Cut-off grads seek CUPE counsel

A massive expansion of graduate schools, spurred by a provincial decision, is leaving some of U of T’s most senior graduate students crowded out. The university greatly expanded its graduate enrolment this year, upping enrolment by about 30 per cent. Budget tightness has forced at least one department to take jobs from their PhD students and give them to a large new cohort of masters students.

U of T guarantees funding to all graduate students during the first year of a master’s program and the first four years of doctoral studies, or for the first five years of a doctoral program. Students who earn their PhD within five years are a rarity, and those outside the five-year guarantee often rely on teaching and teaching assistant jobs to make ends meet.

CUPE 3902, which represent TAs at the U of T, has filed a grievance with the Department of Anthropology on behalf of upper-year PhD students. The grievance claims the department violated at least four sections of the collective agreement between CUPE and U of T regarding TA hiring preference, job advertisement, rehiring, and “equitable and consistent” adherence to the agreement.

“We don’t blame [the Department of Anthropology], they’re only getting what they get handed down from the Dean of Arts and Science and the Provost,” said CUPE staff representative Mikael Swayze, who called the huge grad surge an “adventure,” being unprecedented and therefore hard to judge.

The McGuinty government has called for universities provincewide to expand their graduate schools, and set funding incentives to encourage schools to meet expansion targets. The current graduate expansion follows a period of great undergraduate growth prompted by the double-cohort.

Swayze noted that CUPE would have filed the grievance earlier but a server crash affecting the union’s email records caused a three-week delay.

So far, Anthropology is the only department with students filing grievances through CUPE, but Swayze said he has heard “rumblings” from others. Typically, individual students may take a long time to discuss their situations with other students and realize they share a common, systemic problem, he said.

Classes will not be disrupted during the grievance process, Swayze said.

The Department of Anthropology must respond to the complaint by next Friday. If they do not or cannot address the grievance to CUPE’s satisfaction, the union will go to the Dean of Arts & Science, then the university’s VP human resources, Angela Hildyard. If no satisfactory outcome is reached, the issue could go before an arbitrator for a binding resolution.

At press time, Dr. Janice Boddy, chair of the anthropology department, could not be reached for comment. The graduate program administrator, Natalia Krencil, was away from office due to illness, and graduate program coordinator Dr. Daniel Sellen was traveling and not reachable for comment. Asked to comment by The Varsity, Roger Bulgin, department manager for anthropology, said the issue had just been brought to his attention and he was not prepared to comment.

Swayze added that the grievance, when resolved, will not cost any of the current MA students their TAships, though he said next year the TA hours should be re-allotted to fit the collective bargaining agreement.

“The union is not in the business of getting people out of work,” he assured The Varsity.

Breakfast with Laurie Lynd

Laurie Lynd, a Toronto-based director whose film Breakfast with Scot is opening in limited release, is an interesting interview. He is thoughtful, articulate, and insightful about the place of gay culture in film. Breakfast with Scot is a gay-themed comedy, and one of the few positioned for mass appeal.

“We are very much hoping that it will play to a mainstream audience,” he says. “Of course I hope it will reach the gay audience, but that’s a bit like preaching to the converted— although it’s good for people to see their stories on screen. So I’m really hoping that it can cross over […] I think if people have seen the trailer, they really will go.”

In Breakfast with Scot, based on a novel by Michael Downing, macho hockey player and closeted homosexual Eric (Tom Cavanagh) is seriously injured during a practice. Five years later, he’s a popular colour commentator, and his romantic relationship with Sam (Ben Shenkman) is still a secret. Things get complicated when Eric and Sam unexpectedly become temporary legal guardians of Scot (Noah Bernett), a swishy, flamboyant child who is likely gay.

Embarrassed by his own homosexuality, Eric is downright humiliated by Scot’s, and tries to get the kid to tone down his personality by signing him up for hockey. But Eric must, of course, learn to accept Scot—and himself—for who he is. Despite its gay subject matter, Breakfast with Scot’s slick comedy aims for a broad audience.

