A cyclist’s crash course

Kristen Courtney is no newcomer to cycling. The third-year law student at the University of Toronto has been riding her bike for years, and once took a 7,500 km cycling trip across Canada. She has ridden without any problems in nearly every major city in the country, except Toronto.

Since moving here in 2005, Courtney has been hit by cars seven times.

Her accidents all occurred on Bloor, College and Queen streets, the three major thoroughfares where, cycling activists say, bike lanes are most desperately needed.

Most of the accidents were minor, but the sixth one left Courtney with permanent damage to her back, neck and wrist.

Courtney said her accidents have not deterred her from cycling. She has become involved in several cycling advocacy groups, using her experiences to draw attention to problems facing cyclists in Toronto. At a recent event, “Bells on Bloor” in September, over 500 people rode along Bloor St. to protest the lack of bike lanes.

Courtney talks passionately about about environmental law, and after her first year of law school—and her first five collisions—she attended the International Youth Summit on Sustainable Urban Transportation. There, she learned about plans that other cities had followed to effectively promote cycling. She said she was shocked by the city of Toronto’s “unprincipled approach” towards cycling safety and bike lane planning.

Outlining activists’ proposal to plan the city’s bike routes “by looking at where cyclists ride, where cyclists need greater protection, and where potential cyclists would ride if they were provided with safe and convenient routes,” Courtney said bike lanes in Toronto are usually put on quiet side streets where they are not needed. These circuitous lanes often do not connect with one another.

Six years ago, the city council approved the 10-Year Bike Plan, which aims to increase the number of cyclists on the road and decrease the number of collisions and injuries. The plan’s mainstay is the expansion of the Bikeway network, expected to eventually cover the entire city.

According to the city council, 2007 has been a good year for the Bike Plan. Nearly six kilometres of new bike lanes have been approved by city council, and over 20 more have been proposed.

Despite some progress, however, activists contend that the Bike Plan has failed to address major safety issues. One of the biggest problems they point to is the lack of safe east–west routes. Streets like Bloor and Queen are treacherous for cyclists, but the city has made no plans for bike lanes on these streets. In the meantime, many cyclists have been injured or even killed on those routes.

Over 1,000 bike-car collisions are reported each year, but since many accidents go unreported, Courtney estimates the real figure to be closer to 6,000. Stories and statistics like this are alarming, giving lawyers as well as cyclists fuel in their push for more bike lanes. Last week, the law firm McLeish Orlando LLP addressed a letter to the city council on behalf of the family of a cyclist killed on Queen St. in 2005.

The letter pushed the city to consider improving bike routes as it works to make a “cleaner, better Toronto,” and lingered on the city’s ethical obligation to ensure safer cycling conditions.

‘Unwelcome guests’ sleep easy on campus

Hundreds of them walk around the grounds of the university’s downtown campus on any given day. For the most part, these non-community members— people who have no business with the university—roam around trouble-free.

It’s often hard to tell that those simply passing through or frequenting the stores on U of T property, are neither students, nor staff nor faculty members. According to campus police, an audit of Robarts Library, for example, would yield more people from outside the university community than actual members of this institution. It’s just a features of a downtonw university and the city’s population of 30,000 homeless individuals—a number that activist groups say is, in reality, much higher.

There are dozens of trespassing incidents on campus every month. This September, one of two such incidents involving a trespasser sleeping on campus took place at the orange-roofed Warren Stevens Building.

“Being in downtown Toronto, it’s endemic that you’re going to find more street people than in a typical suburban environment,” said Athletic Centre facility manager Paul Dutchak, as he looked down on a couch-laden lobby below. “Our lobby is more or less a public- access place, and we do have occasional vagrants that come through.”

While the Starbucks and sports store in the building help draw in visitors, bathrooms play their part as well. Every morning, a man and his dog show up to go through a hygienic routine in the lobby’s men’s washroom, says Dutchak, who notes that his staff generally turn a blind eye.

