Will Our Changing World Have Room for Pandas?

While pandas have received a lot of attention with respect to conservation efforts and public awareness of their endangered status, we are not specifically aware of how climate change is expected to affect the pandas and their habitat. Scientists from Michigan State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have conducted research on the most common species of bamboo in the panda habitat of northwestern China, and they predict that this species of bamboo will essentially be eliminated by the end of the 21st century due to climate change.

Climate change will have especially detrimental effects on bamboo because its reproduction cycle occurs every 30-35 years, making it a very unstable diet source. The collaborating scientists from Michigan State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences studied the panda habitat in the Qinling Mountains of China and determined that this area contains about 17% of the remaining wild pandas. Both the geographic and genetic isolation of this panda population are cause for increased conservation efforts for this panda habitat. Bamboo is not just an important food source for pandas but is also an important resource for other endangered species such as the ploughshare tortoise and the purple-winged ground-dove.

Scientific data is needed to continue conservation research and management for panda habitat, and to predict what kind of management is required in the future due to the changing climate. The success of conservation efforts for the pandas will depend on their ability to adapt to both climate change and further human development.

Source: ScienceDaily

Quebec-driven reforms voted down at CFS national meeting

Trio of motions called for salary transparency, changes to defederation rules

Several motions to reform the Canadian Federation of Students’s (CFS) bylaws were voted down this week at the Federation’s annual general meeting in Gatineau, Quebec.

The proposed reforms included giving student unions control over voting to decertify from the CFS, requiring that CFS executives disclose their salaries publicly, and prohibiting non-student members of the CFS from voting on motions.

“The perceived top-down, undemocratic nature of CFS has been a long-standing concern of local executives and members for years, and have been raised at multiple AGMs. These conversations have historically been met with hostility, aggression, and ad-hominem attacks.” 

—Ashleigh Ingle
Civics and Environment Commissioner
Graduate Students Union

All three motions were brought forward by the Dawson Student Union (DSU), representing students from Dawson College, a Montreal CEGEP. All three failed to pass.

“There’s a strong sense of tradition and a strong value held on past decisions,” Geoff Graham, director of communications and mobilization for the Dawson Students’ Union, said of the CFS’s disinclination for self-reform. “In terms of different policies, there’s a sense of respect for those decisions that have been made.”

Graham also suggested the CFS’ low turnover rate might be responsible for the organization’s unwillingness to modify existing policies and bylaws.

“A lot of the staff in the higher positions have been there for a while. If they were the ones making the decisions back then and they’re still here it seems they don’t want their decisions to be changed,” said Graham.

The motions put forward by the DSU were largely in response to recent criticism over the CFS’s policy on decertification and perceived opacity about the federation’s inner workings.

In 2011, the Concordia Student Union and the Post-Graduate Student Society of McGill both filed lawsuits against the CFS, asking the courts to order the CFS to recognize the results of student referendums voting against membership in the CFS.

In February of this year the Concordia Graduate Students Association, itself seeking to leave the CFS, announced it was being sued for fees going back twenty years, included fees payable to the CFS’s provincial Quebec office, which a Quebec court had previously ruled an independent entity.

Motion 28 on the CFS’s agenda this year would have heavily modified the current decertification procedure, which gives the CFS’s executive arm final say over the decertification process. If passed, the motion would have permitted member organizations to schedule decertification votes according to their local bylaws, rather than the CFS’s bylaws.

Toby Whitfield, Ontario representative for the CFS, says that the current decertification process is simply to ensure that all member organizations are treated equally.

“It’s a process that applies to all members of the federation,” Whitfield said in an interview with The Varsity. “We have diverse members from all across the country, and there’s the same process whether you live in British Columbia or Nova Scotia for becoming a member or for leaving the federation.”

Motion 29, also put forward by the DSU, would have forbidden members of the CFS’s national executive branch from receiving compensation from the CFS or its affiliates; the preamble to the motion notes the current phrasing of the relevant bylaw “creates reason to be suspicious of the amount of remuneration distributed by the federation in the last five years.”

Motion 29 would further require the national executives to disclose salaries received from organizations employed by the CFS. Both amendments were intended to shed more light on the inner workings of the federation.

