CFS’s response to defed self-defeating

Federation would be better served by concilliatory approach

CFS’s response to defed self-defeating

At the beginning of this academic year, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) was among a number of student unions in Canada whose members circulated a petition on whether to hold a referendum on continued membership in the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). To be valid under the CFS’s bylaws, the petition had to be signed by at least 20 per cent of the GSU membership. After lengthy consultations between the CFS, GSU, and U of T administration, the petition was turned over to professional services firm Deloitte to assess its legitimacy. The CFS provided the terms for the assessment. In accordance with these terms, Deloitte determined that the petition lacked the required number of authenticated signatures to pass, by a threshold of less than two per cent.



The petition in question is only the most recent act of defiance by the GSU and its members, which in the past has led protests outside the CFS’s Annual General Meeting. This most recent derailment follows a years-long struggle between the CFS and the GSU, among other student unions and associations in Canada. The circulation of the petition was partially a response to the CFS’s failure to adopt a series of internal reforms presented in November of 2012, and again in May of last year, sponsored by the GSU.

The proposed reforms reflect the broad concerns of student leaders regarding the CFS’s detachment from its members, and its disregard for democratic practices. In order to achieve transparency, students sought a detailed budget from the CFS, which would outline the salaries of executive board members, and the money spent on legal cases against its members.

They also proposed reforming Bylaw 1, which governs how member organizations join and leave the federation. The bylaw currently requires that 20 per cent of members must sign a petition to hold a referendum to leave the CFS, while only 10 per cent are required to join. The percentage required to exit the federation was doubled following the receipt of several petitions to decertify in 2008 and 2009. This change serves to create another imbalanced institutional barrier to groups trying to leave the federation.

U of T’s GSU is only one of many unions and associations across Canada whose members circulated petitions and advocated for defederation this year. The retaliatory patterns of the CFS have intimidated many groups out of taking similar action, for fear of legal recourse. The CFS is currently engaged in litigation with the Post-Graduate Students’ Society at McGill, as well as the Graduates Students’ Association and Concordia Students’ Union at Concordia University, over the validity of their 2010 decertification referenda.

The CFS’s reaction to defederation attempts have been perverse and self-defeating. When a democratic and responsive organization finds that a significant and vocal group of its members are unhappy, it should — at the very least — make an effort in good faith to understand these grievances, and work to resolve them. This is the most effective method of conciliating disgruntled members, and strengthening the organization. The CFS’s combative approach has done the opposite. When presented with a petition, the CFS’s first response should not be to nitpick over technicalities — whether petitions were received by registered mail; whether signatures were valid; whether the petition represented 19 or 20 per cent of the membership. The first response should be, regardless of the technicalities, why did students sign this petition, and what can we do to address their concerns?

The CFS is meant to organize students across Canada in the pursuit of better, more accessible education — something surely all students can agree on. These ongoing disputes detract from those efforts. They serve only to further divide the federation’s membership and distract from substantive issues.

The CFS is charged with the democratic representation and organization of students across Canada — yet it continually ignores the voices of students who object to the form of that representation.

Rather than listening to disgruntled members, the CFS invests its energy and resources in obstructing these movements, first by picking at procedural minutiae, and, if that doesn’t work, through litigation. Rather than work to impede referenda, the CFS would be better served by adopting a conciliatory approach. By addressing the issues at hand and engaging students in a genuine conversation, it might still be able to keep the federation intact. However, if the CFS continues with its current practices, unions like the GSU will eventually find a way out — and, hopefully, mobilize with other unions across Canada to form a more open and democratic medium that betters represent students.

Students allege UTSU election violated union’s bylaws

Candidates, student leaders, argue decision to extend voting at UTM, add polling station in Davis building was not permitted under UTSU’s bylaws

Students allege UTSU election violated union’s bylaws

One week after the unofficial results of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) elections were announced, some students are still questioning their validity — and the UTSU board has yet to approve the results. An announcement was made on the evening of Monday, March 18 that recounts were to be held for three positions on Tuesday, March 18. Another three recounts were held on Saturday, March 22.

The Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC) has been hearing appeals for the past two weeks on several controversial rulings by Chief Returning Officer (CRO) Alex Flor, which some argue are in contravention of the UTSU’s bylaws.

