Habitat: Convocation Hall with Head Usher Rachel

If he’s in a good mood, facility co-ordinator Bruce Anderson will talk about the secret agents who stake out Convocation Hall. No, really.

One lesser-known point of interest regarding U of T’s foremost rotunda is that undercover operatives regularly snoop around the premises during high-profile events. (Excluding commencement, unless you know something we don’t). Even Margaret Atwood, who became Canada’s secondary head of state when she forced Stephen Harper to retreat from his war on art, didn’t rate one Mountie. On the other hand, Al Gore, who became America’s secondary head of state when he was actually elected in ’92 and ’96, brought a battalion of security to the dome last year.

“CSIS, the FBI, MI6…we’ve had all sorts of security in here,” Anderson recalls.

MI6? I imagine Britain’s secret intelligence service, which has somehow

maintained its cosmopolitan air of Cold-War romance, operating in my old sociology classroom.

Anderson oversees the ushers of Con Hall—the irregular, constantly changing event crew that guards the entrances, points you to your seat, and generally blends into the background—though not quite as impeccably as the suit-and-ear-radio crowd. Any student can sign on to usher an event, getting a free seat and payment in cash. Another point of international intrigue: Con Hall is one of the few places foreign students can legally work without a green card.

The most senior usher, Rachel, has been working events in Con Hall for six years, ever since she was an undergrad. Hoping she could shed some light on what MI6 gets up to on their visits, I ask what it would take to get black-bagged and dragged off.

“Get in the way,” she laughs, before offering assurance that the national security types are ordinary people who mostly make sure no one blocks a politician’s path. No doubt they’ve already gotten to her.

Next time you’re in Con Hall, if you’re not on the lookout for men whose bowties are actually cameras, try and spot the handiwork of the ushers’ arch-villains: engineers. Con Hall is a bull’s eye for the manic, purpled, cannon-monkeys whose undergraduate attempts to annoy civilization give way, ironically, to careers spent building sturdy trusses and keeping city sidewalks well-surveyed. According to Anderson, they usually go for windows—the higher the better. Well-equipped applied scientists bent on ludicrously dangerous break-ins have been known to scale the building’s exterior wall or even, in one case of Batman-like ingenuity, “walk directly up” the protruding brickwork.

Great minds, no doubt.

The invisible 40 per cent

Three years ago, Karolina Szymanski was working, studying part-time at U of T, and caring for her father, who had terminal cancer. She was also pregnant. The morning after her father’s funeral, she went into labour. Szymanski, now 25, is a full-time student in fourth year balancing a Work-Study position and a full course load while raising her two-year-old son. Szymanski’s story may be dramatic, but as a student caregiver, she is far from unique.

“There is this general perception that your typical undergraduate student doesn’t have family responsibilities, which is not true,” says Magdalena Rydzy, interim manager of the Family Care Office, which advises and advocates for caregivers on campus, and serves thousands of U of T students each year.

According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, more than 40 per cent of U of T students spend time each week caring for a dependent. We might imagine student caregivers as older, part-time, or graduate students, but the NSSE shows that many full-time undergrads also have family responsibilities. Caregivers are as diverse as the student body. Some, like Szymanski, are parents, while others look after siblings, sick or aging family members, or disabled loved ones.

When crunch time hits, Lindsay Foster wakes up at 5 a.m. instead of 6:30. Early morning is the best time for the 42-year-old single mother of five to get work done.

“I dropped out of school in grade nine. I was a drug addict for about 15 years, and was married to a biker,” she says. After leaving her husband, Foster entered treatment, high school, and finally the Transitional Year Programme at U of T. She is graduating this spring, and hopes to go on to a Master’s in social work.

Foster’s kids range from age 11 to 20. The four that live at home attend three different schools—some mornings, Foster makes two trips in her van before walking her youngest daughter to school. Then she hops on a bus for a 45-minute trip to campus. Driving is just too expensive.

The commute is a common stressor for student caregivers. In recent years, the United Way’s Poverty by Postal Code report has tracked the movement of low-income families to the inner suburbs, where housing is cheaper but services are scarce.

“Lots of students live in the suburbs and they commute,” says Rydzy. “Students have told us that if they could find affordable housing close to campus, then their lives would be really simplified. They wouldn’t have to commute for such a long time, and they could find childcare and other resources downtown.” Foster agrees.

“If there were affordable housing units close to campus, my life would be radically different in terms of having more time with my kids,” says Foster. “It’s really tough to have any sort of quality time with them. It seems like in the evenings, after I pick them up, it’s just a steady stream of chores.”

U of T operates Student Family Housing, a 713-unit development east of campus, but there’s a waiting list.

When her children were younger, Foster was able to depend on her mother for help. Other parents are not so lucky.

“We don’t really have a very good childcare plan as a nation,” says Rydzy. “There are no childcare spaces. Most of our full-time students qualify for childcare subsidies, but if there are no spaces [in local daycares], they can’t really access that resource.”

Szymanski started trying to get her son into daycare when he was only three months old. It took two years to line up both the subsidy and the space. “It felt like a miracle that I should happen to get them both in the same week,” she says. There is a year-long wait to obtain a spot in on-campus daycare.

Parents are the most visible student caregivers at U of T, but they are not alone. Amina Stella, a third-year employment relations student, has three step-siblings under the age of nine, who she looks after a few times a week. Stella cooks, cleans, and entertains. She also works part-time and plays soccer.

“I do get a chance to go out, but I have to plan,” she says. “I have to tell my mom or my dad in advance, and say, ‘This is what I want to do, I’m not going to be here, so figure something out.’” Even so, Stella’s situation is more flexible than many—the Family Care Office works with students who have primary responsibility for younger siblings.

Not all caregivers look after children. Liem Vu is a fourth-year criminology student. Five years ago, his grandmother had a stroke, which left her partly paralyzed.

“Before, my grandmother was really healthy, she was able to make her own meals,” says Vu. After the stroke, “she wasn’t able to cook or even use the microwave safely.” Vu’s grandmother, now 89, lives with two of her daughters. Three afternoons a week, Vu pitches in.

“I go over around lunch time, heat up her lunch, take her downstairs, making sure she gets down safely, and just sit with her while she eats,” he says. “On other days my brother comes and takes my place.”

A care worker comes by twice a week to help Vu’s grandmother bathe. This is about as much aid as most families can expect from the government, says Lynne Gallagher, who works with caregivers for Family Care Toronto.

“If somebody needs 24-hour care, the most they can get is 20 hours a week, and those are people who are really in critical need of support,” says Gallagher. “Most people get a couple hours a week.” An aging population is putting stress on the system, and funding has not increased along with demand.

Vu’s family is managing, but others struggle to bridge the gap. The majority of care has always been provided by families. “There is a perception that the families are there, and that they are able to do it,” says Gallagher. But families can be more complicated than the government assumes.

Daniel Bader, an upper-year English student, spent years estranged from his father. “He was a very mean person. He was an abusive person, to some extent,” says Bader.

In 2001, Bader’s father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Now he has difficulty walking, and cannot drive. A care worker visits four days a week to help. Bader doesn’t consider himself to be a caregiver, but he drops by a couple times a week.

“I go over, and I do his banking for him, I cook sometimes, I get him groceries. Most of the time we just talk,” he says. He isn’t sure what role he should take on as his father gets sicker.

“It’s an open question, as to whether I will need to [become a caregiver], whether if he becomes worse he won’t be able to afford the help,” says Bader. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m a bit scared about that. How much of my life do I need to put on hold?”

It’s a question all caregivers ask themselves at some point, and the answer can be discouraging. The result is stress, even mental illness. Caregivers are particularly susceptible to depression, as Rydzy knows well from her casework at the FCO.

“A few weeks ago I saw a graduate student who is also a caregiver of her elderly mother, who is ill. She commutes an hour and a half every day to campus downtown, and she works, and her mother is sick,” says Rydzy. “This student is under stress, she feels guilty, and it’s really challenging.”

Rydzy argues that administrators could do more to support student caregivers. Most part-time graduate students qualify for little or no funding, with daycare subsidies and grants restricted to full-time undergrads. In some cases, this forces students into full-time status when they would rather study part-time.

