Policy wonks woo walkers

On Thursday, Nov. 8 from 7-9 p.m., Toronto’s Metropolitan Reference Library will host the conference “Steps Towards a Walkable City” as part of the third instalment of a series of workshops aiming to make Toronto a “great walkable city.” The meeting will provide a framework for public discussion on the priorities and appropriate resources needed to establish a successful walking strategy. The general public, as well as Toronto’s city council and other city agencies, will be presented with proposed policies and asked for feedback. The Walking Strategy is part of the city’s suggested shift away from the use of vehicles as a mode of transportation, and towards a more pedestrian- oriented system.

A HOT habitat for Toronto

Regardless of how long you stare at your utility bills, your mouth wide open, they will not disappear. However, there is something that might lighten the load. The City of Toronto is moving towards establishing a comprehensive plan to create and maintain affordable housing. Housing Opportunities Toronto, released yesterday, has set upon a goal to assist roughly 200,000 Toronto households in the next 10 years, who are currently living in subpar housing and paying too much for it. And while this plan will call for a $469 million annual investment, along with extensive federal government support, Toronto believes that affordable housing will contribute to the economy and resident’s financial and emotional health. “Our city’s continued success as a healthy, safe and productive place to live depends on providing housing opportunities for all,” said Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, Chair of the Affordable Housing Committee. In the last three years, Toronto has won more than 70 public service awards; now the City must practice what it preaches, and cash out for rent.

You snooze you win

Toronto high school students might get an extra two hours of sleep in the morning, after research showing that teenagers with more rest are happier, better functioning, and have increased memory retention, and subsequently achieve better grades at school. The plan is part of District School Board Trustee Cathy Dandy’s idea to let high school students begin their day at 11:30 a.m. to better support the adolescent sleep pattern. “There are all kinds of ways in which we are exploring [how to improve] student success, and this seems pretty basic,” Dandy told the Toronto Star last week. She suggested that teenagers aren’t lazy, but rather are just biologically deprived. Last year, a study at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilians University proved that the onset of puberty shifts the body clock forward, making teenagers evening-type people, and making them less alert and functional in the morning.

Editorial: U of T’s democratic sham

Political science students at U of T might tell you of a troubling trend now being recognized in Third World countries, an emerging kind of autocrat dubbed “dictators for a democratic age.” Leaders like Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez prove that despite superficial appearances of democracy, a political system can easily be manipulated behind the scenes. Whereas the definition of tyranny was once limited to countries that maintained concentration camps, controlled their citizens’ lives through the use of violence, and officially banned opposition voices, the rise of leaders like Chavez shows that creative tactics can ensure perpetual power for the few, while preserving the illusion of rule by the people.

Sadly, it appears that over the last few years U of T students have fallen under a similar regime. From the dubious connections between Your Team candidates and the Canadian Federation of Students during last spring’s University of Toronto Student Union elections, to the unholy strategies used by the “yes” campaign’s members in last week’s Student Commons referendum, questions about the fairness of our school’s political process are justifiably being raised.

Senai Iman, who ran against Your Team last year under the New Deal slate, put it bluntly: “Our student governments today survive on a complex system of political affiliation, blatant patronage, and monopoly over the rules that govern them.”

Iman cited the UTSU elections last year between Your Team, which supported the CFS, and New Deal, which did not. CFS represents dozens of student unions across the country. If New Deal won and pulled UTSU out of the CFS, the federation would lose the hundreds of thousands of dollars U of T students pay the group each year in union dues. Despite the CFS’s vested interest in the election results, UTSU’s chief returning officer and election supervisor last year was Eric Newstadt, who was a CFS executive at the time he accepted the position.

While Your Team won, there is no evidence that Newstadt directly influenced the election results. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to question his impartiality. Affiliations in themselves aren’t incriminating, but surely we must question the legitimacy of a system that allows such close ties to exist at its highest levels.

Last Thursday, The Varsity ran a story exposing the questionable methods of the “yes” side in the SC referendum, a group predominantly made up of the same individuals who campaigned for Your Team last year. Some disturbing tactics included the bribing of voters with free coffee directly across from a polling station at Sid Smith, attempts to use campus police to silence “unregistered” opposition, and the mysterious absence of a polling booth at Victoria College (whose students were less likely to support a campus-wide student commons due to plans for their own).