Michael Olson, national treasurer of the CFS, responded by noting the National Executive’s salaries are made public in the CFS’s annual budget. While the budget is unavailable online, Olson said copies could be found in member organizations’ offices.

Criticism of the CFS also came from closer to home: Ashleigh Ingle, civics and environment commissioner for the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union, gave an impassioned speech on the future of the CFS.

“The perceived top-down, undemocratic nature of CFS has been a long-standing concern of local executives and members for years, and have been raised at multiple AGMs,” Ingle said. “These conversations have historically been met with hostility, aggression, and ad-hominem attacks.”

“Even in this AGM, myself and others who have put forward critiques of the status quo have been called right-wingers and have been accused of trying to break down the student movement.”

Ingle said the structure of the CFS has lead to its current problems, as power has been increasingly concentrated in long-term staff, whose experience with the federation and its laws trumps that of transient student leaders.

With nothing on this year’s agenda intended to alter the perceived “top-down” structure of the CFS, change and internal reform may be slow to come.

“The primary discussion was on the expansion of the ‘Education is a Right’ campaign, to develop a strategy leading up to the next federal election,” said Adam Awad, national chairperson of the CFS.

Awad emphasized that internal criticism of the sort the DSU brought forward was necessary to ensure the CFS remained accountable to its members.

“Part of the work we do involves being able to criticize our own work and identify areas for improvement,” Awad said.

TTC announces expansion of Presto cards

Commuter students welcome news of broadening smart card system at stations around campus

Toronto Transit Commission CEO Andy Byford, Chair Karen Stinetz, and Metrolinx signed an agreement last Wednesday which made officially introduced the new Presto cards on the TTC, making it the last provincial transit system to fully sign on to the system.

Presto machines already exist on fourteen of the TTC’s busiest subway stations, but the agreement solidifies eventual total compliance with the Presto system. It is expected to be in all subway stations in Toronto by late 2013. The newly designed streetcars, which will be introduced in 2014, will be equipped with the Presto machines. This will then be followed by the buses.

The news was greeted with pleasure by commuter students at U of T.

Around campus, St. George station has already been equipped with the machines, though only at the main Bedford street entrance. Queen’s Park station already had Presto machines installed, although the announcement does mean that Museum station will soon become compatible with the broadening pay-pass system.

“Presto is a way more efficient system,” reflected Roxanne Leung, a commuter student at U of T. “But I’m concerned about how Presto charges based on how far you travel. The transit cards in Hong Kong were better.”

Lorraine TKTK said she found the system “convenient” but that the implementation of the presto throughout the whole of the TTC will not really affect her, because she doesn’t travel much outside Dundas and Union stations, which already have Presto pass systems installed.

Ontario Transport Minister Bob Chairelli hailed the signing as “a tremendous technological step forward.”

The Presto pass is a green “contactless smart card” intended to shorten lines and make access to the public transportation systems in Ontario more comprehensive. Instead of buying a ticket or a token at each individual station, riders fill up their Presto card with a total sum of money which can be done either online or at a Presto machine. Every time a rider puts the card up against a Presto machine located at the train station or bus, it automatically deducts the appropriate amount.

The intended use of the card is that it can automatically be used on any bus, train, subway, or streetcar in the Golden Horseshoe. It is already implemented in Hamilton, Mississauga, Burlington, Oakville, Brampton, and York and Durham regions, on top of the subway stations. By 2013, it will extend access to OC Transpo buses in Ottawa. About 400 000 public transit riders already use the Presto pass.

The Presto cards were first introduced during a trial in 2007-2008, which at the time only included Union GO and TTC stations, ten Oakville Transit buses. Since 2009, the program has been fully implemented over a series of four stages. It has often been compared to the Oyster card system which has been implemented in the London Metropolitan Area in England.

However, Toronto Star transit reporter Tess Kalinowski in an online question period noted that the Presto card is more complex, because of “the demands of the Greater Toronto Area .”

The card can be filled up at Adult, Children, Senior, and Student rates, and will replace high school and post-secondary student identification cards on the TTC. It will also take into account based on past swipes any discounts on train-bus connections which had been in place before the introduction to the Presto cards.