“Before having my kid, I was balancing work and school, because I did not wish to take OSAP,” says Szymanski. “I just felt uncomfortable with the debt.” But as a part-time student, Szymanski could not qualify for Dollars for Daycare, UTAPS financial aid, interest-free OSAP, or a daycare subsidy. The university advised her to become a full-time student.

“Finally someone at the Family Care Office sat me down and said, ‘Listen, this is what you have to do to stay afloat.’ Without them, I would not have done it, and I would have been in a terrible situation,” she says. But student caregivers need more than money.

“Especially for full-time undergraduate students, there is little flexibility for accommodating students for family care issues,” says Rydzy. A sick child may not excuse student parents from a test. Some students depend on the compassion of individual professors. Others become mired in bureaucracy.

“When I was eight months pregnant, I walked into my registrar’s office [to reschedule an exam] and I had to provide documentation for the fact that I was pregnant,” says Szymanski. Since then, Symanski has had to exhaustively document every family responsibility.

“I think it would be really nice if people could just take our word for it. I find that trying to prove all these things all the time is a strain, and it’s also a financial strain.”

Despite bright spots—help from the FCO, an emergency grant from a registrar, a sympathetic professor—student caregivers feel invisible, even unwelcome, on campus.

“We cannot compete [in terms of marks] with your average single 18-year-old student. The fact that we can do these three things and still survive—that shows you how valuable we are as people and as students,” says Szymanski. “I really wish that U of T could see that.”

This ain’t your dad’s recession… yet?

The recession-proof powers of the Jheri Curl:

Jon Medow interviews his father, Dan Medow

Jon: Tell me about your experience running a business during the recession period of the early ’80s.

Dan: The early 1980s. That was the era of the Jheri Curl.

At that time I owned a company called Standard Distributing out of Detroit, Michigan, and we were suppliers of ethnic hair care products to major chain stores across the United States. If we’ve pegged this period correctly as the period of the Jheri Curl, then I can tell you that the company did not have a recession.

Until that time, [the Jheri Curl] had only been done in salons, where they would charge patrons in excess of $100 to effect this particular style. Well, there was a company based out of Texas by the name of ProLine and its owner, Comer Cottrell, came up with a retail version of this salon treatment. Comer called it the ProLine Curly Kit, and this kit sold for $6.95. Suddenly, a style that had cost over $100 dollars could be achieved for less than $10.

So what happened was that this took off and was, at that time, our fastest-selling item. We were selling it literally by the truckloads. We could not get it out fast enough. They could not make it fast enough.

Other people, of course, caught on to the technology and brought out similar items. We had a definite advantage here, so we sort of blew past the recession at that time because the style was the driving force of the market, as it often is.

The interesting thing is that because the industry at that time was style-driven, this could happen. If we hadn’t had that style, we probably would have been in the tank.

Jon: So, without the Jheri Curl, the early ’80s could have been disastrous for you?

Dan: Yes, they could have been. But on the other hand, we were selling products that were not terribly expensive, so people could use them no matter what. In the African-American community at that time, probably the majority of women were straightening their hair. And if they were going to straighten their hair, they were going to straighten their hair. People are going to do their hair no matter what; one of the last things that will go [in times of economic hardship] is appearance. People will wear clothes until they either become very out of style, or need to be replaced, but hairstyles, haircuts, makeup, lipsticks, will continue to be used on a regular basis. It’s safe.

Intellectual cops and industrial salt:

Kelli Korducki interviews her father, Rick Korducki.

Kelli: What was your experience of recession?

Rick: My experience of recession happened approximately between the years of 1975 and 1980. During this time, I was in university.

While I was in school it was so difficult to find employment, even for students. You felt really fortunate if you were able to find a job. There were hardly even fast food jobs available.

Then, when we graduated, we faced a horrible job market. If you didn’t come out of school with a very specific skill that just happened to be in demand, you found yourself going for all sorts of things.

I remember knowing people who were very overqualified for the jobs they were doing. I knew a guy who graduated from university with high distinction, very bright, and he was selling clothes in a clothing store for some time. He eventually wound up becoming quite successful, but for people who were leaving school at that time, it took three or four years longer to get into a meaningful professional career path than it probably would have otherwise. There were a lot of people who were in a holding pattern, underemployed, while waiting for the economy to turn around.

Kelli: Do you see any parallels between what you experienced then, and what’s happening with the economy now?

Rick: Definitely. Of course, we’re not really in it to the extent that we will be soon.

I had a friend who was a police officer in a Denver, Colorado suburb that only hired university graduates. So I went out there and actually applied for a job as a police officer, and of course it didn’t take them a long time to figure out that I was very ill-suited for that type of employment.

Employment was so bad that I remember interviewing for a job as an industrial salt salesman. I answered an ad in the classifieds and drove down to this place in the industrial valley in Milwaukee. This guy sees me and he asks me if I have any sales experience. I say, “Not really,” but explain to him that I’m a liberally educated person and that I have a university degree.

So, he walks me out and we’re standing next to this mountain of industrial salt, like about two or three stories high and he tells me, “Well, there’s the salt. It’s really a product that kind of sells itself.” And I said, “I guess it better.” Needless to say, I didn’t get that job.

Kelli: What was your degree in again?

Rick: My degree was in Latin American Studies and Spanish Literature.

Everybody in Argentina has a story:

Bill Rios tells his son, Dan Rios, his side.

The best story of terrible things—stupid things—is the story of what happened to us while living in Argentina.

We have the visa to go to Canada. We have our ticket and we sold everything we owned. Anything that had to go to Canada had already been sent: we were ready to roll.

We sold our apartment and signed the papers after the banks closed on April 1, 1982. We wake up the next morning to find that Argentina was invading the Falklands. Money exchanges were shut down across the country—we couldn’t exchange the Argentinean pesos we were given for American dollars.

In an act of desperation, I went to a foreign exchange dealer and bought third-party cheques in U.S. dollars at a 40 per cent premium. In one day, we lost 40 per cent of our life savings.

A month later, when we were leaving, I could have bought two and half apartments like the one I sold with the money I had. The peso’s value dropped like a rock. We knew that the war was lost, but it took 48 hours for Argentineans to learn they had lost the Falklands to the British.

The economy went into a tailspin. It kept going for the next six years, to the point that the elected president had to turn over governmental power to the newly elected president before his term was up. The entire country was falling apart. This was Carlos Menem, who sold the country and privatized everything. Then it collapsed again.

The problem only stopped when Menem took the drastic measure of declaring one peso equal to one American dollar. It stopped inflation dead in its tracks—but it caused yet another governmental bankruptcy.

You learn to live with the inflation. You don’t have a budget, you don’t know how much money you are going to earn next month, and you can’t save. The money that you save loses value. The trick is to be constantly in debt as much as you can. The more money you owe, the better off you are.

How do you handle the crisis? Ignore it. You have to disconnect. A trick we used to have for going to the supermarket: because the inflation was so high, they would re-mark the prices twice a week. You would go to the market, and if it was one of the days when they were changing prices, you would see where they were adjusting the prices, and run ahead to the other parts of the store that weren’t yet changed. You could save five to seven per cent if you did this.

How do you deal with it? You have to be resilient, you have to be adaptive. You have to have guts.

Everybody has a story in Argentina.

In transit

Hop on a morning rush hour bus, and just about everyone is asleep, heads lolling towards their lap or a stranger’s. You can spot the students even before the backpacks give them away: they’re the ones snoring into their notes. During a ride in late September, I found myself eavesdropping on a couple toting calculus books. They seemed to be wrapping up a talk about their relationship.

“So we need to focus better, because this year is going to be very busy,” the girl concluded seriously, brushing her bangs out of her face. “Yeah, we need to make more efficient use of time,” the guy said, leaning in towards her.

For a second I thought they were going to make out, but he was only reaching into his messenger bag for printouts of lecture slides. He handed a copy to his girlfriend and the pair commenced underlining and flipping pages like a synchronized study team.

That’s one of the weird things about public transport: people know full well they’re in public, but act and talk with a surprising lack of inhibition, as though they’re each in their own little bubble. In a way, they are. Commuting is spent in the company of strangers, instead of the million other things you’d rather be doing. Complaints come easy—time lost, constant waiting, sheer monotony—but loneliness might be the highest price paid.

