U of T joins national effort to decolonize education

New principles to narrow education gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students

U of T joins national effort to decolonize education

In light of Canada’s past and present colonization of Aboriginal peoples, the University of Toronto will join 96 other Canadian universities in a comprehensive national reconciliation plan. “The Principles on Indigenous Education” aim to help decolonize education and reduce the education gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students by rewriting curricula to include Aboriginal history, knowledge, values, and culture. It also aims to increase opportunities and resources for Indigenous students, including the promotion of engagement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Lee Maracle, an Elder-in-Residence and Traditional Leader at U of T’s First Nations House, stresses the importance of conciliation and reconciliation. “I think that without those discussions, there isn’t going to be a good relationship inside Canada,” she said.

Maracle explained that the initiative should extend beyond mere Aboriginal involvement to involving Aboriginal leadership, which she says is crucial during the decision-making and implementation processes of the plan. “In general, Canada has to reconcile with us… I think by reconciling with us, what I mean by that, is that it’s up to us to determine the conditions of reconciliation… the persons hurt would have to be in the driver’s seat.”

Institutional change

The mandates within Universities Canada’s announcement included a dedication to increasing the rate of Aboriginal graduates by working with elementary and secondary schools as well as an effort to encourage other institutions to improve their relationship with Aboriginal Canadians by forming private-sector partnerships to provide opportunities for indigenous students.

Maracle supports the need for working with elementary and secondary schools. “From Kindergarten to Grade 12, that is where the problem area is. If our kids graduate from high school, they go directly to university in greater numbers than any other race in the country. The problem is, they don’t graduate, and they don’t graduate because culturally, everything is foreign,” she explained.

While U of T has several academic initiatives to decolonize education from within its own institution, its projects with elementary and secondary schools and the private sector may need further attention and study.

Lucy Fromowitz, assistant vice-president of student life, highlighted the Council of Aboriginal Initiatives, formed at U of T about six years ago. The council includes several prominent U of T Indigenous voices. “[It is] a cross-divisional group led by co-chairs, the director of Aboriginal Student Services/First Nations House and the chair of the Department of Linguistics, with the vice provost, Students and First Entry Divisions as executive sponsor,” said Fromowitz, adding “[the] council provides a venue for discussion of Aboriginal issues, strategies and program implementation, partnership development, and dialogue and response to external organizations and Aboriginal communities.”

Incorpation of knowledge and experience

With respect to Universities Canada’s new Principles on Indigenous Education, Fromowitz named several academic faculties that are incorporating Indigenous knowledge and experience, such as the Aboriginal Studies Program and the Indigenous Language Initiative on maintaining and increasing the use of Indigenous language.

The Faculties of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, and Public Health include Indigenous pedagogy. In law, students can obtain a Certificate in Aboriginal Legal Studies, in partnership with the Aboriginal Studies Program. Courses in areas such as Indigenous Healing in Counseling and Psychoeducation and Foundations of Aboriginal Education in Canada are offered at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “[In] Social Work, Canadian Roots, a national non-profit educational organization, brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth in order to foster an environment of shared learning,” Fromowitz said.

When asked what an effective approach to decolonizing post-secondary education might be, Maracle said that it was up to Indigenous communities to determine what would help them succeed at school. “I think we have to be who we are and who we’ll always want to be, and Canada has to restore our language and cultures and they have to carry them through the institutions, their own institutions.” Maracle added that everybody should be able to learn languages such as Cree or Ojibway. “Non-native people have to have access to that language. There’s no reason why we all can’t speak Cree or we all can’t speak Ojibway if we want to.”

Critics bite the hand that fees them

Meric Gertler, the dean of Arts and Science, bluntly told U of T’s Business Board last month that students would intensify their course loads in order to get their money’s worth. In addition, he said, the introduction of a program fee will provide an incentive for students to complete their studies within four years or less and start earning income.

As the Program Fee Implementation Committee did not conduct quantitative analysis to investigate the relationship between course load and resultant GPA, it is not known for certain how flat fees will affect academic performance.

However, students on campus have been speculating for themselves about how flat fees might change the quality of university life.

One of these students is Innis College’s Webnesh Haile. Having devoted much of her time to the Innis College Student Society and the Innis College Council, Haile has learned a thing or two about the relationship between campus involvement and academic achievement. Now finishing up her last year at the university, Haile looks unfavourably on the imposition of flat fees.

