These 12 grads pursue the truth in important and different ways. Some have criticized government policy, others have pushed for changes at their workplace or questioned a prevailing view. They may not always have won people to their perspective, but they epitomize the expression, “You will never lose if you fight for the truth.”
Mary Anne Chambers (BA 1988 UTSC) served in the Ontario Legislative Assembly from 2003 to 2007. She supports the Imani Academic Mentorship Program at UTSC, which aims to inspire Black students in grades 7 to 12 to pursue post-secondary education.
“There is a tendency to think that because we mean well, we will do well. But how we define ‘meaning well’ is influenced by what we understand to be true – and this is shaped by our experiences, our social circles, our work and, crucially, whom we listen to.
Decision-makers need to appreciate how public policy will affect different communities and individuals. We can do this through a willingness to listen to as many different voices as we can – from the broadest possible spectrum of society. Only then can we get the full ‘truth’ of the potential impact of our decisions.”
The real downside of privilege is that we get a narrow view of life
The Medical Officer
In recent weeks, many Torontonians have become familiar with Dr. Eileen de Villa (MHSc 1994, MD 1998), the city’s medical officer of health, who is holding daily public briefings about the pandemic. She answered the questions below in late March.
What “truth” do you feel you most need to communicate to Torontonians right now?
We all have a responsibility to protect ourselves, our friends, our families and our communities from the spread of COVID-19. Toronto still has the opportunity to slow this virus spread, but we need to work together. We all need to practice physical distancing and stay home if you can and only leave if you have to. People returning from travel from anywhere outside of Canada, including the United States, need to stay home, even if they don’t have symptoms of illness. Staying home not only protects you from this virus spread, it also protects our city’s most vulnerable residents: people who are elderly and those with a chronic health condition. Evidence shows these groups are more likely to be severely affected by COVID-19.
How do you combat misinformation about the pandemic?
We provide credible, up-to-date, evidence-based information to the public as facts. This ensures that people are aware of the changing environment and of the latest recommendations from local, provincial, and federal governments and health officials. Toronto Public Health is constantly updating its website, doing daily media briefings and responding to the public through its hotline and on social media.
Jesse Wente (BA 1996 Innis), who is a member of the Serpent River First Nation, talked to us about the recent Wet’suwet’en protests and the truth of Indigenous Peoples’ experience in Canada. He is the executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office in Toronto, which supports and develops Indigenous storytellers.
“Much, if not almost all, of what we now call Canada is actually not Canada because the original nations on this land never gave up the right to govern themselves. This is not the truth that most Canadians have been taught, and it’s not the truth that most Canadians believe. But it’s a universal truth for Indigenous Peoples here on Turtle Island in 2020. Acknowledgment and understanding of this is the key to moving past it. It will require a fundamental rethink and reimagining of what Canada is as a country.
Canada could one day look a lot like what my ancestors envisioned
Canada is not the air; it’s not a constant. It is not beyond our will to have it be something different. We’ve seen a huge shift – even in the last five years – in what is being taught in schools about Indigenous Peoples. I think this is already having a very real effect and will have an even greater effect in the future. The situation is still not perfect. But recent signs of solidarity with Indigenous Peoples are incredibly encouraging. It makes me imagine that Canada could one day look a lot like what my ancestors envisioned.”
Afua Cooper (BA 1986 New College, MA 1991, PhD 2000) is a professor at Dalhousie University who specializes in African Canadian Studies.
A few years ago, there were several racist incidents at Dalhousie University directed at Black and Muslim students. Cooper and other faculty members brought the issue to the president, who launched an official investigation into anti-Black racism at the institution. A major focus was the school’s founder, Lord Dalhousie. “The university was gearing up to commemorate its bicentenary, yet its founder was fundamentally anti-Black,” says Cooper, who led the scholarly probe. “We needed to look back in order to move forward.”
As a historian, Cooper already knew a lot about the Black experience in Atlantic Canada, but a deep dive into archival documents yielded disturbing truths. Dalhousie had tried to deport Black refugees from the War of 1812 to the tropical colonies, even though the British Crown had promised a place for them in Nova Scotia. Dalhousie saw Nova Scotia as a white person’s colony, so he cut the refugees’ rations by more than half – starving them, essentially, so they would leave. “It was a horror story,” says Cooper.
Cooper’s three-year investigation culminated in recommendations to create a more diverse and inclusive campus. For her, the experience also highlighted, yet again, the importance of looking at a historical episode from different points of view to create a fuller version of the “truth.”