“There’s a simple rule of thumb: every 10 minutes of commuting results in 10 per cent fewer social connections,” said Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam in an April 2007 New Yorker article. “Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.” Putnam didn’t explain how he came up with those figures, but U of T commuters probably have some idea of what he’s talking about.

Lonely Hearts Club

Take Kristopher Morrison. He used to trek downtown from Newmarket, or “Hell,” as he calls it in a September 2008 issue of The Mike, the St. Michael’s College newspaper. “Being a commuter leaves you as unfulfilled as Clay Aiken’s ex-girlfriends,” writes Kristopher, who now lives 20 minutes from campus. “I know how hard it is to get a hookup when you live two hours out of the city.”

“Character is destiny,” the Greek philosopher Heraclitus is said to have declared. For the tens of thousands of commuters at U of T, it might be more accurate to say that geography is destiny. Commuters account for 85 per cent of undergrads across three campuses, and there are 8,000 residence spots for over 53,000 undergrads. The majority go to St. George campus, which sits in the middle of a 60-kilometre arc between U of T Scarborough and U of T Mississauga. St. George students come from across the GTA, from Brampton to Markham, from Etobicoke to Whitby. Once on campus, getting from one class to the next can be a commute in itself.

“Connection is still a mystery for many students,” said Deanne Fisher, communications director of the Student Life office. “We’ve got geography working against us. It’s a long way from Vic to Physics, St. Mike’s to Geography. Our students are travelling longer distances than other universities’.”

It’s common wisdom that the vast urban campus doesn’t serve students as well as smaller schools do. In the Globe and Mail’s 2008 survey, for instance, students at small universities gave their school higher satisfaction marks than their big-box counterparts. U of T scored a C- for sense of community on campus, lower than the B- national average.

U of T’s effort to engage students is decentralized, with colleges and faculties looking out for their own. “We try to strengthen the college system, and run more things during the day,” Fisher said. Her job is to make sure students know what’s happening on campus. She pointed to the newly retooled Ulife website, which carries a searchable event catalogue, as an attempt to facilitate student engagement.

Commuter nation

Student commuters might just be getting a head start. Statistics Canada’s 2006 census found a nationwide trend of longer commutes compared to five and 10 years ago. The average Canadian spent 12 days out of the year on the road. For Torontonians, an average of 79 minutes per day translates to 14 days of the year. Public transit users—surprise—reported significantly higher levels of unhappiness. According to a 2005 StatsCan study, the number of people travelling to the GTA for work was greater than the number of workers living here, a fact apparent to anyone who’s happened on the ghost town that is the financial district on weekends.

“A commute is a distillation of a life’s main ingredients, a product of fundamental values and choices,” writes Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker. For his article “There and back again,” Paumgarten rode along with several “extreme commuters,” so called by the U.S. Census Bureau because they travel more than three hours each day.

Among the extreme commuters profiled was Judy Rossi, a legal secretary who travels 6.5 hours per day from her home in Pike County, Pennsylvania, to work in Manhattan. That sounds insane, but consider that Rossi was commuting for an 8-hour workday, whereas some students come to campus for classes as short as a single hour. That’s why any commuter student worth her salt bundles like mad. “I try to fit as many lectures and tutorials as possible into the same day so that I will not have to go back to school for a one-hour class on any day of the week,” says Tiffany Tom, a second-year at UTSC.

The New Yorker also cites a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox,” by Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, economists at the University of Zurich. Using data from Germany, the study found that for a two-hour round trip, a commuter would have to make 40 per cent more in salary to be as satisfied as a non-commuter. Furthermore, said Stutzer, workers who travel long distances report lower wellbeing because they trade social goods for material goods. According to Frey, as with other systemic mistakes, commuters who do not change their behaviour are stuck in their habits and begin to undervalue their own quality of life.

Pierre Belanger, an assistant professor in U of T’s architecture faculty who studies mobility and urban development, offers a different view. “There are plenty of reasons why living outside the city centre and commuting with mass-transit would be the intelligent way to go,” he says.

“If it wasn’t for urban decentralization, some students wouldn’t be able to live with their families or have the size of space they might need for a variety of different reasons.”

To Paumgarten’s credit, he points out that the Zurich economists’ analysis assumes commuting is a rational choice, where people try to maximize benefits and minimize costs. But not every student can afford to weigh the social costs of commuting versus moving out.

Rez fees run from $5,960 to $13,474 for the academic year, depending on the residence and meal plan. That’s a good chunk of change commuters aren’t spending—perhaps because they don’t have it to spend.

“You learn over time to just deal with the little quirks,” Oliver Truong says of his 90-minute round trip from Brampton, where he lives with his family. Four days a week, Oliver gets up at 6 a.m. to catch the 7:40 a.m. GO train to Toronto with his older brother, who works downtown, so they can drive to the station together. The brothers go home on the 5:45.

“By far, the worst thing is that you run by their schedule, so everything you do has to be planned with the transit system in mind,” he says. Happily, the GO train schedule hasn’t kept Oliver from table tennis intramurals, the Vietnamese Students Association, or VicXposure, the Victoria College photography club: “U of T is my school […] just because I don’t live on it, doesn’t mean I’m not a part of it.”

Oliver met his girlfriend through a First-year Learning Community, a program offered to first-year students in a handful of departments including Life Sciences and Economics. FLC students take a number of courses together and meet regularly outside of class. “Through that, I got to meet a lot of people that I still talk to today,” he says.

Don’t hate, participate

As two yellow school buses pull up outside Hart House, an expectant stir travels the line of students headed to UTM. But the doors stay closed and the drivers appear to be on break. Incommunicative and rude drivers are a pet peeve for Katie, an OISE student from Milton. Twice a week, Katie drops off her five-year-old son at private school and walks 10 minutes to catch the shuttle at UTM. “I love what is waiting for me, so I learn to manage and enjoy my commute,” she says. It’s usually too noisy to read, but Katie doesn’t mind. “I’m a sociologist, so I enjoy just listening to lively conversations around me.”

Not Mike Silla, first-year mechanical engineering student and aggrieved commuter. “I hate commuting, but I can’t afford to move downtown.”

The shuttle leaves at five after the hour, so Mike has to scramble lickety-split after class. “I have class down there,” he gestures towards College Street, “and I have to run up every day.” After a 30-minute ride to UTM, he spends another 40 minutes getting home. “I always make it though,” he says. Nicole Yeo, the fourth-year next to Mike, is a little more sanguine. “I just take my time,” she says. “But it would make a lot more sense if the bus left at 6:15.”

Petty annoyances from the daily grind add up quickly, and commuters love to compare notes. Commuter talk has its own lexicon, whether it’s comparing itineraries or horror stories. Those who don’t have far to go try to adopt a thankful tone without sounding smug. Cyclists are downright enthusiastic, and extreme commuters revel in a kind of perverse pride even as they grouse. They bond over the discomfort of bouncing buses and debate the merits of drivers with surplus good cheer. (Creepy or cute? You decide.) And though they’re always on the move, the persistent ones manage to form communities.

Home away from home

The smell of pancakes fills the University College commuter lounge on St. George Street. I definitely picked the right day to show up—it’s 2:30 p.m., but brunch is still on. A guy in a blue T-shirt offers me “spooky pancakes” in honour of Halloween. Tyler Ricer has been here for almost eight hours. At 4:30 p.m., he’s the last one left washing dishes. Tyler’s part of the University College Off-campus Commission, which he joined during a mixer for new commuters.

“There’s nothing really bad about it,” he says when I try to prod him into venting about his hour-long commute from Richmond Hill. This guy is, in his own words, “exceptionally mellow.” Adjusting his heavy black-rimmed glasses, Ricer admits his level of gung-ho is “maybe a little atypical.” He’s part of UC’s mentorship program and joined the Wallace residence as a “house associate” (for $20, he gets access to their common room and a listserv that sends out house activities).

“I love this room,” Tyler sighs. People are splayed out on couches or studying with ski-hill backs. Lockers cluster around the entrance. Someone helps himself to pizza from the surprisingly full communal fridge. In the carpeted annex, there are completed crosswords proudly stuck to the orange walls.

