Ignatieff’s Canadian album

“You’re having a history of Canada on the sly.”

Two days prior, from the same born-again professor: “Everything a politician does is political, but some things a politician does are less political than others. […] I hope you’ll forget the current context and we’ll have an interesting discussion about our country.”

For three days last week, Michael Ignatieff—academic, author, journalist, MP, and, many suppose, Liberal leadership hopeful—presented University College’s F.E.L. Priestley Memorial Lectures in the History of Ideas. His subject, “The Canadian Dream: Past, Present, and Future,” covered “three generations of sustained reflection on what Canada was, and what Canada could be” through what his mother’s side of the family, the Grants, hoped for this country.

Who do the Grants think they were? And why does Ignatieff think the audience would care?

Ignatieff justified his approach in the lecture: “It’s a double kind of thing I want us to go through: a sense of understanding how deeply their love of their country ran, but also how problematic some of their visions of our country turned out to be, and how much difficulty we’ve had as a country since, because we were saddled with the dreams that they gave. I don’t assume that the only thoughts were by my family. I’m crazy, but I’m not that crazy.”

Emblematic of Ignatieff’s approach might be the image he used to describe William Lawson Grant upon the death of his father. “The death of parents is a complex experience in any man or woman’s life, but it’s also a release, whether we admit it or not. The son was able to step out of the shadow of the father, yet the shadow had given the son’s life its meaning.”

Ignatieff admits that he has been “shadowed” by his family history. The lectures are related to a book he is working on, similar in nature to 1987’s Russian Album, in which he delved into the Ignatieff line.

“This was a ground-clearing exercise to figure out ‘What are some of the ideas we’ve had of Canada?’” Ignatieff said in an interview with The Varsity after the final lecture. “You gotta start somewhere, so you start with what you know and what’s familiar to you. Where we are now? I think we’re struggling, we’re trying to figure out how to make a multicultural, multiethnic, bilingual, multinational, transcontinental nation-state hold together, cohere, and be a model of tolerance for other countries.”

Three generations of Grant men thought of Canada in relation to empire. For Ignatieff’s great grandfather, George Monro Grant (who accompanied Sanford Flemming in his 1872 trek across Canada to survey a route for the Pacific Railway, and later became Principal of Queen’s University), if the sun never set on the British empire because of Canada’s place in it, it was as if that empire that ensured Canada’s place in the sun.

For William Lawson Grant there was no question about Canada supporting Britain during the First World War. His experiences at the Somme, though, convinced him that Canadians had earned their country’s sovereignty with their valour and their lives.

As George Parkin Grant famously grieved in Lament for a Nation, the waning post-war British colonial influence would surely result in Canada being engulfed by the United States.

“The intellectual history I’m telling you, which is I think a history of the illusions about Canada that we’ve believed in, is that they were powered by the mistaken belief that there wasn’t enough here,” Ignatieff said Thursday afternoon. “Part of what the burden, [John Ralson Saul’s] A Fair Country and others have argued, is that there was an awful lot here, we just didn’t see it.”

“The question now is how to deepen love for a country that remains unfinished and incomplete. The task for all of us is to rid ourselves of the feeling that life—real life—is somewhere else.”

The future of Canada remained the very large elephant in the small lecture hall. Because there were actually four generations participating in this sly history. Pleading it was a history as opposed to a campaign, Ignatieff deflected questions concerning whether he’ll run for the Liberal leadership.

“All appearances to the contrary, I do not want to convert a series of academic lectures into a political platform,” he apologized, though there were hints of how for the politician, everything is political. “As someone who’s gone into elected office for the first time in my life, the single most useful thing to me has been whatever knowledge I’ve had of the history of my country.” The historical was also political. “Canada was called into being by an act of choice, and she could only be sustained by an act of political will.”

No one called the bluff. Ignatieff did thank the college for allowing a practicing politician to give the lecture. “It’s a very daring thing for University College to do.” Asked a year ago to give this year’s lectures, perhaps Ignatieff didn’t know the question that would be on everyone’s mind.