CRO Alex Flor (right) has issued several controversial rulings. SHIIJE ZHOU/THE VARSITY

CRO Alex Flor (right) has issued several controversial rulings. SHIIJE ZHOU/THE VARSITY

Flor has refused to answer questions all week however Munib Sajjad, UTSU president, and chair of the Elections and Referenda Committee, is defending the elctions as fair — despite the fact that the ERC has yet to hear all appeals of the CRO’s decisions.

Students are questioning a number of electoral procedures, including: the use of ballots that included a withdrawn candidate’s name, the addition of an extra voting day at UTM, and the additional polling station at the Davis Building at UTM on that day.

An extra five hours of voting were allowed at UTM on Friday, March 14 because of early campus closure on Wednesday, March 12 due to weather conditions. Team Unite filed a complaint to the CRO about the additional day of voting, stating that they were not informed of an extra polling station added at the Davis Building on that day. U of T Voice appeared to have prior knowledge according to Facebook posts encouraging students to vote. Team Unite asked that all votes from the Davis Building be disposed of and not counted towards the results. The core of Team Unite’s argument hinges on their assertion that only the UTSU Board of Directors can authorize polling locations and dates, and that while the addition of the Davis station was unfair, the CRO did not have the authority to authorize it in the first place.

The CRO ruled that there had not been any violation of the Elections Procedure Code (EPC), stating, “The CRO acknowledges that the original polling stations for UTM did not include the Davis Building. However, the Davis Building had been ratified as a polling location by the ERC on January 8, 2014, and was not used on March 11–13, 2014 due to a prior booking.” She went on to say that U of T Voice were not informed of the polling station in advance, but were merely at UTM in advance of the polls opening and witnessed the polling station being set up at the Davis Building.

Aidan Fishman, an undergraduate representative on Governing Council, voiced his concerns over possible violations of the EPC. The EPC regulates behaviour during elections; complaints about violations of the code are adjudicated by the CRO.

In particular, Fishman emphasized Article VI, section P, “Benefits Acquired by Virtue of Office.” It forbids candidates from using resources that they would have obtained from past involvement in student government, such as the use of “office supplies, equipment, advertising space and staff.” Fishman is concerned that students may view a number of elements of U of T Voice’s campaign as derived from their involvement with the UTSU and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), namely the presence of CFS members campaigning for Voice, knowledge about the changed polling station locations at UTM, and the use of phone numbers that students told reporters they did not directly give out to the slate.

The CRO wrote on March 14 that the involvement of CFS members did not qualify as a breach of the prohibition on benefits of office. “The use of volunteers that they may have met through service of UTSU does not constitute the use of ‘staff’ as described in the [EPC],” she wrote. Neither, she adds, does Voice’s presence at the moved polling booth at UTM, of which she says the teams had no foreknowledge. Voice was seen campaigning at the Davis station all day, Unite did not campaign at all.

According to two scrutineers who requested anonymity, and were interviewed separately, Voice received more than 90 per cent of votes made at the Davis polling station.

The issue of the extra day of voting has raised concerns amongst student leaders. UTSU bylaws, which trump the EPC, state that only the Board of Directors can set election dates. The Board of Directors was not consulted by the CRO to set the additional five hours of voting at UTM. The issue has been raised by student governor Aidan Fishman, and Pierre Harfouche, who last week was unofficially elected vice-president, university affairs of the UTSU. “Ultimately, it is inequitable and illegal to change the campaign dates without consulting the entire Board of Directors of the UTSU,” said Harfouche. He added that because of this year’s introduction of online voting, students at UTM and commuter students were able to vote despite the weather.

In addition to questions about the legitimacy of extending voting hours, Fishman also questioned the handling of the ballot: even though former vice-president, external candidate Luis Moreno had dropped out of the race and endorsed Nicky Bhatty, his name still appeared on ballots, and several students reported that some poll supervisors did not indicate that he was no longer running. Considering the high number of spoiled ballots in that vice presidential race — there were approximately 400 more spoiled ballots than other executive races this year — some feel Moreno’s name on the ballot may have affected the result. Bhatty lost to Grayce Slobodian by a mere 15 votes.

“The amount of ballots that had his name on it is significant enough to affect the result — definitely more than 15, definitely more than 30,” said Ben Coleman, Arts & Science at large director of the UTSU and a scrutineer.