“Being heavily involved with these extracurricular activities was a fantastic learning experience, but meant that I had much less time and energy to focus on schoolwork or on other aspects of [my] personal life,” she says.

This year Haile’s extracurricular involvement was much lower than in previous years, because she felt the need to focus on academic achievement. As a result her GPA was almost half a point higher.

“It’s not unreasonable to expect that people who wish to make significant contributions to nonacademic causes will need to take fewer courses in order to do well,” said Haile.

“I don’t see how increasing the number of courses a student takes per year can enrich the learning experience, especially outside the classroom,” she said. “This initiative appears to exacerbate the mentality of education as tool to be acquired quickly and painfully rather than a journey of growth—isn’t this contradictory to the spirit of higher learning?”

According to Gertler, the upshot of any increase in the number of courses students take per year will result in a parallel increase in government grants to the university. The plan is for this revenue to be funneled back into enriching the learning experience.

Victoria College student Ige Egal disagrees. “I think it’s going to take away from the character of the school because the reasons for introducing flat fees are so academic. It provides a financial incentive for you to focus only on academics, and the value of extracurricular activities or jobs is not taken into consideration.”

Ige has spent much of his time as an undergraduate playing soccer for his college team and refereeing for intramural soccer teams. In addition to athletic pursuits he serves as a residence don and a research assistant for an African Studies professor. This year he had to drop a course, because between school and other activities he found there was just too much to do.

He predicts student life will have difficulty engaging students on campus with the introduction of flat fees, as they would have to go against a financial barrier that is institutionally supported.

Qualms over the quality of the student experience are hardly new to the University of Toronto, since the National Survey of Student Engagement gave U of T failing marks on student-faculty interaction and support services in 2004. David Farrar, then deputy provost, blamed the abysmal ranking on a decade of under-funding and initiated the Stepping Up plan. Since its inauguration, the plan has sought, among other things, to enhance the student experience at the university.

Corrine Aberdeen, a Victoria College student and a recipient of U of T’s Gordon Cressy award for student leadership, feels flat fees will profoundly worsen U of T students’ lives.

“If tuition is not based on courses it would make more sense to sacrifice everything for a shorter period of time, struggle, finish with a mediocre GPA, and no debt,” said Aberdeen. “Rather than finish with a fantastic GPA and participate in campus life, have a lifetime of debt and enter an uncertain work world with an Hon. BA that may get you a job at an American Apparel or Starbucks, if you’re lucky.”

Faculty members on the dissenting side of the flat fee camp argue students often take a reduced course load to improve their academic lot.

“I feel a tremendous amount of respect for the integrity and the intelligence of our students who are taking the lead on this issue,” said Judith Taylor, the undergraduate coordinator for the Institute for Women and Gender Studies. Taylor has filed a statement against the university in a lawsuit brought by students to block the imposition of flat fees. The case is due to be heard in court on July 10.

“What we need is more pie, not more students looking for a piece,” summed up Webnesh Haile. “It’s no wonder that the university sought to sneak this initiative through during spring exams, when students are least able to grasp the implications and fight against the proposed changes.”

Breakthroughs from the big chill

In May 2007, a one-month-old woolly mammoth (Mammathus primigenius) gave scientists an incredible glimpse into the past when her perfectly intact remains were discovered near the shores of Yuribei River on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia. Frozen for 40,000 years in permafrost, the baby mammoth named Lyuba by researchers is the most well-preserved mammoth—right down to her eyelashes and tufts of her dark brown hair—ever found.

Lyuba is not the first woolly mammoth found in Siberia. In fact, she is only one out of the dozen mammoth remains uncovered since researchers’ first mammoth discovery in 1806. Dr. Dan Fisher, a paleontologist from University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology, was one of the scientists who studied Lyuba.

“When I saw her, my first thought was ‘Oh my goodness, she’s perfect.’ It looked like she’d just drifted off to sleep. Suddenly, what I’d been struggling to visualize for so long was lying right there for me to touch,” explains Fisher.

Scientists went to work right away using CT scans to generate the most comprehensive three-dimensional images of Lyuba’s entire 220-pound, three-foot-tall body, allowing a closer look at her internal organs.