The film has made a few headlines for being the first gay-themed movie made with the cooperation of a major North American sports league, in this case the NHL, a process that Lynd says was easier than anticipated.

“Whenever they’re asked about it, they always say the same thing, which is that basically they just really liked the script and liked its message of what it is to be a good parent and loving your kids for who they are.”

Breakfast with Scot is likable, and its heart is in the right place, though it has its flaws. I like its dramatic content more than the comedy, which is too dependent on Scot’s outrageous flamboyancy— a joke that eventually wears out its welcome. I also worry that a character as stereotypical as Scot panders to a homophobic demographic who can laugh at the gay jokes and grudgingly accept a message of tolerance at the end, Chuck and Larry-style (although there’s little basis for comparing Breakfast with Scot to I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry).

The drama, while uneven (the climactic scene is a little melodramatic for my tastes) and fairly predictable, is interesting in the way it shows a gay man coming to terms with his own homosexuality.

“I’m gay, and I think coming out is a lifelong journey,” says Lynd. “I think there are a lot of stages to it. And that’s one of the things that I think is really interesting about the film, is that, first and foremost it’s an entertaining comedy about misfit parents and an odd kid, but it’s also about the later steps of coming out. It’s almost like a second coming-out for that character.”

Unlike most gay-themed films, Breakfast with Scot is being marketed to appeal to a crossover audience, with posters and trailers similar in tone to the kinds that a big-budget American comedies would have.

But can homosexuality have a more consistent presence in mainstream film? Comparing to twenty years ago, Lynd says, “there are tons of gay movies, it’s just that most of them tend to be independent, smaller ones. The big mainstream ones tend to, I agree, be exceptions. I still think we’re a long way from being able to see a romantic lead actor being able to come out, or even a hockey player who can come out while he’s still playing. But, I do think, given Will & Grace and the greater gay presence on television, a mainstream audience is definitely more comfortable with it.”

“I think it’s all moving in the right direction. In a way, what I like best about our film is that it’s very nonchalant about the gay subject matter, and the writer of the novel, Michael Downing, said that when he saw it he felt is was the first time he saw himself as a gay man onscreen, because these are just guys who have a life who just happen to be gay.”

Breakfast with Scot opens in limited release on November 16.

Voices from a ravaged continent

Asad Ismi has gone so far as to suggest that the Munk Centre for International Studies should instead be called the Munk Centre for Global Plunder and Pillage, “because that’s what they do!”

Canada’s involvement in the mining industry, and that industry’s destructive practices, were recurring themes at the launch ceremony on Nov. 1 for The Ravaging of Africa a radio-documentary by Asad Ismi and Kristin Schwartz. Ismi pointed out that Peter Munk, whose $6.2- million donation helped establish the Munk Centre in 2000, is also the founder and chairman of Barrick Gold, one of the world’s largest gold-mining companies in Canada, and holder of a dubious environmental and human rights record.

Barrick’s Dirty Secrets, a May 2007 Corpwatch report, investigated water depletion, heavy metal pollution, and cyanide spills caused by the company’s mining operations in Tanzania, Peru, Australia, the Philippines, Canada, and several other countries.

In their most recent documentary, Ismi and Schwartz caught up with activists and politicians at the World Socialist Forum in Nairobi, Kenya to shed light on what they argue is the West’s imperialist strategy to siphon as much of Africa’s natural resources as possible.

MUNK CENTER FOR PLUNDER AND PILLAGE

The Varsity: You referred at the launch to the U.S. imperial strategy. What does that mean?

Asad Ismi: The imperial strategy of the U.S. has been to launch a two-front war in Africa: the military war and the economic war.

Beginning in the 1980s, U.S.’s agents, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have carried out the economic war through structural adjustment programs that they have imposed on 36 countries in Africa. And these structural adjustment programs destroy the economies of African countries. They destroy industry, therefore employment, they destroy the medical and educational systems, so they break down all forms of social progress in those societies. They make it impossible for people to function, to be employed, to be productive. If you don’t have medical care, you can’t do anything. If you have to pay too much for treatment, you will just die. Education has been taken away so there is no possibility of getting employment in the formal sector. There is no possibility of social mobility: improving your lot, or improving your family’s lot. Improving the next generation or this one. So there is no future at all for people. That’s the economic war that the US has launched on African countries, that has broken down the economies of most of the African countries.

