A Campus for a Global City

Politicians Mitzie Hunter, John McKay and Jennifer O'Connell speak with Jeffrey Dvorkin

Three local politicians—all UTSC grads—consider the direction of the eastern GTA and our campus’s role in it.

We say it a lot in this magazine because it’s true: the eastern GTA has come a long way since its early days. Today it is vibrant, diverse, and urban but with a significant connection to nature.

For this issue, we invited three of our local representatives—Mitzie Hunter, MPP for Scarborough-Guildwood and Ontario Minister of Education; John McKay, MP for Scarborough-Guildwood; and Jennifer O’Connell, MP for Pickering- Uxbridge—for a discussion with Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of U of T Scarborough’s Journalism program.

The three guests—all UTSC alumni—discussed the challenges and opportunities of Scarborough and the eastern GTA, and UTSC’s role as an anchor institution in the region.

Mitzie Hunter: UTSC’s role in maintaining the diversity in this community is substantial. When I was a student here in the early 1990s, groups would keep to themselves and not speak to each other. I was part of the Student Council and the Cultural Committee and together we created a program called Mosaic, which was designed to create dialogue and exchange among the various multicultural groups. What’s great is 20 years later they’re still running Mosaic! Scarborough East’s diversity is what makes us very special as a community. People feel a level of comfort when they land here because they can connect with their culture in very authentic ways.

Jeffrey Dvorkin: One of the things students tell me when they leave here is that they miss that sense of community. It’s almost a cultural coziness. But how do we make sure that our students are empowered to create an environment here and then recreate it outside campus?

John McKay: A university is first and foremost a community of scholars, and the reputation of a university lies in the quality of its scholars. This campus has developed a fine reputation. Principal Kidd was telling us that for the last three years, the top U of T graduate came from UTSC. That is a huge message, not only to the local community but to the international community — that if you want top quality education, you come here.The scholars and professors here communicate a constellation of values to the rest of the world.They are all like mini-ambassadors for not only Canadian education but Canadian values.

Jennifer O’Connell: A signal that is very important for the east end is the recent GM announcement [to invest in research and innovation facilities] in Oshawa and Markham. That high- lights the success of UTSC and our education overall in this area, because the reasoning for GM’s investment was our education, our workforce. UTSC is really up-and-coming in terms of quality education. You don’t have to go downtown. You don’t have to go to some of the other campuses to highlight the success stories. I lived at home, went to school here, stayed here. The international piece is important, but it’s also the piece of having the access to quality education and then not needing to move away to have a good-paying job.

JD: Thank you for raising the issue of transportation. There’s great advantage to integrating through transportation.

MH: It’s a question of vision. As a city, and as a region, we have to recognize that we’re not a town. We are a global city. Global cities require amazing institutions, like what we have here at U of T Scarborough. It also requires appropriate transit systems, and we’re at the cusp right now of embracing that. We need the courage to continue with these investments so that we can embrace this city’s potential growth in the future.

JM: And vision goes both ways. Possibly one of the reasons that Scarborough feels isolated, possibly even removed, is the Gardiner Expressway. The Gardiner Expressway was to run through the Beaches, parallel to the tracks out by the Guildwood GO Station, and it was to come up the Highland Creek valley and dump out onto Highway 2 right here.The concept at that time was that the car was king. We’ve evolved from that idea, but the consequence was that nothing got done. It’s about time the folks in Scarborough, all 600,000 of them—

MH: —twenty-five per cent of the city’s population—

JM: —got some decent public transportation. In some respects, it’s been beneficial in the sense that we’ve been able to re-establish an eastern Scarborough-GTA identity and preserve things like this [gestures out the window].

MH: Green space, yeah.

JM: And also preserve things like the Rouge Valley, which is now a national park. Would that have been possible had we made transportation decisions such as we were going to make 20, 30 years ago? I don’t know. But what a fabulous asset to this whole region. And UTSC has been intimately involved and will continue to be intimately involved in the creation of the world’s largest urban national park—

MH: …that would be accessible by transit with the expansion of the Lakeshore Line on GO. There’s a stop right there. It links the entire region to the gift of that national urban park so that people from anywhere can just get on the GO, hop off and five minutes later they’re in this oasis. So I do think that the role of transit in connecting this region is important.

JO: Coming from a different perspective of the suburbs of the GTA, I think there’s a connectivity problem, especially with transit, in Toronto. Governments need to recognize that people don’t care about municipal boundaries. If they work or go to school, that’s just where they’re going to go. So when Durham Region, for example, connected Durham Transit to UTSC, that was a big deal. We’re moving west, connecting with the TTC. With the downtown transit conversation, you forget about the suburbs. All the people who go to school there or work there, and go out to eat, to play, to do a lot of things, come not just from the downtown core. You’re now seeing the suburbs saying, “Forget it. We’re not going to wait for you to make up your mind. We’re going to build what our communities need.” We’re going to start making decisions and building transit in ways that people are moving, because it’s a demand on us to get people moving in a better way. And if transit stops right at city limits, so will the economy, so will the workforce, so will the education.