As Tyler looks around fondly, a tall kid in a hoodie and vest plunks himself down and gripes that discount metropasses are sold out. “I don’t wanna pay an extra 10 bucks! Every time I wanted to get one, there were people in line,” says Dushyaan Sri Renganathan, a first-year.

Tyler, a more seasoned commuter, got his metropass on the first day of sales. He waves over one of the two UC off-campus dons, Arman Hamidian. (“That’s Armani without the ‘i’ and Hamidian, which rhymes with comedian.”) “Last year I got offered residence don but ended up taking commuter don,” says Arman, who’s on campus from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. six days a week. He goes home to Richmond Hill to study and sleep. “I rarely spend much time with my family, which kinda sucks.” Commuters seem to fall loosely into two groups: those who only spend time on-campus for scheduled activities and those who, like Arman, seem determined to make their trip worthwhile by staying downtown for hours on end.

On the plus side, travelling during off-peak hours reduces the commute. “You have the commute down to an art,” says Tyler. “You get on at a certain point so when you stop you’re right near the staircase [to transfer to a bus or another subway line].” He beams. “I picked that up in first year.”

“And that saves like, minutes,” says Arman, nodding.

“At St. George I go by the bench, right now it’s the Private Practice poster on the wall—stand in front of it,” Tyler instructs.

During the course of the afternoon, more than a dozen people have passed by to say hi or park themselves at the table. There’s mock wrestling and a lot of giggling over costumes for tomorrow’s Halloween pub crawl. These are the core Off-campus Commission members. I can’t decide whether they form a service group, a club, or just a group of really close friends. They’re probably most like roommates who have adopted the lounge as an unofficial residence: a place to keep your stuff, nap, and microwave your food, a home away from home.

Nuts and bolts

The bottom-line issues for public transportation are frequency, reliability, comfort, and cost, according to Professor Belanger. “Mass transit during rush hours should be more than affordable, it should be free. Ridership would explode, just imagine the empty highways, while the urban areas are teeming with people.”

Free transit would be nice, but prices are going the wrong way. The Toronto Transit Commission has raised fares eight times in the past 11 years. Since the University of Toronto Students’ Union started buying metropasses in bulk in 2005, the discount price has gone from $87 to $96. (The regular adult metropass now costs $109.)

During peak months of the school year, UTSU orders 12,000 metropasses per month. In October, they sold out faster than ever. “We buy the passes on credit and it’s not feasible to buy any more than that,” says VP external Dave Scrivener.

Scrivener is negotiating a Universal Pass with the TTC, along with student unions from OCAD, Ryerson, George Brown, and York. The U-Pass would give unlimited travel on the TTC and York transit for even cheaper—$60 or $65 per month—but only if all undergrads buy one. In a March referendum, UTSC students rejected the U-Pass proposal, sending negotiations back to the drawing board. Talks are going slowly, Scrivener says, but he hopes to put the matter to a student referendum by next year. UTM students already have a U-Pass for Mississauga Transit, at $89 for the entire school year.

Most students I spoke to didn’t much care for the TTC’s reliability or frequency. It’s alright if you only need the subway, they say, but try waiting for the bus, and supposedly “frequent-service” streetcars, in the dead of winter. Hard feelings over the strike in April, when drivers walked off the job over derailed contract negotiations, have mostly dissipated, but students haven’t forgotten that they and other commuters are at the mercy of the transit system. Some upper years still shake their head over the wildcat strike in 2006, which hit the city without warning and shut down transit for a day. On Oct. 30, city council narrowly rejected a proposal to ask the province to designate the TTC an essential service, which would have made it illegal to strike.

Arrested development?

Much ink has been spilled over disaffected twenty-something slackers who work McJobs and sponge off mom and dad. Those trite criticisms do contain a grain of truth: more and more students are postponing the flight from the nest.

StatsCan reports that in 2001, 57 per cent of those aged 20 to 24 were living with parents, a 16 per cent jump from 1981. Nesters are likely to be single, full-time students with lower incomes and parents in large metropolitan areas. The study “Parents with adult children living at home” notes parents born in South America, Asia, and Europe (excluding the U.K.) were much more likely to host adult children. As these parents spent more time in Canada, the likelihood of parent-child co-residence decreased.

The findings correspond with anecdotes from students who don’t find it a hindrance to live with their parents, and for whom family is a bigger attraction than money in the bank. “I feel like I can be more like myself. After I moved out and came back, my relationship with my family grew,” says Tiffany, a boomerang kid who moved back in with her parents after first year. “I’m still the same person, but something has changed and I’m not sure what it is. I’m grateful for not living too far from school.”

Living at home offers Tiffany less distractions and a healthier lifestyle: “When I lived on residence, I went as far as having only one meal every 12 hours or so.”

Commuters can definitely avoid big-time hassles like exploitative landlords, sketchy roommates, and laundry. “During frosh week, I wondered, ‘Why don’t I live down here?’” Dushyaan says. “It’s because I’d miss the comforts of home.” Even if your parents still nag you for staying up late, familiar arguments are easier to handle than the unknown. For one thing, mom and dad are less likely to destroy your stuff after an argument over loud music or chores.

But when it’s about coming into one’s own, comfort and support can be false friends. The title of the StatsCan study says it all: young adults who live with their parents are “adult children.” For most university students, these are the years where they transition from adolescence to adulthood. A choice to commute is often a choice to live at home. Is that decision delaying our generation’s coming of age?

Oliver doesn’t think so. “I’ve forced myself to learn things that I would have to learn had I gone to residence, like cook!, because I know I’d have to learn someday.”

“It was a little tough in first year between my family and I because they weren’t used to me staying up really, really late studying, or being as stressed out as I was.”

For other students, acquiring life skills simply isn’t a priority at the moment.

“It would be nice to be independent, but this is the time to focus on your education, not learn how to make your way through life,” said Ash, a final-year student. She picked U of T for the convenience and sees no reason to move out. “I come from a tad traditional family, so usually you don’t move out until you’re married.”

Ash spends around 20 hours a week on campus, for classes and for work. “Usually after every class, I have to go off-campus to work [at a second job] or volunteer,” she says. “It’s really busy this year because I have to do a lot of things in order to apply for teacher’s college. It costs a grand just to apply.”

Education is about more than just the classroom, she says, but she doesn’t have the time to hang out on campus at will.

Of the 3,800 commuters at UC, only 300 are on the off-campus listserv. Commuter don Arman says he’ll be using U of T’s Portal to send out messages so more students know about events, but he doesn’t think apathy towards campus life is the end of the world. Toronto offers students a wealth of opportunities, says Arman, and he knows plenty of people who are active off-campus. “As much as you want people to be involved with the university and love it, the fact they’re doing something else is good.”

If that place goes, the whole block goes with it.

Down at the end of the Don Valley, near Lakeshore and the Gardiner, is an eight-story tower where chemicals are sprayed from the top to the bottom at very high temperatures (180 degrees Celsius). The liquid at the top becomes powder at the bottom and is packaged, shipped off, and sold as many types of powdered soap. Next to the tower is a five-story facility that produces bar and liquid soap, as well as the plastic bottles they are shipped in. Behind is a chemical facility, otherwise known as a chemithon, that makes raw materials. A warehouse completes the complex known as the Korex factory, one of the few self-contained soap manufacturing sites in North America. It produced brand name soaps such as Sunlight, Snuggle, and Dove. Since June of this year, the skilled labourers that run the plant have been on strike.

The picket line runs around the clock every workday. Shifts range from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. On the colder days, which are becoming more frequent, fires burn in metal drums to keep the picket line warm. The men and women face losing not only their jobs, but the pension they’ve been working for their whole careers, most of which span decades. Many of the workers continue to strike, but see it growing hopeless. They’ve been there since June, trying to stop a new agreement that would cut their pay by five dollars an hour and decrease their benefits. On my second trip to the line, I heard them joking about a job fair at Lowe’s. “It’s a worth working 14 bucks an hour just for the vest!” Asked how the strike is looking, Chuck Shipley, a worker at the factory for 34 years, is swift and to the point with his answer: “Not good.” But just because things aren’t looking good doesn’t mean the solidarity isn’t strong. Mr. Shipley pointed out that over 65 of the workers laid off before the strike had not crossed the picket line to work as scabs. One striker, Sebastian (last name withheld), had a very clear message for the management: “WE ARE NOT GOING AWAY.”