Jason Y. Ng (JD 2001, MBA 2001) participated in the 2014 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. His book Umbrellas in Bloom (2015) was the first in English to chronicle the movement. He continues to write about the latest protests in newspaper columns and give lectures on the political situation in Hong Kong.
You describe the pro-democracy movement as a “battle for public opinion.” How is misinformation being used to distort perceptions?
The Chinese state media often doctor video footage of protests or take it out of context to portray protesters as irrational and violent – and as instruments of Western governments. Last fall, Twitter and Facebook shut down more than 5,000 accounts linked to an army of trolls hired by the authorities to chip away at public support for protesters and to harass journalists and pro-democracy politicians and activists. By tightly controlling the “truth,” Chinese authorities hope to suppress the protest movement and stem its spread to the mainland.
How has this affected you?
Anyone who operates in Hong Kong in fields such as literature, journalism and the law as I do shares concerns about censorship. It doesn’t necessarily come through a heavy-handed crackdown but through more subtle forms of coercion and intimidation. For instance, the authorities can shut down a media outlet, inviting public backlash and a legal challenge. Or they can use less obvious tactics, such as pressuring big businesses not to place ads in outlets that are critical of Beijing.
What’s at stake?
Freedom of expression and democracy – they are both highly fragile. We must stand together to defend these values.
This issue of the magazine was being finalized as the university was dealing with a rapidly changing situation involving COVID-19, which led to a number of changes to the print edition. This item appears only online.
George Alevizos (BA 2019 UTM) has acted in episodes of Star Trek: Discovery and a recent theatre production of A Few Good Men, and guest-starred on Hudson & Rex. He is also part of Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital’s Dear Everybody Campaign, which focuses on ending stigma for young people with disabilities.
“If casting directors hire somebody with a disability to play a role they are good for instead of it having to be about the fact that they’re in a wheelchair, then that breaks down stigma. It shows: Look, we’re everyday people and we live our lives and we fall in love. Just because we move around differently doesn’t make us less capable.”
Daniela Drandic (BA 2003 UTM) is head of the reproductive rights program at RODA (Parents in Action), Croatia’s largest parent advocacy group. Drandic advocates for respectful and safe maternity care. Below she talks about the group’s #BreakTheSilence campaign.
What is #BreakTheSilence?
In 2014, we invited women to share their stories about how their rights were violated during maternity care. There were thousands of stories all over social media and traditional media in Croatia.
Then, in 2018, a member of parliament stood up in the house and told her story of being tied to a gynecological table and having a surgical miscarriage procedure without anesthetics. The minister of health said to her, ‘This doesn’t happen in our hospitals’ – like she was lying. It reignited our campaign, focusing on one facet of disrespect and harmful practice in maternity care: painful procedures done without anesthetics.
Why aren’t doctors using anesthetics?
The problem is the belief that women can, and should, tolerate pain: If you’re a good mother, you can handle it during childbirth. This is a problem in many countries. We need to rewrite that cultural wiring.
Why is this campaign important?
Women are realizing there is an innate power in these stories – and it’s not just women; it’s any marginalized group that doesn’t have a chance to speak or change things because they’re not in power. Just saying these things is very important. Now, if doctors make excuses about why they don’t want to give anesthetics, women are not accepting that anymore.
Michael Prior’s maternal grandparents, who were Japanese-Canadian, were subject to internment in British Columbia during the Second World War. Their families’ properties were seized and liquidated to help pay for the construction of internment camps. They were cut off from many opportunities because of their race. This episode looms large in his family mythology, says Prior (MA 2015), and, along with the emotional terrain of his own mixed-race identity, inspired his new book of poetry, Burning Province (McClelland & Stewart). “The sort of truth that poems tell is not the truth of information but the truth of experience,” says Prior. “They ask complicated questions in beautiful and memorable ways.”
Wildroses, horsetails, wind’s cobwebs over water:
summers here since I first learned to swim.
The poplars across the bay shimmer and sway,
reflections creasing under the weather
like molten glass. To think that mirror once meant
both to wonder and look back—the way
I’ve stared into a funhouse pane and seen my mixed face
split then doubled.
North, the rocks are choked with millwort.
South, starlings rustle through the cedars:
brought by a man who spent his life importing
every bird in Shakespeare. New worlds
forever measured by the Old. For every measure,
an equal and opposite erasure. How, over the fire,
the family friend said, Jap, not Japanese.
