Office closures could spell trouble

Shuttering of Canadian embassy in Tehran the latest in a series of decisions that have left international students worried

Canada has severed diplomatic ties with Iran, the latest instance of an ongoing rollback in the Canadian foreign service that has seen embassies, consulates, and visa-granting offices closed in countries all over the world. The closures could spell trouble for U of T’s growing population of international students.

In a press release last Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the Canadian embassy in Tehran had been permanently closed. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade suggested Canadian-Iranians should instead resort to Turkey for consular and passport services. Baird cited issues like terrorism and jeopardized diplomat safety as reasons for the surprise decision.

Since January 2012, Citizenship and Immigrations Canada has announced several office closures in locations including Tokyo, Berlin, Dhaka, Belgrade, Buffalo, and Kuala Lumpur.

The closures have already impacted students in British Columbia. According to a report in the Ubyssey, more than 80 international students at UBC, 30 to 40 at SFU, and at least 10 at UVic have found themselves in bureaucratic limbo, delaying the start of their scheduled classes until January at the earliest.

“The overall increase in processing times is due to the high volume of applications across the entire visa processing network,” Citizenship and Immigrations spokesperson Danielle Vlemmiks said in an email to the Ubyssey.

According to university spokesperson Michael Kennedy, the University’s Centre for International Experience has not received any requests for assistance from students as a result of the change in Canada’s relationship with Iran. But experts say that the series of closures could pose a problem in the foreseeable future.

“A lot of international students, specifically Canadian-Iranians, who have been direct victims of the closure, are very worried. I think that a lot of them will definitely have problems renewing passports or travelling back home,” said Ramin Jahanbegloo, Iranian-Canadian philosopher and associate professor of political science at U of T.

And for Middle Eastern students at U of T, stories about difficulties obtaining travel documents and visas are all too common. The Varsity spoke to two students, both of whom wished to remain anonymous in light of this controversial issue.

“I missed about 25–30 different flights to Canada because I waited five months for my visa, more than double the time that we had expected. As a result, I took a last-minute 14-hour flight to Toronto and arrived just a day before my classes started. It was, overall, a pretty stressful experience,” said a second-year arts and science student from Pakistan.

One Egyptian student studying international relations said she waited about five years for her Record of Landing papers. This process usually takes six months according to the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website,. She said that it was a stressful situation for her and her family.

According to Jahanbegloo, the difficulties posed by Canada’s cessation of diplomatic contact with Iran affects all Canadians, not only students. Three Canadians — Saeed Malekpour, Ghassemi-Shall, and Hossein Derakhshan — are on death row in a Tehran prison. Jahanbegloo, who was placed in solitary confinement for four months in Tehran, says he knows first-hand that the outlook is pretty bleak.

“I know for a fact that if you don’t have an embassy to support you, your destiny is pretty much left out. I don’t think Canada should have closed these communication channels with Iran because it will make this tragic situation for the imprisoned Canadians worse,” said Jahanbegloo.

A university spokesperson advises international students at U of T experiencing issues with visas to contact the advisors at the Centre for International Experience.

Former Blues quarterback involved in City Hall controversy

Andrew Gillis one of several Ford staffers involved in conflict over mayor’s football coaching

Former Blues quarterback involved in City Hall controversy

Former Varsity Blues quarterback Andrew Gillis found himself at the centre of controversy at City Hall last week, when an exclusive investigation by The Globe and Mail found that Gillis was one of several staff hired by mayor Rob Ford whose duties seem to include coaching football teams.

The revelations by the Globe came just one week after Ford testified under oath that he had ceased all use of taxpayer-funded resources in relation to his volunteer involvement with football coaching.

ROB LEONE/THE VARSITY

“I did use my staff [for football-related activities] and I was wrong to do that,” Ford said during his appearance before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. “That’s been rectified numerous years ago,” he added.