“Just because they’re a poor person with torn clothing and dishevelled hair does not necessarily make them bad people,” he said.

Police have usually only taken action in incidents where public safety is potentially at risk. But, as one of the few places on campus that requires identification to access the majority of the building, the Athletic Centre is likely one of the safest places to be. At least, according to Dutchak.

Trespassers are usually brought to the attention of U of T’s Campus Community Police through complaints made by community members. Reportings of these incidences therefore vary from day to day, depending on the tolerance of the students and staff in a particular building. If a complaint is made, Campus Police simply ask first-time offenders to leave, since the university buildings are private property. A second encounter nets the unwelcome guests a provincial citation for trespassing.

Campus Police operations manager Sam D’Angelo says that because of the university’s open and inviting atmosphere, “you can walk into almost any building and you’ll see people that are here not because they have university business. They are just here.”

According to D’Angelo, there comes a point when visitors outstay their welcome. “The invitation to ‘unwelcome guests,’ as I call them, expires when they become a hindrance to the university conducting business or a student studying,” he said. It doesn’t matter who the “guest” is or what they’re doing, he added.

Chris Lea recalls a time when a man took a swipe at him. The Hart House facility manager was telling a man who was “cracked up”—Lea noted his bloodshot eyes—that he had to leave. The rare case did not turn Lea off the view, shared by other building managers on campus, to approach homeless people with a laissez-faire attitude.

“If something terrible happened in our life, we could end up on the street. You don’t want to treat them badly,” said Lea.

“Our general policy is that people who are homeless are not necessarily bad people, they can be homeless for lots of different reasons.” Usually it is when a person is “smelling really bad” or “snoring really loudly” and thus upsetting a student that they have crossed the line and are asked by staff to leave. Though staff at Hart House have instructions from Lea to call campus police if someone is being belligerent, the university itself doesn’t have a clear outline on how to deal with the homeless—unlike other intuitions, Lea points out.

Seattle’s new Central Library, for example, boasts a security detail to patrol the facility for rule-breakers— such as those who wash their clothes in the sinks—and hand out cards informing patrons who give off an odour where they can find public hygiene facilities to grab a shower. After receiving a few complaints on the issue of “non-students” using Hart House, the house’s new Warden, Louise Cowin, says she has begun to think about the issue, but hasn’t reached any conclusions yet.

Nearly 10 years ago, Margaret Hancock, the previous Warden of Hart House, released a report on the role U of T could have in helping the homeless. The report was spurred on during a time when the growth in the ranks of homeless grew “visibly” in and around campus. The growth was attributable, Harris-era Progressive Conservative government. A push by students for a shelter on campus was rejected in Hancock’s report, owing to the large amount of resources that would be needed if it were to be well-run.

“You can imagine how people would get there, you’re seeing all these folks on the streets, it’s a horrible thing…people are thinking there’s all these empty buildings, why can’t we just open them up and let people sleep there?” said Hancock, who added that the university’s role lies elsewhere.

“I think that the university is the place where people think about these things, they do research on them. They’re influential with policy makers like government, for example, and governments need academics and students to study these things and to speak out about them.”

In Lacrosse hairs

In their last game of the season, the Varsity Blues Lacrosse team fell 12-4 against interdivisional rivals Western. Luckily, this game had no bearing for a team that had already clinched the Central division, securing a firstround bye in the Baggataway Cup. With the tournament at St. Michael’s College little more than a week away (November 2 to 4), there was some worry the team might ease up for the meaningless game.

“I think that because it was an interdivisional game and didn’t mean anything standings-wise, the team was kind of looking down the road to the playoffs when they shouldn’t be,” said Blues coach Wayne Copeland.

The game brought together two teams headed in opposite directions. Western (3-4) possessed a losing record in their division with little chance of making the playoffs. Young upstarts the Blues have a chance to make some noise in the post-season. boasting two of the top three scorers in the Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association. Attacker Mikael Chullen led the team and the league with 24 goals and 40 points, while Andrei Bruno paced his teammate with 15 goals and 33 points. With these players in tow, the Blues have not had much trouble going on the offensive this year, despite being held to only four goals in their final game this past weekend. The team had its sights set high, and while no loss should ever be acceptable, the team could endure losing one battle as long as they can win the war.