The management he refers to is the Korex Company, owned by the Pensler Capital Corporation. The head of the corporation, Sandy Pensler, is reportedly a business professor at Harvard, and the type of businessman who regards skilled labour as something to be weeded out. Pensler bought the plant in 2001 from Unilever, which still owns patents and marketing on their products, but has sold off the manufacturing end to save costs. Soon after Pensler’s acquisition, the corporation forced the Korex factory union to make concessions on wage increases. The union conceded a wage freeze that lasted until May 2008. By the end of that month, workers at the plant would be fighting to hold onto their jobs. Since that time, the strike has received no major press.

The story of the Korex/Unilever factory is a familiar one. Manufacturing jobs are on the decline all over North America. Todd Short, who has worked 27 years in the tower, is disillusioned with the whole system. “Ever since free trade, it’s been a steady downhill slide for manufacturing. All of sudden, the government has their election, and you start hearing a little about manufacturing, how we gotta do something. Well they want our votes. They didn’t come down to the strike fight, none of them came down here to talk to us. They went to GM when they occupied the plant, got their pictures taken by the media, and the media ran over there and swallowed it, so to speak. Nobody comes down here. They’re not gonna do nothin’. It’s the way the country’s run, it’s the way of life, I guess.”

Short is critical of the government’s GM bailouts when they’ve let other manufacturers cut wages and labour. “I wish I worked for GM and lost my job, y’know? I’d get $90,000 and a $30,000 voucher for a car, plus my benefits for the rest of my life. That’s a good deal! This guy doesn’t want to give me a bar of soap on the way out the door.” It doesn’t help that the Ontario government has no legislation that bans strikebreakers. Many of the workers I spoke to had a lot of disdain for a province that doesn’t look out for its workers as well as British Columbia or Quebec. “Ontario’s become a third world country,” said Jack Roder, one of the strikers.

The picket line is a microcosm of the cost of living in this country. While products are getting cheaper, they come at the price of fewer workers being able to buy them. Skilled labour is so under-valued that many wouldn’t guess that the laundry detergent they use is manufactured in complex and volatile conditions. The value has been placed on capital, on people like Pensler, who are seen as moguls apt to make everyone’s lives easier through innovation and investment.

“You know what’s lacking in this company? The respect,” said Chuck. The loss of respect for labour is a major cost in a city that seems to be pre-occupied with expanding its own cultural prowess. The AGO touts its construction as “transformation,” as if to suggest that the building is constructing itself, that the structure had magically collaborated with the designer Frank Ghery, and that real workers were not putting the building together every day. Most people who live, work, and relax downtown have never heard of the Korex factory, much less realize that the chemicals for synthetic soap are produced here in Toronto. The irony hits deep when you notice that the tents the men on the picket use for shelter are made from tarp from the local billboard ads. It’s an irony not lost on the strikers. One of their signs reads: “Korex Lofts Spring 2009”. Most businessmen in the city would rather see lofts at the site than jobs.

The deeper irony is that these workers are fighting to keep jobs that, for the most part, do not exist for their children. Many strikers have kids that are trying to make a living or get an education, but the prospects for those at a university age and younger look grim even to them. Angus Mortson, also known as “Porkchop,” explained that his son and many other members of our generation might be in a position where we won’t be able to buy homes. Indeed, multiple mortgages and credit seem to be the dominant way of living for most people. Todd seemed upset that the average Canadian has $60,000 of debt to deal with: “Being normal should not come with a $60,000 debt. I don’t get it.” For the workers here, our generation has a responsibility to end the greed of people like Pensler, or become slaves to it. Said Angus: “You guys are screwed, ‘cause you’re right after us if they win. If they beat us, they’re gonna be coming after you.”

The cost of these jobs may not be the largest debt our generation has to bear. We have to deal with a society that undervalues labour and practical knowledge. Many of the picketers noted that the plant is not just a soap factory, but a chemical facility. Korex is one of the only places in North America with a “chemithon,” shipping raw materials to other soap factories. It’s a dangerous process. Nearly every job in the plant deals with dangerous chemicals and requires months, if not years of training. Referring to the chemithon, Angus said, “If that place goes, it takes out the whole block with it.” Sitting next to the intersection of the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway, the statement was unsettling. The ultimate cost of Pensler’s cheap, unskilled labour in the place of costly and skilled technicians could be more than just respect. The wrong switch at the wrong time could mean a serious wake-up call. But who knows if next year wont see the plant become loftspace for yuppie couples. All I can say is if that place goes, we all go with it.

Is the SPP Dead?

A basic description of the Security and Prosperity Partnership—an “ongoing dialogue” between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico—reads like a riddle. It’s not an official agreement, but it affects policy in all three countries. It doesn’t require parliamentary involvement, but its decisions affect citizens directly. Leaders describe it as a minor undertaking to expedite cross-border trade and tweak border security—Stephen Harper has joked that its priorities are as insignificant as standardizing the size of jellybeans—yet its meetings are sensitive enough to bar NGOs and reporters. What, then, could it be?

Depending on who you ask, the SPP is anything from a sinister plot to converge the three countries into an EU-style North American Union to a series of mundane chats between political and business leaders. Because of how the leaders involved spin their activities—shrugging off accusations of secret plotting while remaining vague and secretive—impartial opinions are hard to come by. Some on the right see the SPP as a threat to national sovereignty. Much of the serious research and writing has been done by left-leaning organizations.

So elusive are the details that some observers, on both sides of the political spectrum, have proclaimed the discussions dead. “I was down [at the fourth SPP summit] in New Orleans this year, and we talked to the media—they were complaining to us,” says Stuart Trew, Ontario-Quebec Regional Organizer for the Council of Canadians, a citizens’ organization formed in 1985 to challenge Brian Mulroney’s free trade policies. “They said ‘We’re getting no information, we’re being spoon-fed tiny little clips, we have no idea what they’re talking about, so our only assumption is that nothing’s happening.’” Whether or not the SPP is active may be of little importance: its underlying ideas are neither new, nor are they likely to disappear anytime soon. If the talks are finished, their effects remain active in their wake.

What piques the interest of free trade critics and NGOs is that SPP proceedings have lacked transparency and democratic oversight from the beginning. “The secrecy is normal, but it doesn’t mean it’s acceptable,” says Trew. “It’s a shame that it’s become the norm, and it’s a shame that the media is very much a part of it. CTVglobemedia sat on the North American Competitiveness Council [an SPP advisory group comprised of CEOs from each country]—they own CTV and they own The Globe and Mail. Can you imagine if either of those news outlets was to report an exposé of the SPP?”

The SPP was officially announced in Waco, Texas on March 23, 2005 by Paul Martin, George W. Bush, and Vicente Fox. According to many, its conception date was September 11, 2001. Border shutdowns following the terrorist attacks put a temporary stop to trade with the United States, delivering a quick shock to Canadian business, which relies on the swift movement of goods between the two countries. Business leaders and right-wing academics—proponents of “deep integration,” or eliminating the differences between Canadian and U.S. policy that negatively affect trade—saw an opportunity to push their agenda for the further harmonization of regulatory, economic, and political policies between the two states. In a 2002 commentary for the C.D. Howe Institute, Wendy Dobson, director of the Institute for International Business at the Rotman School of Management, wrote, “A window of opportunity is now open because of the United States’ current openness to its friends and neighbours. Canada should decide how to take advantage of this opportunity.” The commentary proposes a customs union, a common market, and a “strategic bargain” to further Canadian economic interests in light of the United States’ post-9/11 security priorities. In the years that followed, Dobson would join other thinkers, CEOs, and political leaders in drafting an eventual partnership.

After 9/11, Canada linked its security policies to those of the United States. The Smart Border Declaration and Associated 30-Point Action Plan followed, along with the controversial USA PATRIOT and Anti-Terrorism Acts in the United States and Canada, respectively. Prudent measures were at odds with civil liberties, and sloppy intelligence sharing led to the wrongful arrest, deportation, and torture of Maher Arar as well as the similar ordeals of Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou El-Maati, and Muayyed Nureddin. Homeland Security thus appeased, business leaders and thinkers capitalized on the opportunity to pick up where NAFTA left off. With rising competition in developing economies like China and India, it was an opportunity to boost North America’s competitiveness.