But as recently as last Tuesday, Gillis’ activities included assisting Ford in leading the Don Bosco Eagles in a practice beginning mid-afternoon at the Etobicoke high school.

Gillis was hired as a “special assistant” to the mayor last year. Special assistants are the most junior staff in the mayor’s office. Their salaries are not publicly disclosed.

At the time of his hiring, Gillis had finished his fifth season with the Blues and graduated with a major in urbanism.

Gillis was involved in efforts to turn around the Blues’ fortunes, breaking a 49-game losing streak in October 2008 and winning the accolade for best offensive player in Canadian Interuniversity Sport in 2010.

A self-professed football fanatic, Ford has been known to occasionally attend Varsity Blues games, including the 2012 home opener earlier this month.

Although it remains unclear whether Gillis’ coaching duties with Ford were undertaken on a volunteer basis or as an official component of his job, the Blues have a history of donating time and effort to community improvement through such initiatives as the Huddle Up Bullying Program, the University of Toronto United Way Campaign, and helping move incoming freshman into residences during Frosh Week.

Requests for comment from Blues management went unanswered as of press time.

In addition to Gillis, two of Ford’s “special assistants,” Chris Fickel and Isaac Shirokoff, were listed with contact information on the Facebook group for the Rexdale Raiders, one of the teams patronized by Ford. The cell phone numbers listed have since been confirmed as official City Hall phone lines, meaning the bill is footed by taxpayers.

Ford, who played football for Carleton University, promised during his mayoral campaign that he would cease his coaching efforts at Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School if he won the election. After his victory in December 2010, he continued coaching and even expanded his involvement. Ford started the Rexdale Raiders in 2011.

Since the revelation, the mayor’s communications team have prevented Gillis and the other staffers in question from speaking with press, in spite of initial signs that they might be permitted to provide details about their involvement with the football teams.

“We’ll get these two folks out, they’ll clear the air and then I’d like to see what they say after that,” said Doug Ford in an interview with AM640’s John Oakley. But by Thursday, the Fords had backtracked from the plan.

“That will not happen,” Rob Ford’s press secretary George Christopoulos told the press.

Neither the mayor nor his spokesperson has confirmed whether staffers like Gillis were involved in coaching duties on a strictly voluntary basis. Instead, on Wednesday, Ford released a statement suggesting that journalists criticizing Ford’s staff were “cowards.”

“I’m okay if councillors want to criticize me for helping kids. That’s their right,” said Ford. “I’m a big guy and I can take it.

“However, councillors should not be criticizing my staff. Each and every one of them works hard every day for the taxpayers of this great city. They put in at least 40 hours of work for taxpayers every week. Often more.

“Only a coward would criticize my staff. They can’t defend themselves in the media against elected officials.”

SMC writing centre hours slashed

Confusion reigns as administration works to replace popular resource

SMC writing centre hours slashed

The St. Michael’s College Writing Centre will adopt radically reduced operating hours for this academic year, The Varsity has learned.

The centre will be open for a single day on Thursdays, down from its Monday through Friday availability in previous years. First- and second-year students will have priority in booking the new reduced time slots.

Resources that had been previously allocated to the writing centre are to be devoted to alternative initiatives around the college according to St. Michael’s College principal Dominico Pietropaolo. The reallocation is intended to fill the void left by the writing centre’s new hours, and will include a personal librarian program, library research centre, research and writing workshops, and a new website.

The decision to reconfigure writing resources at St. Michael’s College was made by Pietropaolo, who said he had consulted students, and staff including Steve Hoselton, the director of the centre, beforehand.

“There was not complete agreement on all sides,” said Pietropaolo, “but compromises were made which I believe left everybody relatively satisfied.”

Hoselton declined to comment to The Varsity on the changes, or his involvement in the consultative process described by Pietropaolo.

“I’m not 100 per cent informed,” said SMCSU president Mike Cowan. “It is on my radar, and I am concerned. It was a useful resource.”

