Students at locked-out school demanding refunds

St. Thomas’ University has achieved a dubious record. The small liberal arts school in Fredericton, New Brunswick, is the first post-secondary institution in Canada to lock out its faculty in anticipation of a strike vote.

The school’s nearly 3,000 students, who expected to return to class on Jan. 3, have had the start of their winter term postponed indefinitely, and some are demanding compensation.

“To have to pay back a student loan on an education I didn’t receive would actually make me very angry,” third-year student Laura Darrow told the Canadian Press.

In an open letter released on Dec. 31, STU’s president Michael W. Higgins called the lockout “an effort to fast-track our negotiations and minimize the impact on our students.”

Higgins’ letter laid blame for the lockout on the Faculty Association of the University of St. Thomas, for not accepting the university’s latest offer and voting to leave the bargaining table. Faculty, however, have said that the offer ignored their stated concerns and that the union did not leave negotiations, but only announced a strike vote and asked for extra time to consider the university’s proposal.

Dawn Morgan, an English professor at STU and spokesperson for the FAUST, blamed the university for bringing negotiations to their current impasse. “We are ready to bargain, once the administration considers our concerns and priorities beyond their final offer,” she said.

The Students’ Union of St. Thomas University supported the delayed start of term. SUSTU president Colin Banks told students in a Dec. 18 letter that the move will prevent individuals from hijacking class time to advocate their views on the negotiations. He also applauded the extended break for “preclud[ing] either Faculty Association or the University from using students as leverage during this situation.”

The university announced the lockout on Dec. 26, when negotiations over a new contract broke down. STU has sought to put its latest offer, which faculty negotiators rejected, to a direct vote by the union’s membership, allowable under New Brunswick law. According to Morgan, the union has never moved to block the member vote, but believes it a waste of time because they have advised their constituents to reject the offer.

Morgan accused the university of not being earnest at the bargaining table. “We met with them on Thursday and Friday but they didn’t negotiate. They yelled, taunted and employed sarcasm,” she said.

STU administrators have said that FAUST’s demands are impossible to meet. Higgins claimed that they amount to a 43 per cent increase in salaries and benefits over three years, which he translated into an “immediate revenue requirement” of $1,450 per student. Morgan has said the union is only demanding parity with faculty salaries at peer institutions in the Maritimes.

Throughout negotiations, the union has pushed for health insurance and office space for the school’s 59 part-time faculty, who have no supplemental health care plan and who all share a single office. It is also demanding a reduction of its members’ mandatory teaching load from three to two full courses per term.

STU employs 106 full-time and 59 part-time instructors, most of the latter sessional teachers. The Canadian Association of University Teachers paid FAUST $1 million from their defense fund to support faculty and cover costs, largely those of renting temporary office space in downtown Fredericton.

On Monday, the 167 locked-out faculty voted to go on strike. FAUST released a letter to its members telling them that striking would strengthen their position at the bargaining table by giving them control over when classes will resume.

Canadian law not equipped for the Facebook age

By now, thousands of people know the names Toronto’s first murder victim of 2008 and the two young people accused of committing this heinous crime. But we’re not supposed to.

As young people in this city increasingly move their social lives to the internet, it’s apparent that their online interaction isn’t limited to idle chatter and amusing blog posts. Even a formerly private rituals like mourning the passing of a loved one, have become public events.

A day after her murder a memorial page was set up on Facebook for Stefanie Rengel, so that her friends and family could share their memories and sadness. In setting up the webpage however, Rengel’s friends actually committed another crime. The Youth Criminal Justice Act stipulates that it’s illegal to release the identities of under-aged victims or accused criminals. Many visitors to the page posted comments declaring that the accused are guilty, and some even reportedly express their desire to avenge Rengel’s murder. Rengel’s step mother posted a message describing the two accused teens as “bastards.” Now the police are declaring that this information has jeopardized the accused’s rights to a fair trial.