The SPP was unveiled without much fanfare. Even two years after its inception, when accumulated research and leaked documents drew activists by the thousands to its third summit in Montebello, Quebec, the “partners” involved remained reticent. In a way, there was no need for a broad announcement, as commentators on both sides have noted that the SPP’s ambitions are hardly novel. “What they’re talking about is not radically new. These things were proposed prior to September 11—various levels of integration at the economic and political level,” says Todd Gordon, an assistant professor of Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto. “They flow from a long historical process.” Michael Hart, a Carleton professor and former trade advisor during the Mulroney years, downplays the partnership as a link in a long chain: “The Security and Prosperity initiative was largely the fifth generation of an initiative that was first announced in 1996, and then repackaged five times in order to keep officials busy. But most of the things that could usefully be done have been done […] so the Security and Prosperity Partnership is little more than a matter of gift wrapping things that have already been done.”

Comprised of a number of working groups—the members of which have never been publicized—the SPP advertised itself as a supplement to “other existing positive and productive bilateral and trilateral relationships” like NAFTA. Some initiatives were little more than nitpicking—agreeing on a common crate labelling system, for instance, to simplify the process of exchanging goods. Others were not so simple. Predictably, SPP officials couched their dealings in benign terms, and there seemed to be little reason for those who weren’t analysts by trade to engage in any scrutiny. The kicker came in 2006 with the announcement of the North American Competitiveness Council, an advisory group comprised of ten CEOs from each country. NACC members have been less bashful than the politicians about their privileges. “The guidance from the ministers was, ‘Tell us what we need to do and we’ll make it happen,’” Ron Covais, President of the Americas for Lockheed Martin told Maclean’s in 2006. Trew echoed that quote (from the mouth of U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez) when I spoke to him. “This is astonishing,” he laughs. “They basically said, ‘This is your game, what do we need to do to make North America competitive?’ So they came up with 50 recommendations, and on the top of the list was regulatory harmonization.” Many of the NACC’s recommendations—released in early 2007—became major priorities. Some of them have already chipped away at Canadian policy.

The question remains: how does a non-official body, not voted on or impressed upon the law books, change the way governments do business—and what sort of legal framework allows a private-sector advisory group to change public policy? NAFTA set a stunning example for corporate influence with its infamous Chapter 11, which allows investors to sue governments over policies deemed detrimental to trade. According to a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, from 1994 (when NAFTA took effect) to October 2007, there were 49 challenges filed under Chapter 11. Canada had paid $27 million in damages, and Mexico, $18.2 million. The United States, on the other hand, had been spared. Recently, Mobil Investments Canada, Inc. (a Canadian arm of ExxonMobil) took issue with guidelines requiring energy companies operating off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador to reinvest some of their profits into local projects. Chemical companies have also challenged bans on toxic pesticides. An environmental measure in Ontario that halted a proposed landfill site on a man-made lake was challenged to the tune of $355.1 million. Governments, to a certain extent, are beholden to companies on legal grounds. The SPP sees the two working together with alacrity.

NAFTA was (and continues to be) an election issue, with dangers well documented. Governments, it seems, have learned their lesson. “They’ve decided to use a process where they wouldn’t have to pass any laws,” Trew says. “This is what we heard from the U.S. embassy […] They booked a meeting to talk to the Council and other groups, and one of the things they told us during that meeting was, ‘We wanted to avoid another bruising NAFTA battle.’ NAFTA needed legislation, and it opened up a political debate. They got smart, and they said there’s not going to be any political opportunity for debate. We’re going to do this entirely through regulatory changes.”

In Canada, there are significant differences between acts and regulations: the former must pass through the legislative branch, while the latter can be enacted after two postings in the Canada Gazette, the Canadian government’s official newspaper. In Canada, the Cabinet Directive on Streamlining Regulation was released in April 2007, while the SPP-spawned Regulatory Cooperation Framework, released in August 2007, established officiating principles such as “[Justifying] the need for regulation, including the consideration of market failures” and “[minimizing] the adverse impact of regulation on a fair, competitive, and innovative market economy.”

We’ve felt the SPP’s regulatory effects. They did, for instance, contribute directly to the listeriosis crisis, which killed 20 people and made a confirmed 53 sick. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Report on Plans and Priorities 2007-2008 states “The CFIA continues to implement initiatives under the SPP, which are aimed at a more effective North American food and agriculture regulatory system,” and a leaked government document shows a move from formal inspection to industry self-regulation as of March 31. Of course, this led to the proliferation of deadly listeria inside a Toronto Maple Leaf Foods plant. According to the Ottawa Citizen, Canada also increased acceptable levels of pesticide residues in order to harmonize agricultural standards with the United States.

SPP directives have found their way to Parliament. Bills C-51 and C-52—which would place homeopathic products under federal drug controls, increase penalties, and allow foreign governments a hand in domestic regulation—have been vigorously decried by natural health practitioners as the result of Big Pharmaceutical interests. They also coincide with initiatives set by the SPP Health Working Group. The controversial Bill C-61, which tightens copyright controls, coincides with the SPP Intellectual Property Action Plan established at Montebello. The bills’ likely closed-door origins merit consideration, regardless of what you think of them.

“Most of the concerns are psychological,” says Hart. “There are Canadians who worry that doing this will reduce our ability to make sovereign decisions. I think that’s overwrought, because most of what we do is done with a view to ensuring that Canadians are able to participate in the global economy. I think there are very few Canadians who want to stop the world and get off, who say, ‘Let’s not trade with the rest of the world.’ Canadians are worried that if we do more work with the United States, we will get implicated in American foreign policy adventures. I doubt that that’s the case—it hasn’t been the case for the last 50 years […] If we work with the United States to solve economic problems, why do we then have to get involved in US foreign policy issues?”

Critics are worried about how trade-inspired security initiatives will affect the countries involved. The SPP’s stated initiatives include intelligence sharing, military convergence (achieved via the recent Civil Assistance Plan, which integrates the U.S. Northern Command with Canada Command), the use of biometric data in assessing threats posed by travellers, and the creation of a Canadian no-fly list (Transport Canada’s Specified Persons List, which took effect in June 2007 to much criticism by civil liberties advocates).

SPP initiatives straddling “security” and “prosperity” designations trouble environmentally minded critics. In his 2006 State of the Union Address, George W. Bush talked about reducing U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Two months later, the North American Energy Security Initiative was established at the SPP’s Cancun summit. One country’s economic priority is another’s security precaution.

“I’ve been told that the break-even point for refining, using bitumen, is somewhere in the 75 to 85 dollar range,” says David Israelson, a veteran journalist and author of How the Oil Sands Got to the Great Lakes Basin, a report for the Program on Water Issues at the Munk Centre for

International Studies. “We’re below that now. Like anything else, you put off doing the work if you’re not making a lot of money doing it. “Turning bitumen into petroleum is, in Israelson’s words, “one of the most energy-intensive, dirtiest industrial activities in existence.” Needless to say, it’s also a huge economic priority in Canada.

Hart is confident that our energy industry serves our best interests. “We have no obligation to provide the United States with energy,” he says. “We develop energy because we think it can be profitably sold to the United States, to our economic advantage. And we do that on the basis that it meets the regulatory requirements of the Canadian government, or the Alberta government.” Others have a different take. “Under NAFTA, once we agreed to export a certain amount of energy to the United States […] we can’t send less anymore,” Israelson explains. “It’s treated as one market. Economically, you can say it’s in our interest because we make money from it, even if we say ‘this is bad for the environment’ or ‘we’re moving too fast’ or ‘we have other markets.’ Once we’ve agreed to a certain level, there’s no turning back after NAFTA—that’s the market bottom. Ironically, that was something we wanted in NAFTA. We were worried they wouldn’t want our oil back in the early ’90s when it was being negotiated.”

