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.

The Individual Soldier

“Bang, bang, Canada!”

It was as sweltering hot as it always is in Afghanistan. Sweltering hot, dusty, and extremely uncomfortable under a layer of Kevlar. Three months into a tour of duty, complacency starts to set in. As I drove my jeep through the bustling, overcrowded, traffic-congested market of downtown Kabul, I tried to keep my eyes open, but found my mind wandering. I thought about home, and family and milk that wasn’t irradiated and stuffed into tetra-paks for six months. Black is all I remember—it’s as if the whole world suddenly went into slow motion. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but the sight of a barrel pointed directly at my left eyeball looked to me like a giant yawning chasm ready to swallow me whole.

I can’t remember telling my hand to reach for my pistol, but I could already feel the familiar caress of the cold steel grip in my palm, my thumb instinctively breaking the catch on my shoulder holster. Incoherent nothing spilled out of my mouth. If I died here at least my co-driver might have time to react. It was too close, there was no way I could draw my pistol in time. My legs were already coiled, launching me out of the vehicle towards my assailant—who was nothing more than a young boy holding a toy gun. I was hanging halfway out the side of the jeep as he turned and ran to hide behind a laughing friend. He was just a child looking to play cops and robbers. I still haven’t figured out which one he thought I was.

I slid back into my seat and closed the clasp on my holster. From the passenger seat, my friend points to the gear selector and says, “You stalled it, Jason.” Heart still in my throat, I try my best to look cool and carry on with our patrol. Brave little guy, I think to myself.

It seems like war used to be an absolute business. It was Us versus Them in the World Wars. Even Vietnam had a shadowy, Communist antagonist that some portion of the American population could rally against. The wars fought today in this new age of terrorism aren’t as clearly defined.

It’s easy to discuss war using concrete sums like body counts and dollar figures, less so to talk about soldiers coming back with post-traumatic stress disorder or serious injuries. All we get are gloomy snippets of gossip, spoken in hushed tones, about so-and-so who couldn’t readjust after coming back from Afghanistan.

In this pile of data—treated by the media as entertainment more than cold, uncomfortable fact—the most important number of all is ignored: one. Why don’t we talk about the individual soldier? What is the human cost of this war that some of us have so much stake in?

Across the board, news outlets have done a poor job of relaying what it’s like to be a soldier. Only when Rick Mercer or a group of retired hockey players visit the troops do we seem to get a sense of the men and women on the ground in Afghanistan. Even then, the look is a superficial one at best and cannot speak to the depth of the experience.

Sadly, it feels as if Don Cherry on Hockey Night In Canada is the best source for an understanding of the individual soldier—he’s the only talking head humanizing what feels like a distant, endless war. Cherry seems like the only person on TV who cares when a soldier dies, compared to the standard news anchor relaying the facts deadpan with no further explanation: age, regiment, hometown, “You were a hero and Canada thanks you.”

My close friend Jason was a soldier. He was part of the first rotation of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. When “roto zero” deployed, there was much uncertainty about the mission and the risks involved. As a member of the armored corps, it was his job to thread his Bison tank through the taxis and pedestrians clogging the streets of Kabul. While he was only gone for six months—a far cry from the 12 to 16-month rotations of some American soldiers in Iraq—it was still a stressful time. I had never paid such close attention to the news, reading and re-reading every dispatch regarding the war. Jason came back to us in one piece, albeit with some new grey hairs. He had some close calls.

Traffic again—typical in the Kabul market area. I sit, looking alert, trying not to let my mind wander again. My partner in the passenger seat is a rookie with no common sense. I catch him looking at a commotion on my side of the vehicle and snap at him to pay attention to his own area of responsibility should someone use the distraction to attack us. A soldier had been killed with a zip gun in this zone just a week before. My partner looks back. “Is that yours?” he asks, pointing to a plastic bag lying next to his foot. It definitely wasn’t there when we started our patrol. Inside are a dozen hand grenades. Duds. Probably dug up from some little old lady’s garden.

If the risks are so great, why did he go to Afghanistan? His answer was unexpectedly straightforward.

I went to Afghanistan because I truly believed I could make a difference. I stood by and watched comrades give their lives for a mission that they believed in. Afghanistan is a country full of people who need help, and if we’re not there to fight, the bad guys will pick on those who have no way of defending themselves. If we just walk away from this mission, the ones who will suffer are the Afghan people. The Afghanis want to be free, but have no way of achieving that against an enemy who will kill anyone who doesn’t fit into their ideology.