JD: I’d love to come back to something that John raised a few moments ago about values and how UTSC becomes a place where certain kinds of values, Canadian values, become shared.

MH: One of the great things about our society is that we have a place where we can learn and grow as well. We’ve just gone through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and are taking important steps to make our way through that. In Scarborough we have one of the largest urban Aboriginal and Indigenous populations and in my riding alone, there are about 3,000 residents. There’s one elementary school, Eastview, that has about 300 children. Our Indigenous populations are the fastest-growing population in all of Canada, so we have to make the effort to be inclusive. That’s something that we’re all learning and evolving from. We have a special place here in Scarborough called Momiji Centre, which is a home for Japanese seniors. It was established in 1978.

JM: It’s at Markham Road and Kingston Road.

MH: Momiji is a very special place that was established in response to the Japanese Internment, which is something from our past that we needed to reconcile with. As you can see Scarborough East is a learning place as well, but there are still a lot of conversations that we need to have. One of the areas that we really need to focus on is employment access. In my riding, the unemployment rate is almost at 13 per cent, which is almost double the provincial average. If you look at women in that category, it’s even higher. When you look at the statistics for Aboriginal young people, 23.5 per cent are unemployed. This unemployment rate of 23.5 per cent is also the case for black youth! That’s outrageous and unacceptable. We have to work at some of those inequities. We need to have the courage to have those difficult conversations, and ensure that people have the opportunities they need.

JM: Just circling back in on this issue of values, I was in Washington, meeting with congressmen and senators. I don’t think we had one conversation where they didn’t raise the issue of our bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees. That had kind of imprinted on their minds with an uncomfortableness. In all instances, we were able to sort of say to the Americans, “Look at yourselves. You are the most powerful nation on Earth and all you can bring in is 2,000 refugees?”

JO: I was recently at the Council of Europe. Refugee migration was a huge issue there. They said to us, “How did Canada do it? How did you not have revolts in the street?” Again, it’s values. And the media coverage. I found that a major turning point in the last federal election was that image of the young boy, Alan Kurdi, who washed up on the shores of Greece. That was a turning point for Canadians in our position on refugees, our role in the world on dealing with this crisis. The media images after the Council of Europe—where there’s a big push between some of the Eastern European countries opposed to immigration and refugees—is that they are young men, terrorists. That’s all they show. That’s the picture of immigration. But here, the biggest issue I get in my constituency office when it comes to our refugee policy is why we’re not bringing in more. So it goes back to our media here in Canada not being dominated by the very sexy, flashy, quick news stories that are the fear stories, appealing to the worst part of human nature.

MH: Well, millennials are not follow ing as closely as the journalists would like to think.

JD: And my job as a teacher is to help them develop a better set of filters.

MH: Right, but not your students. The category of millennials. They don’t read the papers and they’re not watching the news, right?

JD: And they’re writing 140 characters at the most!

MH: They are, but they are becoming their own editors, and their own publishers, because of the devices that are in their hands. I think that the role of institutions big and small becomes even more important in today’s society. Those are their day-to-day touchpoints in terms of what is happening in that bigger world.

JO: When I got into politics, my first year was right when I graduated. What I learned very early is that everybody’s busy. They’re just trying to go to work, spend time with their families. There is not a lot of time. In Pickering you spend an hour and a half getting to work and an hour and a half getting back. So the way I look at it is this: take this well-thought-out argument or policy, and convey it quickly to people in a way that gets them thinking.That’s how we have to focus on the next generation. So much information is being thrown at them. How do you get really good at giving them a teaser about a complex argument, so that they then do more research?

MH: There’s a lot that is delightful about Scarborough that needs to make it into the media. Our food culture here is so strong and authentic. What about the music culture here? It’s world-renowned. The Weeknd, right here in Scarborough! It’s in this environment where you have these clashes of cultures that excellence is produced.

JD: That’s what makes this place, to me, as a relative newcomer to Scarborough, the most exciting academic environment, cultural environment, intellectual environment, that I’ve ever seen.

JO: Well, I think it’s that cultural diversity that elevates the conversation. It’s the viewpoint, “Oh, I never thought of it like that.”

MH: And it’s still, in Toronto terms, an affordable, accessible place for families to purchase a house. It also has some of the best green space in the region!