Losing paradise

We have commenced our descent when a strong wind from the north pushes the tiny aircraft headlong into the mountain to our left. Soren, my partner and travelling companion, clamps his sweaty palm hard on to my thigh—he’s always had a fear of flying. As our plane touches down on the barely-paved runway, I breathe a sigh of relief. Surrounded by the lush tropical forests of eastern Panama, we make our way towards Immigration, which is really just a bamboo hut with a few benches. A local man stamps our passports, and children paw at the few bags we’ve brought. It seems like the whole village has made its way to the airport to welcome our arrival.

The Cormaca de Kuna Yala is the semi-autonomous home of the Kuna, located in the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. The region is only accessible by aircraft. Rough terrain, combined with annual floods and guerrilla activity to the east, has made it impossible to build roads. Consequently, the Kuna have flourished in relative isolation, maintaining political and cultural autonomy. The area’s inaccessibility has also led to the natural preservation of the ecosystem against development. Simply put, the San Blas Islands are the stuff of postcards. White sand beaches, windswept palms and tiny islands dot the rugged costal terrain. In the early 1980s, the Kuna put aside 60,000 acres as designated parkland, making them the first indigenous group in Latin America to do so. The creation of the protected area was based on their belief in “Spirit Sanctuaries,” a space where spiritual animals, plants, and demons reside. This system, in conjunction with the belief that all living things have a spiritual dimension, forms the foundation for the conservationist efforts of the Kuna people.

We board a dugout canoe outfitted with a modern motor engine on the back, and head for the tiny island we’ll call home for the next week. The Kuna pack their communities tightly onto the islands of the archipelago, reserving the mainland for agriculture and hunting. This technique protects the communities from the influx of malaria and yellow fever, which thrive in the jungles but have little impact on the coast. Our own island has seven bamboo huts. There is a communal space for eating and bathing.

Over the next few days our guide, Domi, takes us around the region. Sporting Guess Jeans and a baseball cap, Domi speaks little Spanish and even less English, telling us “the mangroves are the life force of the Kuna people. We use them for everything, for making rope, building houses, and to prevent erosion. Ukupseni relies of them for her nature. The mangroves are like a mother.”

Emphasis on the balance of the earth, and the great mother is made repeatedly throughout our stay. At the community gravesite, Domi explains the symbolism of the graves. The Kuna do not bury their deceased, but rather pile mounds of earth on top, posting sticks at either end. “The stick posts represent hammock posts, to help the deceased find comfort. The mounds of earth are symbolic of the pregnancy of the mother earth. The deceased will be reborn from the mother and into the natural world.”

I am taken by the myth of the Kuna tribe, at one with nature, in perfect balance and harmony. Miles away from the pressures of globalization, these people have carved out a sustainable existence based on coconuts, fresh fish, and local crafts.

On our final day in the San Blas, Domi wakes us up early and declares that we will visit the community. I am thrilled to see the life force of this impressive region. As our canoe docks at the tiny island, I immediately notice the hundreds of children. We walk down the dust-covered street between the rows of bamboo huts. It seems the entire community has come to greet us.

The children sport western outfits, belly tops, jewellery, some even have Ipods. Almost every girl over the age of twelve is pregnant. A cross looming at the end of the main street proves that the animistic traditions of the Kuna have long been put to rest. I look harder at the children. There is a glazed look in their eyes. One girl stumbles past me, a pop can in one hand, and a comb repeatedly pulled through her greasy hair. She must be about nine years old. I look closer. She’s high. On gasoline. I look around the crowd of children before us. They’re all high. Some of the adults too. I look at Domi who refuses to meet my eyes, a heartbroken look on his face. On our way back to the canoe, we spot a larger boat, docked at bay. Columbian drug runners on their way up the coast to Carti.

At night I curl up in my hammock, wind howling through the cracks of our bamboo hut. Tomorrow we will board a plane, back to the mainland. I wonder if I was naive to believe this place should be different than any other. I wonder if it’s my mere presence as a tourist that has rendered the dismal future for the Kuna. It’s dark now; there are no lights for miles. I sink further into the hammock and gaze up at the mystery above.