CRO Flor repeatedly declined to comment on questions about procedural matters. Munib Sajjad, current president of the UTSU and chair of the ERC, responded on her behalf saying that the decision to extend voting to UTM was made due to the inclement weather: “The ERC ruled that polls be extended by five hours to make up for that lost time. The online company was immediately contacted to change the hours of allowable offline voting, to maintain the integrity of the vote.” The ERC has yet to rule on whether the decision to extend voting was acceptable.

Sajjad justified the decision to add a polling station in Davis, citing that it had been booked the first three days of voting and, according to him. “There were complaints from students due to the lack of polling station at Davis,” he said.

Asked to explain why Voice knew about the station and Unite did not, Sajjad said: “No candidate was informed about the change in location. The poll was being set up in its location well before 9:30 [am], and candidates were on campus in the Davis building well before 9:30 [am]. Presumably, they saw the poll being set up and publicized it themselves.” When asked, Sajjad did not address whether it was contrary to UTSU bylaws to add a polling station and a day of voting without the board’s approval, although he did say that the ERC sometimes has to deal with events not spelled out in the EPC. Instead, Sajjad attacked those bringing forward the proposals — although as chair of the ERC he has yet to rule on their appeal: “Now that the results are out, some students are clearly attempting to change the outcome by saying that certain students should have had less access to polls. I think that’s dishonest.”

Harfouche has appealed the matter of the extra day of voting to the ERC, but has not received a response in eight days. In a copy of the appeal to the ERC Harfouche states,  “This [bylaw] does not authorize the CRO to unilaterally change the pre-authorized dates for elections. The power to set election dates rests solely with the Board. The decision to make this change was therefore outside the authority of the CRO or the Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC).” In the appeal he goes on to say that the UTSU should either discount any votes gathered at UTM on March 14, or should annul the results of the election and order a new election.

Redistributive University Fund is neither unprecedented nor ideal

Ontario’s provincial government owes a funding increase to professional faculties and undergrads

Redistributive University Fund is neither unprecedented nor ideal

On March 3, The Varsity reported that undergraduate students are subsidizing professional faculties through a budget mechanism called the University Fund. All undergraduate-heavy divisions are net contributors to the fund, with utsc losing the equivalent of 9.72 per cent of its academic expense budget to underfunded professional programs. All professional faculties, except the Faculties of Pharmacy, Management, Applied Science & Engineering, and Kineseology & Physical Education are net-recipients. While I support these subsidies in principle, I believe that provincial funding should be increased to replace them.



This revelation should not shock anyone. Redistribution of resources is common in other federations. Take Canada’s federal government for example: Ontario contributes to the budget of more cash-strapped provinces every year through the equalization payments budgetary mechanism. In 2002, the federal government collected $81.1 billion from Ontario, and only spent $59.9 billion in the province. When you add the $66.5 billion in revenue that the provincial government collected that year, Ontario lost 14 per cent of its expense budget through equalization transfers.

In many ways, these subsidies benefit undergraduate students as well. Some professional faculties ­— such as music, architecture, and the Transitional Year Programme ­— also directly operate undergraduate programs. Others, such as the Faculty of Law, have professors teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Finally, U of T’s overall ranking definitely receives a boost from the university’s professional faculties. Many of them — such as medicine, law, dentistry and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) — rank among the best in the world.

All things considered, undergraduate students are still the losers here. However, professional faculties have benefits far beyond our campus. According to a report produced by the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK, governments gain net tax revenue of £255,045 from educating a doctor, £171,712 from educating a lawyer, and £155,104 from educating an engineer.

Indeed, our provincial government clearly wants more doctors, dentists and phds. It has created the Opportunities Ontario: Provincial Nominee Program (PNP), which removes the job offer requirement for permanent residency to encourage graduate students to stay in the province after their studies.

For all its recognition of the benefits of graduate education, the provincial government doesn’t actually want to pay for it. After adjusting for inflation, the per-student funding in the province has decreased by more than $3,000 in the past 30 years. It is now $7,024, $1,049 less than the national average.

It is both commonly accepted and beneficial to subsidize professional faculties with undergraduate fees. However, given that the province as a whole has a lot more to gain from strong professional and graduate programs than it does from just undergraduate students, the provincial government should recognize the actual costs of maintaining professional faculties, and increase its financial support.

Li Pan is a second-year student at Trinity College studying mathematics and economics.

