Tag Archives: oppression

Queen’s and mental health: rendering the root causes invisible

16 Dec

It seems fitting to write about depression at this time of year.

While there are lots of triggers for depression, capitalism has ensured that our bank accounts either drive or exacerbate our emotions. During December, this translates into weeks of anxious planning to try and meet the expectations of people around us, most of whom have also been infected with the capitalist virus, eating their brains and removing the little voice that says “this obsession with accumulating shit is probably going to kill you and everyone you love.” Add to these stresses the difficulties of being a student and you have a potentially explosive situation.

Any recommendations that attempt to alleviate peoples’ mental health that doesn’t address this context will never be sufficient.

Instead, like a knee that’s been torn open by a fall, pusing and bruised, bloodied and full of sand, a recommendation to address mental health that doesn’t address the root problem is like taking a bandaid and sticking it into the middle of your dirty knee.

Even if the bandaid if of the highest quality, it’s not going to fix you up.

This was the mental image I held while reading the report “Student Mental Health and Wellness, framework and recommendations for a comprehensive strategy” from Queen’s University. It was released at the end of November and, with Idle No More exploding across Canada and my own exams to prepare for, I’ve only gotten to reading this report now.

When I saw “comprehensive” I was hopeful that indeed, this report would be comprehensive. But, like is so often the case when university administrators try to fix students’ problems, the report fails to address any of the root causes of the deteriorating mental health of students.

Of 55 recommendations, not one mentions tuition fees or oppression as having anything to do with depression. Not one.

Instead, the report is full of pilot program ideas and recommendations like ensuring that pharmacists on campus are paying attention to their clients, creating an “adopt a grandma/grandpa” program, or changing the name of Campus Security (because if you’re in crisis, a private security guard at Queen’s may be your best supporter!)

Pretending that tuition fees are not either the primary factor or a driving factor of students’ mental health is at best ignorant and at worst, a dangerous lie.

Administrators like Queen’s president Daniel Woolf are the loudest advocates, the most shameful cheerleaders of high tuition fees in Ontario. Their advocacy is driving their students’ depression. It’s embarrassing that they would even enter into such a discussion, let alone stand behind recommendations that obscures students’ real experiences.

While I was at Ryerson, we held sessions for students who were failing their courses to intervene before they would be forced to leave their programs. The most common reasons for students struggling were these: personal tragedy or crisis during the semester (death of a parent/fire/etc.), being in a program that they should not have been in (for a variety of social and familial reasons) and a variety of stresses driven by financial pressures. For students in the first category, the university’s policies made it nearly impossible for them to stay on track academically. Their crises were usually exacerbated by the fact that their tuition/living expenses surpassed $15,ooo.

Students in the third category were the highest represented at these sessions, and it was no surprise. With the highest tuition fees in Canada, high costs of living and no room for mistakes, Ontario students are under more stress than any generation before them or any other student in Canada.

God forbid you fail a class: that will cost you more than $1,000. Lose a semester and you’ve essentially thrown 80 $50 bills down a sewer grate.

What 19-year-old should have to study under such stress?

What university administrator can look at the faces of their students and not feel an overwhelming sense of shame?

Oppressive structures are also a driver of depression: institutional racism, transphobia, sexism, homophobia, ableism and social isolation (especially for international students who are also paying three to four times the tuition fees that domestic students pay). When the intersection of these oppressions are considered in tandem with the economic segmentation of Canadian society, marginalized students are dealt a double set of barriers prohibiting their successful persistence in higher education.

Pretending that these structures don’t exist is rendering them invisible, further marginalizing the students this report claims to help.

I should stress: some of these recommendations are useful and will help some students, if implemented. After all, even the most cynical exercise in public relations can sometimes produce a useful recommendation or two.

But if anyone in the university community thinks that Queen’s is addressing students’ mental health by pretending financially-driven depression and systemic oppression are not two of the biggest factors driving students’ mental health, they’re wrong.

The focus on mental health at Queen’s was sparked by six student deaths on campus in 2011, three that were confirmed suicides. In response, students were frustrated and outraged with the lack of supports on campus.