With the fairness and the credibility of the legal process now potentially damaged in this high-profile case, the question must be asked why Facebook, which polices the site stringently for obscenity and other offensive material, did not remove Stefanie’s memorial pages. You could claim that the site moderators simply weren’t aware of the specifics of Ontario’s youth criminal justice laws, plain and simple.

I personally believe that Facebook hadn’t removed the comments because Facebook was intended as a social networking site first and foremost, not a media source. Those who released Rengel’s accused killers’ identities believed that they were simply showing their collective grief at losing Stefanie so suddenly, and discussing the people responsible for the loss of a dear friend. It was akin to a bunch of friends getting together in a coffee shop and discussing their grief and anger over Stefanie’s murder, except their conversation was posted online. Obviously Facebook’s administrators felt it would be wrong to deny Rengel’s friends this important interaction.

But due to its impact on day to day life and its pervasive presence in the public consciousness, it seems Facebook can no longer be seen as just a social networking site. This case may force the community at large, as well as our legal institutions, to recognize Facebook as a bona-fide media source, a medium capable of reaching a wide audience and conveying vital information. In fact, in some situations, sites like Facebook are actually more effective in spreading breaking news, the “insider’s story” or the most up to date news.

To avoid similar gaffes, lawmakers need to update the Youth Criminal Justice Act for the techno-savvy 21st century to explicitly include a publication ban on social-networking sites (and just throw in MSN Messenger and Myspace in there too for good measure), against releasing the names of under-aged criminals and their underage victims.

Report reveals need for better data on schools

In any given year, according to the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, between 40 and 55 per cent of students drop out of their post-secondary institution. Of course, those aren’t all dropouts: many of them simply transfer to another school or switch from university to college. How many? Don’t ask the government.

As the Canadian Council on Learning pointed out in their recent report Strategies for Success, Canada’s federal government collects little data on the post-secondary education system. That puts us behind other countries, says the CCL.

“We found that almost all other developed countries have built not only the national information systems required to optimize policy, but have also—in both unitary and federal states—provided themselves with some of the necessary national tools and mechanisms to adjust, to act and to succeed,” reads the report. “Canada has not.”

This needs to change, argues the report. It recommends a “national data strategy,” which begins with a single student number that would follow students between degrees and institutions, and across provincial borders. Reliable statistics could lead to benchmarks and goals. For Joey Coleman, a writer for Maclean’s education blogs, it’s about accountability.

“Nobody is collecting the data. We’re spending $36 billion a year, and there’s no goal, and no measurement of the outcome,” he said. “We have a system that is facing difficulty but we don’t know what that difficulty is.”

Strategies for Success also hints at integration in other areas, from a national e-learning strategy to better acceptance of transfer credits.

If that comes, it will be too late for Tammy Sprung, who transferred from Dalhousie University after her second year. The fourth-year history student has spent much of the last two years dealing with the fallout of her move. Many of Sprung’s transferred credits came with long lists of U of T courses she was excluded from taking, which complicated course selection and prerequisites later on. She was also forced to go back and take extra 100-level courses.

“I essentially chose my majors and minors based on what kind of deals I could cut with department heads when I transferred,” she said. If she had realized the battle ahead of her, Sprung said, “I don’t think I would have come to U of T.”

Get nowhere, faster

At the Hart House indoor track, keeners huff and puff—or, more intimidatingly, sprint with blithe ease—as a colony of machines hum along. For adrenaline addicts, the gym is a haven in winter. But what about the rest of us, with our freshly-minted New Year’s resolutions, completely clueless about how pursue them and scared of public workouts?

Your fear might not be completely irrational: Gym class has been used for mind control. “The notion of the state enforcing physical education was part of fascist ideology,” said John McClelland, professor emeritus at the Faculty of Physical Health and Education. He explained, “It’s the idea that you can make a nation strong by making its young people physically strong.”