They destroy the countries through military invasion and war, then they send in the WB and the IMF to destroy the economies. All this facilitates the corporate plunder of the economies.

V: What motive drives this “imperialism?”

AI: To loot the natural resources of Africa.

A very good example of the 14 wars is the biggest one, which is in the Congo. The U.S. encouraged the invasion of Congo, in 1998, by Rwanda and Uganda. They are the main arms supplier to both countries, who are the U.S.’s staunchest allies in the region according to Human Rights Watch.

The Congo has the world’s biggest deposit of copper, cadmium and cobalt. It has manganese, uranium, oil, gold. It has everything. A stable government would demand royalties in return for its resources, the setting up of some way to process the minerals so that they can benefit the country. Now, if you invade a country and occupy its land, then you can loot it as much as you want. And bring the resources to the West for free.

That is what they’ve done with Rwanda and Uganda in the Congo, where planes fly out filled with copper and cobalt and another very valuable resource called coltan. You cannot have a cell-phone or computers without coltan. This society will grind to a halt without that mineral, which the Congo is the main source of.

Suddenly we’re seeing the proliferation of cell-phones. How did that happen? How come it’s so cheap? How is it that everybody can have a cell-phone anywhere in the world? Because since the invasion, the price of coltan went down the tubes. Coltan is actually a very expensive mineral. And we should pay for it. We should pay the people of Congo a fair price. But we’re not paying royalties or taxes for it. Rwanda and Uganda are just looting it.

This war in the Congo has killed more than four million people since 1998. It is a Holocaust. And yet, it is not talked about in the Western media at all.

V: What they do often talk about in the media, however, is this outcry for “more aid, better aid.”

AI: I don’t see any aid from the West going to Africa. All I see is looting and plundering for the last 500 years. That these plunderers and looters and killers of Africa can talk about aid is totally obscene.

$148 billion are taken out of Africa every year by multinational corporations of the west paying hardly any taxes. The last time I heard about any aid being talked about, it was something like $6 billion.

Even that aid is not even aid. Seventy per cent of that aid is tied aid, meaning comes with the stipulations that all of it must be spent on goods or services provided by companies of the countries providing the aid. They are effectively export subsidies.

V: There was a big deal about the G8 canceling Africa’s debt.

AI: Africa has already paid more than four times the amount of the debt it owed in 1980. Between ‘80 and ‘84, they were paying compounded interest rates of 20 per cent. Yet, the debts just seem to keep piling on.

“Structural adjustment programs” are meant to expedite payment of debts. But they tell all of the countries to increase the export of raw materials and cash crops. The prices collapse, because all the countries end up exporting more. So they actually end up making less money. So these crippling debts just never go away.

MAKING THE DOC

V: Is it possible to fit a 500-year-old issue on a vast continent into two hours?

AI: Editing is traumatic. For example, Kristin and I had agreed that the first episode would have three wars: Congo, Somalia and the war in Western Sahara. When Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara, Morocco invaded and occupied it. Western Sahara has lots of oil. Morocco wants it. If it were an independent country, it would be rich. The U.S., they’re behind Morocco, because Morocco’s monarch is a U.S. puppet.

We thought it was an important story to tell, because hardly anyone knows that there has been a war going on there for more than 20 years.

KS: But when I put the entire episode together, it was eight minutes over. So we had to take the Western Sahara section out.

V: You must have been ambitious to go overseas to work in Africa.

KS: We were initially just planning on interviewing people from the [African] diaspora in Toronto, or Africans who came touring around, to bring their issues forward. There are quite a lot of people in Toronto, so it’s not completely unreasonable. But it wouldn’t have been the same kind of documentary as we were able to make. That plan came about last year when we learned that the World Social Forum was to be held in Nairobi.