Students rally to abort ‘genocide’ demonstration

Along with the first robins, tulips and term papers, spring at U of T is marked by the arrival of anti-abortion activists. Around this time each year, U of T Students for Life and their off-campus allies break out a set of posters from the U.S. group Genocide Awareness Project and protest on campus.

This year’s demonstration was held last Thursday, April 3, at the corner of St. George and Harbord. The pro-lifers stood on all four corners, holding graphic posters equating abortion with slavery and the Holocaust. They were outnumbered about three to one by a coalition of pro-choice campus groups, including UTSU, ASSU, the Centre for Women and Trans People, the GSU, CUPE 3902, CFS-Ontario and the Steelworkers.

Jim Delaney, director of the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students, was on hand observing the demonstrations. Delaney makes a point of observing controversial events on campus.

“It’s simply useful to have a firsthand account of what transpired,” he said. In this case, very little did: “I did not witness any problems directed against either the group displaying the GAP materials, or against the counter-protesters.”

The university keeps tabs on these protests, usually attempting to negotiate their location ahead of time with U of T Students for Life.

“The university acknowledges the group’s to right to free expression. However, the rights of others who choose not to view the materials must also be respected,” said Delaney. Admin would prefer that the gory posters be set up in a circle or a tent, where students can choose to view them or avoid them.

But Students for Life isn’t having any of it—this year, they broke off negotiations with admin and set up shop on the sidewalk, which is not under U of T’s jurisdiction.

As fellow protesters held up their graphic posters, anti-abortion activist (and non-student) Rosemary Connell discussed the beginning of life.

“When you deny that a child is conceived, that there’s a child, right there, there is no other place to draw that line,” she said. “Who puts it there? Who puts it at 26 hours? Who puts it at two months?”

David Knight, a passing student who identified himself as prochoice, countered Connell: “You have to admit there’s a huge difference between a 24-year-old, sixfoot- two man and a collection of cells the size of a quarter.”

Connell claimed repeatedly that women who choose abortion are psychologically damaged by the experience. With adoption, she argued, “There isn’t that terrible, terrible regret, for the rest of her life.”

She also covered issues from capital punishment to the Terri Schiavo case.

“Terri Schiavo could smile, could communicate, the media didn’t want you to know that because we live in a very anti-life society,” she said.

The mood at the counter-protest was upbeat, with cheers greeting a call of “20 years of reproductive choice in this country!” Chantal Sundaram, a CUPE 3902 staff rep, said the counter-protesters were well-received by passing students.

On other campuses across North America, Jewish student group Hillel has demonstrated against GAP’s Holocaust comparisons. Hillel was not available for comment. Sundaram, however, did take issue with the GAP materials’ juxtapositions.

“It’s just such an insulting comparison to anyone who has in any way been affected by actual genocide, whether it’s the Holocaust or any other sort of terrible calamity that they’re drawing a parallel to,” she said. “It’s disrespectful to the real victims of those events.”

Don’t ignore the nitty gritty

As anyone involved in political activism can tell you, nothing derails a movement quite like a fight over tactics. U of T’s student movement is off the rails— in the face of a 20 per cent residence fee increase at New College, most students seem to be siding with President David Naylor.

While we exchange insults in the Varsity’s comment threads, important issues are getting lost. At the University Affairs Board Meeting on March 25, a group of senior administrators presented a report that could fundamentally change the way ancillary services are funded at U of T. The report articulated a “fourth objective” for residences at U of T: to bring in a profit.

At the moment, most residences operate at a substantial net loss. Since a relatively small number of primarily well-off students live on campus, it’s reasonable to suggest that commuter students should not subsidize residences. That means, ideally, that residences should break even. It doesn’t mean that they should fund other initiatives.

Residences can’t haemorrhage money the way New College does, so something needs to change. I’m not sure that change should come on the backs of students, especially students living in the decrepit Wilson and Wetmore halls. But the fee increase was only one item on that UAB meeting agenda. The university’s whole attitude towards ancillary services is changing, and in the long run, that is what will hurt students.

While we squabble, a precedent is being set. In the past, some residences have brought in modest profits. Those profits have funded residence expansion the right way: with a large down payment and a small mortgage. If this report’s recommendations are taken seriously, in the future, those profits will be put to use by the administration at Simcoe Hall.

Other changes may be on the way. The New College Residence Review Committee also suggested closing down 89 Chestnut to “increase demand and pricing power for remaining residences.” Another recommendation: scrapping the first year residence guarantee.

U of T has been underfunded for as long as you or I can remember. It’s no surprise that this administration is desperately seeking new streams of revenue. If the admin was really concerned with student engagement they would be open about their intentions. And If the student movement was serious about access, they would stop shouting for a few minutes and spread the word about all the nitty gritty policy changes that will ultimately make education inaccessible.

Quebec isn’t the only player in the Conservative constitutional controversy

The Conservatives may be biting off more than they can chew. In the most recent controversy involving Quebec, voices from within the Conservative caucus have given credence to the possibility of the Harper government opening up the Constitution to enshrine new clauses for Quebec, providing that the Conservatives win a majority in the next election.

But is this just a way for the Conservatives to reach majority seats in Quebec, as they did in the heyday of the 1988 Progressive Conservative government, or is this a genuine approach to appease the province that once sought secession from Canada? Word from within the party caucus has described the party debate as incredibly heated. Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn has said that there is a definite possibility of his government opening up the Constitution for Quebec’s gain. Blackburn also raised ideas of winning 30 to 40 seats in the province purely as a result of this promise. Emphasizing the need for a focused goal, Blackburn ruled out Liberal gains in the province. This, he said, has sent a message to Quebeckers that “people will choose between the Bloc Quebecois and us.”

The issue of extending powers to Quebec through the opening of the constitution can go in two directions. Canada stands by the democratic principles of federalism, whereby exclusive powers are given to each province that separates each one from the government. But there’s a limit to how far these powers should extend. It is beneficial for Canada to willingly recognize Quebec as a prominent province, however this recognition needs to be limited. Certainly giving more powers to Quebec would bind the referendum-happy province with Canada, but what about the other provinces?

The government should be concerned how the remaining provinces in Canada would react if an exclusive agreement was granted to Quebec. There should be a mutual relationship between the provinces and an assurance that the provinces outside of Quebec will receive equal consideration for their own unique identities, instead of focusing federal attention on Quebec.

It is still premature to predict the outcome of granting extended powers to Quebec—though the Conservative government has since denied these ambitions—but it’s likely that the rest of Canada would have mixed feelings.

Provisions should be taken to appease all provinces, preventing Quebec from abusing these powers. Quebec would certainly have a stronger sense of federalism if they had more autonomy within the country, since it would make calls of separation somewhat moot. However, too much power may anger other provincial leaders. Opening up the Constitution shows weakness on the part of the federal government—they’d be seen as being subservient to the province and may hurt Conservative numbers come election time.

Conservative have lofty ambitions for a majority government, and a key to this is gaining more seats in Quebec. The federal government’s desire to triumph in future elections may or may not bring Quebec closer to Canada, but giving Quebec special treatment is far too likely to raise concerns from other provinces.

For now the Conservative government has declared the issue closed, but that’s likely to change when it’s election season once again.

It takes a sit-in to make U of T listen

Students are against fee hikes. In campus-wide plebiscite in 2005, 98 per cent of U of T students voted against fee increases. And it’s not just students: according to a 2007 poll by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, 80 per cent of Canadians support lowering or freezing fees. Despite all this, the Governing Council votes every year to increase our fees. In fact, the university’s administration has vocally advocated deregulating fees entirely (calling it “self-regulation”). Yes, the federal and provincial governments are responsible, but when the university’s administration advocates increasing fees, it enables governments to continue with policies of inadequate funding. In a society where inequality is deepening, it also means complicity in perpetuating a cycle of poverty. Targeting the university’s administration is a focal point of many in the struggle for accessible education.

The administration continuously chooses to ignore student demands. They say hundreds of students are involved in decision-making, but how many are positioned to make decisive change? The Governing Council—U of T’s highest decision-making body—has eight student seats out of 50. Only four of these eight seats are for full-time undergraduates (including professional programs) over all three campuses. The other four are for part-time students and graduate students. Despite composing 10 per cent of the student population, international students are not permitted to participate. Elected student representatives, such as those on UTSU, which represents over 40,000 students, are regularly denied positions on Governing Council bodies. More blatantly, the university has always ignored decisions and recommendations of those governing bodies that are composed of a student majority, such as the Council on Student Services. CoSS has consistently voted down ancillary fee increases, but these decisions have been overridden by—you guessed it—the Governing Council, making CoSS’s efforts an exercise in futility.

This futility is evident in the process by which New College’s 20 per cent residence fee hike was approved. New College students and student representatives made numerous attempts through meetings and negotiations to stress their opposition. Jason Marin, president of the New College Student Council (NCSC), condemned the increase through a press release, and the treasurer of the New College Residence Council (NCRC) made it clear to the Governing Council’s University Affairs Board that NCRC did not support the 20 per cent increase. Rick Halpern, principal of New College, continued to assert that students were consulted before the decision was made. One can very well claim to consult sheep before leading them to slaughter.

Needless to say, we are not sheep. We are students and we will resist these formal avenues that have been designed to suppress—not facilitate— true student participation. As long as these structures continue to ignore the voices of students, we have no option but to escalate our expression of dissent. On Thursday, March 20, over 40 students staged a sit-in at Simcoe Hall—many of whom have been lobbying the administration for years. The students’ main demand was to speak with president David Naylor in person or by telephone. Students also asked for the proposed fee increases to be removed from the March 25 University Affairs Board meeting agenda and to be given 15 minutes at the meeting for a presentation and discussion of broader issues regarding the accessibility of education. Ultimately, the peaceful sit-in was met with physical aggression by campus police on the orders of senior administrators. Having consistently ignored student voices for years, the administration once more swept student concerns aside.

Students, workers, and community members will be meeting for an Open Forum on Monday, April 7 at William Doo Auditorium at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the inaccessibility of post-secondary education and the notion that education is a universal right for all. There will also be a rally outside of Simcoe Hall on Thursday, April 10 at 4 p.m., when Governing Council meets to vote on increasing fees. We have to come together and discuss these issues in depth.

Faraz Shahidi and Ryan Hayes are ASSU Executive Members

Working for the weekend

For hundreds of artists, photographers, musicians, and filmmakers, this old adage is particularly relevant. All pursuing interests that are not as marketable as say, investment banking, most artsy twenty-somethings have to slag away their 9 to 5 at a job that will pay at least some of the bills.

But how does one balance a day job, and still find time to make art in the extra hours? According to actor and dancer Clayton Labbe, a Starbucks employee (a frequent day job for the creative kind) for six years, it’s not easy. “I try to go out and audition as much as I can,” he says, but is aware that he would have to get a great acting gig to pursue it full time.

With so many artistic individuals trying to supplement their income with a day job, it is important to find the best one. Known for overworking and underpaying their employees, most entry-level jobs will try hard to stiff you. Many swear by Starbucks, which has an above average starting wage of $9.50, and offers health benefits and stock options, as well as artistic grants. “Starbucks is one of the few places with the flexibility and scheduling that allows for rehearsals and auditions,” Labbe says. While he likes the job, he does tire of it. “No, I don’t think I would be happy making lattes for the rest of my life—I think I would kill myself,” he jokes.

Still, some jobs are more fun than others. Erin Fauteux, a saxophonist in U of T’s music faculty, clocks in regularly at the adult-oriented Misbehav’n on Queen St. W. When asked what drew her to the position, she quips, “I like sex!” But that’s not all. “I thought this would be an interesting experience, and it would really allow me to get more educated, and to help others achieve pleasure in their lives.” With an eclectic clientele to pass the hours she can’t spend on music, Fateux relates: “I often end up mediating couples in which one of them is really shy, or the other feels threatened by the size of our, ahem, products.”

But working at a sex shop isn’t all fun and dildos. While Fauteux would like to be a full time musician in the future, she doesn’t see much hope. Music jobs pay well, she says, but there aren’t enough of them. “If I had an eight-hour gig, I wouldn’t have to work [at Misbehav’n] for a week! But they are just a few hours in length.”

And difficult to find. Cellist and singer Hilary Gibson-Wood, who plays with the altrock band The Urban Symphony, also fills a full-time job in order to play music at night. Two years of day jobs, however, have earned her a pretty nice one: a position as a health researcher at the Center for Research of Inner City Health at Saint Michael’s Hospital. While Gibson-Wood reveals that unlike Labbe and Fauteux, she is paid well, she doesn’t see music as a viable option. “I don’t think I ever seriously considered a career as a musician on its own,” she admits.

For Labbe, Fauteux and Gibson-Wood, a career in the arts seems to be an increasing impossibility. If you do have the fortuity to find a job that pays the bills, it is unlikely that you can make a living. In 2001, Statistics Canada found that musicians and painters earn half the salary of the average Canadian worker, while actors make ten grand less than the annual average income of $31,000. And these are the supposed success stories.

A day job can offer temporary relief but can’t solve the problem of artist unemployment. The low wages frequently provided often leave workers without a solution. “If I am still working at Misbehav’n after graduation, I would have absolutely no chance of paying off the $40,000 I will owe the government for my student loans,” Fauteux says. And for Labbe, full time at Starbucks has left him “barely above the poverty level.”

The solution appears far off. While the arts remain under funded and the jobs are few and far between, day jobs seem the only answer. But there are ways improve the lifestyle of the aspiring artiste. “If there is anything I have learned in my many years of minimum wage service jobs, it is that appreciation is the greatest thing a boss can give to his or her employees, and it brings the greatest rewards,” says Fauteux.

And while all three remain busy, they still fight to find time for their artistic expression, says Gibson-Wood. “I’ve always hoped to keep music and creative endeavors in my life, whether it turns out to be a source of income or not.”

Leatherheads goes long… too long

Oh, how the 1920s always look so beautiful in Hollywood period pieces. The films are lighted with rich amber hues and scored to the music of Al Jolson. Everyone wears fedoras and tailored suits, the speakeasies have great jazz singers and fistfights that don’t look too painful, and the cars are shiny and the streets are always clean. The 1920s set the scene for George Clooney’s third directorial effort, Leatherheads. And while the movie is long and only fitfully amusing, boy…it sure looks great.

Clooney is Jimmy “Dodge” Connelly, the captain of the not-very-talented Bulldogs football team. On the verge of a collapse, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), a decorated war hero, emerges as the most popular figure in college football. Dodge convinces his superiors to recruit Carter, who brings in thousands of fans to the bleachers. But there’s trouble beyond the gridiron: an ambitious sports reporter (Renée Zellweger) has heard that Carter may not be the war hero he’s cracked up to be. Of course, a love triangle ensues.

Clooney, who has appeared in several of the Coen brothers’ comedies, seems to be channeling the Coens’ comic sensibility. He fills Leatherheads with a lot of broad, cartoon-like characters, and self-conscious references to past films, particularly the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s starring Hepburn and Tracy. The humour shifts between aggressively quirky visual gags (one of the football team members is a 300-pound highschooler, ho ho) and witty dialogue, as Clooney and Zellweger trade rapid-fire comic banter. While Clooney is always an enjoyable actor with decent comic timing, Renée Zellweger is miscast. Her role calls for a ballsy, Rosalind Russell type, and low-key Zellweger isn’t up to the task. John Krasinski, from The Office, is pure vanilla in a very vanilla role.

Leatherheads runs an ungainly 114 minutes, at least 20 minutes longer than the average screwball. The climactic football scene feels drawnout, particularly following the logical ending. When a story has so little substance, is it too much to ask that it wrap up after 90 minutes?

Leatherheads wants to bring back memories of the storied ’30s screwball, but where those films felt spontaneous, this work is posturing. It’s as if Clooney wanted to emulate the tradition by constantly winking at the camera. The insincerity of Leatherheads becomes quite alienating. Yet it’s hard to hate it entirely. There is something about Clooney’s screen presence that’s kind of seductive, even if it doesn’t quite gel. There’s also something intriguing about the film’s hyperfetishized time capsule. Even the mud on the football field looks beautiful. A lot of skilled technicians have done a very good job creating this cinematic wax museum.

A Scientific split

An ongoing feud between scientists lies beneath the surface of scientific discourse. Virtually all scientists have an opinion about it, and there are no easy answers. This far-reaching debate is the everlasting rivalry between the “hard sciences” and the “soft sciences.”

The distinction between hard and soft science is a fluid one. Many sciences don’t fit cleanly into one category or the other. Hard sciences usually refer to the more technical, quantitative disciplines like physics and chemistry, while soft sciences like psychology, ecology or paleontology use qualitative, observational or historical data. There are no official definitions for either term, as the titles are disputed as vigorously as their implications.