Under the SPP, energy priorities focus on infrastructure and market access, pushing oil exports above and beyond the minimum set by NAFTA at the expense of environmental concerns. In 2006, the SPP’s Oil Sands Experts Group Workshop reported a “fivefold expansion anticipated for oil sands products in a relatively short time span,” acknowledging that “industry and governments have a vested interest to work together to ensure the successful expansion of this important North American resource.” This summer, Daniel S. Sullivan, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Economic, Energy, and Business Affairs, announced that “the Administration has moved to streamline and modernize the permitting process” for petroleum pipelines.

An even more contentious issue is that of bulk water exports, the process of selling fresh water en masse to the United States. Water has been sold to the United States in smaller quantities, and bulk exports have almost occurred—in 1998, Sun Belt Water Inc. filed a Chapter 11 challenge against British Columbia’s efforts to prevent it. Liberal and Conservative leaders alike have dismissed the possibility. According to an aide, Harper plans to “strengthen our ban” during the next parliamentary session. “I’m not aware that the Americans have ever asked us to export water to them,” Hart says. “This is a fear that some people have bandied about for many years […] The reason they haven’t [bulk-exported water] is because the United States only has a water problem in the Southwest, and that’s so far away from Canada that it’s [too] astronomically expensive to even think about.” (It’s worth noting that Sun Belt Water was, as its name suggests, established to supply the Southwest).

But close observers like Andrew Nikiforuk, journalist and author of the report On the Table: Water, Energy and North American Integration, suspect that bulk water trade is developing, and the SPP is instrumental in making it happen. The connection isn’t immediately obvious, but like the SPP itself, doubts multiply the more one investigates. A leaked 2006 report from the North American Future 2025 Project (involving prominent think tanks with connections to the SPP) discusses the threat of global water shortages, stating that “Canada possesses about 20 per cent of the earth’s fresh water […] policymakers will benefit from a more proactive approach to exploring different creative solutions beyond the current transboundary water management agreements.” According to NDP MP Peter Julian, the document was circulated before an SPP meeting in 2007. Large-scale water exports would indeed be profitable, and Canada, with the world’s largest supply of fresh water, would logically serve as North America’s provider. But supplies inevitably run dry, and once exports begin, our obligations under NAFTA will ensure a leaky faucet.

In the meantime, there seems to be a lack of SPP-specific updates, and a date has yet to be publicized for a fifth summit. Reasons for its demise vary from left to right: Trew and Gordon attribute its apparent expiry to popular opposition, much like the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment before it. Hart claims its aims were “modest” to begin with.

Whatever the case, the principles driving the SPP are far from extinct, and the policy changes it set in motion—as well as the corporate advisory body it christened—are unlikely to sink with the ship. Hart has been working on a new Canada-U.S. proposal to be unveiled in January 2009. “We’re working on seven or eight themes where we think there are Canadian interests that need to be pursued, and where we think there will be U.S. interest. So we’re defining what we think are the parameters for engaging the United States on those issues. And that includes the border, it includes regulations, and includes the broader theme of competitiveness. It deals with energy, with such things as arctic sovereignty, security, defence cooperation—the whole gamut of Canada-U.S. issues,” he says.

There are hopes that an Obama Administration will deliver the final blow to the partnership’s proceedings, or at least slow the pace of further integration talks. Almost immediately after the American election, the Fraser Institute (a conservative think tank) released a report critiquing Obama from the right. It addresses the SPP, which “appears to have run out of steam,” and recommends that Harper “take the opportunity to renew efforts to open bilateral discussions on trade and border issues.”

“The SPP is one of those shadowy things [where] nobody knows the extent of how far along the road we are,” says Israelson. “If you take the innocent explanation, it’s simply a little negotiating mechanism to further the interest of some sort of continental cooperation. If you take it at its most sinister, some people contend that it’s a secret plot to integrate Canada into the United States. I think that’s a little bit of hyperbole. Everything’s changed since November 4. We have a new administration coming in with very, very different objections than the old administrations, very different ideals about energy policies […] I think we’re about to see the United States get very serious about that. Less than 24 hours after the election, Canada said we should do something about carbon emissions together, which Canada has never done before.”

Lefties can take heart in the fearful reactions of right-wing think tanks like the Fraser Institute. Fair trade advocates rejoiced, and proponents of trade liberalization fretted over Obama’s statements during the primaries about renegotiating NAFTA. Others dismiss them as a non-issue, especially in light of a contradictory memo that surfaced afterwards. “It has only piqued the interest of journalists,” Hart says emphatically. With Rahm Emanuel—who marketed NAFTA to Congress and earned millions as an investment banker— as Chief of Staff, it doesn’t seem likely that Obama will make any fundamental changes to North American trade. But hopes remain that Obama will steer trade policy in a direction friendlier to the environment, civil liberties, and workers. If so, our own leaders will have to compromise. Obama—with his hopeful constituency—won hordes of supporters for his apparent earnestness and transparency. Dealing in talks as wide-reaching and nebulous as the SPP seems out of his public character. “I really do think that the world changed on November 4,” Israelson says. “It’s not going to be night and day, and suddenly everything is fine and we’re going to be holding hands and dancing in the fields—but it’s going to be different in that the rest of the world has confidence in that administration. They like them, they are willing to give them a chance, and listen a bit, and vice versa.”

A Complicated kindness

In one month, everything will change.

It’s April of your first year in university, and stressed out doesn’t even begin to describe it. You have three exams coming up, and though you already took these courses in high school—most of your credits didn’t transfer—you’re afraid that the questions will be full of cultural references that you won’t understand.

Escalators, for instance. Earlier this morning, you met with the landlord of the apartment where you’ll be living this summer. Since he suggested meeting on the second floor of the overpowering, glitzy mall, you had to prepare yourself for the inevitable encounter with the staircase that moves. You’ve come a long way since you rode your first escalator last September. And to think, after just eight months in Canada, you’ll soon be living on your own.

Everything was set for your move—until the landlord mentioned that your rental agreement was lacking a guarantor’s signature. “One of your parents can do it,” he advised. “Or someone who has known you for a long time.”

There’s a lump in your throat and you’re ready to run away, at least back to your residence room at U of T. A guarantor’s signature? You wouldn’t need one if you were living in Trinity again next year. But with your finances coming from OSAP and a work-study position, paying $17,000 for rent and tuition is hardly an option.

At least in residence people would know it’s not so easy for you to communicate with your parents. Your family and friends are back home where you grew up, where you left less than a year ago: a crowded refugee camp in Somalia.

Since 1989, U of T has participated in the Student Refugee Program of the World University Service of Canada. The aim of WUSC is to settle promising students from war-torn countries into universities across Canada to further their educational opportunities. This year, four St. George colleges and both satellite campuses are taking part, bringing in students from refugee camps in Malawi, Somalia, and Thailand.

For their first year in Canada, the program provides everything for WUSC participants. Tuition fees are waived, and a room in residence and full meal plan are provided, along with a work-study position at the college registrar’s office. Depending on the college, there’s some extra money available for textbooks, winter clothing, and other necessities. U of T does everything it can to help these newcomers to Canada—that is, until their first year of university draws to a close.

“That’s when things can get really hard,” admits Kevin Philipupillai, the 2007-2008 WUSC coordinator for Victoria College. “There’s already been a lot of cultural adjustment, but it’s still hard to be on your own.” And in second year, the students are truly on their own. After just eight months in a foreign country, it’s up to the participants to figure out their own living arrangements and employment. Though WUSC students often keep their job at the registrar’s office, that’s only if there’s a position open for the following year’s participant.

The abrupt transition from full financial support to complete independence would be challenging for any student, but even more so for a refugee with only one year of university under his or her belt. Interestingly, this isn’t the case at all institutions. Philipupillai notes that at the University of Victoria, students have full financial support for all four years of the program. Since U Vic brings in three new WUSC students every year, there are always 12 students assisted directly by the university.

By comparison, U of T’s WUSC funding is considerably lacking. “The amount allotted to each student depends largely on the sponsoring college,” explains University College coordinator Julia Cusimano. But even at colleges in a comfortable financial position, such as UC and Vic, a large proportion of the funds comes from a college-wide student levy—not something that’s easy to increase.