Hugh Macintyre, who was approached last Tuesday by UTSU president Andrea Armborst as he distributed literature opposing the Student Commons levy, described another disturbing incident. “They told me I was violating the Code of Conduct,” he wrote on his blog. “They asked me if my degree was important to me. They told me that their lawyers were very excited.” The fact that he has faced no official sanctions makes one suspicious that these threats were baseless, designed only to intimidate him into silence.

On the international scene, human rights organizations like Amnesty International decry Chavez’s selective censorship of opposition through the use of complicated electoral regulations and the mandatory registration of opposition voices, all under the guise of preserving “fairness.” Canadians of all political stripes would agree such conduct has no place in this country. Why, then, is it happening at Canada’s biggest university?

There is clearly a group of elite students at this school who, for whatever reason, think they know what is best for the rest of us. And if that means adopting illiberal tactics, so be it, they say, politics is a dirty game. Even though U of T appears to operate under a democracy, the smallest amount of scrutiny reveals a different story.

But these movers and shakers are not the only ones to blame for this democratic deficit at U of T. Voter apathy shoulders part of the responsibility for this abysmal state of affairs. Turnout for student elections and referendums is dismal, making the job all the easier for those who wish to control student politics. As the latest incidents of creeping authoritarianism come to light, one can only hope student voters will pay more attention.

Hot Topic: How do you feel about the positive outcome of the recent Student Commons referendum? Is student space on campus a concern?

Clockwise from top-left

Adina, third-year Jewish Studies student

Twentyfour hour, multifunctional student space should be a part of our tuition. There are things we pay for that we don’t even know about. There are other things we could be concerned about wasting our tuition dollars on. Rachel, second-year Visual Studies student: It’s all well and good to have common space but increasing fees only makes U of T in general less accessible to people who would go there. If suddenly I couldn’t afford tuition, a student common space would be of no use to me at all.

Lisa, third-year Psychology student

After hours, the only place to go and study is the second floor in Robarts, unless you know someone in res who can let you into one of their common areas. The Student Commons is necessary because space is in high demand.

Michael, third-year Sociology student

For people who tend to stay up late, the only option we have is Robarts, so twenty-four hour common space is incredibly useful. Fees in general are a necessary evil, but they should be spent on things all students could use

Rachel, second-year Visual Studies student

It’s all well and good to have common space but increasing fees only makes U of T in general less accessible to people who would go there. If suddenly I couldn’t afford tuition, a student common space would be of no use to me at all.

Harper’s war panel won’t help Afghans

Some call it cynicism, but I call it learning from experience. While the Canadian government frequently sets up projects that seem to have good intentions on the surface, history has shown that ulterior motives lie beneath. So when I heard the Harper government’s plans to set up an Afghanistan panel, I was skeptical from the first. The panel, headed by John Manley, a former Liberal cabinet minister, will deliberate and advise the government on the future of the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan.

Manley has put forth four limited options for the panel to choose from. Canadians can continue training Afghan troops, readying them for when Canadian troops leave. Another option is to shift the troops’ focus from the hotbed areas they’re currently in to different, less violent regions. A further option calls for a continued combat role, and withdrawal of troops by February 2009. Finally, Canadian Forces might remain fighting in the war-torn country past the current mandate, which expires in two years time. In making its final recommendation, the panel is supposed to take into consideration public views and opinions about the matter.

Despite the supposed effort to stabilize the Afghanistan situation, many critics call the panel a ploy by Harper to gain support for extending the military mission. Though opposition parties are against continuing the mission past 2009, the Conservatives have not dismissed the option of staying until at least 2011.

Aside from the political intentions behind creating the panel, the panel’s mission and ideology are misguided. Our ultimate goal in the conflict, all can agree, should be peace and democracy in Afghanistan. What can the Canadian military possibly do to further these aims?

It is naïve to believe that peace can be achieved through tying aid and development to military might. An increase in Canadian military strength could lead to greater support for insurgent groups, meaning innocent civilians could get caught in the crossfire. As long as we try to promote our liberal values through the use of force, we can kiss development and democracy goodbye. What good are schools if they’re shut down for being in the midst of a conflict zone? How can there be democracy when a focus on military presence predictably equates power with weapons and soldiers?

With these obvious contradictions between intentions and reality, the Afghanistan panel, regardless of why it was set up, is headed down a very inefficient path. Throw in a public who knows as much about Afghanistan and what it needs as Arizona knows about snow, and you end up an entirely irrelevant consultation process. The whole panel effort should be reassessed and rather than asking Canadians for their opinions on the matter, the Afghan people should be consulted for their input on the course of development. After all, it’s their country that we’re supposedly trying to help.

