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U of T Graduate House, the residence building, placed a bowl containing red Lunar New Year envelopes filled with joss paper on their front desk.Handout

The University of Toronto has issued an apology after staff members at the school’s graduate residence gave students red Lunar New Year envelopes that were filled with joss paper – a type of offering used to honour the dead in some Asian cultures – rather than the traditional lucky money.

Pictures circulating on social media appear to show the joss paper that was given to students. The sheets, which resemble paper money, are printed with the English words “Hell Bank Note.”

Some Asian U of T students, as well as other members of the Asian community, expressed anger and disappointment, calling the use of joss paper in a celebratory context insulting and inappropriate. The university has said its use of the paper was not intentional.

“We were all shocked upon hearing this,” Ivy Zhang and Alex Chow, co-presidents of U of T’s Canadian Asian Student Society, wrote in a Facebook message to The Globe.

“We are disappointed by the Graduate House’s lack of research into cultural sensitivity and proper etiquette,” they said. The mistake could have been avoided had university staff consulted Chinese students or staff members, they added.

Giving red envelopes filled with lucky money – legal tender, rather than imitation bills – to friends and loved ones is a tradition observed during the Lunar New Year, one of the most important festivals in many Asian regions, especially East and Southeast Asia. It occurred this year on Feb. 1. The envelopes are believed to bring blessings and good luck for the year ahead to those who receive them.

The university said in a statement on Friday that members of the school’s Graduate House staff unintentionally placed incorrect banknotes into red envelopes while preparing a display for the Lunar New Year. The envelopes had all been taken by students before the staff members realized their mistake, the statement added.

“The University of Toronto deeply regrets this error. The Lunar New Year festival should be joyous and peaceful. The University is deeply committed to the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion. We will continue our important educational efforts to better understand our diverse communities, and to foster inclusion across our three campuses,” the university said.

The university didn’t respond when asked whether it had consulted any members of the Asian community before putting the envelopes on display.

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The Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice issued a news release Friday morning in which it said the incident must be understood alongside the significance of the Lunar New Year and its traditions, and in context with anti-Asian racism in Canadian society.

“It’s very frustrating given the last year and a half, where anti-Asian racism was so much on the rise and on people’s attention … and to have U of T being so insensitive and disrespectful and totally insulting the community,” the organization’s president, Amy Go, said in an interview.

An online petition, which had gathered more than 1,800 signatures by Friday evening, calls on the university to launch an investigation, and to create a student-centred monitoring system to prevent similar cultural missteps.

In China, joss paper is traditionally used during funerals, and during the Qingming Festival (also called Tomb-Sweeping Day), when families visit their ancestors’ tombs. It’s offered to the dead for use in the afterlife.

The Lunar New Year is supposed to be a time when observers welcome “the new, good luck and prosperity,” Ms. Go said. But joss paper, she noted, symbolizes the opposite.

Ms. Go’s organization is demanding the university commit leadership and resources to engaging with Asian Canadian communities to combat anti-Asian racism within and beyond the institution.

U of T said in its statement that its anti-racism and cultural diversity office facilitates educational programming and community spaces throughout the year to deepen its understanding and commitment to inclusive practices, with a specific focus on the unique experiences of Asian communities and addressing anti-Asian racism.

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