The implementation of the Presto machines on the TTC was a condition for $8.4 billion in funding from the Province of Ontario for the LRT lines which are scheduled to be completed in 2020. The total estimated cost of the project at all levels of government is estimated to be around $700 million by 2016.

There have been some concerns over the wisdom of taxpayer funding for the project, as well as links that Metrolinx has with the private sector. While Metrolinx has the property rights to technology in Canada, the global intellectual property rights to the technology are owned by a private company called Accenture. Metrolinx will receive ongoing royalties based on Accenture’s success at marketing the technology globally, as well as a multi-million dollar “lump sum” from Accenture.

Conservative MPP Frank Klees said that he was worried about Metrolinx potentially monetizing the Presto cards. “Metrolinx and Presto should not be in competition with the private sector…the technology is there. We should not be pouring millions of dollars into this organization.”

Klees expounded on this statement, saying that it was unwise for the Ontario government chose to develop new transit card technology, rather than use existing systems. Klees also added that municipalities were coerced into accepting Presto by the Province of Ontario by means of threatening to withhold gas tax products if they refused.

David Salter, a spokesperson for Bob Chairelli, said that the value of the intellectual property rights was “a very small portion of the value of Presto—the majority of Presto’s cost is for hardware, devices, and service.”

Presto cards will replace monthly GO train passes in January 2013. Presto cards are expected to completely replace tokens on the TTC by 2016. For casual riders, “there will always be a cash option,” said Kalinowski.

Engineering executive wins mid-year confidence poll

Engineering Society to pivot away from union reform to focus on constituent services

Engineering executive wins mid-year confidence poll

This past Thursday, the Engineering Society at U of T held its accountability general meeting, a tradition for the organization, during which students offer feedback to the executive, and potentially recall wayward executives. As the organization moves into its second term, its members have re-endorsed the current executive, which pledged to focus on improvements to the benefits and services the society provides to its constituents.

The six executive members of the Engineering Society stepped into the spotlight in recent weeks with their involvement in efforts to pass electoral reform measures at the University of Toronto Students’ Union. Engineering Society executives (EngSoc) were involved through the collection of proxy votes and bureaucratic manouvering at the UTSU annual general meeting.

In an interview at the accountability meeting, EngSoc president Rishi Maharaj indicated that the executive focus may now be shifting:  “We’re not actively doing anything at the moment in regards to UTSU — there are 99 other things we need to do,” said Maharaj.

“The accountability meeting has been primarily focused on the services EngSoc will provide for its students,” said Maharaj.

The meeting began with the adoption of the agenda, followed by presentations given by each of the executive members, emphasizing departmental accomplishments and future goals. Following the presentations came a motion to collect anonymous feedback on the officers. The executives were asked to wait in the hall outside as the meeting’s chair proceeded to go through the motions of recalling each officer from his or her post.

With less than 50 engineering students present, the group fell several votes short of quorum. As a result, any recall vote that did succeed would not technically be valid. Each motion ultimately became a defanged tool for feedback, in which the strengths and weaknesses of each officer were discussed by members.

The meeting was chaired by Mauricio Curbelo, the elected chair of EngSoc who previously served as an officer with the organization. The six executive members up for recall included president Rishi Maharaj, vice presidents Pierre Harfouche, finance; Yerusha Nuh, communications; Matthew Lattavo, academic; Anton Klunko, external; and Ishan Gupta, student life.

Several students voiced concerns about vice-president, external Anton Klunko, describing a perceived lack of meaningful contributions. There was a motion set forth for a mock impeachment vote, which was enacted with disputed results, with many abstaining from voting.

In an interview with The Varsity, Klunko said he was surprised by the tone of the remarks. Since the website of the Engineering Society has been down for maintenance for most of this year, Klunko says it has been difficult for vice-presidents to share information about their activities.
“My focus has been on leadership development within EngSoc and networking opportunities for students,” said Klunko.

The accountability meeting was also an opportunity for members to air other concerns about the Engineering Society’s previous term.