Michael Grant Ignatieff was in his first year at U of T when Lament for a Nation was published in 1965. “I rebelled against that pessimism then, as I do today,” he said, noting that shortly after the book’s publication, Canada went through what he typified as the most rapid reassertion and transformation of its identity. “But,” back to Uncle George, “his pessimism lays down a challenge. There’s no easy answer to that challenge. For my uncle asked, as I think no one had ever done before: Is Canada possible? Can love of this country be sustained? Does this place make sense any more?”

The vision for Canada that Ignatieff presented did not depart from the points of his “What I would do if I were the Prime Minister” essay in Maclean’s in 2006, though he rooted his desire for “a shared dream that leaves no one out and no one behind” in the lessons learned about his ancestors’ dreams that had fractured the country.

On the campaign trail, “a shared dream for everyone” might sound like so much pap. Ignatieff acknowledged that patriotism is an unfashionable word, unless properly applied.

“Patriotism: enduring, impatient, non-ironic belief in the promise of the land you love, is the single greatest asset of successful societies. […] Patriotism is the source of that impatience and anger that makes abuses seem intolerable, injustices unacceptable, and complacency a delusion. Patriotism is the sentiment that makes us want to be one people. It is the shared feeling that allows us to rise above our differences and make a complex unity of us all. This unity, never certain, never to be taken for granted, is always a work in progress, and it has meaning for us, but it also offers an example to the world. Canadians know as much as anyone on earth about living together across the gulf of difference.”

Everything you wanted to know about sex, but were afraid to ask your grandpa

“It’s about pleasure of the mind, not the flesh,” explains dominatrix Miss Barbie Bitch as she shows me the bondage cage.

The box is a steel rectangle, only slightly larger than a dog carrier, complete with a studded collar hanging from the top. “I’ll leave a sub in there overnight or so,” she shrugs. We move on to the bondage coffin, as she urges me to get inside. “When you don’t have someone in it, you can use the coffin to hold your laundry or towels,” she says, a regular Martha Stewart with a cat o’ nine tails.

Barbie Bitch, who has spent nearly two decades as a dominatrix, fit right in at this weekend’s Everything To Do With Sex Show. Lodged into a convention room at Exhibition Place, a 19-plus audience revelled in smut. While some came to watch pole-dancers or have a porn star instruct them on the best way to lick a nipple, others were there to simply pick up an extra pair of flogging gloves, or sample a cake in the shape of a large phallus. Larry David would be proud.

In a nation that recently re-elected a pro-abstinence Conservative government, open discourse about sex seemed liberating. Yet the most shocking aspect of the convention wasn’t the genital shavers or portable dungeon equipment, but rather the attendees. I had been expecting youngsters in body paint, but the average age seemed to be about 45. In fact most could have starred in those Stephen Harper campaign ads.

Compared to our European neighbours, North Americans have always been pretty uptight about sex. Seeing grey-haired husbands pose with porn stars and post-menopausal women in nipple tassels made me feel hopeful, yet it was sad to see so few young people in attendance. Does it really take us 30 years of sexual activity before we can say the word “masturbate?” I know I’m still working on it.

It’s scary that we’ve created a society where “orgasm” is a more offensive word than “murder,” and we’d prefer to watch two men on television kill each other than kiss. I was happy that the attendees felt relaxed enough to publicly lick chocolate dildos, but the event still had a secret, back-alley aura. Take the investment-banker type who whispered to his girlfriend, “I just don’t want to run into anybody I know, that’s all.”

God bless the old timers whose age has made them comfortable with kink. “If you know you’re a dom, you know that it means being one in every aspect of your life,” Miss Barbie tells me. She’s strapping her sub, a mid-sixties man in a pink brassier wearing a nametag that reads “Miss Bitch’s Pain Pig,” into a bondage chair. When I ask her what the downside is to being a professional dominatrix, she smiles wickedly. “There’s no such thing.”

Further down the hall I find “The Dungeon,” a section where cameras are banned. Inside, a woman is being tied to a spider web-like contraption, while a man in leather masks paddles someone bent over a bench. I approach a man carrying what looks like a toolbox. In his hand is a bulb of static electricity, which looks like a miniature of the ball you touch at the Science Centre to make your hair stand up. I hold out my hand, and the demonstrator gives me a series of electrical shocks down my palm, described as the feeling of being tattooed. When I inquire if it’s intended for use all over the body, he nods. He informs me that there might be some burning or scabbing after a long play session. “But nobody has ever died from it—that we know of.”