It is the kind of mentality Lacrosse was founded on, having been invented by Native Americans to settle disputes and train young warriors (some games lasting as long as three days straight). Times have changed, the game has been toned down, gone are the days of inter-tribal warfare, replaced instead by wholesome competition. Games now seldom last longer than two hours, and the only scalping that takes place involves tickets.

History was a topic of interest this weekend as Blues players new and old reunited for the annual Alumni game. Former Blues coach Matt Thomas, in attendance for the game saw a huge difference in the Lacrosse program since he was at the helm three years ago.

“The team has come a really long way, and the coaches have done a great job of getting things organized. When I was coach I think we took a really big step that year, we had a fantastic season, one of the best we’ve had. But these guys have definitely taken it to another level. There’s been a lot more money invested in the program, and clearly recruiting is going well because they’ve got some fantastic new players.”

If the weekend’s alumni game was about the past and the future of the team, it’s no surprise that the present got lost somewhere in the shuffle. “We really tried hard today. We took it as a playoff game and it just didn’t work in our favor, we got down a couple of goals and we just couldn’t come back,” said leading scorer Mikael Chullen.

Despite the team’s best efforts, they seemed distracted against their Western opponents. With the ghosts of the past haunting the sidelines, and the playoffs a fast-approaching, beating Western didn’t seem like a huge priority. The team started strong in the game before fading in the second half. Western drew first blood with a goal early in the first period. The Blues would respond moments later, before a Chullen giveaway allowed Western to score in close to take a 2-1 advantage. The Western offensive put a lot of pressure on the Blues, but the team hung tough and tried to force them to the outside. Toronto’s Brian Grishniki had a busy afternoon in goal: “Our defence was doing a great job, we just left them out to dry too many times, and we didn’t finish on offense,” said Chullen.

Chullen would redeem his early gaffe with a goal to bring the Blues back within one. He outworked the Western defense with a one goal, scooping a loose ball and burying it, but it wasn’t enough. The score was 7-4 Western in the middle of the third period, and they would eventually run away with the contest 12-4.

It was an unusual game for the Blues, in that their defence played exceptionally and their vaunted offence struggled. If the team could get both working at the same time, they will have success.

“There’s no question that the unforced errors we do are big. You know we fight hard for possession and then throw it away. But that all comes with youth and inexperience. It’s a pretty young group of guys so the only way for them to gain experience is to play and make mistakes to learn from. But definitely the more experience we get, and the more disciplined the team is, the more games we’ll win”, said Chullen knowingly.

The Blues finished the season first place in the Central division. The first place teams in the three divisions (East, West, Central) get a bye, with the second and third teams in the division playoff resulting in three new teams. After that the coaches from the league will rank the teams, with the two top teams getting a bye into the semifinals.

“We’ve earned our by for the first weekend so we’re not sure who we’ll play yet. But it’s going to be exciting because we’ve never gotten as far as we are now. So we’ll be making team history that tournament,” said Coach Copeland.

The Blues hope that at next year’s Alumni game they’ll be reminiscing about their first ever championship.

Trent’s part-time workers may strike

The union body representing part-time faculty at Trent University announced this Sunday that it is in a legal strike position, with the majority of its members willing to stop work.

“We’re pleased, to say the least. This will give us considerably more leverage at the bargaining table,” said Alex Atfield, the interim vicepresident of CUPE local 3908 Unit One. That unit represents about 200 lab demonstrators, markers and contract course instructors, who jointly teach 20 per cent of Trent’s 1,110+ courses (exact figures are not yet available).

Atfield, who teaches a microbiology course at the university, said the vote should help propel negotiations toward an agreement between Trent and the union.