Dr. Fisher remarked, “Though she is not large, no other specimen preserves this much of the original anatomy. That makes her a remarkable scientific resource.” The CT scans indicated that Lyuba had healthy amounts of fat tissue and no skeletal damage. Since her organs were frozen in pristine condition, scientists were able to photograph and collect tissue samples from her body.

Milk residue in Lyuba’s intestinal tissue provided scientists with the first ever sample of mammoth milk and suggested that she had fed on her mother’s milk and feces just before death. The latter proved very interesting to scientists, as it is common behavior among modern baby elephants to consume feces. Unable to digest their food at such a young age, baby elephants eat fecal matter to assemble colonies of bacteria that will aid them in digestion of plant material. Until now, this behavior was never documented among mammoths, but suggests that they share common behavioral traits with modern elephants.

Trapped inside Lyuba’s trunk, trachea, and mouth was mud, revealing a plausible cause of death: asphyxiation. It is likely that while crossing a muddy stream, Lyuba’s young, uncoordinated body may have become stuck in the thick medium, thus forcing her to flail in fear and choke on mud, either suffocating or drowning.

Scientists also obtained samples of her tusks and premolars. The composition of her teeth provides scientists with a record of her life story, telling them everything from the climate she lived in to her behavior, diet, and the season in which she died.

“This is the first time we have been able to do a detailed comparison of a mammoth’s tusk and tooth data with soft tissues from the rest of its body,” said Dr. Fisher.

Scientists concluded that Lyuba died in spring.

After a DNA analysis of her tissue, 70 per cent of the mammoth genome was successfully decoded and comprised 4.7 billion base pairs—the largest known mammal genome and the first to be reconstructed from an extinct animal. Because the woolly mammoth shares 99.4 per cent of its DNA with the Asian elephant, some scientists hypothesize that they may be able resurrect the woolly mammoth via in vitro fertilization or cloning. In vitro fertilization would entail isolating a sperm cell from a frozen mammoth, fertilizing an elephant egg with the mammoth sperm, and implanting the fertilized egg in a female elephant, culminating in the birth of a mammoth-elephant hybrid.

Over many generations, backcross hybrids of elephant-mammoths may be genetically engineered to create a purer mammoth species. The cloning process would involve removing the nucleus from the egg of an elephant and replacing it with the nucleus of a frozen mammoth cell. The cell would then be chemically or electrically stimulated to divide and then implanted in the uterus of an elephant. If the process was a success, the elephant would give birth to a mammoth.

“I laughed when Steven Spielburg said that cloning extinct animals was inevitable,” says Hendrik Poinar, director of the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University, on Spielburg’s film Jurassic Park. “But I’m not laughing anymore, at least about mammoths. This is going to happen. It’s just a matter of working out the details.”

Renowned AIDS researcher heads south for greener pastures

World-renowned AIDS researcher Pierre-Rafick Sekaly, a resident of Canada since 1986, is packing up his labs at the University of Montreal and McGill. He’s taking with him more than 20 researchers who will move to the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute in Florida, where Sekaly expects to double his research fund to $7 million.

Sekaly wants to proceed to clinical trials on humans, which is impossible with his current funding in Canada of $3.5 million. “I want to move my research into an area that can make a difference for humans,” he said. “So I need to move to a place with the necessary funding.”

The move is symptomatic of the climate in the research world: while Obama has invested some $10 billion into scientific research in his stimulus package, Harper has cut $148 million.

Though the recent federal budget was a catalyst, Sekaly says he has been debating the move for some time.

“It’s really a problem of overall vision,” he said. “In the U.S., there’s a lot more.”

In addition to the heightened research capacity, Sekaly said he is also motivated by more opportunities for his young staff south of the border.

Michael Hammond, a spokesperson for Industry Canada, pointed out that Canada had not cut its “base funding,” and that it has increased investment in research in previous years, “surpassing a historic level of $10 billion in 2007-08.” Sekaly maintains that the life of a researcher is very difficult in Canada.

“I’d like to see what Obama has done in the U.S.—he’s put science back where it should be, which is on top. Canadian science should be a top priority,” said Sekaly, adding that “if not, we are going to lose our best people.”

As of yet, this has not been the experience at U of T, according to Cheryl Misak, vice-president and provost. “We haven’t yet seen any mass exodus of our top people because of the last budget. It might be that none of our people had their grants cut, or it’s early days, but we haven’t seen this yet.”