Neil deGrasse Tyson and the cosmic perspective at U of T

Tyson delivered the inaugural Dunlap Prize Lecture to a packed Con Hall

Neil deGrasse Tyson and the cosmic perspective at U of T

Heavy clouds prevented a clear view of the sky on Friday evening, but Convocation Hall was host to its own star when Neil deGrasse Tyson delivered the inaugural Dunlap Prize Lecture. The Dunlap Prize was established to recognize “an individual whose remarkable achievements resonate with the Dunlap Institute’s goal of excellence in astronomy and astrophysics… sharing scientific discovery with the public, training the next generation of astronomers, and developing innovative astronomical instrumentation to enable breakthroughs in observational research.”



Dr. Tyson was awarded the 2014 Dunlap Prize in recognition of his dedication to science education and outreach. With a galaxy tie, a ready sense of humour, and a twinkle in his eye, Tyson delivered a talk entitled The Cosmic Perspective (scientific, cultural, political, sociological observations). He spoke about the importance of science literacy in moving society forward, developing economies, and cultivating dreams.

Although it has been eight years since the demotion of Pluto, Tyson felt compelled to ensure that the dwarf planet’s fate had been accepted, emphasizing that “it’s still not a planet.” At this and all points in the lecture, Tyson was engaged with the audience, often posing questions to specific audience members and walking around the floor of the auditorium. At the end of his discussion of Pluto, he had a slide prepared to respond to disappointed members of the audience, which simply said, “Get Over It.”

In order to illustrate the global distribution of scientific research, Tyson displayed maps that were distorted according to total amount of peer-reviewed scientific publications per country. Canada was moderately sized with respect to the research currently published, but when the land distribution was adjusted according to the trendline of scientific research, Canada withered away to almost nothing. Tyson asked, “what’s going on with your science?” There was an audible murmur from the audience; more than a few people muttered “Harper.” Tyson chuckled. Distorting maps according to the strength of national economies, he said, yields nearly the same map as the one representing trends in scientific research. He consistently emphasized that science, influence, and power go together, and that science is the “foundation of modern civilization.” Canada’s technological achievements garnered enthusiastic praise from Tyson, who celebrated the placement of the Canadarm on the five dollar note. He later said that he hoped it didn’t hurt too much to remove the hockey stick.

After reflecting on the smallness of human life from a cosmic perspective, Tyson mused, “Some people would say, well I don’t feel special anymore. I would say, how much more special can you be? We are of the universe. The universe is in us — that’s a connectivity to the cosmos, that you are a participant in the great unfolding of a cosmic story.”

Carl Sagan invited a 17-year-old Neil deGrasse Tyson to spend a day with him at Cornell, and Sagan has been a major influence on Tyson ever since. Tyson has followed in Sagan’s footsteps in many ways, from his dedication to science communication to his reprisal of Sagan’s Cosmos. In 1990, Voyager 1 “took a selfie of Earth,” as Tyson put it, and Carl Sagan’s comment on the photo became known as the Pale Blue Dot reflection. In 2013, the Cassini spacecraft took a similar photo. To pay homage to Sagan, Tyson displayed the Cassini photo and ended the lecture with “a recitation from the Book of Carl.” The audience sat in silent anticipation as house lights went to zero, and he began.

Patrick Chan to attend U of T in fall

Olympic silver medalist to begin program in the Faculty of Arts & Science inSeptember

Patrick Chan to attend U of T in fall

After deferring his acceptance to U of T’s social sciences program in the Faculty of Arts & Science, Olympic silver medalist Patrick Chan will swap hitting the ice for hitting the books this fall.

“I made the decision to defer my studies after some thought of how to manage school and training for the Olympics simultaneously,” said Chan, adding that he wanted to avoid spreading himself too thin.

Skate Canada:Stephan PotopnykFor Chan, attending U of T has been one of many dreams that he’s managed to realize. “When I was accepted, I knew this was the best opportunity for me,” he said.

Chan admits he sometimes worries that his celebrity status will mean that he is treated differently from his classmates. “I don’t want to be treated differently,” he says. “I want to keep my life outside of the classroom separate. I don’t want to be a distraction for other students or myself.”

As for whether the he plans to hang up the skates for good or continue to skate competitively and pursue the gold medal that has eluded him in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Chan says that it is too early to say for certain.

“My decision to defer was so that I could focus on one thing at a time. I don’t find that I do my best when I’m half here and there. It’s too early to decide,” he explained.

