Burning questions

Was Ryerson’s poster-toasting sign of racial tensions or random vandalism?

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On a dreary Tuesday, February 26, at high noon, the choreography of student life is in full swing, awash in hiphop, at the Ryerson University cafeteria.

Some eat. Some sleep. Some clack away on keyboards or gaming consoles, others laugh uproariously or yak loud enough to drown out the voices of a few dozen demonstrators at the entrance. Two of them are holding up a giant “No Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, Racism” sign.

There are camera crews and folks with pen, pad or recorders at the ready.

A couple of weeks ago, a bulletin board outside the campus office of the East African Students of Toronto was set ablaze. Police are currently investigating. Some on campus suggest the incident is related to a recent highly divisive student election where one candidate was endorsed by the East African group.

Others think the politically charged slogans on the board – “United To End Racism,” “Education Not Occupation,” “No Justice No Peace,” “Boycott Israeli Apartheid” and “De-Colonize Ryerson” – are what prompted the attack.

The incident quickly became a flashpoint for student groups who see the fire as “a symptom of larger systemic issues of racism,” according to a recent press release signed by the East African Students, United Black Students at Ryerson and Ryerson Students’ Union.

It calls for an end to Eurocentric cur-ricula, security profiling and streaming, and highlights the teaching faculty’s lack of diversity.

Heather Kere, vice-president of education in the Ryerson Students’ Union, characterizes the incident as “a targeted political message” and says she hopes a stand will be taken “against all forms of racism that manifest themselves at Ryerson.”

CKLN radio show host Ahmed Habib charges Ryerson with promoting a “racist curriculum.”

Strangely, Samih Abdelgadir, senior VP of the East African Students of Toronto, the group at the centre of the firestorm, is cautioning against talk of racism – even though his group signed the press release on systemic issues.

Says Abdelgadir, “I know I’m in the minority, but you can’t hold a demonstration, call the media and start claiming racism without evidence.”

But what about the incidents reported recently on other Canadian campuses, from derisive graffiti to a mindless “slave auction’’ funder held during Black History Month at U of Waterloo, and Internet groups like a Ryerson-based one complaining about the presence of race-based (as in non-white) groups on campus? Aren’t these seemingly unrelated incidents part of larger issues at play?

“It’s not like that at Ryerson,” says Abdelgadir, who’s also a student member of the university’s board of governors. “The student body here is more culturally diverse and mixes together like at no other campus.”

Joel Duff, organizer for the Canadian Federation of Students (Ontario), says, “I don’t think that there’s been an increase in on-campus hate. What we’re looking at are high-profile incidents that have been reported often these types of things aren’t. But even if it’s only a perception that the fire was racially motivated, what do we have to lose by responding?’’

Rona Abramovitch, Ryerson’s provost and VP academic, finds herself saying what administrators are often forced to say at times like these: the university is committed to “equity and diversity, to the dignity of all community members” and the fostering of the “safest and most inclusive environment possible.”

Should go without saying at the most cosmopolitan campus in the centre of the most cosmopolitan city in the world.


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