Further along, I sit in a thousand-dollar sex chair, and bounce on a “sex-ercise ball” as a couple next to me browse for the right scented lubricant. I want to get as much education as possible, so I head to the seminar section where a tiny Japanese woman in her late forties discusses anal beads. Sexpert Midori quickly puts the audience at ease, promising to answer any questions. When someone inquires about semen, she informs us that you can change the taste of your juices by consuming certain liquids, like pineapple juice. Her advice on anal sex is pretty spot-on: “Everybody has an asshole,” she delivers to the man in the first row. “It doesn’t mean you have to be one.”

Midori’s focus, like most of the presenters, is education. After an afternoon of browsing through the stands, “normal” sex seems relative. If sweatpant-clad suburbanites seem so comfortable purchasing videos of the “Naughty Newfie,” why is my generation embarrassed even discussing coitus? If age begets wisdom, I think I should listen to my elders. “Everyone should work towards being a ‘try-sexual,’” Midori tells me. “It’s better to have adventured and spilled some lube along the way.” Wise words, I think to myself, as I smile at the Grandpa clad in the golden man-thong, walking towards the exit.

They Came From Robarts!

We know our beloved University of Toronto as a dignified institution, defined by the acquisition of knowledge; a gateway into adulthood with the occasional drunken hookup. However U of T’s hallowed halls have also stood in as the locale for many a spin-tingling horror film. In the spirit of Halloween, let’s take a full moonlit walk down memory lane and revisit these seven films shot in and around our fair campus. And you thought Robarts was scary!

BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)

The granddaddy of Canadian horror films, this statement really says more about Canada’s horror film industry than it does about Black Christmas. During Christmas break, a mad killer terrorizes and kills the members of a sorority, and it’s up to the police lieutenant (played by the great John Saxon) to stop them. The cast includes such masters of horror as… uh… Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Andrea Martin. I have seen director Bob Clarke’s earlier She-Man (1967), and I’m happy to confirm that U of T is not to blame for that one.

BRIDE OF CHUCKY (1998)

“Chucky gets lucky!” promised the ads for this fourth entry in the mildly popular killer doll series. Indeed, the little hellraiser does get some action in the form of Jennifer Tilly, far from the glory days of Bullets Over Broadway. Among other Ontario locations, director Ronny Yu brought the production to the University of Toronto, perhaps because creepy and vaguely unsatisfying sex scenes feel right at home on a university campus. Bride of Chucky was released one year after another U of T-shot movie, Good Will Hunting. Oddly enough, only one of these two films was mentioned on my residence tour.

WES CRAVEN PRESENTS DRACULA 2000 (2000)

Bram Stoker’s classic tale is updated for the 21st century when Count Dracula (Gerard Butler) travels to New Orleans to seduce and kill the daughter of his arch enemy, Professor Van Helsing (played by Christopher Plummer, seriously). U of T turns in a convincing performance as New Orleans, and, to give credit where it’s due, Gerard Butler is a lot easier on the eyes than Klaus Kinski. While author Bram Stoker does not receive credit, “fetish performer” Christopher Allen does.

THE SKULLS II (2002)

A direct-to-video sequel to the staggeringly unpopular Joshua Jackson film from 2000; the fact that the producers were unable to lure even Mr. Jackson into this film is not promising. I haven’t seen The Skulls II, but an IMDb user comment from “ragreen259” asks thoughtfully, “Who fished this turd out of the pool?”

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)

While technically not a horror film, this film boasts a giant monster in it, so it counts. More importantly, it included scenes shot in and around Toronto, including a few unconvincing CGI action scenes at St. George Campus. During the extended, Godzilla-like monster vs. monster action finale, moviegoers across the world asked each other how a Sam the Record Man store ended up in Harlem, and why the Apollo Theatre looked suspiciously close to Club Zanzibar.