But regardless of whether or not he will represent Canada in four years’ time, Chan has been amazed by the support and congratulatory messages that he has received from Canadians since returning from Sochi.

“I’m happy to celebrate and share this achievement with everyone,” he says. “These medals are as much mine as they are Canada’s,” he added.

Chan, like many young adults, confesses he is not yet entirely sure what he aspires to do once he completes his degree at U of T.

“My life has been unique to this point. I love working with television — maybe I’ll go into media or business,” he said.

But for those young figure skaters who aspire to be like him, Chan offers some simple advice, informed by an illustrious career that has seen him capture seven Canadian National Skating Championships, three World Figure Skating Championships, two Four Continents Championships, two Grand Prix Final titles, the Lou Marsh Award, and two Olympic silver medals.

“It’s important to make sure that every time you step on the ice, you enjoy it and it puts a smile on your face. It’s important that you are in a good environment and one that makes you happy to skate. You don’t want to get involved at a high level unless you really love skating,” he said.

Chan also added that it is important to stay well-rounded. “Competing on the big stage is tough unless you truly love the sport and you are not there for any other reason,” he said.

International students a “source of profit”

More than 50 per cent tuition increase for incoming international students draws sharp backlash from students

International students a “source of profit”

Incoming Arts & Science international students are being charged $35,280 next year — an increase of 9.2 per cent. U of T is proposing an increase of more than 50 per cent over the next five years. In the past, university administration has claimed that the differential tuition fees for international and domestic students reflect the higher cost of education for international students. This increase, however, is bringing back persistent student concerns that the university sees international students as a profit source.

“International students are absolutely seen as a source of profit by the university,” said Yolen Bollo-Kamara, current vice-president, equity, of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and president-elect. “I have participated in many meetings at which senior members of the university administration identify targets for increased international student enrolment as a way to generate revenue and compensate for gaps in government funding. The discussion always revolves around the money international students bring to the university, as opposed to their academic and social contributions,” she added.

The UTSU and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) have both lobbied for a cap on international tuition fee increases for a number of years.

At present, there are no per-student operating grants for international students. In any given year, the federal and provincial governments subsidize approximately half of the fees incurred by a domestic student, while international students receive no subsidy. Still, the difference between domestic and international tuition fees is expected to expand in the coming years. Afirst-year domestic undergraduate student entering the Faculty of Arts & Science in 2013 pays $5,865. A first-year international undergraduate student entering the Faculty of Arts & Science in 2013 pays $32,075.

Tuition fees for new incoming international students are set to increase by 9.2 per cent next year. Fee increases for existing international students are set to increase by five per cent. On average, tuition fee increases are assumed to be three per cent for domestic students and 6.5% for international students each year of the five-year budget cycle 2014–2015 to 2018–2019. The increases come against the backdrop of U of T budget increases — U of T’s total budget is set to cross the two billion dollar mark for the first time in 2014–2015.

Domestic and international tuition fee schedules are regulated under the new Ontario Tuition Framework, introduced in 2013. Under the new framework, domestic tuition fees are capped at three per cent per year for most programs. Under the previous framework, domestic tuition fees were capped at five per cent per year for most programs. University administration estimated the impact of lowering the regulated rate of increases at $15 million in 2014–2015, growing to $56 million by the end of 2019. On the other hand, international tuition fee increases are unregulated. To that end, some allege that the university continues to increase international tuition fees to make up for funding shortfalls.

The increases in international tuition fees come against the backdrop of a rapidly increasing international student population. In 2002–2003, international students represented 6.5 per cent of the total student population. Today, that number stands at 15.2 per cent.

“As the number of international students has increased over the years, the need to provide additional and specialized services for international students has also grown,” said Laurie Stephens, U of T’s director of media relations.

Stephens cited a number of specialized services provided for international students, including immigration and transition advice, intercultural and learning strategies support, orientation programs, peer mentorship, English communication classes, and social and networking events. The university also offers special bridging programs for some international students.

University administration also maintains that increasing the diversity of the student population leads to a better academic and social experience for all students. “The University of Toronto welcomes the variety of perspectives, viewpoints, and diversity that international students bring to our already diverse campuses. These students contribute to the international character of the university, and their presence provides opportunities in our academic and co-curricular programs for the enhanced exchange of knowledge,” said Stephens.