Cowan said he had not yet consulted with Pietropaolo about the changes but had been in contact with the principal’s office about scheduling a future meeting.

News of the changes comes amidst confusion and speculation about the future of the centre, which is based in Kelly Library. Rumours this summer suggested that the SMC writing centre was to close entirely.

“I used the SMC writing centre for the summer courses that I took,” said Yves Utanes Lamanilao, adding that she found the service to be very helpful. “I just hoped there would be a lot more available time slots to make an appointment and use the centre. I remember having to watch the online schedule closely in order to get a space.”

Students like Lamanilao may be disappointed by the new course laid out by Pietropaolo. While the centre is to remain open for one day a week, many students and staff at the college still have only a vague idea of the changes to come.

“I’m still attending meetings trying to figure out what the new system is,” says St. Michael’s College campus life coordinator Christina Peter. Peter hopes to clarify the situation to the student body once she herself has received more information.

“I’m waiting for the go-ahead,” said Peter. “Once I understand what’s going on, it will be all systems go.”

Three of the services touted by Pietropaolo, including the writing centre, the personal librarian program, and the library research centre will continue to emphasize one-on-one help with writing and research. There will also be workshops offering group sessions aimed at undergraduates.

According to Pietropaolo, the operating hours of all three facilities will be roughly equivalent to the availability previously offered at the writing centre. All of the changes have already been implemented, except for the new website, which has been held up by technical difficulties. Pietropaolo promised Friday that the new site is likely to be online “within the next few days.”

Pietropaolo said that the changes were a result of his administration’s focus on “efficiency,” and not the result of a budget cutback. Cowan alluded to financial difficulties faced by the college, but stopped short of attributing the change in hours to the college’s budgetary situation.

In an interview with The Varsity, Pietropaolo suggested that the changes would allow staff at the centre, who are full-time employees, to work full-time, rather than for only a few hours each week.

Last year, staff at SMC including the writing centre employees unionized to form Unit 4 of CUPE 3902. It was not immediately clear what role the union has played in recent changes.

Community rallies in response to sexual assaults

Hundreds march against sexual violence after summer of rattling incidents

Community rallies in response to sexual assaults

Hundreds of women walked Saturday in Toronto’s annual “Take Back the Night” event to raise awareness about sexual violence. This year’s event comes in the wake of a string of sexual assaults in downtown Toronto over the summer.

Following a community fair and rally featuring live music and speeches from survivors of sexual violence, the women-only march proceeded through Parkdale for several hours.

Be safe: use Walk Smart when travelling alone at night BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY

“This night is important not only to create awareness of sexual violence, but to also empower survivors of sexual violence,” said Deb Singh, one of the event’s organizers.

Singh, who works for the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, also emphasized that encouraging women to be more cautious is only half the battle.

“I think it’s really sad that we’re still talking this way about sexual violence and we’re not talking to men about stopping rape.”

This is “Take Back the Night’s” 32nd year in Toronto. The international movement began in 1975 in Philadelphia following the murder of a woman walking alone at night, and has since spread to numerous cities worldwide.

Although incidents of sexual assault in Toronto are down overall for the year, there have been several high-profile incidents near campus in the Annex and Kensington Market over July and August, all believed to be related.

Police say at least 10 women in those neighbourhoods have reported sexual assaults in the last two months. In each case the woman was walking alone at night and assaulted from behind by a stranger, making identification of the suspect difficult.

These incidents have propelled the topic of sexual violence against women back into the public consciousness. A community rally at Christie Pits Park, near where several of the assaults occurred, drew over 300 participants on just three days notice.

Despite the increased public awareness, not all the attention directed towards the victims has been encouraging.

Krista Ford, niece of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, ignited controversy following a tweet advising women not to “dress like a whore.” Ford’s tweet drew comparisons to a Toronto police officer’s comments last year that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

In response to Ford’s tweet Alice Moran, one of the women assaulted this summer, posted an open letter on her Facebook profile, addressed to “a lot of people, but specifically Krista Ford.” The polite but firm letter soon attracted media interest.