One student felt that Harfouche’s motion requesting the chair of the UTSU annual general meeting, Ashkon Hashemi, recuse himself, was “embarrassing for the EngSoc.” Others voiced a general concern over the viability of some of society’s slated projects.

In terms of the external representation of the society, many members felt Maharaj had done a favourable job, especially in regards to the initiatives related to the UTSU, such as the AGM, and in faculty-specific initiatives.

In the months ahead, the executive has indicated that they  plan to implement a wide range of services for engineering students, ranging from past exams to databases to fair class representation.

Though there had been concerns regarding the involvement of the engineering students within the senior ranks of the society, vice-president, communications Nuh suggested that student interest was not as important for this year’s EngSoc as ensuring that its services were widely available.

“I think that’s actually fine, because not everyone’s into government, but everyone uses the services,” said Nuh. “So that’s been the focus of our year especially, to get the services out there, instead of being like ‘EngSoc does this, this and this’ while not delivering the services.”

Although executives hinted that more UTSU reform efforts could be on the horizon, nothing has yet been solidified.

“There’s nothing official that’s been said on our end on what to do at the meeting, or what kind of reforms to push forward now,” said Harfouche. The UTSU has called another annual general meeting for January 2013.

“I do not have any confidence that those [reforms] are going to be ratified by the Board of Directors and subsequently going to be put on the agenda, so I don’t want to waste a huge amount of time drafting a massive motion that’s not going to go anywhere,” said Maharaj.

There will also be an EngSoc board of directors meeting within the next week that will ratify the official position EngSoc will be taking in regards to the UTSU. Until then, the society will continue to focus on its service-focused agenda.

In race for Liberal leadership, Murray proposes ‘no-money-down’ tuition

CFS, UTSU remain skeptical, call for return to tuition freeze

In race for Liberal leadership, Murray proposes ‘no-money-down’ tuition

If elected leader of his party on January 25, former cabinet minister Glen Murray and the Ontario Liberals intend to offer post-secondary students the opportunity to attend university or college without having to pay upfront.

“You would complete your degree and pay a portion of your education based on a percentage of your income,” says Murray. “Seventy per cent of jobs require a university or college education, so we have to make it affordable and we have to be realistic.”

Murray, who previously served as Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities, before stepping down to join the ongoing leadership race, proposed introducing “non-taxable benefits” which would allow Ontario students to write off part of their post-secondary education against their taxes. He pointed to a similar system in Manitoba, where students can claim a 60 per cent income tax rebate for tuition fees in the years immediately following graduation.

His plan also allows employers to assume a new hire’s student debt. He described the benefit as “buying out” an employee’s tuition fees.

“We have a good creative start in making post-secondary education more affordable,” said Murray. “No one else in the world has done anything quite like this.”

Murray’s tuition proposal is the boldest and most concrete platform point on post-secondary education put forward by any of the six candidates currently vying for the premiership vacated by Dalton McGuinty earlier this year.

At the same time, the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O) remains skeptical of an income contingent loan repayment, also known as ICLR.

“In places where ICLRs exist, student debt has skyrocketed, resulting in massive youth outmigration, high rates of default, and other serious issues with significant economic impact,” said Sarah Jayne King, chairperson of the CFS-O.

In Australia, where a similar program was administered, students ended up fleeing the country in order to escape their debt. They were only lured back in when the government launched a student loan forgiveness policy.

“Students could take 25 years to pay off their loans,” noted King. “ICLR schemes are a way to shift funding for universities and colleges to individuals and away from the public, not about improving access [to education].”

Under the McGuinty government’s ‘Reaching Higher’ plan, tuition fees increased up to 71 per cent. “This record does not show an interest in making public, affordable, high quality post-secondary education a priority,” said King.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union expressed a similar stance on the ‘no-money-down’ proposal.

“Murray’s plan will worsen the tragedy of the student debt crisis,” said Munib Sajjad, vice-president, university affairs for the University of Toronto Students’ Union. “The sticker price for loan repayment would increase as interest is collected on principles, which students need not repay over seven years.”

“There has been no work done to address a provincial loan system designed to tie students up in an endless cycle of interest repayment for years, before being able to tackle the principle,” said Sajjad.

