.”

Hanssen acknowledges the practical concerns of letting all Palestinian refugees return to Israel.

“It’s perhaps not feasible… if you [define] feasibility in terms of what happens if all the descendants of all the Palestinian refugees of all the 800,000 who were evicted from their land in ’48 and ’67 all in [in] one go, that’s going to create chaos,” he said.

Hanssen says an acknowledgement of the right of return by the Israeli government may suffice, even if it does not have the capacity to follow through.

“I’m not saying I have a blueprint, you know… but I think the right of return needs to be recognized as a right, not as a compulsive act.”

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: The manifestation of a movement

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n  FebruaryConservative MPs Michelle Rempel and Tony Clement introduced a motion to the House of Commons to condemn organizations that expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement  — a campaign that calls for economic sanctions against the state of Israel  in response to alleged human rights violations committed in Palestine.

With the support of nearly all of the Liberal and Conservative MPs in Parliament the motion passed, despite members from the other parties voting against the motion. Criticism of the motion by Members of Parliament has almost always been preceded by an affirmation of support for the State of Israel. Despite voting against the motion, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May also expressed opposition to the BDS movement.

In a serious disconnect between parliamentarians and citizens, the nearly unanimous condemnation of BDS by Canadian MPs is far from being echoed by the Canadian public. Some labour unions have endorsed BDS. CUPE Ontario endorsed the movement in 2006, and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers did so in 2008. The Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, have called for their members to boycott products from Israeli settlements. The United Church of Canada, which is Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, has also taken this position.

Of the groups promoting BDS, campus organizations have been among the most active. Several student unions have endorsed the movement, including the York Federation of Students, the McMaster Students Union, the Concordia Students Union, and the Ryerson Student Union. At U of T, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), the University of Toronto Mississauga Students Union (UTMSU), the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU), and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) have all endorsed the movement.

Divergent stances on BDS have produced a tense climate of division, especially on university campuses. At U of T, which has a long history of BDS-related organizing, the movement continues to grow. It has been met with determined support by some, and fiery opposition by others, leaving many to criticize the role of this university in the long-standing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

A history of the Israel-Palestine conflict

Divisions on campus

Nadi Sa’adeh, a graduate student who is involved with the U of T St. George chapter of Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), describes the campus group, which was founded in 2004: “Our organization is non-hierarchical so we are all equal organizers in a flattened structure,” he explains, “and, our work… revolves around specific events that we do throughout the year and basically building movement capacity and doing outreach to students, especially revolving around doing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.”

One of SAIA’s best known initiatives is Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), which hosts events on campus and “brings in different scholars, academics, activists, artists from around the world, and sort of tries to bridge the Palestinian struggles with other struggles around the world,” according to Saadeh. The first Israeli Apartheid Week was held by SAIA at U of T in 2005. The event has since spread and is now held in over 150 of cities around the world.

Pro-Israeli demonstration. CC Flickr by John Christian Fjellestad.
Pro-Israeli demonstration. CC Flickr by John Christian Fjellestad.

SAIA often works closely with the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union’s (UTGSU) Ad-Hoc Committee on BDS, also called U of T Divest. “SAIA and the GSU ad hoc committee are part of the same movement for BDS and, you know, work together in part of… an informal BDS coalition and also working with other… groups both at UTM and UTSC but [also] outside the U of T system,” explains Omar Sirri, a graduate student speaking on behalf of U of T Divest.

The BDS movement at U of T calls for the university to divest from Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Hewlett-Packard — companies which, in Sirri’s view, “are arms and weapons manufacturing and technology companies that profit explicitly from violations of international law in Israel and Palestine and profit essentially from war crimes.”

To Sirri, U of T’s investment in these companies makes these institution complicit, albeit indirectly, in the propagation of war crimes. “[A] growing number of staff, faculty, and alumni are of the opinion that the University of Toronto should not be invested in companies that profit from, and itself should not be profiting from, war crimes,” Sirri says, “It’s a very simple campaign in that respect.”

Sirri identifies two key ways in which BDS has an effect on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The first is financial.

“You have divestment… where you literally are demanding to stop investing in these companies because they violate international law and because you want to make economic difference,” Sa’adeh explains.

Sirri sees a 43 per cent drop in the level of Israel’s foreign direct investment, as well as senior Israeli officials calling the movement a “strategic threat” as evidence that the movement is putting strain on the state. “They’re feeling this,” he says.

Sirri also notes what he calls a “symbolic” effect of organizations expressing support for BDS.

“Student unions, labour unions, and faith based groups… who are calling for endorsements for BDS,” he says, “are people who are relied on to have a kind of moral conscience in one form or another, whether it be in terms of labour, whether it be in terms of students having a particular moral authority, which has been the case of decades.”

In addition, Sa’adeh explains that the BDS movement on campuses opens up a vehicle for education and citizen participation.