As if existing in another world, President Woolf wrote in a letter that was accidentally leaked that he looked forward to leveraging these tragedies to encourage corporate donations from companies like Bell Canada.

You couldn’t invent a response as blunt or offensive as this.

Talking about mental health is not easy and addressing students’ mental health is even harder. These issues are multifaceted. But if the drivers of student depression are not only ignored, but encouraged and exploited by university administrators, they must be held to account.

Their shameful actions are hurting the students who pay their outrageous salaries.

And this deeply depresses me.

White, rich and male: Rob Ford’s a Triple Threat

26 Nov

Today, Torontonians found out that their official clown, Rob Ford, broke the law and will probably lose his position as mayor.

For many of us who aren’t used to seeing the law applied to people in power, the announcement is a confusing victory. On one hand, the democratic will of the city’s last election has been tossed out. However, a judge determined that the crime warranted the strict application of the law, which means we’ll all have to find another jester to occupy us online, between one soul-crushing defeat for progress after another.

Rob Ford is a symbol, not a mayor. He’s the physical manifestation of how disorganized is Toronto’s left, how broken are electoral politics and how easy it can be to ignore journalists (and probably some good advice) and still manage to find favour among a certain group of Torontonians.

Or, to put it another way…

Toronto’s left needs to work out the deep divisions that exist and create new, grassroots organizing models that will help to unite the suburbs with the core to build a better city that meets everyone’s needs.

Toronto needs to change its electoral system to allow for a more accurate representation of the will of the electorate.

We all need to examine the role of the press in defending and upholding democracy and apply this to journalistic coverage of all levels of politics.

But, aside from these important lessons, there’s a larger lesson to be learned.

Being a white, rich man is still a really sweet gig.

Rob Ford got away with his outrageous shenanigans for reasons no more important than his skin colour, his gender and his wealth.

Many, many people have tallied the long list of outtakes, from the DUI in Florida, advising someone to buy street Oxy-Contin, kicking riders off a TTC bus to chauffeur his football team, driving while reading, giving a woman the finger while driving, saying that cyclists deserve to be killed if they choose to cycle, and on and on and on, and they ask how was it that Ford could get away with such a laundry list of outrageous events.

Ford has been isolated by his privilege. The stature that comes with the office of mayor plus his constant air of entitlement has made him untouchable. Throw in the obligatory “poor me” sentiment once in awhile and a tornado of factors are present that had left him nearly unscathed. A second term still isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

The only unfortunate aspect of this decision is that rather than having Ford face the electors to atone for his sins, his Gravy Train is ending early, by the decision of a judge. But then again, Ford will remain shielded by his privilege in any future election.

Today, Ford got what he deserved.

However, though it’s fun to make fun of Rob Ford (and, it is totally fun. I had that .gif open on my computer for two whole days) reducing him to a caricature hides the reality that his entire circus has been made possible because of our oppressive system. Rob Ford has only been able to persist because some people are considered more appropriate than others to be mayor; that some people are considered to be more deserving of attention, high wages or honour; that some people are privileged with the benefit of the doubt; and that while some people can do no harm, others can’t catch a break.

Unfortunately, reducing this lump of a human into such terms obscures this reality. Many of us watched the Gravy-Train-Wreck with horror and bemusement. But, at this juncture, I think it’s important to recalibrate our analysis both for what it means for progressives who live in Toronto and for how it fits into a broader context.

For progressives, this victory must be celebrated but also used as an opportunity to re-group and build.

In the broader context, my guess is that Ford, with all his power, privilege and wealth will be made into a martyr.

And this martyrdom will come at a time where there’s been a clear rise in the rhetoric supporting so-called men’s rights. From a recent lecture at U of T on men’s oppression to Fox News specials, the ousting of Rob Ford by “the man ” (a.k.a. a judge) fits perfectly into the rhetoric of the oppressed man.

Ford and his supporters will be pushing this line through the appeal of his case right to the next by-election (or election) that Ford can run in. Because of this, activists are going to have to cut through rhetoric, draw the connections between Ford and oppression and demonstrate what forces really are at play.

The entitlement of Rob Ford (even identified today by the judge) is what makes him powerful. He’s not interested in criticism, facts or even doing a good job. Like a child who’s just heard “no” for the first time, the tantrum that we’re about to witness is going to be fierce.