From 2004–2006, the CFS-O says they won a fully funded tuition fee freeze across the province. “We hope the [Liberals] will return to prioritizing affordable education that doesn’t leave poor and middle-income students with mountains of debt,” said Sajjad.

Students continue to suffer the effects of high debt loads, said Sajjad. “It is no longer feasible to simply work over the summer to afford an education.”

“Get involved,” Sajjad advises. “Pressure your college and faculty societies to take action and make education a priority. Pressure your MP and MPPs that represent U of T campuses to support calls for increased public funding of the post-secondary sector, tightening tuition fee increases, and addressing the student debt crisis.”

Students renew push for electoral reforms

Resurrected motions may be eligible for January vote

After rejecting the agenda at the University of Toronto Students’ Union annual general meeting last month, a group of students are working to maintain momentum for reforms, preparing to reissue motions that could be voted upon at the union’s replacement meeting slated for late January 2013.

The anticipated amendments include the elimination of proxy votes on the union’s board and the introduction of online voting in general elections. Other proposed amendments could include reducing the number of signatures required to run for executive office, allowing the board of directors to amend the elections code and elect an internal chair, and introducing preferential voting to replace the first-past-the-post system currently in place.

Many of the changes failed to make the agenda at the previous general meeting, leading to its highly publicized rejection led by an invigorated opposition.

“[The UTSU] have a strange hidden process for how to submit agenda motions,” says Brett Chang, an opposition figure on campus. “And even if you do submit it, it is almost impossible to get that motion on the agenda because the board of directors is all on their slate.”

Although the opposition has frequently complained about a “hidden process,” the announcement of January’s anticipated meeting included detailed instructions on how to submit motions and amendments. Before receiving a hearing at a general meeting, amendments must first be approved by the Policy and Procedures Committee, and then by a supermajority of the union’s Board of Directors.

The board itself, however, has become the subject of several proposed changes. One such proposal would eliminate the use of proxy voting at board meetings.

“The Board of Directors exists to provide oversight on the operations of the union, and the practice of proxy voting changes the nature of our meetings,” said Cullen Brown, UTSU director for St. Michael’s College. “Proxy voting also encourages absenteeism. Multiple directors have not even attended one meeting.”

Benjamin Dionne, president of the University College Literary and Athletic Society (UCLit), says the current proxy vote system used by the board means “some members currently control the agenda because they hold all these proxies.”

“We feel that if they are elected, they should attend the meetings and participate. The Lit does not accept proxy ballots for council meetings. We think it’s the role of people elected to participate,” said Dionne.

Current practices involving proxies also exist in a legal gray area. Some analysts contend that because the UTSU is a not-for-profit incorporated under the Canada Not-for-Profit Corporations Act, it is illegal for directors to proxy their votes. The UTSU disagrees with this legal interpretation.

“As a director, I was pleased to learn that under the new Canada Not-for-Profit Act, proxying is in fact illegal. The UTSU’s bylaws will have to comply with the Act by 2014,” said Brown.

There have also been calls to change the selection process for the chair of future board meetings, from an external CFS employee to an internally selected director — a common practice at non-profit boards.

“The chair of the Board of Directors is required to balance perspectives from all the constituencies. It is important to have someone who can act diligently and remove themselves from the conversation,” said Corey Scott, vice-president, internal for the UTSU. “We want to ensure that each constituency can participate fully and without restriction, and an impartial and removed chair is able to facilitate this.”

Another bylaw amendment would decrease the number of nomination signatures required to run for executive positions at the union. The current number of signatures required is 250. This, say some students, is relatively high, compared to the 100 signatures needed to run as a federal Member of Parliament, and 50 needed to run for Toronto City Council.

The most prominent by-law amendment proposed is to implement online voting.

“If we were to actually get a motion on the agenda, it would be online voting. I have a laundry list of reforms. There are so many ways we can make the system more accountable, more transparent. And online voting would do all the above and its one that can be done tomorrow,” says Chang. “So we’re making it really easy for them because the system is already in place, everything exists. All they need to do is flip the switch.”

“We believe that if online voting is established it will make the UTSU more democratic. It is an easy thing to do and it is a logical thing to do,” said Dionne.