To the scrawny kids we once were, state-sponsored phys ed may have seemed like torture. But at least the workout was free. For cashstrapped U of T students, it still is—both the Athletic Centre and Hart House offer a number of free drop-in classes and exercise machines, just a T-card swipe away.

Last year, Hart House welcomed 13 new stationary bicycles to the hive. The house already had Lamond and LifeCycle bikes, but these gleaming Schwinn Evolution “racing” stationary bikes are a different beast.

Indoor cycling doesn’t sound like much of a rush. Jason To, OISE student for math and biology, is an athletic services attendant at Hart House. Asked what he thought of stationary bikes, To waxed metaphysical.

“It’s a little strange ’cause you’re pedalling but you’re not going anywhere. It deceives the mind,” he drawled. “It’s a good workout, though.” To said he uses indoor cycles once in a while.

Not so for his co-worker, U of T student Ryan Kerr. “I prefer biking for real,” he one-upped. He agreed that stationary bikes had their benefits. “They’re fantastic for knee reconstruction, because they’re low-impact,” he said. “It’s good for your lower back—it makes you sit up straight and develop core strength. The smoothness is very good for your body.”

Nevertheless, he concluded, “It’s still not going anywhere.”

For Karen Anderson, Hart House’s assistant director of athletics, indoor cycling is going places. Cycle Fit, a class offered for years at the Athletic Centre, recently debuted at Hart House, in a studio near athletics that was left empty when the U of T bookstore’s lease expired. “It’s a program we’ve been missing,” said Anderson. “A lot of people would ask for it.”The first semester’s registration, though, was what Anderson called “modest.”

“It’s a new program. Some people are intimidated, and they have no reason to be.”

Cycle Fit is a descendant of Spinning, the late ’80s brainchild of ultra-endurance athlete Jonathan “Johnny G” Goldberg. Spinning offered high-intensity cardio that is gentle on joints, unlike exercise machines such as treadmills. The low-impact factor makes stationary bikes a favourite for physiotherapy and winter training.

Spinners, sweat-drenched and leaning forward like they are in an indoor Tour de France, don’t need to learn complicated moves or steps. More importantly, especially for couch potatoes—and, er, university students—participants set their own pace. Based on their heart rate or level of exertion, riders experiment with different rhythms and degrees of resistance as they ride over simulated terrain. From the front of the room, the instructor-cheerleader shouts out encouragement.

Spinning is a bona fide brand, complete with branded equipment, accessories, and trademark infringement lawsuits. Soon, though, it garnered the sincerest form of flattery, as group cycling courses rolled Goldberg’s ideas into their own programs.

To entice the reluctant novice, Hart House is offering free “try-me” courses until Thursday, Jan. 17. Commitment-phobes can sign up at the membership services office for a 45-minute workout, gratis. In their subterranean enclave, the Schwinns are waiting.

Is democracy truly dead in Pakistan?

The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27 has left many Pakistanis trembling from the shock of her death and the uncertainty that has succeeded it. Even though I have no direct relationship to Pakistan or even the Middle East, even I’m left troubled about the the region’s future.

Given my lack of personal ties, I’ve decided to talk to the students on campus who do have such connections. Reactions have been anything but apathetic. “Bhutto was a symbol of democracy, and despite death threats, decided to return to Pakistan to fight for something she believed in” said Alina Rashid, co-president of the U of T Pakistani Student’s Federation. “I feel that even living thousands of miles away, every Pakistani in the world is feeling the loss of a martyr of democracy,”

“For me,” adds continuing studies student Safia Habib, “the fact that she was prime minister of a Muslim state, and a woman, was incredible. We all expected [her assassination], but it was still a shock when it actually happened.”

Students without personal ties have also put forth interesting insights, given their emotional distance. Second-year political science and history student Jeremy Andrews remains cautious about the events. “I am, by nature, highly skeptical of the ‘official’ story when big events occur overseas. I am aware of the West’s prior interference in the matters of other states, and it usually fosters doubt. I can only speculate at what might have been occurring behind the scenes.”