He’s a bull in a china shop and Torontonians are various types of delicate, fine china.

Progressives need to show him the door before anything else ends up smashed.

Bizzaro racism

23 Aug

After writing my last post about white privilege I figured it was time to talk about the usual, predictable corollary to that discussion. So predictable that I should have pre-empted the (few) criticisms I received but rolling it all into one big white privilege mega post. But, as I promised when I wrote that, there would be more. And so, my loving readers (I assume you’re loving, anyway), here’s more.


Yes. What about racism against white people?

The concept of “reverse racism” comes from a social theory that many of us are familiar with: the “bizzaro world” theory. In this theory, an alternative universe exists where everything we know to be true is the opposite. Bizzaro Nora is quiet, demure, blonde and pleasant. Bizzaro computers are boxes with cats inside. Bizzaro lawns are red. Bizzaro bowling occurs in the opposite direction (a slight difference, but important to all who bowl). Bizzaro cars have square tires, and so on.

And thus, the existence of “reverse racism” can be understood. It’s bizzaro racism. Yes, in this world, white folks are not way overrepresented in politics, business and those powerful positions. The vast majority of us have to struggle to find money to eat, work three jobs to get by and see no reflection of people who look like them reading the TV news, being Prime Minister etc.

Bizzaro racism is a thing in the bizzaro world. Just like the other bizzaro oppressions:

  • Bizzaro classism: rich people face daily oppression just because they’re rich. They become socially isolated because of this systemic oppression that they live in elaborate dugouts under the earth’s surface.
  • Bizzaro sexism: the women have taken over and have blocked men from becoming engineers, doctors, scientists. They, on average, make 71 cents for every dollar women make. They spend their days at home, cleaning their kids, making food and watching NASCAR racing.
  • Bizzaro homophobia: This is also called heterophobia. The few people who ‘inter marry’ are maligned. Their children are rejected from daycare. The ones who can’t conceive are blocked from adopting. The gays have taken over and the fabulous have oppressed the drab. There is glitter everywhere.
  • Bizzaro ablism: The escalators only fit wheels. Signs are written in a font that you can’t quite understand. No one wants to hire someone who can’t read braille.
  • Bizzaro transphobia: What? You’ve never lived between genders? You can’t understand people, so you’re effectively unelectable.


Yes, the bizzaro world looks different than the one we live in. But, it’s not perfect either. Oppressions were reproduced by the formerly oppressed (as happens all too often) and white people are uniting to fight for a more equal society.

In our current existence, in non-bizzaro Canada, reverse classism, reverse ableism and so on don’t exist. They don’t exist because oppressions are a function of power. Racism is a social construct that intends to maintain the power of one group of people over other groups of people using race as a differentiator. When people fight against racism, they fight against a system that overtly (think the “neutral race” argument over the $100 bill) and covertly (think the mass underrepresentation of racialized folks in government and the overpopulation of racialized folks in jail) creates a social hierarchy of race. Incomes are racially segmented. Access to power is racially segmented. This is racism.

This shouldn’t be confused with times where peoples’ feelings can be hurt. Yes, white folks can be treated poorly by other people. They can be called names. They can be bullied. This sucks and shouldn’t happen, but it’s not tied into a broader social oppression. This matters because when an oppression is systemic, the oppressed can see it everywhere and their existence becomes a series of moments where they must challenge these racist (or other -ist) norms, or find a way to cope. When a white man is called a fuckface by someone who intends to denigrate him and hurt his feelings, that’s called harassment or abuse or someone being an asshole. It’s not reverse racism.

We should condemn people being assholes, generally, but we should never call a situation where someone’s being an asshole reverse racism. Until reverse classism means that there’s shame associated with being rich, or reverse homophobia means there’s shame in being heterosexual, there’s no such thing as reverse racism.

And, someday, when anti-racist activists have convinced the masses to rid our system of privilege offered to white people based on race, we’ll have a nation that will value and treat everyone in a way that is more equal.

It won’t resemble all of bizzaro world, hopefully. One oppression won’t be replaced by another oppression.

And I won’t have to be demure.