As Christine Mo, a masters student studying public policy at the University of Toronto, heads back to class for the start of a new school year, memories of the previous one weigh heavy.

In February, joss paper, or “hell money,” meant to be burnt in offering to deities and deceased ancestors in the afterlife, was given to students at the university’s Graduate House residence for Lunar New Year. At the time, students said that was akin to a death threat, intentional or not, and a petition was circulated calling for the university to investigate the incident.

Then an online meeting to support Asian students after the “hell money” incident was disrupted by what appeared to be a man holding a machine gun as racist messages flooded the chat.

“I was very scared, and very furious,” said Mo. “Scared because I always expected U of T to be a friendly and inclusive campus.”

It can be that friendly and inclusive safe space she expected if substantial changes are made to how the university prevents instances of anti-Asian racism, she said, but that burden should be on the university itself, not on its students. And given the university’s initial handling of the hell money incident, there’s a lot of work to be done.

U of T has a large population of Asian international students, with over 15,000 students from China alone, according to data posted to the school’s website.

And while their numbers at the school are large, “there’s only so much we can actually do,” said Wan Li, a student at UofT who helped pen a new report, “A Path Forward: Creating Safe & Inclusive Spaces at U of T,” created by the U of T Asian Alliance. “We are proud (of the report), but at the same time, it would be nice if we lived in a world where we didn’t have to mobilize.”

The report criticizes the university’s initial response to the hell money and machine-gun incidents, and outlines steps the university can implement to combat and prevent these events in the future, plus other steps for the university to be more inclusive for Asian students on campus.

“Make no mistake, these horrific events are not just circumstantial incidents brought about by the COVID pandemic — they are symptoms of long-standing institutional anti-Asian racism at U of T,” it reads. “While the University of Toronto as an institution openly denounces all forms of historical and ongoing racial discrimination, we seek action and not sentiment.”

That action looks like changes to the university’s equity, diversity and inclusion departments (EDI), including that it increases staffing and investments at EDI offices to establish formal and responsive channels of communication for U of T members, but it also looks at community building, crisis response and accountability, and anti-racism and anti-oppression approaches, curriculum, representation and leadership.

“The recommendations, to me, seem doable,” said Mo. The question is whether the university will actually implement things that keep students safe and protect their mental health, she said. And she isn’t too confident it will.

“We recognize and appreciate that the Report holds University leadership accountable for this much-needed change,” reads a letter from U of T’s vice president of people, strategy, equity and culture in response to the report and viewed by the Star. “We are deeply concerned that Asian members of our community have felt unsafe, ‘invisible,’ and unrepresented by institutional strategies devised to address racism, microaggressions, and other forms of discrimination on our three campuses.”

In a statement to the Star, U of T said its Anti-Asian Racism Working Group will consult with students, staff, faculty, librarians and others about their experiences of anti-Asian racism and invite recommendations on how to create a better environment for Asian community members. The statement also added the university is “reviewing previous recommendations,” including those from the U of T Asian Alliance.

Students who experience racism can receive support and guidance through the university’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office, the statement said.

Li doesn’t see this report, or the university’s response to it, as a resolution. The resolution depends on how much work the university actually does with what was presented to it.

But “we don’t have any ways to really track whether or not these things actually happen.”

Alessia Passafiume is a GTA-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Alessia via email: