Time to CA$H in

University of Toronto commerce students are bracing for this Saturday’s Battle for CA$H competition, sponsored by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario.

There, 39 teams of undergraduate business students selected by student societies from 18 universities across the province will aim to out-fox each other for rewards that include impressing future employers, and also a respectable pile of money.

Evgenia Volodarski, one of this year’s competitors, was also involved in last year’s competition, in which U of T excelled in technical aspects, but lost out in peer judging of their ethics.

“Maybe we were a bit big-headed,” she allowed, promising to be “more humble” this year and “win with decorum and class.”

Team spirit is strong among the first-year students of St. George’s highly competitive commerce program. Andrew Lenjosek, a commerce freshman, said he hopes to beat competing schools to “keep up the U of T pride.”

Beyond bragging rights, prizes include major resumé material, according to competitors.

“I’m really looking forward to representing University of Toronto, the amazing networking opportunities, and the chance to meet other students from their respective universities,” said Belinda Chiu, a junior ambassador for the Accounting Society of U of T.

“It is a great way for students in all years to not only develop their teamwork and interpersonal skills, but also […] a chance to interact with leaders in the accounting industry—notably experienced representatives from the Big Four accounting firms,” added Chiu’s teammate, Boyan Zhao.

All teams will aim to beat last year’s CA$H champs—UTSC—for the $3,000 first place prize and the additional $1,000 that goes to the winning university’s accounting club.

According to Bessie Qu, a second-year commerce student involved in several committees of ASUT and the Commerce Student Association, CA$H allows U of T students to see how they measure up against students from other universities, especially in skills not taught in the classroom.

The competition, which will take place at ICAO’s offices in Toronto this Saturday, will focus not just on arithmetic, but also problemsolving, teamwork, and strategizing.

“All the math skills in the world cannot help without these competencies,” said Perry Jensen, of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario. “[CA$H] is also a chance for major employers to talk about what they are looking for and a chance to win money. And who doesn’t love money?”

Abstinence goes all the way

There is something more than cheeky about a Tom Perotta novel. Although marketed as popular fiction with a big screen adaptation around the bend, they also play host to a mean literary streak. This doesn’t destabilize his output; rather, it makes Perotta exciting and slightly unpredictable. He’s got what you might call authorial moxie.

In previous novels like Election or the terrific Little Children, Perotta demonstrated his knack for blurring the line between adult and child, moral and immoral, grim and funny. He lays out plot and characters so intelligently and sensitively, we navigate his perfect world the way his suburban protagonists cruise their leafy-green neighborhoods in shiny SUVs. This is part of what distinguishes Perotta as a marvelously vigilant writer, but his hand appears maddeningly in the frame. Sometimes, things are too pristine, as if he couldn’t quite let go. The Abstinence Teacher does not differ in this regard, but feels more liberated, partially because the shifting character perspectives work better than they did in Little Children.

At the hub of The Abstinence Teacher is lonely sex-ed teacher Ruth, your liberal-minded, intimacy- promotin’ divorced mother of two. Add one addiction-recovering Born Again named Tim, a regressive new high school curriculum, and what do you get? Ethical hijinks with a light dusting of sexual tension. In spite of this formulaic pop rock of a setup, Abstinence works because the refreshing way in which the “odd couple” cliché is dismantled: it never explodes, but rather keeps simmering to the very last page. Perotta revels in writing about middle-class educated suburbanites with a piece missing from the existential puzzle—he draws it so well—the language, the school politics, the soccer matches. When I finished the book, it was hard to believe I was Canadian, not some Midwestern sap. Perotta handles the so-called “adult world” like a slightly more forgiving John Cheever. He lays the hypocrisy down on the table for all to see, but never tortures his characters for their flaws. All of the villains, like Joann Marlow—perky-breasted advocate of an ABSTINENCE ONLY, CHILDREN! sex-ed program, are viewed in a generous light, ridiculous, rather than nefarious.

Where Perotta shines is in his ability to write children. They are adults without the double-dealing; ingenuous but also cynical. Through the eyes of their floundering parents, they are both sources of delight—as in the way Tim views his daughter, and the team of girls he coaches and objects of mystery and pain, such as Ruth’s response to her teenage daughter’s desire to “want to know Jesus.” Maybe it’s not a stylistic or thematically subtle book, but what it does, it does effectively.

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?