AI: We realized we could do this because we have different from many African countries coming to one place, so all we needed then was the airfare to Nairobi and back. Then we started applying for funding in September.

We had already been funded by the left-wing unions for the first two docs, so we just applied to the same ones, and they all gave us money. We raised twice the money we raised for the fair trade documentary.

GOOD OL’ DAYS

V: Tell us a little about your times at U of T.

AI: I did my MA in international relations in ’82-’83. At that time the university and the student body were politically very apathetic. But I had some really good teachers. Robert Accinelli’s course on the history of U.S. policy from 1890-1975 actually got me interested in U.S. policy towards the Global South.

That course and another on the third world had a lot to do with radicalizing me. It’s ironic, because the U of T was not a radical university. And since then, it’s gone completely downhill. It’s gone completely to the right.

MEDIASPEAK

V: What was your encounter with Kenyan media like?

AI: KOCH FM is the first radio station in a slum in Nairobi. Sixty per cent of Nairobi’s population lives in slums. The station is actually located inside two shipping containers.

The Kenyan media have to be very careful about what they say. Just a couple of weeks before we got there, [internal security] invaded the offices of the Nation, which is critical of the government, they pulled all their files out, they threw all the papers on the floor, they took their computers, and said next time, we’ll kill you.

The internal security minister in Kenya, John Njoroge Michuki, was a torturer under the colonial administration. We were told he was known as the “crusher” for crushing the testicles of resistance fighters. He has given orders to the Kenyan police, to shoot first anyone they don’t like or anyone they think is making trouble, and ask questions later.

V: What do you suppose would happen if you have your documentary to the commercial media?

AI: I hate them. I despise the CBC. They backed the invasion of Iraq. They justified it and called the U.S. liberators, and they are complicit in the genocide of almost a million Iraqis. [A 2006 Lancet study estimated between 393,000 and 943,000 Iraqis were direct casualties] I refuse to collaborate with them in any way whatsoever.

Through community radio stations in the UK, the Americas, and South Africa, and various websites it’s available on, we are reaching out to more than 50 million people worldwide. I’d say that makes us bigger than the CBC.

That’s why I say, you can be as radical as you want, and you should be. So you don’t need commercial media.

Leafs need to change

Mats Sundin is one of the greatest players to ever suit up in the blue and white Leafs gear. With all of the toughness and technique the big Swede showcases each season, one can only wonder why he wants to stay with a team that has proved time and time again its inability to put a contending team on the ice.

Granted, the team had its share of success before the 2004-05 lockout. Those successes, however, came along with Leafs rosters that lacked a natural scorer to play next to Sundin on the first line. Sundin’s linemates played off him for much of the time, with the roles reversed only on the odd occasion.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been unable to make the playoffs since the introduction of a new collective bargaining agreement. Yet Sundin remains loyal, recently signing a one-year contract for the 2007- 08 season. Sundin ensures his future options by signing on a short-term basis while also giving himself the opportunity to become the all-time leading scorer for the Maple Leafs. He has something to talk about for his time in Toronto, other than how Leafs brass denied him a superior supporting cast to play with.

With that said, Maple Leafs management gave in to signing Sundin this past summer without any regard to fixing the inept qualities of this team, destined for perpetual mediocrity. They did not trade Sundin at last year’s deadline in order to proceed with the inevitable rebuilding process, and are now facing a similar situation this year. Luckily, all the stars are aligned for a second opportunity at blowing the team up.

The fact that the Maple Leafs have begun a more youthful line-up suggests that they are on the right track, but if they traded their most valuable and only asset, new talent could contribute to a professional-level game. Furthermore, Sundin has a high value that the team should cash in on before unforeseeable injuries or slumps take over his game.

There is an understandable sense of loyalty owed towards Sundin, but when the team has continuously played catch-up with the likes of the Ottawa Senators, the GM needs to make major changes. Without any significant players within the system, the Maple Leafs must demonstrate a paradigm shift in the organization by using any current value to obtain youthful talent. Unfortunately, management has yet to rid itself of players that do not coincide with the new landscape of the league, even more regrettable considering there are no fiscal problems on the balance sheet.