It was an unwelcome bout of déjà vu when Thomas, a friend of mine from high school, deployed to Afghanistan a few months ago. At his going-away party, I wondered about his reasons for engaging in the war.

I decided to go because I wanted to put my training to good use, and it seemed like an exciting challenge to go to another part of the world. It’s been a huge eye-opener seeing all the things we take for granted back home, like daily showers, air-conditioned houses, even a change of clothes. Most of the locals wear the same man jammies pretty well all their lives.

Jason described Afghanistan as a hot, unforgiving country. In his words, “Everything gets filled with sand and everything smells really bad.” Decades of instability, a booming drug trade that no one seems able (or willing) to control, and a government seen as anemic and unable to establish democracy have made it a difficult part of the world to live in. Nonetheless, Thomas says that many of the locals are appreciative of the work our soldiers are doing.

To be honest, it’s a bit of a shock being there, not just with the higher altitude and extreme heat, but seeing the local people. I’ve been working Entry Control Point 3 at Kandahar Airfield, which is where all the locals come in when they’re working on the base. They do a lot of the clean-up jobs and even some of the construction.

Some of these people have been around since the Russians invaded, so they’ve gone through some rough times, but they still manage to plod on one day at a time. The average worker makes only a few dollars a day, but it can go quite a ways to keep them and their family fed. We employ a fair amount as interpreters; they tend to make more money but they’re also trusted with more responsibility. I know of a handful of them that have more than one job. One of the interpreters is actually a practicing doctor who uses his pay from us to fund his hospital.

On a recent overcast weekday morning, I witnessed what at first appeared to be an accident on a Highway 401 overpass in Whitby. A fire truck was parked on the curb, with lights flickering and sirens silent. I then noticed about a dozen people holding Canadian flags, standing close to the railings facing east. They were awaiting the body of a Canadian soldier killed in action, being transported along the Highway of Heroes from Trenton to Toronto.

I had a similar feeling then as I did a couple years ago when I saw a friend of mine from grade school on the front page of the Toronto Star. He was sitting on the bumper of a vehicle in Afghanistan with two other soldiers. The look on their faces was one of pure sorrow—just before the picture was snapped, they had learned that some fellow soldiers had been killed.

From everything I’ve seen and heard, things are getting a lot better there for them. They have schools to send their children to, cleaner water to drink, and for the most part, places to earn some money. They are very much willing to work, and whenever there are tussles in the lines into the base they sort themselves out quickly to avoid being held up. The majority understand English. They don’t speak it very well, but it’s not hard to get a message across. Locals have approached us several times to report caches of rockets or IEDs. A lot of them are willing to help us help them.

Some activists talk about the war in blanket terms, painting our soldiers as child-murderers and villains. They don’t agree with the mission and refuse to support our troops. It is easy to draw lines in the sand and say their point of view is unpatriotic, but this probably isn’t the case. Can we really say this is a “just war?” Are we doing more harm than good? Should we be pressuring our government to pull our troops out of harm’s way? None of this matters as much as the person on the ground.

Why don’t we talk about the human cost?

The Varsity Magazine Presents: The Cost of Living

Table of Contents

  • Habitat: Convocation Hall with Head Usher Rachel
  • In Season
  • U of T’s Electrical Grid
  • Features

  • The invisible 40 per cent – If you’re a student who takes care of a parent, a sibling, a grandparent, or your kids, you’re not alone – U of T just treats you that way
  • This ain’t your dad’s recession… yet? – Three students get the recession talk from their parents. Dads have good advice!
  • In transit – Read this while hiking it up to the north pole. A long look at our lives as commuters
  • If that place goes, the whole block goes with it – Workers at the Korex soap factory have been striking since June. Why hasn’t anyone noticed?
  • Is the SPP Dead? – If that place goes, the whole block goes with it – Noticed an awful lot of policy “harmonization” with the U.S. lately? If the ultra-secretive security and prosperity partnership were a conspiracy theory, it wouldn’t be this scary
  • A Complicated kindness – U of T sponsors refugee students for their first year, but they’re on their own after that
  • Remembrance Day Supplement

  • What would an Afghan War memorial look like?
  • The Individual Soldier
  • Culture Wars
  • Editorial Address

    When the Great Ice Storm froze eastern Canada to a standstill in 1998, I was in Grade 7. My dad and I woke up early one morning in Toronto, and drove up to our cottage near Parry Sound, loading the SUV with pretty much anything you might need if facing an ice storm. We then drove to where the majority of my parents’ family trees live, in the belt between Kingston and Ottawa. It was a fun and surreal experience. I learned a valuable lesson about how the times you grow up in affect you for the rest of your life.