Excerpted from Burning Province by Michael Prior. Published by McClelland & Stewart. All rights reserved.
Emily Hunter (BA 2011 UTSC) is an environmental activist and storyteller. She is the director and producer of Activism 2.0, a short documentary, and author of the book The Next Eco-Warriors.
How do you get people to focus on important “truths,” such as climate change?
The narrative around this issue is “crisis,” which has mostly failed to move the public into action. For me, the most effective way to empower others to act is to tell a story about solutions – about the world we want and about the people creating that world.
What tactics do you use?
Every environmental organization I know starts with independent evidence to show that an injustice is happening. But simply sharing this truth isn’t enough anymore. It’s how you communicate which drives people to act – from online petitions to student strikes. This is the art of campaigning.
How do you counter narratives that obscure the truth?
One of our most dominant narratives tells us that happiness equals wealth. But this doesn’t serve us when it leads to damaging the environment beyond repair. I consider an activist to be a storyteller who disarms these destructive narratives. I try to show that we are not in competition with each other for the planet’s resources, and that we can live in a low-impact society that still meets our needs.
For me, the most effective way to empower others to act is to tell a story about the world we want and about the people creating that world
The Sports Doctor
Dr. Riam Shammaa’s new book, Looks Can Kill: A Doctor’s Journey through Steroids, Addiction and Online Fitness Culture, reveals the ugly truths behind fake fitness.
When Dr. Riam Shammaa – a U of T lecturer and sports medicine physician – was a medical resident in Quebec, he began lifting weights at a local gym. He soon learned what his medical training had not taught him: many of the gym-goers were knee-deep in the use of steroids and other hormonal substances to boost muscle growth.
He realized that much of this cosmetic doping was tied to the desire to emulate the “fake fitness” stars portrayed on social media: looking fit was trumping being fit.
Shammaa reveals the dangerous truths about the fake-fitness industry in his new book, Looks Can Kill: A Doctor’s Journey through Steroids, Addiction and Online Fitness Culture. A few hallmarks of steroid use: Cardiac arrest, kidney failure and psychological issues, such as paranoia, rage and suicidal tendencies. “For that beautiful Instagram picture, there are six months of hormone and medication abuse, including insulin, thyroid hormones and steroids,” says Shammaa, who also did a fellowship in medicine at U of T.
For that beautiful Instagram picture, there are six months of hormone and medication abuse
His book includes medical guidelines for recognizing and treating cosmetic doping because, he says, it is vital that doctors – as well as parents, coaches and others – start connecting the dots before it is too late to save a life.
Shammaa also wants to put an end to the stigma surrounding steroid users. Like any addiction or body-image issue, this is a mental health concern, he says, and the people who are experiencing it are vulnerable: They do not want to admit weakness, when they are trying so desperately to appear strong.
Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe (BSc 1994 Victoria) is the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She was recently named one of the United Nations Champions of the Earth. One of the most frequent questions people ask her is “Is it too late to save the Earth?” Below, she answers.
“The answer is yes and no. It’s kind of like we’ve been smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for decades. We don’t have emphysema, we don’t have lung cancer and we’re not dead. But the time to stop is as soon as possible.
It’s the same with climate change. I study the difference between the future where we continue to depend on fossil fuels versus the future where we transition to clean energy. And I can tell you there is a night- and-day difference. There is the future where there are significant impacts, but we can adapt to them, prepare for them and build resilience so that when they come we’re ready. Or there is the future where the changes overwhelm us far beyond our capacity to adapt.
So in that sense, it is very much not too late. But if we decide it’s too late and we do nothing, we will ensure our failure. The choices we make now, and in the next few years, do matter.”
Habiba Nosheen (BA 2005 New College) is an Emmy Award–winning investigative journalist whose production company, Akelo Media, specializes in documentary films for a global audience. In 2013, she directed the film Outlawed in Pakistan, about a Pakistani teenager’s attempt to bring to justice the four men she accused of raping her.
“It’s a privilege to be able to tell stories about people, but it comes with a responsibility to be accurate. What helps me sleep at night is knowing I’ve vetted a story with all of the evidence available to me.
We need investigative journalism to get to the truth. But to be meaningful, and to resonate with an audience, investigative journalism needs to do more than just find out what happened. It needs to hold people in power to account.
In a ‘post-truth’ world, journalism grounds us. It reminds us that there actually is such a thing as an objective truth.”