“It’s actually believing that individuals… could actually change the conditions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by our immediate actions, either through consumer boycott, participating in a divestment campaign or supporting one,” Sirri says.

“It’s actually believing that individuals… could actually change the conditions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by our immediate actions, either through consumer boycott, participating in a divestment campaign or supporting one.”

To others, however, the BDS movement and its implications are less straightforward. It has received persistent resistance as well especially from those connected to the Jewish community.

When it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, emotions on campuses often run high. In 2002, protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Concordia University escalated into riots. In 2009, competing rallies of pro-Palestine and pro-Israel students chanting at each other at York University’s Vari Hall made headlines.

U of T has also seen heated debate about the movement. The Varsity recently reported that three grievances were filed by students against the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Social Justice & Equity Commission’s BDS activism, citing that the work was being conducted without ample consultation with students, or democratic process.

Over the summer, a motion to officially endorse BDS was discussed by the UTSU, but was never tabled. Members of the Federation of Students at the University of Waterloo recently voted to reject a boycott of five Israeli universities, while a pro-BDS motion was not ratified by the members of the McGill University Students’ Society.

Some who oppose BDS credit these reactions to a general feeling that the movement is incongruous with the aims of university campuses.

“Just this year, BDS has failed several times on our campus, as well as at the University of Waterloo and most recently at McGill by failing to be ratified by the student body. That’s a clear demonstration of the fact that BDS is at odds with the Canadian consensus and outside the genuine peace movement,” says fourth-year kinesiology student and co-president of Hillel at U of T, Rachel Benezrah. Hillel is the world’s largest Jewish campus organization.

“Hillel plays a fundamental role the in the experience for Jewish students on campus. It acts as a space for educational and social programming, and supports Jewish students in exploring their Jewish identity,” explains Benezrah. “It is our view that Israel plays an integral part [in] that identity.”

Aidan Fishman, first-year law student, and co-founder of Israel-On-Campus (IOC), a group designed to host cultural events showcasing Israeli food, music, film, and artwork, expresses similar sentiments. IOC has also been involved in opposing the BDS movement on campus. “And if I’m honest about it, this year, because there’s been a lot of BDS activity, a lot of attempts against us,” Fishman explains, “we’ve been spending much more time than we usually would on the political side of things and less on the cultural side of things, which is what we’d like to do ideally and enjoy doing most of all.”

Fishman argues that bringing the BDS movement to campus creates a “general hostility” between students, citing York University as an example. “The people it really hurts are Jewish students, not Israel,” he says.

He also questions the legitimacy of the financial pillar of the BDS campaign. “They’re targeting Israel’s ability to thrive economically,” he says, “But what they don’t understand is that that’s not why Israel exists. Israel exists because without… the Jewish state of Israel, the physical safety of its Jewish inhabitants can’t be guaranteed.” As a result, Fishman says, “No matter how much money Israel loses as a result of BDS, it won’t change Israel’s behaviour.”

“No matter how much money Israel loses as a result of BDS, it won’t change Israel’s behaviour.”

In some cases, opposition to BDS has come from groups outside of U of T. The Jewish Defence League (JDL), an off-campus right wing pro-Israel organization classified as a terrorist organization in the US by the FBI in 2001, has a history of disrupting U of T Divest events. On the first occasion, at a U of T Divest launch event in October 2014, the university administration called for the event to be cancelled. Thirty faculty and staff signed a letter to the administration denouncing the response as a failure to uphold freedom of speech.

Prior to a more recent meeting of U of T Divest in January 2016, the university’s Office of the Vice President, Human Resources & Equity sent a letter to the JDL threatening to issue a notice of trespass should their members not “comply with university policies.”

Campus groups such as IOC and Hillel have distanced themselves from the disruptive tactics exercised by the JDL in opposition to BDS. These groups, however, feel strongly that BDS should not continue. Both Fishman and Benezrah suggest that the movement is anti-Semitic.

Pro-Palestinian protest in Washington DC. CC Flickr by Stephen Melkisethian.
Pro-Palestinian protest in Washington DC. CC Flickr by Stephen Melkisethian.

“The intent of those employing BDS language is not to resolve the conflict or to promote reconciliation, but rather single out Israel — and Israel alone — and challenge the Jewish state’s right to be treated with the same standard of fairness applied to any other democracy in the world,” says Benezrah.

Sirri maintains that assertions of anti-Semitism in the BDS movement are categorically false, as the movement targets the state of Israel, not Jewish people. Jewish voices, he says, are part of the diverse group of people who support BDS.

Jens Hanssen, associate professor in the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations and a supporter of the BDS movement, also denies the notion that BDS is anti-Semitic. Hanssen acknowledges that many countries violate human rights, but does not believe this precludes the BDS movement from justly criticizing Israel.