    My dad’s parents lived in what was once their summer cottage. They had absolutely no electricity when we reached them. When we got there, we unloaded our supplies, including a generator that my dad and his brother-in-law set up for my grandparents to use.

    If you’ve ever had to use a power generator, you’re very cognizant of just how much electricity a house uses. You can’t run everything at the same time. You have to make choices, tradeoffs. An argument quickly ensued at my grandparents’ house. My dad and uncle thought it was important to have things like heating. My grandparents were very sure they needed to run the freezer. During an ice storm.

    As far as my grandparents were concerned, the matter was perfectly clear. You’re allowed to freeze alone in the dark, but you do not let food go bad under any circumstances. This is was what being young during the Depression taught them.

    In this year’s Massey Lectures, Margaret Atwood spoke on the subject of debt, how our views on the subject have changed, and where they’ve remained constant. Atwood reminds us that aside from what we owe to the bank, everything we think we own we’ve actually borrowed from the planet. Andrea Yeoman’s map of campus electricity use is an important first step in examining what we’re borrowing.

    In her lectures, Atwood recounted her parents’ attitude towards money. Given the Maclean’s cover story a couple weeks ago on the joys of frugality, it seems we’ve come full circle. More and more, I find I have questions for my grandparents, were they still around, about their experience of the Great Depression and how it influenced their life choices. I wonder how living during the current world financial instability will influence our own. Kelli Korducki has compiled three unique perspectives on this subject: students interviewing their parents on how they made it through the last time around.

    Our finances are to some extent the fruits of our own choices. But the cost of living in this country are also determined by the machinations of a small group of elites. If you’re a Canadian or an American under 20 years of age, you’ve lived your entire life under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or the FTA that preceded it.

    Those agreements have shaped our lives. There are secretive talks in the works about an add-on to that agreement, called the Security and Prosperity Partnership. Alex Molotkow sets out to find out what the SPP could mean, and is already meaning, for you.

    Nominally, this issue is about the cost of living. Unintentionally, it’s become an issue about families

    There’s another theme running throughout these stories: U of T is a commuter school.

    What we don’t talk about often enough is how this commute permeates every aspect of our lives. Shoshana Wasser’s story of how difficult student refugees find the move out of residence tells us that being a commuter is really a different way of life.

    Jane Bao’s piece on the cost of commuting details some extremely long rides to school, but the frustrations of those travels are ones we all know. They’re opportunity costs—school, work, money, family, friends—all traded in the strange currency of the GO Train schedule.

    Those who worry about a super-lefty nanny state are missing the point when it comes to funding public housing, transportation, and family care. Cutbacks curtail personal freedom and the ability of the individual to rise above their circumstances. As one student caregiver asks in Allison Martell’s story, “How much of my life do I have to put on hold?” Student caregivers are some of the best multi-taskers U of T’s got. Why is the city, the province, and—because of U of T’s national prominence—the country, losing it’s most important resource in transit?

    We often hear that those who fought in the World Wars were fighting for our way of life. For Remembrance Day we examine the human, emotional, and cultural costs of war. Whatever your opinions about wars past and present, we must consider what it is we ask soldiers to put their lives on the line for. Remembering is important—it’s our debt for living.

    Culture Wars

    Professor Jens Hanssen’s office is a cramped room on the third floor of U of T’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. Stacked bookshelves line three walls, forming a library in a variety of languages, but mostly English and Arabic. A few titles stand out: The Economy of Cities, Problems of Everyday Life, and Transforming Loss into Beauty. These three books represent a cause close to Hanssen’s heart, the preservation of Iraqi cultural institutions in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion.

    Hanssen was part of a group of Middle East Studies professors who traveled to Baghdad in June 2003, just weeks after the end of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign by Coalition forces.

    The group, known as the Iraqi Observatory, produced a 30-page report on their fact-finding mission, describing the conditions of the city’s libraries, archives, and universities, and recommending what must be done to save Iraq’s cultural history from destruction.

    “The decision [to go] was made even before the invasion,” he says. “We anticipated that the universities were going to suffer. I was watching like everyone else, with tears in my eyes as Baghdad went up in flames. I just had to go.”

    Hanssen downplays the obvious risks involved.

    “This was before the UN headquarters were bombed. It was even before critics could imagine how horribly wrong the US occupation would go. In hindsight, it was perhaps the only window that was safe.”

    Upon his arrival, Hanssen found a city torn apart by the bombing campaign, and a society degenerating into chaos and civil disobedience.