In the wake of the assassination, shock has been superseded by apprehension, as the future of Pakistani democracy remains uncertain. “My fear right now,” said Rashid, “is an endless cycle of military dictatorship if emergency rule is once again reinstated and the country is bullied out of democracy.” These are not unfounded fears as President Musharraf has shown little interest in upholding democratic tenets such as free elections, party pluralism or civil rights.

But is democracy in Pakistan dead? Perhaps Bhutto’s death may serve as an impetus for those who wish to continue the dream of democratic reform. Given the outpouring of regret for her death, it might not be surprising to see a revived passion for democracy spurred on by the desire for retribution. The country’s love for Bhutto, combined with their hatred for Musharraf, is a telltale sign that authoritarianism is nearing its end. Granted, one must always be speculative of the story told by the mainstream media, but the circumstances nevertheless seem straightforward.

Baliwal Bhutto Zadari, the new leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party and Benazir’s son, spoke appropriately when he said that democracy is the best revenge. The next few weeks will decide if the nation and its popular leaders will crumble from this blow to their cause, or rise up to defend Bhutto’s legacy and demand a better future.

Why is the government limiting our right to information?

Last year, the Globe & Mail revealed that Canadian Forces in Afghanistan had been turning over their detainees to certain Afghan authorities that would almost certainly torture their prisoners. The backlash was incredible, and then-Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor’s dithering handling of the situation got him shuffled out of the ministry.

The Globe’s reporters obtained the records of prisoner transfers through the Access to Information Act, a delightful little piece of policy enacted by the Trudeau government in 1983 that allows all Canadians access to government records. According to the act, information that is restricted to the public should be limited, and restrictions should be reviewed independently of the government. The act has been well used over the years—other “fun” moments in our country’s proud history uncovered through access to information include the sponsorship scandal and the tainted blood scandal.

While it would be comforting to believe that our government is fully transparent and that all information could be easily accessible from any government institution, we don’t live in that kind of utopia. Citizens—particularly journalists—requesting information have recently gone up against the bureaucratic equivalent of the Berlin Wall.

Since the current government has come to power, the average wait time for access requests has risen from 30 to 60 days to 150 to 250 days, with some requests taking over a year. The backlog is typically higher for some departments, such as Defence and Foreign Affairs.

The delays are no coincidence or mere fluke. The government’s strategy is a simple one—make information- seekers wait a ludicrous amount of time to get their records. Information requests lead to reports that expose the federal government’s bad behaviour, and the government would rather not have inconvenient, scandalous information surface— particularly when Ottawa is in election heat.

The delays are simply inexcusable, particularly since many journalists, NGOs, and other investigators can’t release a conclusive report until they make two or three subsequent requests. In a case of human-rights violations, like that of the Afghan detainees, each subsequent request could end up in tacking on another 200-odd days during which Canada condones and contributes to abuse, or even torture.

Robert Marleau, who’s been Canada’s Information Commissioner since last January, is partially to blame. He’s been widely criticized as being soft on government departments that are slow to fulfill requests. Marleau is the opposite of Sheila Fraser, our tough-as-nails Auditor-General. A position vital to governmental transparency shouldn’t be in the hands of a hesitant do-nothing. Whether Marleau is a Conservative lackey or not is irrelevant, he’s playing into the hands of those in power and limiting our ability to judge our elected leaders.

In light of last week’s discovery of the “Tiger Team,” a team of military officers whose main role is to limit the Canadian public’s knowledge of our role in Afghanistan, this becomes more disturbing. Created by the Department of National Defence in the wake of the Afghan detainee revelations, Tiger Team has been described as an additional barrier for those attempting to get access to information about our military.

For a government that rode into office on a platform of transparency, complicating access requests isn’t helping their image. If there’s no hidden agenda, then why hide information?