“The problem is that if [one college] sets a precedent on levies, all of the others will be pressured into doing the same, and we’re not all in the same financial situation,” notes Cusimano. “And when changes in levies are put to a vote, for a lot of people, it’s just seen as even more increased fees.” There is little publicity for WUSC on campus, and during levy increases, students may not know that they’re voting to change the life of a refugee. But why is this the funding model at U of T, which has the largest overall university endowment in Canada by over a billion dollars? At U Vic, which has the 16th-largest endowment, they sponsor double the number of students that we do. Is this truly the best U of T can do?

For WUSC students, the stress associated with becoming financially independent rivals only that of transitioning to life outside of the residence. The difficulty is in the details: not only must they find a suitable place to live in Canada’s most expensive city, but they’re also charged with learning how to use grocery stores, public transportation, and modern home conveniences—challenges not necessarily faced living in residence. While the refugees are expected to quickly adjust to life on their own, WUSC co-ordinators simply aren’t prepped on how to facilitate this progression.

As Chris Somerville, WUSC coordinator at Innis College for 2004-2006 recounts, the only formal training he received concerned the refugee’s initial arrival to Canada. This preparation mainly comprised of bureaucratic matters, such as setting up a Canadian bank account for the WUSC participant, and helping them enroll in courses. This leaves WUSC volunteers largely playing the process by ear. While co-ordinators meet with WUSC students on a regular basis during their first year, once April passes, the attention shifts to next year’s student. There’s no guarantee that the outgoing WUSC student will have any personal support during their next three years or more at U of T.

One way to improve the counseling aspect of the WUSC program, suggests Somerville, would be to stabilize the structure of student volunteer involvement. “At Innis,” he recalls, “the WUSC committee was run by the vice-president of the Innis College Student Society, the vice-president of the Residence Council, and the WUSC co-ordinator. So two of the people already have positions in university administration, and quite considerable ones.” Even at Victoria College, where a larger committee is set up to assist the WUSC student, Philipupillai noted a huge drop in student interest once fall midterms rolled around. Many WUSC co-ordinators are involved in the program for only one year before moving on to other pursuits. While both Vic and UC employ Student Life co-ordinators, nobody is exclusively dedicated to the continuity of the WUSC program from one year to the next.

Implementing a better organized, more reliable staffing system requires more financial investment from U of T. But Philipupillai sees an additional benefit from increased program funding: “What I’ve heard from several former WUSC students is that, yeah, it’s tough here, but if you could give this opportunity to more people to come over, regardless of how difficult it is, it’s a real hope that people there [in refugee camps] could have.”

The students participating in WUSC have an earnest desire to learn. With increased funding and a better support structure, U of T could feasibly accommodate a greater number of refugees. Until then, the least we can do is give upper year students more support. Transition to independence is hard for everyone. We may not relate to some of the refugee’s life experiences, but all of us—university administration included—can offer our empathy.

What would an Afghan War memorial look like?

Canada’s wars are fought, for the most part, by the very young. There’s truth to the adage that you can fight for this country before you can legally drink here. On Remembrance Day, as we do every year, the U of T community will gather at Soldiers’ Tower to remember the human cost of war. The names inscribed on that tower form a comprehensive list of those connected to this school who have lost their lives in international conflicts since the First World War, which the memorial was originally raised to commemorate. So many of those lives were cut off far too young.

But what does Soldiers’ Tower tell us about our current relation to conflict? We know that no war is without its controversies and public debate. In an effort to come to terms with our own, the Varsity Magazine wanted to know: what would a hypothetical Afghan War Memorial look like?

In mid-October we put out an open call through the Bachelor of Arts Architecture Student Society for proposals on how our university should memorialize Canada’s involvement in the current war in Afghanistan. The aim of this project was to stimulate fresh debate about a war now seven years old, openly discussing how this war compares to those that have engaged Canada in the past.

We left it open to student architects where to place the memorial and what it should represent, so long as it reflected the cost of the current war in Afghanistan. Here are two proposals we received.

The ideal memorial is completely free of honourary plaques, engraved stone, and kitschy bronze statues are no better than the plaster busts of Elvis from Honest Ed’s. The ideal memorial is not a morose site that people flock to and fill with flower wreaths for one day a year, then leave barren. A memorial, like architecture, should be experienced by individuals physically and be located in an area with high circulation, inhabited daily, providing people with a reflective space conducive to the remembrance of things past.

My memorial, “Regarding the Pain of Others”, is greatly influenced by land art and the lesion-like marks bombs leave on land. It addresses and expresses the loss incurred by the war in Afghanistan, mimicing bombed land by using craters or voids as its central motif. I chose to work with voids because they symbolize both emptiness and loss, two themes appropriate for a memorial. I translated the form of the craters into biomorphic-shaped pools, and fit these into the Queens Park Crescent site at College Street and University Avenue, next to Norman Foster’s Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building. The biomorphic shape of the memorial pools works with the site’s existing biomorphic shapes, as to not disrupt one’s experience of the site. Each pool is lined with black or darkly coloured clinker bricks, partially filled with water to create a peaceful, reflective surface. I have chosen to line the inside of each pool with clinker bricks due to their already distorted and irregular form, which references the dilapidated houses and rubble-like state of architecture in areas subject to aerial bombing. The memorial does not impede circulation, as it creates a series of secondary paths in-between its pools.

In relation to other St. George campus memorials, “Regarding the Pain of Others” is most similar to the Soldiers’ Tower War Memorial near University College, as it provides the opportunity to reflect on the past while experiencing it in an architectural manner.

Explanation of the illustration:

My illustration is of the memorial site plan and the evolution of the memorial itself. What begins conceptually as voids and craters on the far right are translated into biomorphic pools. Those pools are placed into the site chosen for the memorial, next to the Pharmacy Leslie Dan Building.

STEVEN ISCHKIN is a second-year Architectural Design and Art History major.

While searching for an image or article that would best describe the conflict and devastation in Afghanistan, I came across a photo of a solider interacting with an Afghan child. It is from this pair that we can find the true meaning behind the war, which is not simply to stop terrorism and the eradication of al-Qaeda terrorist groups and governments, but to ensure a future world where extremist religious actions that foster destruction and misery are a thing of the past.

The memorial’s title, “Guardians For A Better World,” reflects the soldiers who have fallen in conflict, having taken on the role of guardians. The image of the outreached hand gives a sense of security and guidance, while the forward motion of the soldier acknowledges the path and duty each had honourably taken. The names of the fallen are inscribed on the sides of the monument on an inclined stone base, cut from Khogini or Awbazak Marble (seen here in the illustration). Both are stones found in Afghanistan. The base is inclined for easy reading and placement of flowers or wreaths. Lapis lazuli acts as a formal trim around the base, separating the foot of the base and the names. Lapis Lazuli is also a stone from Afghanistan, and is used for its decorative appeal. The top of the base is to be composed of a very rough cut, resembling dirt and stone road textures, recalling the path taken by soldiers.

The figures themselves are comprised of a bronze, which facilitates their fabrication. The monument has been kept simplistic to create a sense of humbleness, while also using materials that have a connection for many Afghan-Canadians. Because of the poppy controversy during the war, I have decided to not inscribe the top edge of the base with poppies, as I had originally intended. While the poppy may symbolize war veterans and soldiers, due to the crackdown of opium plantations in Afghanistan, I felt this feature might stir up mixed feelings.

The location chosen for the monument is to the east of the Leslie Dan Pharmacy Building. This site has open spaces, dense foot traffic, and is close to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and University Avenue, a street with many historic monuments. If located deep within the St. George campus, the memorial would be concealed by its surroundings. A more open and public site will allow all to see and remember. The location and monument also counter-balance the Ontario Fire Fighters Memorial found on the opposite side of University Avenue, in which a fire fighter is also holding a child. These monuments together create a sense of symmetry for Queen’s Park when one looks north towards the Legislative Assembly. I kept the Afghanistan War memorial small in size due to its location. It will not obstruct the view of the Leslie Dan Pharmacy Building, but compliment it.

Like many other Canadians, I am truly grateful for the sacrifices so many soldiers and families have made to insure our safety and well-being. Hopefully many others will share my intentions and meanings.

DANIEL MADUREIRA is completing his final year of undergrad in Architecture and Portuguese.