    “At the border, there were no visas or passport controls. The way we got through was [my colleague] Keith Watenpaugh, the only American, would ask these young kids, the soldiers, ‘Where are you from?’ They would say mainly southern states, Texas or Arkansas, and Keith would say, ‘Oh, I have a cousin there.’ And that was our carnet de passage.”

    “The Americans were just not in any position to guard the border at the most basic level. That’s to be blamed for the insurgency coming across the borders.”

    Over the course of this nine-day fact-finding mission, Hanssen documented what he saw with a handheld video camera. Upon his return, the footage was edited down to two 10-minute videos entitled The Destruction of Baghdad’s Cultural Heritage.

    The videos, which Hanssen has made available for public viewing on YouTube, provide a unique perspective of post-war Baghdad—one that’s impossible to find on the evening news.

    While the Western media focuses on the monumental tasks of installing an autonomous government and ultimately, the withdrawal of Coalition troops, Hanssen’s work highlights the challenges faced once the bombings subside—the reconstruction of Iraqi culture.

    He begins at the Iraqi National Library and Archive, burned and heavily looted in the chaos that followed the Coalition invasion. In his video, the salvaged books are piled six feet high, without any attention paid to classification.

    An official from the Iraqi Academy of Sciences suggests that the looting was perpetrated by specialists who sought the most priceless volumes for sale on the black market.

    Looking back, Hanssen disagrees. “To be honest, for textual and archival stuff there’s not a great market. I don’t think it was market-driven. But many of the libraries that we visited had very valuable editions, and we still haven’t really got a sense of what went missing. There are other people, Iraqis, who are [working that out].”

    Dr. Saad Eskander is one of those people. Named the director of the INLA in 2004, Eskander took on the task of restoring the library’s collection, even if it meant conspiring to steal back thousands of volumes.

    The subject of features in the Washington Post, The Guardian, and GQ, Eskander has become the face of the movement to rebuild Iraq and preserve its cultural heritage. He’s also put his life at risk in doing so, as the INLA has become a primary target of insurgents who aim to disrupt Iraq’s reconstruction.

    Hanssen is sympathetic to the struggle of Eskander and his colleagues.

    “We tried to get a sense of not just the destruction, but also the sense of powerlessness on the part of these librarians,” he says. “It’s natural that [they] should blame dark forces, how else to comprehend this cultural looting that wasn’t in anybody’s interest? And that it would be done by Iraqis themselves…”

    Politics play a role in every aspect of Iraq’s reconstruction, especially with the Hawza, a secretive group of non-state officials who form a volunteer security force at the INLA.

    “The Hawza is the religious college of Shiites. We asked ourselves, ‘Why would these well-organized, well-drilled young men come in and cart books into their mosque in Sadr City?’”

    Hanssen believes they acted with political interests in mind.

    “These guys were extremely loyal and organized. They probably wouldn’t have done the looting, they were genuine. But it wasn’t necessarily out of a greater sense of the historical and cultural value of these books. To guard these books was a bargaining chip—the Hawza can present itself as a guardian of Iraq’s heritage. Groups were forming in anticipation of some future Iraqi state.”

    The building of such a state would include a strengthening of not only libraries and archives, but academic institutions as well. Hanssen recalls the strong sense of community he perceived at Baghdad University and Iraqi Academy of Sciences in 2003.

    “It was a period where everybody was pretty hopeful. Anxious, but hopeful. Most people, even the thousands who held Ba’ath membership, were genuinely happy that Saddam’s regime was gone. You had men and women sitting on benches, laughing, socializing. It didn’t feel any different from other campuses in the middle of the summer.”

    Hanssen conducted his report during the period between the fall of the Ba’athist regime and the rise of the violent insurgency that threw Iraq into turmoil.

    “Our report was critical, but if we’d written it three months later, we would have been far more critical. We were so optimistic. We made these recommendations thinking it would only be a matter of time before we can start rebuilding. We couldn’t foresee just how bad things were going to go. Since we spoke to these professors, some of them have been killed, others went into exile.”

    The principal recommendation of the Iraqi Observatory’s report was to integrate Iraqi universities into the international community of higher education. In the five years since Hanssen’s trip, many initiatives have been proposed, including a plan to build a state of the art American campus in northern Iraq.

    Given the strength of the insurgency, Hanssen believes current prospects are grim.

    “These are isolated [ideas]. To build a parallel, Americanized higher education system I don’t think will work. When Obama withdraws, should he withdraw, any treaties and contracts might be null and void. Even if there are all the right intentions, people are hedging their bets. The [Iraqi government]—I don’t think it stands on firm ground. The future will tell us.”