Throwing away the compass

The Catholic school boards in Calgary and Halton, Ontario, both recently chose to ban Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy from its school libraries. The decision to remove the trilogy from the boards’ libraries, which are also open to the public, came after some parents complained about anti- Church rhetoric in the books. While Pullman is a self-professed atheist, and the trilogy does make negative reference to an institution that is similar to the Catholic Church, the work can also be read as broadly anti-establishment or anti-dogma and not against the Catholic Church specifically.

The fictional universe of Pullman’s books does however feature an authoritarian villain named Magisterium, who dictates to children what is right and wrong, good and bad. No doubt the irony of the situation is lost on the Halton Catholic District School Board, which is now telling children what they can and cannot read.

The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass were published between in 1995 and 2000, and have been in the schools for nearly a decade. If the books have such questionable content, then they should not have been allowed on library shelves in the first place. The renewed interest in this series comes from the recent release of the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. The decision to re-evaluate the trilogy comes seven years after the release of the final book. No matter—better late than never, apparently.

The HCDSB felt that the trilogy was not in keeping with the Catholic values it espouses to its students. However, to ban the books from the school libraries, especially when the movie adaptation has created much interest, is pointless. Nothing says “this is exciting reading material” like being told that a book is banned.

It would have made more sense for the school board to let the volumes remain in the library, and follow up reading of the books with a critical discussion of their content. Children and adults alike need to be able to face criticism of their institutions and learn to defend their beliefs. Faith that cannot stand up to a series of children’s books is fragile, and the Halton board’s decision reflects a telling fear that their students’ faith will not be able to hold under criticism.

Not over the barrel yet

In past decades $100 for a barrel of oil had been touted by end-of-the-worlders as an apocalyptic event that would bring about the demise of modern industrialized civilization. That psychological barrier was surpassed on January 2, and while the mainstream media were quick to jump on the story and play up the drama, the real impact of this episode was minimal. If prices are to remain constant at the $90 mark—as many commodities analysts believe to be the new norm—there is no denying that associated costs will rise.

Over the past 100 years oil has become the life blood of Western civilization and our absolute dependence on this natural resource cannot be overstated. This is precisely why no matter how expensive oil becomes, people will still continue to behave as if it was business as usual. As much as any staple crop, oil has established itself as essential to our existence, thus the higher price of oil will not bring about a dramatic change in our behavior and attitudes. At least not quite yet.

While the $100 price does have a marked psychological impact on consumers and analysts, it’s more bark than bite. In real terms oil is still remarkably affordable to the middle-class in all industrialized nations, especially in North America where the cost of filling up a tank of gas remains less than half of what it costs to a person in Europe, mostly due to taxes levied by European governments. Even as North Americans complain about the rising costs associated with increasing oil prices, an elementary shift in our attitudes and corresponding changes in our lifestyles are still a long way away.

The good news is that North Americans, led by the infinite wisdom of Hollywood stars, appear to be coming about, embracing smaller, more fuel-efficient cars along with emerging alternatives such as diesel power and hybrids. However, even as a fringe minority in the West begins to demonstrate the first inclination to conserve and reduce our addiction to oil, they may already be too late.

The millions of people in China and India who are emerging into vibrant middle-class societies, yearn for the same things we in the West have taken for granted for so long. Nearly six million new cars will be on China’s roads in the coming year, and they will require millions of barrels of oil to fuel them.

To put things into context, global proven reserves (oil known to be in the ground) is estimated at nearly four and a half trillion barrels, which means that there exists 140 years’ supply of oil on this planet. Indeed extracting usable fuel from oil sands in Alberta as well as major deposits of oil shale in the U.S. requires a more extensive refinement process and will inevitably result in the continued rise of oil prices.

The demand for oil in industrializing nations, driven by industrial and consumer demand in emerging economies, will only continue to grow. Many speculate that this competition between different societies for a finite resource will bring about World War Three. It just might, though definitely not in our foreseeable future. Meanwhile, in the coming months we will learn to cope with $100 oil, and just as surely we’ll kick up a fuss when we hit $200 a barrel a few decades from now. Maybe then the crisis will be for real.