Mats Sundin has earned the right to take care of his immediate future by signing on for this season. Regrettably, this means that Leaf Nation will continue to watch Sundin play with a group of ordinary forwards in a corporate system filled with ordinary decision-makers.

Montreal students tasered at tuition riot

The Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante has angrily accused Montreal riot police of “police brutality” and “savage intervention” after learning that police used taser guns and pepper spray to control crowds of student demonstrators.

Over 40,000 students across Quebec launched a three-day strike on Tuesday in protest of the provincial government’s decision to increase tuition fees by $500 per semester for the next five years. Thousands of students staged an anti-government rally yesterday at Dorchester Square in downtown Montreal, led by ASSÉ.

After failing to get the support it needed to launch a full-scale strike ASSÉ, known for advocating free tuition in Québec, eventually opted for a three-day walkout. Small groups of students illegally stationed themselves outside Université du Québec à Montréal and the CEGEP Vieux-Montréal.

On tuesday morning, 105 people were arrested for barricading a street with plywood, vending machines, and a toilet. The protesters, who used fire hoses and extinguishers on riot police, face charges of assault, assault and battery, and public mischief.

“Police brutality is no way to treat those who dare to fight for social change,” said ASSÉ official Hubert Gendron- Blais to the Montreal Gazette.

Ferguson on thin ice

For the sake of all that you hold dear, stop buying Maple Leafs tickets!

It’s the only way Leafs brass will get the message. Ponder this: why should people pay ridiculous amounts of money for a woefully sub par product? The only way to send a message is to hit them where it hurts—the wallets.

With only seven wins in 18 games, the Leafs are dropping faster than the American dollar. Yet, people continue to fill the Air Canada Centre to capacity. This year loyal fans have repeated the time-honored tradition of welcoming their beloved Maple Leafs, in anticipation of a successful season.

But like every year previous years the euphoria fades two months into the season, by which time the playoffs have already become an unrealistic goal. Scapegoats are made of inept defensemen and clumsy goaltenders, but for some reason fans refuse to abandon their team—or their season tickets. It is a process the continues into the summer, typified by endless rounds of golf and the introduction of the latest geriatric free-agents to don the blue and white; all overpriced and underachieving.

Since a absolute boycott by Leaf Nation is about as likely as Bryan McCabe winning the Norris Trophy, the only alternative left is to shake up the administration. This team will not deviate from this foolish course until a some ground shaking changes are made.

The person responsible for this mess cannot be expected or trusted to clean it up. John Ferguson Junior, the Maple Leafs’ general manager insisted that he had built a winning team by signing Pavel Kubina, Mike Peca and Hal Gill for a combined $ 9 million. So, what was the return on this investment?

A grand total of 17 goals and 56 points.

A cursory observation shows that 17 goals for $9 million is not exactly getting your bang for your buck. It’s possible that John Ferguson Junior never learned about cost efficiency in his previous roles as a player agent, and an amateur scout. Perhaps there is some method to his madness. It’s possible, if not likely, that players that score two goals in 18 games really are worth $5 million per year, despite being thirty-four years old and having a small track record of high-performance.

To make matters worse. Over the summer, Ferguson attempted to solve the team’s goaltending crisis by trading for Vesa Toskala. The goaltender was promptly awarded with an $8 million dollar contract without having played a single game for Toronto. Results thus far have been far from encouraging, as the Leafs currently posses the worst Goals-Against rating in the league, having allowed 65 goals.

On the bright the signing of imposing Kazakh winger Nik Antropov has given Mats Sundin a legitimate winger to play alongside with. His creative play and relentless drive are a definite asset to a team with a lot of liabilities. Yet his inability to stay off the injured list draws comparisons to former Toronto forward Dave Andreychuk.

The question still looms: does Ferguson have sufficient hockey acumen to build a solid supporting caste around blue-chip up-and-comers like Antropov and Wellwood? The jury is still out on that question.

