Photo: Lauren Emberson

People of Ryerson: Myer Siemiatycki

In Communities /

By Jake Kivanc

Whether it’s the NHL’s lousiest team or the newest kid on the block, Myer Siemiatycki has one policy: fight the power.

Although finding himself at the top of Ryerson’s political department nowadays, Siemiatycki, 66, has traveled a path riddled with hurdles and growing pains.

As a child, Siemiatycki grew up in Montreal, a place where he often found himself on “the outside of society.”

Raised by a stay-at-home mom and father who worked as a tradesman, both of whom were Polish immigrants and holocaust survivors, Siemiatycki’s place in Canadian society was an atypical one.

“My parents took any opportunities that came their way. I had a lot of great mentors in my family,” he said. “Coming out of that background, you have the sense that the world is both a very wondrous and still a very broken place.”

Living in a period he described as a “shifting and fascinating time”, Siemiatycki said he began to take note of both his own adversities and the ones others faced around him, something that he said began to spar his inner contrarian.

“I think I’ve always had an affinity for the underdog, the suffering, of the world,” he said

Siemiatycki recalled one of his earliest acts of rebellion was proudly repping the jersey of his favourite team, the New York Rangers, who, during the 40’s-60’s, were on a notorious losing streak and heavily looked down upon in the NHL.

“Walking around in a Rangers jersey in Montreal? Oh man! You couldn’t get much worse than that.”

As time progressed, Siemiatycki became more politically active, eventually enrolling at McGill in 1966 for political science and history, after which he would travel to Britain for a short while before returning to Canada to complete his PhD at York, a process that took him “longer than it should have”.

“I can’t confirm this, but I am almost sure that I hold the record for the longest time taken to obtain a PhD,” he said chuckling.

After a period of joblessness in the late-seventies, Siemiatycki landed his first gig with Ryerson at the university’s former station CJRT-FM where he produced on-air, lecture-style programs with the late NDP leader Jack Layton.

A number of years later, Siemiatycki was hired on as a professor at the university for his research on the dynamics of immigration in Canada.

Today much of Siemiatycki’s research focuses on municipal voting rights, with an emphasis on how disadvantaged and minority populations are often shafted in the democratic process.

“Nobody really talks about stuff on the municipal level,” Siemiatycki said. “There’s a lot of eyes on the big dogs in federal and provincial government. But down in the city, where citizens can actually make the most direct difference, it’s mostly ignored.”

Across his 30-plus-year career at Ryerson, Siemiatycki has started a number of initiatives on campus to help empower students, with the most recent of which being a tribute to his old friend and colleague via the Jack Layton School for Youth Leadership, a program that teaches students how to lead effectively in a political environment.

“Jack was a really great guy, he really cared about lighting the fire in his students to do something great,” he said.

And yet at the core of it all, Siemiatycki notes that what led him to Ryerson is the same thing that had him brandishing the red, white & blue of the Rangers as a child.

“Ryerson, as this outlier-turned-university, attracts a special kind of student,” he said. “We see great things done by people unconventionally here. The privilege I have as a faculty member to be given a part in that growth of their potential is a priceless experience. It’s pretty sweet gig if you ask me.”

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