LITTLE SHOP OF EROTICA (2001)

Admittedly not shot at U of T according to IMDb, the film was made in the bustling metropolis we call home. Marilyn Chambers, from Behind the Green Door and Incredible Edible Fantasies, stars as “Marilyn” in this soft-core combination of sex and horror with an average IMDb user rating of 2.0 out of 10 (based on 36 votes). Just out of curiosity: why do you think Little Shop of Erotica received a tax break from the Ontario government? That’s yet another blotch on Mike Harris’ legacy.

FEVER PITCH (2005)

Queen’s Park turned in an admirable performance in this grim tragedy from the Farrelly brothers, from which millions of moviegoers fled screaming at the horrifying sight of Jimmy Fallon as a romantic lead.

Torture Me

Over the years, I’ve watched young women suffer a battle’s worth of gruesome deaths; the prettier, the sassier, the closer to 18—the better. Recently, I watched a naked woman get yanked to her watery grave by monstrous tentacles, while her severed arms hovered in chains above the sacrificial pit (Dagon). I’ll always remember the one who cried tears of blood before throwing up her innards (City of the Living Dead). Watching ladies squirm on the ends of long knives, hearing their suspiciously orgasmic screams, I’ve often asked myself: who watches this shit?

In my case, it’s an outspoken and nitpicky feminist. I have a knack for detecting sexism in unlikely places, and male friends are sick of hearing about it. Yet I get off on watching one of the most barefaced and egregious manifestations of woman-hating in the Western world: the horror flick.

One rather sucky explanation is that I’m too sensitive to violence against women; it offends me so deeply that subconsciously, I hope to exorcise the shock through watching scenes of extreme violence repeatedly. But seeing splatter films is not the key to self-healing; it’s just a lot of fun. I have to be honest with myself, as any horror fan must: sadism, masochism, and self-loathing underlie my viewing habits, to varying degrees. More importantly, I get a kick out of it.

Sometimes sexism is entirely excusable for the sake of a great flick. Few directors devote as much time to the aesthetic of expiration as Dario Argento does, and Suspiria’s famous window scene is as elaborate as brutality gets. It’s also somewhat pornographic: a very masculine arm (wasn’t the “killer” supposed to be a witch?) thrusts a girl’s face into a window, and then stabs her repeatedly as she lies, panting, on her back. We even get a penetration shot of the knife entering her heart. Stage Fright’s scantily-clad Italian ladies are a mere fringe benefit in a stylish, cheesy classic. Though I feel for the sorority sisters at the receiving end, the obscene phone calls in Black Christmas offer more golden moments in slasher history. Often enough, there’s more misogyny than movie, and Maniac is a standard example of this kind of picture: join Frank Zito as he slaughters New York broads in explicitly sexual ways and pins their scalps to mannequins. It’s utterly excessive, but completely awesome.

Within any genre, there’s good and there’s good. Last year’s Inside is brutal to a panic attack-inducing degree, largely to the fact that the primary victim is a pregnant woman (it should be noted that the villain—and what a villain—is a woman; the filmmakers, of course, are men). It’s absolutely painful to watch, but the immaculate use of tension and violence contribute much to its quality; the gore is abundant, but it’s far from gratuitous. In Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, just about every woman that appears on screen is murdered (or already dead): prostitutes, mothers and their families, even the female lead that the audience dares to hope might live. But the film’s matter-of-fact tone and Michael Rooker’s staid depiction of Henry Lee Lucas are what make it more than just a genre film. It’s worth noting that both of these movies were based on real events; the more you worry, the more you crave cinematic release.

Unfortunately, classics like these have stoked the ambitions of far lesser filmmakers. Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible has the pretensions of an art film, but the structure of a cheap exploitation flick: a ramshackle plot built around a few shocking scenes and gimmicks. It takes a lot of nerve to establish your film—your career—on the basis of a cold-blooded and unnecessarily prolonged rape scene. The makers of Inside had nerve, but they made a great film. This is key: much like off-colour jokes, outrageously sexist movies are only acceptable if they’re good.