Soft sciences are often seen as inferior, their observational methods disparaged as weak and “wishy-washy.” This hierarchy of science is discussed more openly. Recently, doctors Michael Salter and Kathleen Boydell of the Hospital for Sick Children organized an interactive discussion about the respective strengths of the hard and soft sciences. Soft scientists were out in full force, complaining about the lack of respect and funding they receive.

The dominance of hard science isn’t just a perception, and it’s not merely an academic argument. Historically, when a debate about a physical phenomenon is supported by hard science on one side and soft science on the other, the hard scientific evidence has been taken as true. Although hard science is often right, all scientific evidence should be given as unbiased consideration as possible.

Take the example of Lord Kelvin. In 1862, he calculated the age of the Earth by measuring its rate of cooling. Since radioactivity hadn’t been discovered, he didn’t realize that the Earth’s core was continually generating heat. He therefore pegged the Earth’s age at between 20 and 400 million years, far younger than our current estimate of 4.5 billion years.

“He was wrong, but he was honestly wrong,” said Dr. Stephen Morris, a physicist at U of T. “There was a physical effect that was not taken into consideration.” Science, as a self-correcting field, is continually searching for ways to disprove itself. The problem is that Kelvin’s answer ignored the geological evidence, which showed that the Earth must have been much, much older. The mathematical evidence was favoured over the softer, observational evidence.

The problem with the hierarchy of science isn’t just a lack of accolades—the soft sciences also receive less funding. Over the past 10 years, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research awarded $3.4 billion to biomedical research (considered ‘hard’ in the medical field) and only $465 million to social, cultural, environmental, and population health studies.

Some would argue that the hard sciences are more important and therefore deserve more funding. Hard scientific disciplines are vital for continued understanding of the physical world. But is knowing the lifespan of distant stars more important, and more deserving of public money, than figuring out the evolution of species based on the fossil record? Many scientific questions can’t be answered by physical measurements and calculations. Questions about evolution, the environment and human psychology need softer approaches to gain a full understanding.

The soft sciences may be gaining ground, however.

“Soft sciences are becoming harder and harder,” explained Dr. Stephen Morris of U of T’s physics department.

Formerly soft sciences are becoming more technical, with powerful computers that manage data to account for variables in a way that has never been possible, said Dr. Ray Carlberg, also from the department of physics. “Biology, and some areas of psychology, now have a rigorous physical understanding of what’s going on,” he said.

The soft sciences are in some ways able to achieve a level of mathematical rigour equal to that found in the hard sciences.

But is this really a compliment? Many soft scientists don’t feel that a lack of mathematical rigour is the only thing stopping them from gaining the respect enjoyed by the hard sciences. They feel that soft sciences should be appreciated for what they are, and not be forced to use math to be accepted. Their methods and procedures should be given equal value to the statistical methods found on the “hard” side of the fence. Paleontology, for example, gives a unique insight into the process of evolution without any use of mathematics. Stephen Jay Gould, a noted paleontologist, wrote that paleontology “uses a different mode of explanation, rooted in the comparative and observational richness of [the] data.”

Physicist Luis Alvarez once said, “Paleontologists… are really not very good scientists. They’re more like stamp collectors.” Many hard scientists feel that although soft scientists may investigate relevant questions, their work isn’t “real science.” So what is real science? Science is a systematic organization of collected knowledge. It’s an examination of the world around us. For Dr. Morris, science is “whatever can withstand intense skeptical scrutiny.”

Soft sciences do fit within that definition. The theory of evolution, for example, is based mainly on soft science, and it has withstood all scientific (if not religious) scrutiny to date. Scientific pursuits should use the best methods available for answering their questions, whether hard or soft.

Because of the historical dominance of the hard sciences, it is less necessary to argue for their continued support. The lines between different types of science are blurred as they interact and complement each other: many scientists believe the distinction between “hard” and “soft” should and will slowly fade. “Most scientists have respect for other scientists,” said Dr Carlberg, adding, “In the end we’re all interested in ideas, which are neither hard nor soft.” This mutual respect will be necessary for the success of science in its ultimate goal, the search for knowledge.