No Country is uncharted territory

I was going to write that No Country for Old Men is unlike anything the Coen brothers have ever done, but such a statement is difficult given the brothers have tried their hands at just about everything, from thrillers (Fargo, Miller’s Crossing) to stoner comedies (The Big Lebowski) to a film noir experiment (The Man Who Wasn’t There), and the occasional stab at mainstream popularity (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers).

But, in relation to their other work, No Country for Old Men is probably the least Coen-like Coen brothers movie yet. It is a minimalist thriller without a single drop of the quirk-factor that characterized their previous films (so, in other words, no Steve Buscemi). It’s also easily their best movie since Fargo, and one of the best of the year.

Here’s the gist: in 1980, a cowboy wannabe from Texas (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the remains of a shoot-out and finds a suitcase full of cash. Meanwhile, the killer responsible (Javier Bardem) escapes police custody and we’re launched into, if I may descend to cliché, “a deadly game of cat and mouse.” Revealing any more of the plot would be cruel and evil.

Top-billed Tommy Lee Jones actually has the least screen time of the three leads, but his performance here, as well as In the Valley of Elah, reminded me what a subtle actor he can be. Toronto International Film Festival patrons may remember Josh Brolin in the Coens’ segment of Chacun son Cinema, where he essentially played the same character. I never really noticed Brolin before, but the Coens put him to good use here. The dominating performance, though, is Javier Bardem—chillingly understated as a pure sociopath. (Incidentally, are the Farrelly brothers still trying to put together that Three Stooges movie? Because it just struck me that Bardem could be a hell of a Moe.)

The actors are good, but the film really belongs to the Coens. This is easily the most suspenseful film of the year. There are no cheap thrills—the Coens use little music, and there are no great revelations about the Bardem and Brolin characters to trivialize the story. They trust their carefully built tension to carry the film, and respect the audience’s intelligence. They also don’t wrap things up with a neat little bow, and if this movie does indeed turn out to be the Oscar-bait the studio is hoping for, it might restore my faith in the Academy. This is a great, engrossing piece of filmmaking.

Attack ads are a low blow

One company suggesting that it is better than its competitors is endemic to advertising. At their most successful, these ads are humourous and effective. Consider the Pepsi television commercial where a little boy buys a Coke from a vending machine. In goes the coin, out comes the can. He sets the drink on the ground, inserts another coin, pushes the “Coca-Cola” button again, and receives another Coke. He puts it on the ground next to the first, and steps on top of them. Reaching up, he presses the “Pepsi” button at the top of the machine, and out comes the glorious beverage. He takes his prize and walks away, leaving the first two cans in the dust. Quite amusing, and the point is not lost on anyone: a Pepsi is a whole lot better than a Coke.

Ads like this are deemed humourous and effective when they’re about soft drinks or fast food joints, but they take on a whole new dimension when directed at political parties. In the political world, commercials like these are known as attack ads. They amount to one candidate saying, “You just can’t trust that other guy. If you elect him/her you are DOOMED. Vote for me, because I’m your last chance.” This strategy involves singling out previous mistakes made by the opponent, not only pointing out flaws in political strategy, but also generally making them look incompetent and dangerously under-qualified.

This strategy is currently being used by the federal Tories against Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. The Conservatives have launched a campaign against Dion, claiming that the Liberals will return the GST to seven per cent if they win the next election. True, Dion has been vague on the GST issue. In the usual manner of coy politicians, he’s not promising anything either way. However, the Conservatives would have the populace believe with this new wave of hostile advertisements that Dion has said his party would definitely raise the GST. They illustrate this point in one of their commercials with a typically unflattering picture of Dion, and by repeatedly playing an out-ofcontext sound bite of the Liberal leader.

Attack ads are the wrong way for a party to promote itself. Pointing out all the flaws in the other candidate can make a party sound like it has nothing good to say about itself. When politicians get nervous, they say “And what’s so great about you? You’ve screwed up at this and that, and oh yeah, that other thing too, right?” Instead of trying to push voters away from the opponent with negative advertising, why can’t our leaders try attracting us with positive observations or effective policies?

Political parties only resort to attack advertising when they’re out of ideas. People only focus on the negative when the positive isn’t consequential enough or is non-existent. In politics, I want a positive leader, not the lesser of two evils.