Nevertheless, Misak is familiar with the drain to the States. “Our people are always being recruited away by fantastic places elsewhere,” she said. “In my office, we’re always dealing with what I call retention battles for our finest people. We’ll have Ivy League offices offering our people just unbelievable amounts of money.”

If there are no changes in Canadian funding, however, universities may start losing these battles. This past March, over 2000 Canadian researchers signed an open letter urging Harper to return the $148 million to basic research.

“We need to put the young generation on a track where they value research,” said Sekaly. “Right now, it’s such a tough job.”

Go ahead, spoil my appetite

The expressions “you make me sick” and “it left a bad taste in my mouth” may be more than just evocative turns of phrase. A recent study by University of Toronto researchers shows that our sense of moral disgust may have evolved from a basic instinct that helps us distinguish between good and unappetizing tastes and smells.

Hanah Chapman, a PhD candidate with the University of Toronto’s Affect and Cognition Lab, along with Adam Anderson, Joshua Susskind, and David Kim, have found that the facial muscles we use to make an “ugh, gross!” expression when we eat or smell something unpalatable are the same as those we use to express displeasure towards immoral behaviour.

“We were wondering if [moral disgust] is actually the same emotion you feel if you open up Tupperware that’s been in the fridge for too long or step on something nasty on the sidewalk─ or if it was just a powerful metaphor to condemn people’s behaviour,” explains Chapman.

To study whether there is any connection, Chapman and her team studied the facial expressions of people exposed to unappealing tastes, disgusting imagery, and moral transgression using a technique called electromyography, whereby small electrodes are placed on muscles to measure the electrical impulses that occur when they contract.

Chapman’s study measured contractions in the muscle region of the face called the levator labii, the area that raises the upper lip and scrunches up the nose, creating the distinctive “disgusted” expression.

Participants in the study experienced moral transgression when they played the “recipient” in “The Ultimatum Game.” In this game, two participants are given a sum of money and one player is asked to split it. The “decider” may choose to divide it evenly, or may keep a larger proportion of the cash and offer the recipient a smaller sum. The recipient is then free to either accept the offer or reject it and receive no money at all.

“What is interesting is that even though it is in the economic interest of the recipient to accept the offer, when people get offers that are too unequal they’ll reject them because [they are] motivated to punish the other player,” says Chapman.

Chapman and her team found that the levator labii region was consistently stimulated among the recipients when they felt they were being short-changed or treated “immorally.”

“These findings may change the way we think about the human moral impulse,” explains Chapman. “People think of human morality as the pinnacle of human development. What this work shows is that emotions play an important role as well. [Moral] thoughts and judgments are backed up by ancient emotional forces.”

Chapman’s results support Darwin’s contention that the expressions we use to convey emotions evolved from their role in regulating the sensory organs of the face. Reacting to unpleasant tastes and smells by wrinkling our noses and curling our lip may have originally developed to help prevent us from consuming harmful substances such as rotten or toxic food. “It wasn’t until more recently,” says Chapman, “that it was adapted for use in a social context.”

The next step will be to investigate whether this facial expression is learned behaviour or “hardwired” from birth. Chapman and her team plan to test subjects who have been legally blind since early childhood, and haven’t had the opportunity to learn to make the facial expression for disgust in response to social stimulus.

“If they do show it, [that] implies that [the facial expression] happens without learning and that it’s in your genes,” says Chapman. “If they don’t show it, then it’s something you learn from your parents as you grow up.”

Student suspended for working on gay pornography

Grove City College, Pennsylvania suspended a student for one year after school officials learned about his involvement in online gay pornography. Grove City’s student handbook outlines that possessing pornographic material and having premarital sex (homosexual or heterosexual) could be penalized by suspension. The student, John Gechter, told The Herald that he had been working in pornography for two years to pay his tuition. Critics have questioned the degree of control schools exercise in the lives of students following Gechter’s suspension. The college, a Christian institution with strict rules of conduct, found out about Gechter’s involvement after a student browsing the Internet forwarded a few images to others in the college via email.

You reap what you row

It seems that every year, I have one housemate who sneaks out of the house at 4 a.m. to join the rowing team for their notoriously early morning practices. It’s always left me wondering why anyone would put themselves through such a grueling schedule, and so I found myself signing up for the Varsity rowing team’s Intro to Rowing course this first weekend of May to discover what all the fuss is about.