He added that, in his opinion, a strike would bring the university to a near-complete halt.

Earnings of part-time faculty at the university are among the lowest in the province, 22 per cent below the provincial average of $11,807. CUPE is seeking a three per cent pay increase, and also demanding improved benefits.

Unit One members may teach up to 1.5 credits worth of courses in any given 12-month period. Contract instructors at the University of Toronto are under similar guidelines.

The unit’s supplemental health plan provides only a total of $12,000 in health and dental coverage to divide amongst the more than 200 workers, with a $500 maximum benefit per worker. Atfield, who called the health fund “woefully inadequate,” noted that it provides enough for exactly 24 workers to claim the maximum benefits.

CUPE demanded the fund be tripled, and Trent has responded by offering to double it. CUPE also wants a professional development fund, which gives financial aid to unit members seeking to improve their skills, increased from $15,000 to $26,000.

Unit One’s collective bargaining agreement is up for renegotiation, and the union has objected to a proposal by Trent they say would cut the wages of most of their members. A vote of unit one’s membership found 89.6 per cent in favor of a strike, if the school and CUPE cannot reach an agreement.

Over the summer, CUPE 3908 abandoned negotiations on a new collective agreement and filed with the Ontario Labour Board for a lastresort conciliation process. At that time, Trent negotiators declined to comment on the negotiations, which CUPE had labeled “stalling tactics.”

Part-time faculty are a growing force on Ontario university campuses, including U of T, where an increasing number of courses are being taught by instructors on temporary contracts, rather than tenure-track positions. Such instructors at U of T are represented by CUPE 3902, Unit Three.

Both sides of the negotiation blamed low provincial funding of universities for driving the contract faculty hiring trend.

Hot Topic: How far should the university go to accommodate religious needs?

Have your say. Comment below.

San plight put in focus

This week, the University of Toronto will again open its doors and theatre for a long-running environmental film festival. Many of the screenings will take place at Innis College Town Hall.

From Oct. 24 to 28, the eighth annual Planet in Focus film festival will features films such as Bushman’s Secret by South African filmmaker Rehad Desai, who travelled to the Kalhari desert to meet a Khomani San healer struggling to live close to nature despite centuries of colonial exploitation of San Bushmen and their lands. The film details the Khomanis’ present state of poverty and the loss of their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The Bushmen rely on a natural appetitive-suppressant called Hoodia—you may have seen it in the aisles of health shops and even Wal-Mart. North Americans with hefty appetites use it to trim their waistlines, but the Khomanis use it to survive.

Other films of note include The Edge of Eden, which focuses on a Canadian in eastern Russia who takes bear cubs back into the wild, hoping to prove that the animals are not as dangerous and unpredictable as most think.

Toronto director Barry Cohen’s Toxic Trespass takes a look at toxic contaminants that make their way into our bodies, while the eponymous hero of Mr. Wong’s World spends much of his time in Shanghai, buying buildings that would otherwise be torn down—an attempt to preserve some Chinese heritage from the bulldozers.

“It is really important for the festival to have people come to see the films and then feel moved enough to then get engaged in the issues around them. And it is one of the reasons that the festival is set up,” said organizer Andrew Male noted.

The full festival schedule is available online at planetinfocus.org.

Religious accomodation in moderation

Two weeks ago, The Varsity reported on a controversy over the new halal food options that are being served at Bluff’s on the UTSC campus (see “Halal food hard to swallow at UTSC,” Oct. 4). The article itself sparked some heated debate on our website’s commenting system, in the mainstream media, and on many blogs.

This article followed the debate on appropriate religious accommodation, much-covered in the mainstream media. When discussing the intricacies of religious accommodation, tempers tend to flare. The Varsity is committed to freedom of speech. On a topic as sensitive and controversial as religious accommodation, it’s unfair and dangerous to make generalizations based on assumptions. Many, however, chose to make sweeping and often irrelevant rhetorical statements when commenting on the article, both on The Varsity’s own website and ones across the internet that reprinted the article in part or in whole.