Facebook for hypochondriacs

Is spending that much time on the internet good for your health? The millions of people who frantically track their social lives on Facebook and other such networking sites now have a reason to stay online even longer, with the release of a new social networking tool to help Canadians self-manage their illnesses at the click of a mouse.

Two years ago, frustrated with traditional health care establishments and research funding agencies who, he said, only invested in curing diseases rather than supporting those living with them, University of Toronto professor Alex Jadad contacted Dennis Bennie, a managing partner of equity investment firm XDL Capital Group, with a proposal for the novel health care system.

Known as Wellocities, the site claims to provide the first online, community- based health directory of services and resources for Canadians.

“The idea [of the website] became more and more of a reality, and was molded into something that would really be a very practical solid idea,” said Bennie, who began investing in the proposed project.

Designed by a community of patients and health care professionals, Wellocities caters to those who want to dabble in managing their own health-care. The site offers alternatives and information about illnesses and provides resources such as medication and medical devices that, according to Jadad, could help people increase their life expectancy.

“We are facing a real tsunami of chronic disease, but the public is not aware of that,” said Jadad, who is also the chairman of Wellocities.

He claimed that 30 to 40 per cent of people in Canada have at least one chronic disease, and that one in three born after 2000 will have diabetes. “The number of people in our society living with a chronic disease is increasing dramatically,” said Jadad.

The site offers a directory of health care professionals and services across Canada, and tools that can help people manage their health, such as a blood-sugar tracker.

The rogue element is the site’s social networking factor, which lets users create or join groups, rate various health-care services, and share first-hand accounts of their health problems. Wellocities can be accessed through Facebook.

“We have a lot of Facebook users at university, and we have perhaps the first generation of university students that we could call digital natives,” said Jadad.

Misery loves company, but what would Wellocities say about eye strain, posture problems and inactivity— symptoms of digital addiction?

The great grocery store dilemma

It’s no wonder we’ve been kept in the dark about our food for so long. After all, if all the pro-organic food propaganda is true, those of us still consuming conventionally-grown crops are walking repositories of pesticides and other toxins. Oh, and we’ve been cheated of nutrients and hearty flavours. Given all the evidence, surely, any day now Canadians will begin to wage a culinary crusade against those toxic delicacies that are still lurking in our kitchens.

Yeah, right. Most of us, including myself, will switch to an organic lifestyle as wholeheartedly as we follow our inevitably-neglected New Year’s Eve resolutions. And really, what’s wrong with that?

While by eating non-organic food we may miss out on dubious promises of “feeling great” and “looking fabulous,” we do not necessarily compromise our health. Let’s take the case of fruits and veggies. Organic food produce do not use additives or pesticides in growing their crops. Advocates also emphasize higher nutritional content—recent studies prove this claim—of some products, as well as a generally better taste.

But this is not the whole picture. What proponents of organic food don’t tell you is that natural toxins and bacteria such as botulism and E. coli, can appear in organic foods. How about the fact that natural veggies are susceptible to higher rates of pest damage, thereby creating pathways for aflatoxins, dangerous to our health? All of a sudden, I’m reminded of why we began spraying crops with chemicals in the first place.

A campaign recently launched in Toronto has been portraying locally-grown food as a healthy and delicious alternative. After all, it seems sensible to consume what a season’s harvest brings. But while there are many reasons for switching to a “local” diet, we shouldn’t completely discount the factor of taste. Bok choy’s seasonal availability doesn’t make it any more delicious. And let’s admit it, most of us do enjoy having a vast assortment of fruit and vegetables all year round, regardless of where they are from or how they are produced. Would I buy tasteless strawberries in the middle of winter? Sure, I’ll just dip them in some chocolate and they’re as good as strawberries can get.

So what should we remember on our next trip to the grocery store? While we should take a closer look at what we consume, it’s important to appreciate the variety of food options (organic or not) that we are fortunate to have in Toronto. Whatever our personal choice, it’s comforting to know that all products, regardless of their methods of growth, must meet the same government safety standards. As long as they are washed and prepared properly, they are not a hazard to our health. And as far as flavour goes, well, it’s just a matter of taste.