In executive elections, U of T’s voter turnout is less than 10 per cent far below other schools that have implemented online voting. At Queen’s, turnout last year was 33 per cent, and the school has used online voting for several years without incident.  McGill, which also has online voting, had 29.2 per cent turnout last year.

“In my experience with online voting at New College, we had a marked increase in voter turnout, and have had no techincal issues using the online system,” said Laurel Chester, UTSU director for New College.

Opponents of online voting point to Western’s election last year, during which a hacker broke into the system and changed ballot options, asking voters to pick Justin Bieber’s haircut, suggesting “Selena Gomez is wonderful” and renaming the process the “University erection.” The hacker was later arrested and criminally charged.

Undeterred, Chang has organized an online petition that students can sign if they support online voting.

“We already know that there are many issues in the electoral system, and that’s part of the reason why our petition has been so successful. We have almost 400 signatures in only a few days,” says Chang.

Some of the students who signed the petition provided reasons as to why they believe online voting needs to be implemented at U of T with their signatures.

Anisah Hassan said she supported the petition “to make voting more accessible: if U of T online servers are secure enough for our financial records, personal information and grades, why not voting?”

“Governing Council, Arts & Science Council, my college & my course union all use online voting for their elections. Why not the UTSU?” asked Katie Dunlop, former head of college at Trinity.

Another electoral reform floated in recent days includes the appointment of an independent chief returning officer, appointed through the university’s ombudsperson. Chester, a supporter of this proposal, says Carleton has made a similar change. “An independent CRO can only serve to decrease the perceived politicization of the current UTSU elections, as it removes to the highest degree possible the chance of personal bias.”

Scott declined to comment further on the specifics of the proposals, saying that “The union has made a commitment to having a third-party non-partisan legal electoral review. To ensure that electoral reform is being reviewed in good faith the union has not taken a position on any aspect of electoral reform until the review is received.”

U of T team seeking to reinvent toilet flush with cash after $2.2 million grant

After placing third in the “Reinventing the Toilet Challenge” started by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in response to the lack of basic sanitation services for 2.6 billion people worldwide, a University of Toronto engineering team has received a $2.2 million grant from the foundation to further develop a waterless, hygienic toilet.

Led by Professor Yu-Ling Cheng, director of the Centre for Global Engineering, the team’s toilet drops waste onto a hand-operated belt that separates the liquid and the solids into two streams. Ultraviolet light then disinfects the liquid so that it can be used in agriculture while the solid waste, once flattened and dried out, is incinerated in a special combustion chamber that does not require flames. The grant money will be used to further simplify the mechanical process and minimize odour.

The team, in addition to Cheng and professors from the University of Queensland and Western University, includes engineering professors Mark Kortschot, Elizabeth Edwards, Yuri Lawryshyn, and Levente Diosady, PhD candidate Tiffany Jung, and research associate Zachary Fishman. Working with local partners, Cheng’s team plans to have an operational prototype in Bangladesh by December 2013.

George Elliott Clarke to become Toronto poet laureate

George Elliot Clarke has been named Toronto poet laureate by city council. Of African and Mik’maq descent, Clarke’s heritage has been key in informing and inspiring his many works. As well as lending his unique voice to what he refers to as ‘Africadia,’ Clarke is also recognized as a top authority on black Canadian literature. He has been teaching Canadian and African diasporic literature at the University of Toronto since 1999.

As poet laureate of Toronto, Clarke will be the city’s official literary ambassador and champion for local poets and writers, as well as initiating a new literary legacy project for the citizens of Toronto.

“I look forward to the stimulating challenge of imagining words of beauty and emotion that might possibly mirror and echo the multicultural mosaic that is Toronto the Great,” Clarke said on the occasion of his appointment.

“George Elliott Clarke will enrich the Poet Laureate position with his many talents and accomplishments,” said Councillor Michael Thompson (Ward 37 Scarborough Centre), chair of the city’s Economic Development Committee. “In addition to the accolades he has received as a poet and playwright, his dedication to education and his tremendous support of Canadian writers and the literary community has been nationally recognized by his appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada.”

Clarke succeeds Dionne Brand to become the city’s fourth poet laureate.