“I’m all for an overthrow of the Saudi government. I’d sign any petition. When they behead a Palestinian poet, that’s terrible. But I don’t know why I should wait for my critique of the state of Israel until Saudi Arabia is some form of democracy or when China is no longer exploiting its Apple workers.”

UTAM holdings

U of T Divest’s primary target is the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM), the entity that manages the university’s investments, including in Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Hewlett-Packard.

On March 3, Hanseen and over 130 faculty members put out a press release and petition announcing their support for U of T Divest’s call for the university to remove its holdings from these companies.

At that time, Natalie Rothman, associate professor of history who signed the petition and press release, told The Varsity that faculty should be critical of the university and its investments. “As faculty we have a responsibility to ask difficult questions about how our university upholds its own standards of ethical conduct,” she said.

According to the Governing Council Policy on Social and Political Issues with respect to University Divestment, a Governing Council review committee determines the “extent and significance of the University’s investment in a particular entity” and “the degree to which the entity itself is involved in the undesirable activity,” which is generally ten per cent of the entity’s revenues.

Fishman, who served on U of T’s Governing Council from 2012 to 2014, and will be returning to the Governing Council in July, believes that there is “a zero per cent chance” of these divestment aims succeeding.

“[T]he percentage of those companies’ activities that take place in Israel is not high enough to have a divestment trigger,” claims Fishman, “If what the BDS people really wanted was actually for the university to divest from this company, they wouldn’t focus on Israel. Maybe they would mention it, but what they would… really focus [on] is the much larger investment it has in other sketchy areas.”

Aidan Swirsky, a second-year University College student, Israel engagement intern with Hillel, and the external officer for IOC, proposed a motion at the UTSU’s special general meeting (SGM) earlier this year to support “ethical divestment,” regardless of country or region. The motion called for the UTSU to lobby UTAM to divest from “any company that is found to profit from human rights violations, labour violations, especially those involving children, sweatshops or undocumented workers, war and weapons manufacturing, and/or the creation of environmental disasters.” This was in the wake of the UTSU’s discussions over a BDS proposal that occurred earlier in the year. The motion has been forwarded to the Board of Directors after the SGM failed to meet quorum.

The future

The House of Commons motion condemning BDS has spurred conversations about the movement among the Canadian public and within the national media.

Sirri calls the motion “shocking and deplorable.” He says that it is an example of the Liberal government reneging on their commitment to end former Prime Minister “Harper’s policies of fear and censorship, bullying and intimidation… [and] to back, ultimately, an apartheid state.”

Fishman supports the motion. “I think that all Canadians should be pleased to see Parliament condemn a movement that targets and harasses a certain sector of Canadians,” he says.

Divided though they remain on BDS and its demands, both opponents and proponents of the movement are eager to see a peaceful conclusion to the conflict in Israel and Palestine.

“I’d like to see peace and Israelis and Palestinians live happily in one state,” Hanssen says, “We’re getting further away from it, you might think, with the entire Middle East up in flames. But, the one light that I do see is the BDS movement. It’s [one of] the only good things that comes out [of] this whole mess.”

“I’d like to see peace and Israelis and Palestinians live happily in one state. We’re getting further away from it, you might think, with the entire Middle East up in flames. But, the one light that I do see is the BDS movement. It’s the only good things that comes out this whole mess.”

On the other hand, Swirsky supports a two-state solution as well as reparations paid to those who were displaced because of the 1947 war, and he calls upon Israel to do more to protect Palestinian rights.

“I believe that as the side with more power currently, it is on Israel to stand up for its future as a Jewish and democratic state by demolishing the settlements, integrating their inhabitants into Israel proper and allowing for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that is not terribly hamstrung by security measures,” Swirsky says.

Although there appears to be little movement towards an end to the conflict in the region, Sa’adeh remains optimistic, saying, “we measure the progress of the BDS movement, because it’s an international campaign, [by] how much momentum it gains internationally, by how many people endorse it, and under what circumstances people endorse it around the world.”

“[T]he rise of the BDS movement and the momentum it has gained throughout these years makes me hopeful. Yes, apartheid will end, just like apartheid in South Africa did end. And yes, equal rights should be granted for everyone and will be granted,” he says. “That’s the only logical and sustainable solution for everyone.”

Speaking to the activism on campus, Sa’adeh adds, “I think if this is an indicator of something, this is an indicator of expansion and successes of the BDS movement, and think that’s our point to move forward on the work we do.”

Only time will tell how and when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may end, and what influence the BDS movement may have on the region. In the meantime, U of T is without a doubt at a critical juncture, in which its investments are increasingly scrutinized by its students, its faculty, and the national and international communities.

The global BDS movement makes three demands of Israel that together form the core objective of the movement. See what they are here.

Timeline of BDS activism at Canadian universities

Who is Justin Trottier?