U of T has an incredibly diverse student body—one that continues to grow more diverse. Religious accommodation has been an issue on campus in the past and will continue to be one long into the future. It is impossible to fully accommodate every group on campus without infringing on the rights or wishes of others.

Responses to the Oct. 4 article saw uncompromising extremes, from those who view themselves as advocates of secular society to those who believe deeply in accommodation for Muslim students.

Accommodation issues will likely grow more complex as political interests and religious ones butt heads. Since the article was published, Rob Wulkan, the president of the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, has been censured for telling reporters that a significant proportion of students, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, eat the halal food served at Bluff’s. The Varsity supports Mr. Wulkan for speaking on the issue.

The Varsity aspires to foster discussion on all sides of the debate over religious accommodation on campus. We will continue to report on all further developments on this issue, objectively.

Making Parliament Work

Last week marked the not-so-triumphant return of parliament in Ottawa. The weeks leading up to it were exciting ones for journalists—the prorogue of parliament until mid-October, the delayed opening, the Liberals’ (and thus, Stéphane Dion’s) failures in the Quebec by-elections, Harper’s hijacking of parliament by turning every vote into a confidence issue, and the NDP-Bloc rejection of the throne speech. Throughout all this, reporters and commentators across the country played their favourite game: election speculation. The fate of the minority Conservative government seemed to rest upon the decision of Stéphane Dion, a man whose name has been preceded with the word “embattled” in recent months.

But Dion decided to let the throne speech pass. The speech itself was very much like the Conservatives’ mandate: mild, balanced, and not, in fact, all that Conservative. A Conservative minority with three left-leaning parties in opposition hasn’t done the country too badly. The budgets have been about as fiscally conservative as Liberal ones, particularly after being fiddled with by other parties. Harper’s move to declare the Québécois a nation within a united Canada was a brilliant political response to Gilles Duceppe’s separatist rhetoric. More blatantly right-wing policies have been kept in check, as when aspects of the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act were not renewed. So far, our government hasn’t done all that badly at their job—governing.

That’s what makes all the more disappointing Harper’s insistence that every parliamentary vote be a confidence issue. Instead of attempting to debate, reshape, and reform bills so that they can get enough support from our elected representatives to pass, Liberal amendments to the throne speech are likely to be rejected. The Liberals, in a show of opposition, will likely only send enough MPs to parliament to allow the speech to pass. All of this is in fear of an election that would likely return us to the same sort of government we have now—either a minority Liberal or Conservative leadership, with sizable Bloc and NDP opposition.

Fear of such an election is helping to set a dangerous precedent, and gives Stephen Harper undeserved power to pass unbalanced legislation, such as his Tackling Violent Crime Act. If the Conservatives’ past environmental plans are any indication, they could very well force the Liberals to choose between an unwanted election or an unsatisfactory environmental policy full of half-measures and concessions to big polluters (we’re looking at you, Alberta oil companies). Harper is attempting to simulate the power of a majority government, something that his party hasn’t earned, and, according to many polls, would be unlikely to gain in an election.

At the centre of all this is the oftmocked Liberal leader. Stéphane Dion hasn’t been well-treated by the media since the Liberal Leadership Convention honeymoon ended in February or so. He’s jeered at from across the floor, his communication skills are questioned, and even his own MPs anonymously e-mail reporters with their criticisms of his ways. As of right now, a trial-by-fire election victory would likely be the only way Dion’s image could improve, but that would require that Harper messes up to a John Tory or Kim Campbell degree.

Despite the negative buzz, of the four leaders, Dion (in true policy wonk fashion) is the only one who is attempting to make parliament work. The NDP and the Bloc are content to oppose most Conservative bills and are eager to head into an election to strip votes off of what they view as a weakened Liberal Party. Dion, if not his party as a whole, wants to do what he was elected to do: represent this country’s populace and pass balanced legislation that reflects their desires. Only time will tell if this session of parliament will be allowed to do so.