A steady diet of blood and guts leaves one in need of comic relief. Luckily, the horror genre is wonderfully self-reflexive, and not a few directors have made virgin (more often slut) sacrifice fun. Slither makes a farce of phallic slaughter: the town tramp is impregnated by tentacles extending from the ever-virile Rooker’s torso; she then becomes rabid for raw meat, expands to the size of a barn, and bursts with alien slugs. The Wicker Man remake is an unintentionally hilarious parody of male paranoia about feminism. Nicolas Cage, facing an island full of man-hating drones in silly clothes, delivers some of the best lines since “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in They Live: “Killing me won’t bring back your goddamn honey!” Some horror directors have even saluted their feminist detractors: Stuart Gordon, clearly concerned about sexual reciprocity, has a dismembered head pleasure Re-Animator’s female lead.

I’d be a dirty liar if I didn’t admit that some horror movies, however stupid, serve their basest purpose: titillation. In most slashers, the killers—much like the real-life murderers they’re based on—are far from sexually potent. On the contrary, they’re driven to kill by their inadequacies—virginity, gender confusion, and, of course, mother issues. One notable exception is David Hess, the Robert Redford of grindhouse: he kills because he’s so ridiculously, delightfully masculine. Hess started out as a songwriter in the late ’50s, but carved a niche for himself as an onscreen psychopath in the ’70s, playing characters with names like “Krug Stillo,” “Bosco,” and “Ferret.” And carve he did, as anyone who’s watched Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left knows quite well. With pot as their bait, Hess and his gang capture, sexually humiliate, rape, and disembowel two teenage girls; it sounds horrible, and it is. The parental retribution doesn’t quite atone for the bloodbath, but Hess, as much as it worries me to admit, is a pleasure to watch. For the more compassionate, Ruggero Deodato’s House at the Edge of the Park is much less brutal (some of the sex is even consentual), and features Hess in various stages of undress. Aside from a particularly tense scene involving a razorblade, the Jewish Adonis is in fine, cheesy form—if you ignore his love handles.

It’s easy to draw the line between politics and pastimes; we’re well aware that many of our cultural indulgences are sexist, racist, or just stupid. There could be a host of psychological reasons for why a feminist enjoys watching her own kind get picked off like piglets; there are certainly enough real-life examples to make me question my own habit. I think the answer can be summarized quite succinctly: horror movies are harmless, often goofy fun. And like anyone else, we’re up for a good time.

Three views on Canadian racism

At the seventh annual New College Conference on Racism and National Consciousness last Saturday, speakers presented on this year’s theme, “White Supremacy and the Regulation of Identity.” The Varsity brings you snippets from the conference.

Seeing through the Indian Act

In the keynote lecture, “Genocide, Assimilation, or Incorporation? Indigenous Identity and Modes of Resistance,” York University’s professor Bonita Lawrence argued that Canada’s current policies on indigenous people have inherited the racism of generations past.

The Indian Act, which defines and regulates indigenous identity, grew from a colonial legacy steeped with racism, said Lawrence. She detailed three key historical occurrences during the 19th century that allowed the disempowerment of indigenous communities.

First, the refusal of the Canadian government to deal with Native confederacies, opting instead to engage in dialogue with 620 individual villages, severely hampered any attempts to rebuild a native nationhood.

Secondly, the outlawing of native ceremonies worked to remove strong leadership that might have furthered indigenous causes, replacing them with Christian converts. Lawrence concludes as a result, “Those who have lost their language are struggling with questions related to who is Indian and who isn’t, which is problematic because community membership is everything to the Native culture.”

Finally, cultural genocide stemming from the disempowerment of native women and the forced assimilation of native children encouraged the erosion of native identity. “Eventually, all one could see was the Indian Act,” she said.

An audience member asked why Native communities would continue to comply with a legislation so imbued with racist attitudes. “They are worried that without it, they will cease to exist,” replied Lawrence. “In the poorest Native communities—where all our wealth is coming from extracting natural resources—those are the communities that have everything and get nothing back except charity.

Challenging this involves challenging Canada as a nation and taking on fundamental power relations. That scares people. In this way the Indian Act creates fear.”

—Samya Kullab

21st century colonization

Arnold Itwaru, U of T’s former director of Caribbean Studies, argued that the world is dominated by the culture of white supremacy. In his seminar titled “Master Race Culture: White Supremacy, Liberal Democracy, and the Continuing Colonization of the world,” he indicted Western society of repressive colonization, imperialist wars, and capitalist exploitation. Today, said Itwaru, these ideologies manage to hide behind concepts such as freedom and liberal democracy.