I was walking down to the Canadian Centre for Men and Families on Carleton Street where I had arranged to meet with Justin Trottier, the executive director of the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE), to try to find out what he, and his organization, truly stand for.

CAFE has been widely called a ‘men’s rights association’ (MRA) which, critics allege, exhibits thinly veiled misogyny. CAFE commonly advertises events on campus, some of which have attracted protests from feminist groups, and student unions. Like any organization, CAFE is given life by an impassioned group of people. I was curious to talk to the person leading the charge.

Trottier is no stranger to The Varsity. During his undergraduate years at U of T he was a frequent contributor to the Science section until 2006, when he graduated with a degree in Applied Science and Engineering. He has also served on The Varsity’s Board of Directors. In 2007, he was assaulted at Ryerson University while putting up posters advertising a secular event and argued that this incident was a hate-motivated crime. In response, The Varsity’s editorial board at the time wrote that he should “start working on [his] left hook, and leave the Charter defense to the real victims.”

Trottier greeted me outside and led me upstairs to his office. I first asked him how he got involved with CAFE and men’s issues activism.

“I got involved with all this primarily as a result of my participation with a number of social justice organizations,” he said. Trottier went on to explain that he has been involved in the LGBT movement, in secular and humanist causes, and the environmental movement. He also mentioned his stint as a Green Party candidate in the 2011 provincial election, in which he received 1,325 votes in the riding of Parkdale-High Park.

“One of the things I noticed, not just me but others who worked with me to found the organization, was that men’s issues were an ignored or a marginalized component of a lot of social justice movements and our concern was that by ignoring that piece, we were not being fair to men and their families because men have legitimate health issues and other kinds of issues,” he said.

A disdain for labels

Trottier refuses to label himself as a feminist and told me that, in his opinion, “feminism and women’s rights are not the same thing.” However, according to CAFÉ’s website, the organization does not identify as a men’s rights group either. I asked Trottier to elaborate on this.

He said that the group sees itself as a “public education organization,” and explained that it achieved charity status with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) as a public benefit organization.

“[The CRA] will look at your website, they will look at your videos, they will look at the events that you’ve had. They will ask you bunch of questions. They will ask you to provide research to back up what you’re saying if they question it, and then they will decide if you’re a public benefit organization,” Trottier explained.

Trottier  brought our conversation to the work that the Centre for Men and Families, a CAFE initiative, has been doing, saying, “We’re also providing social services like free counseling, free peer support, free legal aid, free fathering programs to both men and women, and that’s our focus.”

In pursuit of this mandate, Trottier says wlabels are an unnecessary distraction.

“We focus on the mission and mandate that I’m explaining to you: the social services, the public education. We just find that those labels, they’re conversation-enders. They’re not conversation starters.”

I asked Trottier if there was anything else that distinguishes CAFE from MRAs, beyond its charity status. Once again, he stressed the work that the Centre has been doing.

“If you want to call that an MRA, you can do that and some people do. But I’m not interested in that. That’s an academic debate that I’m not interested in having.”

“Judge us by the company that we keep and the activity that we do and the groups that we’re serving. And let’s not fixate on these labels.”

“The company that we keep”

CAFE gained particular infamy on campus in 2012 when it, along with the its affiliated campus club, Men’s Issues Awareness at U of T, hosted controversial academic Warren Farrell for an event. Farrell is perhaps best known for his book, The Myth of Male Power, in which he claims the existence of systematic discrimination against men.

The event that hosted Farrell on campus was met with protests organized by feminists on campus, as well as the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). National media was also watching, as tensions were high and police presence heavy. Protesters barricaded the entrance to the event, fire alarms were pulled, and there were reports of physical assault from both sides.

I asked Trottier how CAFE could reconcile its mission of equality with someone like Warren Farrell, whose views are widely perceived to be sexist. He described Farrell’s views as “provocative” but added, “This is a guy who has some very interesting ideas. I don’t necessarily agree with all of them.”

However, breaching the subject of the Warren Farrell event turned Trottier defensive, and he asked me why it seems that is “the only thing The Varsity cares about. Let’s have an honest discussion about what our organization is all about,” he said. “That was three and a half years ago. Since then, we built Toronto’s first men’s health centre. It’s just interesting to see what the media continues to fixate on.”

On or off campus

In September, after online threats  were made against feminists at U of T, CAFE moved one of its scheduled events to a nearby hotel off campus, on the advice of the University administration.

Trottier said that the administration actually recommended postponing the event until “things settle down” rather than simply moving the event off campus, but for logistical reasons, the event could not be postponed.

Nevertheless, Trottier promised that CAFE would host more events on campus in short measure.

“We will definitely keep having events like that,” said Trottier. “Why shouldn’t we? Men’s help is absolutely vital. It’s just as important as the healthcare of any other group and we’re going to keep having events at U of T.”