Zakary Paget, special assistant, communications, at the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities did not directly address the issue of government funding for international students. However, according to Paget, per-student funding for Ontario universities increased from $6,719 in 2002 to $8,605 by the end of 2013, an increase of 28 per cent. “The government provides funding in a consistent and predictable manner and as autonomous institutions, we expect that schools will manage their financial health in an efficient manner,” he said.

Andrew Langille, a Toronto-based labour lawyer, argued that funding for international students should be increased. “The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities needs to take a hard look at whether there is adequate funding for international student aid at post-secondary institutions in Ontario,” he said. Langille said that increasing funding would be a good retention strategy to keep international students in Ontario after graduation.

Bollo-Kamara recommended that the university reduce international tuition fees, and not allow them to increase at a higher rate than fees for domestic students. She also recommended that the university increase financial aid for international students. In 2012–2013, the university provided just $4.95 million in merit and need-based grants — exclusive of U of T fellowships — to about 1,600 international students.  The university provides more than $150 million in total merit and need-based grants.

Like Bollo-Kamara, Langille also said that the provincial government should look at placing a cap on international tuition fee increases. “Much like tuition fees for domestic students, the tuition fees charged to international students are extreme, unsustainable, and predatory,” he said.

Paget brushed off these concerns: “Tuition fees help to cover the costs of education and help ensure that institutions continue to have the resources needed to maintain high quality and accessible postsecondary education in Ontario,” he added: “The tuition fees for international students are determined by the institutions. Institutions have the flexibility to increase tuition fees for international students by the same amount as domestic students.”

Stephens said that U of T is doing the most that it can with the financial resources provided by the provincial government. The provincial government does not provide grants to universities to support research-stream international graduate students, leaving Ontario universities at a disadvantage when competing with universities in other provinces.

Stephens also said that the university administration is lobbying the provincial government to extend the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) to international students. In 1994, the Ontario government disqualified international students from coverage under OHIP.

Shawn Tian, president of the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU), said that, for some students, international tuition fees might still be cheaper than studying at a domestic institution. He also noted that some countries fully subsidize tuition fees for their citizens to study abroad, so not all international students bear the full financial burden of increased tuition fees.

On the other hand, Tian said that there is no guarantee that revenue from increased tuition fees ends up benefitting students, a reference to the $40 million in within-university subsidies that will be transferred from undergraduate-heavy divisions of the university to graduate-heavy and revenue-poor divisions next year.

How we take our coffee

Exploring the culture of caffeine in Toronto from to-go cups to gourmet cappuccinos

How  we take our coffee

Growing up, I came to understand that a relationship exists between coffee and the routine nature of adulthood. Most Saturday mornings, rather than watching cartoons, I would watch my mother prepare pots of the brewed beverage. Sometimes, I would help and, after a lot of persisting, I would even have a sip or two. I was an early adherent of caffeine, eagerly indulging in cup after cup by age six — provided it had copious amounts of sugar in it. I didn’t like the taste, but I loved drinking it.

At present, I’m not certain whether or not I’ve entered adulthood and settled into the comfort of routine just yet, but one thing remains the same: I still love coffee, only now without the milk and sugar. As I grew older, I graduated from standard grocery store drip coffee to the world of espresso-based options. Toronto is a food-and-drink playground for an aspiring coffee connoisseur like myself to explore. From the tasteless, free cups acquired from conference-hopping on campus to the sweet-smelling brew of an aging diner tucked next to a subway station, it seems that no two cups of coffee in the city are created equal.


A city in chains

girls&coffee2-levettEarlier this year, an article titled “Why is Coffee in France La Merde?” (or, to translate, “Why is Coffee in France shit?”) was published in the online food and travel magazine Roads & Kingdoms. Writer Anna Brones described Paris as a “city of café culture, not a city of coffee culture.”

Toronto, unlike Paris, is a “coffee city,” though perhaps not in the sense that Brones meant. The two largest coffee chains in Canada, Tim Hortons and Second Cup, were a part of Canada’s food and beverage landscape long before espresso bars and latté art became the norm. These chains serve customers interested in grabbing a coffee for the road, rather than those looking to sit down in a café.

Within a five minute walk of Bloor and Spadina, there are three Second Cup locations. The decision to crowd this intersection with three of the same shops is strategic; it’s a busy corner, with U of T sitting southeast and the Spadina interchange subway station producing heavy foot traffic.