The U of T Varsity team rows out of Hanlan Boat Club. Unreachable by TTC, the bike ride from U of T takes you through the heart of downtown, past an industrial patch where freight ships dock at the port lands canal, and finally to the quiet waterfront nearby the Leslie Street Spit.

The Hanlan Boat Club consists of two corrugated steel hangars and is named after Ned Hanlan, who invented the sliding seats found in all racing shells and who was the first head coach of the U of T Rowing Club in 1897.

“Hanlan was a legend back in the late 1800s,” states men’s captain Mike Braithwaite as the course begins.

A dozen students gather around four ancient rowing machines behind the hangar and look on as the experienced Varsity rowers show us the catch, drive, recovery, and finish of the rowing cycle. Their strides kick up dry dirt as the machine flywheels hum with power. We try our hand at the rowing machines next; dead birch leaves lazily blow around the new green grass as we feebly prepare for the water.

Once the novices get the hang of the rowing technique, Lauren Brown, the women’s captain, leads the group into a hangar. The boathouse’s mossy skylights cast a mottled light on the neatly stacked oars and shells. Commands are issued and we lift the $50,000 carbon fiberglass shells above our heads and out of the hangar, cautiously maneuvering our way to the dock. Head coach Rob Watering touches on the challenges of the aging state of their gear. “Our major expense is the equipment, which wears out over time,” he says.

U of T shares the Hanlan Boat Club with Havergal and UCC, and as we head to the dock, the private schools are christening a new purchase with champagne—a shell that raced at the Beijing Olympics. There’s a faint buzz as onlookers engage in polite conversation and the occasional cheering. Dogs jump off the dock to fetch deadwood branches.

Two shells are gingerly lowered, still intact, into the water. We push away from the dock and those 4 a.m. wake-ups suddenly become so clear.

“I row for the romance of it,” Caro Kronlachner says, looking out across the water.

We heave and we ho through the coruscating water. Our muscles burn. It’s hard to put your finger on what exactly it is about the water that moves us so greatly, but Walt Whitman touched on it when he wrote

To leave this steady unendurable land

To leave the tiresome sameness of the streets, the sidewalks and the houses

To leave you O you solid motionless land, and entering a ship

To sail and sail and sail!

Surrounded by water, the faint cry of seagulls wheeling high above the lake, you begin to feel like Whitman’s sailor “bound for all ports.” Rowing west of the Leslie Street Spit, the Toronto skyline comes into view—a sudden, breathtaking juxtaposition.

The afternoon of the second day ends with a race between two boats of novices. The thrill of the close race, where the power of every stroke counts, leaves me with a strong desire to pursue the sport, as well as a strong sense of the depth of teamwork it takes to succeed here. “Typically if a rower learns that they must pull harder for their crewmates than they pull for themselves, they will be successful,” explains head coach Robert Watering.

Summer is the perfect time to think about joining the rowing team. Hanlan Boat Club offers a Learn to Row course in June—a good way to ease into the novice program.

“Unlike a lot of sports, rowing is late entry: you can come in at university without a long history of athletics, work hard and you’ll find that you can progress fast,” Kronlachner explains. “I can’t think of another sport where the amount of effort you put in correlates as directly with positive results.”

The rowing team has been preparing for this upcoming season throughout the winter, and there is a unanimous sense that this year looks promising. “The team has put in a lot of work over the winter, and I think other schools should be looking out for what U of T will be bringing up to the starting gates in the fall,” says captain Lauren Brown. Kronlachner adds, “it seems ill-fated to predict the future, like the Scottish play, best not to refer to victories yet to be won, but we’re still a team to watch.”

It’s all of this: the camaraderie, the calm morning lake, and the drive to overtake the competing team that brings our rowing team back each morning, once more to the lake.

GC approves fee hikes

With students still reeling from the flat fees proposal, on April 16 U of T’s Governing Council approved fee increases of on average 4.3 per cent for domestic students and 5.7 per cent for international students.

The hikes are expected to bring in $25.1 million of new revenue. U of T VP and provost Cheryl Misak insisted that the increase was necessary for U of T to remain competitive.

According to the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, Ontario tuition fee have increased on average by 13 per cent since the 2006-07 “tuition cap”—substantially higher than the national average of three per cent.