Itwaru suggested that real progress away from imperialism is always being co-opted to support the Western Eurocentric system. For example, although the Canadian government claims to enshrine multiculturalism with such outward displays as Governor Generals of visible minority status, the office is still a representation of British monarchy.

He polarized the audience when he said Barack Obama, if elected, would inherit a white supremacist institution.

—Jared Ong

Who invented ‘moderate’ Islam?

Why do we still see white, imperial hegemony in predominantly Muslim countries? Dr. Sedef Arat-Koc asked her audience. In the lecture that followed, she explained just that. America and Europe, said Arat-Koc, both have a new invigorated fetish for “Orientalist writing and speech which often focuses on women’s rights abuses or the lack of democracy [and] help rationalize Western superiority and intervention.”

However, Arat-Koc also placed part of the blame on attitudes of certain sections of Muslim societies as well. She said that Muslims often subscribe to the Western notion of a “moderate” Islam. In many predominantly Muslim countries, like Turkey, governments create policies in line with capitalist or neo-liberal logic in which Western supremacy is unchallenged and even normalized.

New interactive playground may be the solution to childhood obesity

One of the top sports technology programs in the U.K. may have found a way to put the “play” back in playgrounds.

Play equipment manufacturer Playdale challenged the U.K.’s Sports Technology Institute at Loughborough University to design a playing field that encourages children to exercise at a high intensity.

Insititute Director Professor Mike Caine, Steve Rothberg, Loughborough’s dean of engineering, and Loughborough PhD candidate Phil Hodgkins, all agreed to lend their design and engineering expertise.

“There’s definitely a real problem with kids more sedentary lifestyles and/or having poor dietary habits,” Caine said. “I think anybody, parents or otherwise, is frustrated by that.”

After three years, the group came up with i.play, a solar-powered, interactive playground system. Set on a circular surface with three cylindrical-shaped legs placed equal distances apart, the legs twist and snake above the ground before meeting in the middle of the circle. On each of the legs are activity switches placed at low, medium and high heights that, depending on the switch, are activated by being pressed, pulled, cranked, or twisted.

The i.play issues voice commands, notifying the player to activate one of the switches. LED lights placed on each switch flash to indicate which switch must be activated. Similar to a video game, the i.play also scores each game. The faster switches are activated with high scores. Players are given three lives per game which are lost when the player takes too long to activate a switch or activates the wrong one.

LED lights and voice commands give visually and hearing impaired players the opportunity to play. The different heights of the switches also help include players restricted to a wheelchair.

“We’re looking at how we can provide stimulus to get all sorts of players active,” Hodgkins said.

The game also offers multiplayer games of up to six people. One game works by using a “follow-the-leader” concept in which the first player creates a sequence hitting switches in a random order. The next players must copy the sequence exactly, or lose their place in the game.

“Another multiplayer game is sort of like tag. You can play on the game and when it says “tag” you can tag your friends and they can go in and play for a few minutes,” Hodgkins said. “So it’s kind of like intermittent play.”

“Stealth exercise” is at the heart of i.play technology. Caine explains that by making the i.play interesting, children will push the boundaries of their athletic abilities to improve their score.

“This distracts children from the discomfort of high intensity exercise, making them more likely to exercise longer or harder,” Caine said.

Barry Leahey, director of Playdale, said the idea for developing a new playground came from a conversation with a colleague who had just been to the world’s largest fitness and wellness exhibition in Essen, Germany.

“He said there was a lot of kids’ fitness gym equipment. We started talking, saying children shouldn’t be using gym equipment […] They should be out in the playground,” Leahey said. “So we thought there was some mileage in there because going back three, four years, the obesity topic was getting big news.”

Before Playdale created the i.play equipment, Leahey knew that it needed to be robust to stand up in public spaces.

“We are just a bunch of hooligans over [in the U.K.]. People like to wreck stuff all the time,” Leahey said. “But we’ve been manufacturing play equipment for over 30 years so we know how to make [it durable].”

Caine admits that while there were some skeptics, the response to the i.play has been tremendous.

In 2006, Caine won a business innovation award for the i.play at the Internationale Fachmesse für Sportartikel und Sportmode (ISPO) conference in Munich, beating out sports equipment companies like Adidas.