Chain coffee shops such as these replicate your experience each time you visit. You can order the same oversized croissant at whichever Second Cup location you choose; your double-double or your triple venti americano misto likely tastes the same each time you order it, no matter which location it comes from. The décor, coffee, and the prices are consistent at each, as is the lingo. The double-double, for example, is exclusive language to Tim Hortons customers, similar to the contentious tall, grandé, and venti sizing system of Starbucks.

While the seats are ample at most Tim Hortons franchises, the overall atmosphere at our country’s largest coffee chain isn’t exactly the most inviting for traditional café-goers looking to sit and think or converse. There are signs everywhere reminding you not to overstay your welcome — so while you’re begrudgingly permitted to stay as long as there’s coffee in your cup, you really ought to leave once the last drop is gone.

When it comes to where to get your coffee at Bloor and Spadina, the question is really which Second Cup will be the least busy; the drink is the same at each, and the order is likely part of the consumer’s day-to-day routine. The citizens of the downtown core are certainly coffee people, but they’re looking for their brew to come quickly, reliably, and at a reasonable price. The results are crowded corners of chains that offer nothing new.


Becoming a café city


Taking your coffee to-go has gone from an alternative to the norm. Being on the go is a part of everyday life as we conform our eating and drinking habits to our busy schedules. Many independent coffee shops, however, offer the option to drink from a mug in a café, and stay as long as you like. Cafés are traditionally spaces of conversation and creativity, where artist-types can linger and work, and where friends can come and chat.

In the city centre, you are never more than a stone’s throw away from a better cup of coffee than one you might find in a nationwide chain. Trendy, independent cafés can be found on most blocks in the city, and serve patrons with a taste for gourmet brews and a comfortable seat to study in.

To stay competitive against the endless stream of Starbucks franchises that are springing up on every corner in Toronto (and just about everywhere else), smaller coffee shops innovate in their atmosphere and coffee options. Cafés offer cushy spaces to accommodate people looking to work or socialize, free wi-fi, treats baked in-store that easily rival those of well-known brands, and specialty drinks (though often at steep prices).

The Holy Oak Café in Brockton Village is one of the few local cafés in Toronto that stays open in the evening. Come 9:00 pm, the Macbooks are tucked away, the lights are dimmed, and a different drink replaces the coffee brew as the café transforms into a hip bar. Many independent coffee shops are similarly taking on multiple identities to broaden their appeal — as community-gathering spaces, galleries, and storefronts for independent artisans.

Independent cafés also stay relevant by offering a more all-encompassing coffee experience for their customers, as opposed to the quick-serve options of chains. Early Bird Espresso and Brew Bar on Queen West welcomes customers with its stock of intricate coffee equipment that resembles a chemistry lab. The siphon coffee maker that lines the bar tickles the fancy of coffee aficionados and instagram fiends alike.

Many people trade hot coffee for iced options in the summertime. Chain shops cash in on the cold-brewed trend with cups almost full of ice that limit the amount of mediocre coffee you actually get. Specialty cafés in Toronto serve cold-brewed coffee right, standing out from their competition by offering truly gourmet options in their drink menus. Dark Horse Espresso Bar on Spadina bottles its cold-brewed coffee for five dollars apiece — a premium price that’s certainly worth it for the strong flavour you get from the 16-to-18-hour steeped brew.


Ceremonious brews

vietnamese coffee-levett

There are a number of places in Toronto that make coffee in innovative ways that challenge our conception of the drink. At most Vietnamese restaurants, you are likely to find at least one or two tables with tall glasses filled with ice and capped off with a silver contraption that looks like a top-hat. This is the preparation process for a drink called ca phe sua da — Vietnamese iced coffee with milk. The coffee, when served black, tastes remarkably bitter. With the addition of condensed milk, however, the rich flavours of the brew are brought out, producing a slightly burnt, dark taste.

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is the epitome of the “slow food” dining movement, which Ethiopian food is often considered to be a part of. You certainly cannot get your Ethiopian coffee to go, nor can you order it at the last minute, due to the time-consuming process of brewing it. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is about the sacred experience of drinking coffee, and the senses and the sentimentality of each sip and smell.

Andrea, a third-year biology and environmental studies student, explains another coffee ritual from her home country of Sweden: fika, which simply translates to “coffee break.” Swedish fika involves taking a break from your working day and having a cup of coffee, sometimes accompanied by a light pastry.