“I believe you have a right to your body and regardless of how you do or don’t dress it I believe you have a right to respect and personal security,” Moran wrote.

“I guess that’s the key difference in our thinking. You could wear a t-shirt that says ‘I’m literally asking for it’ and I’d still advocate for your security,”   Moran continued. Ford has since apologized for her tweet.

Police warn individuals to take precautions as there may have been further unreported incidents.

Students concerned about their safety on campus are advised to use the Walk Smart service, which provides escorts to walk students home at night. Staff Sergeant Mike Caskenette of the university’s campus police also recommends that students with personal safety concerns to visit the Community Safety Office at 21 Sussex Ave.

Campus police patrol UTSU offices for Initiations Week

University of Toronto Campus Community Police have placed 12 Hart House Circle under 24-hour protection during Initiations Week, according to officers at the scene. The building is occupied by the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

Regular patrols were carried out by officers on foot, supported by campus police vans around King’s College Circle. Heightened security measures appear to be new this year. Officers indicated that patrols would likely continue for at least the next several weeks.

Several colleges and faculties are known to have traditions involving desecration of the site during the second week of September. UTSU executives have complained about mischief around this time of year in the past. Pranksters have previously left a decapitated pig’s head outside the building, frightening employees within who had been working late.

Campus police have declined to comment further on whether anyone had been detained as a result of the patrols. Activity Reports from the Special Constable Service have noted groups of trespassers in the area on September 13.

Macleans exposes links between Carleton student club, Tehran

The Iranian Cultural Association of Carleton University, a student group, has attracted interest after its president Ehsan Mohammadia solicited funds from Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, chief of staff to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The money was intended to fund a celebration of Persian New Year at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

In a letter displaying the logos of Carleton University and Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA), Mohammadia said he intended to invite a variety of dignitaries, including members of Canadian provincial and federal governments.

Mohammadia is the son of Hamid Mohammadia, previously Iran’s cultural counselor at the embassy prior to its closing last week. Both men declined to comment on the matter.

Carleton University spokesperson Steve Reid insisted the university has no policy about such transactions; each group is “accountable to its members and ultimately the CUSA.”

After plans to use the National Arts Centre fell through, the Iranian Cultural Association organized a smaller affair at the university in March.

Medicine faculty launches Boundless campaign

The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine has announced a new $500 million fundraising campaign, part of U of T’s broader $2 billion Boundless campaign. The campaign is the largest fundraising inititiave for a faculty of medicine in Canadian history.

The campaign started Thursday night with a gala for benefactors, volunteers, faculty, and students. The event attracted attracted over 300 supporters and members of the medical community.

In a statement announcing the campaign, Dr. Catherine Whiteside, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine said the top priority of the campaign was to “attract and retain the best academic talent in the world.”

“The complexity of the health challenges we face today requires solutions that can only emerge through innovation,” she said. “The Faculty of Medicine’s integrating role uniquely positions us to spark the discoveries and drive the changes that will transform health globally in the 21st century, with the help of our supporters.”

Whiteside also announced the campaign has already raised $252 million to date.

85,000 enroll in U of T Coursera class

The University of Toronto’s first online course offerings have attracted over 85,000 students. Three computer science courses are being offered for free in partnership with Coursera, an online learning platform that also offers courses from universities such as Princeton and Stanford.

Suzanne Stevenson, vice-dean of teaching and learning in the Faculty of Arts and Science, sees the high demand for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) as the next step in bringing university education to a wide range of people.

“Passive in-class lecturing is being replaced with interactive video clips and online materials,” she said.

For Jennifer Campbell, who is co-teaching two of the courses, one of the challenges is loss of face-to-face time. Though students will be assessed through quizzes, exams, and assignments, “instructor-student interactions aren’t possible in a MOOC”, she noted.

The first course, “Learning to Program: The Fundamentals,” will begin September 24.