“There’s now 35 in the ground and we’ve quoted over $12 million in business,” said Leahey. “To think that one unit [costs] $50,000, that’s 240 units quoted for people interested in buying one for the U.K.”

Currently there are no i.plays in Canada, but that may change in the not so distant future.

“Funny enough we just [recently] had someone from Canada contact me about a distributor,” said Leahey.

No more free beer for Newfie students

Students at Memorial University of Newfoundland are upset after resident officials decided to ban beer companies from sponsoring student house events this semester.

Previously, breweries such as Labatt and Molson gave free drinks to dorms in exchange for being the sole beer supplier at these events. However, with an estimated 64 per cent of residents under the provincial legal drinking age of 19, MUN managers brought an end to the sponsorship.

“The concern was that there was too much access to too much product,” Memorial housing director Christine Burke told CBC News.

But cutting off the source of free beer isn’t the only problem. Student Union rep Bradley Russell argued that students would also lose taxi vouchers originally supplied by the liquor companies to promote responsible drinking.

“When I was in residence I was on one of the executives and if students decided to go downtown, instead of driving we used to provide them with complimentary cab vouchers,” said Russell. Talks are underway to lift the ban.

Is the flu vaccine worth a shot?

Every year, as we enter flu season, we wonder about those flu shot ads from Health Canada. Should we risk neurological disorders—or bruised arms—to avoid a fever?

Influenza strikes as many as eight million people in Canada during flu season (between October and April); immunization is one of the few preventative measures we have. Getting a flu shot is like an annual ritual—and it should be, says Health Canada. They say that the shot significantly reduces your chances of catching the virus, but recently doubts have surfaced concerning the efficacy and safety of the vaccine.

Last Wednesday, the CBC ran a story about a B.C. man who contracted a debilitating condition linked to the flu shot. It left him paralyzed for almost five months. There is also mounting evidence that call the vaccine’s effectiveness into question. Dr. Sumit Majumdar, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, the Department of Medicine, released a study in 2007 that refutes the benefits of the flu shot. According to Majumdar, the vaccine isn’t effective in protecting seniors from complications like pneumonia.

Majumdar and his colleagues analyzed clinical records in six Alberta hospitals. They studied 700 matched patients, most of whom were aged 65 and older, who had been hospitalized for community-acquired pneumonia during non-flu season. Half of the patients had received the flu shot, and half had not. Each vaccinated patient was matched to a non-vaccinated patient of similar age, same sex, and other demographic characteristics, with shared medical conditions.

They found only a marginal decrease in the relative risk of death. “The real issue here is those previous studies that for nearly 20 years have suggested the flu shot could reduce mortality rates in the elderly by up to 50 per cent, aren’t plausible,” Dr. Majumdar concluded. To understand why this is the case, one must first understand how researchers concoct the vaccine.

Every year, flu experts make an educated guess about which flu strains will end up being the most common before deciding which ones to include in the vaccine the following year. But they don’t always get it right. Last year, researchers didn’t choose the correct strains. “As a result, we had quite a robust year for influenza,” Dr. Don Low, Microbiologist-in-Chief at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, told the CBC. Dr. Bruce Gellin, Director of the Health and Human Service Department’s National Vaccine Program Office, told reporters, “It’s hard to make sense of it…[We] really need to have a system in place year to year that tracks the efficacy of the vaccine.” So far, no such steps have been taken.

Maybe we should reevaluate our immunization campaigns. Not only does our flu shot seem useless (40 per cent efficacy rate according to one study), it’s also costing our government a bundle. About 10 million doses of influenza vaccine are distributed in Canada each year, adding up to almost $800 million dollars spent immunizing Canadians against influenza. By comparison, the estimated worldwide annual expenditure on research on malaria, a potentially fatal disease which affects over 40 per cent of the world’s population, was $58 million. Canada should divert some of this obscene expenditure to solving real dangers, faced by defenseless people. There are other means of curing the flu once it’s been caught.

So let the flu season come. It’s not the first or last time we’re going through it unimmunized. Even if the flu shot does have a positive effect, I prefer the “apple a day” approach to that of a 16-gauge needle.