According to Andrea, fika was an integral part of her experience growing up in Sweden. “Even as a kid, [you] would always have fika. It’s what you always do,” she says.

In keeping with the routine of “adulthood,” for me, drinking coffee has become a force of habit — a morning, afternoon, and even evening ritual I just can’t seem, or don’t care to, kick. A friend of mine recently summed up my sentiments in a tweet: “I don’t really want any more caffeine, but I just want the act of drinking coffee.”

For many young adults in Toronto, coffee is an embedded part of every busy day. To-go culture is an inevitable by-product of living in the city — but stopping at an independent coffee shop and saving some paper by taking a genuine coffee break is a productive way to enjoy your brew for its quality, rather than its caffeine alone. Coffee doesn’t have to be mere routine: it can be a ritual, a sensory experience to be savoured, a careless conversation with a friend, a clear-headed moment to yourself, or, for me, a memory of my mother on Saturday mornings.


By the cups

Espresso yourself

Espresso refers to a method of preparing coffee by shooting hot water through finely ground coffee beans. The result is a thick, foamy brew with a higher concentration of caffeine. Many specialty drinks have an espresso base.

Caffe Latte: foam, a lot of steamed milk, espresso

Cappuccino: a lot of foam, steamed milk, espresso

Mocha: foam, steamed milk, chocolate, espresso

Americano: water, espresso


Famous caffeine fiends

“I never laugh until I’ve had my coffee.” — Clark Gable

“I would rather suffer with coffee than be senseless.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” — T.S. Elliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

“I’ve been drinking coffee for over 50 years. That it is poison, I am convinced, but its ill effects have yet to have any bearing on my health.” — Voltaire

“…If it weren’t for the coffee, I’d have no identifiable personality whatsoever.” — David Letterman


Around the world in 80 cups

— The people of Finland consume the most coffee in the world annually, at 12kg per person per year, followed by Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands respectively. Canadians consume about half that amount per year at 6.1 kg per person.

— Brazil produces the most coffee in the world at 54,500,000 bags per year, with each bag weighing 60 kg.

Toronto’s age of graffiti

Street art projects strive to bring visual interest and engage in provocative issues

Toronto’s age of graffiti

Toronto’s urban atmosphere translates just as well onto the city’s walls as it does onto the radio. Venturing deep into the west end, you’ll encounter Graffiti Alley, a place where the canvas becomes a blank, brick wall, as opposed to a linen sheet. Although graffiti was once recognized as vandalism, Toronto has recently adopted the New York frame of mind, and has allowed artists to express themselves beyond square mobile canvases.

IMG_0484StreetARToronto, or StART, is a newly initiated program by the City of Toronto, to promote street art, and discourage vandalism. Described as a “pro-active program,” the idea behind it is to develop and support street art’s role in adding visual interest and character to Toronto’s neighbourhoods, while counteracting the harmful effect of graffiti vandalism on communities. By promoting the artistic aspect of street art, StART is helping dispel the negative stereotypes surrounding this art form.

Public art is far more expressive than meets the eye; it goes beyond disfiguring public property. Its intention is to garner attention, and strike the spectator often with a controversial issue that is relevant to the society in which it domesticates itself in. It is a means of communicating public matters directly to the public eye — a message hidden in plain sight. Its simplicity is its artistry in itself, as it doesn’t require any particular speculation to be understood. It is honest, frank, and direct, without any of the flourish of classical art forms.

Lately, organizations have been commissioning artists to publicize messages, or simply to create visual interest for their patrons, through this unique and contemporary medium. Jesse Harris, artist of the, “You’ve Changed” mural outside of CAMH, painted the artwork to remind individuals who had suffered from mental illness that they had in fact changed — surfacing from the rehabilitation program as entirely different individuals. In 2012, The Reclamation Project constructed what is believed to be the largest graffiti production wall in Canada, along the rail corridors used by the Milton, Kitchener, and Barrie GO Train lines. Bringing together over 65 different artists from across the country, and with each of their individual sections spelling a letter of “Parkdale,” “West Queen West,” “Liberty Village,” and “Toronto,” this project brought community and national pride to a previously vandalized wall.


Toronto’s age of embracing street art has only just begun, and with programs such as StART, the prodigious talent of the city’s artists can be displayed in a meaningful and inclusive way.