Sheela Basrur, Remembered

“The voice of reason, science, and authority.” That’s how Toronto mayor David Miller described Dr. Sheela Basrur, the woman who led Toronto through the SARS crisis. Dr. Basrur passed away of cancer in June. At a public memorial last Friday, Oct. 17—her birthday—speakers lined up to commemorate her life and achievements. Fittingly, the tribute was held at U of T’s Convocation Hall, where Dr. Basrur graduated from medical school in 1982.

When SARS hit Toronto in 2003, Dr. Basrur was the city’s commissioner of public health. SARS claimed 44 lives that year. With the possibility of a widespread epidemic on its hands, Toronto faced an overwhelming public health challenge.

Dr. Basrur, then 47, was well-regarded for her knowledge and bearing, helped to curb fear and anxiety.

Federal minister of health, Tony Clement, Premiere Dalton McGuinty, Mayor David Miller, CBC’s Andy Barrie, and Ontario public health officials spoke glowingly of Dr. Basrur.

Clement used two words to describe her character: “empathy and poise.” Despite her small size, joked McGuinty, Dr. Basrur was a towering figure in Ontario. “[She could] see past the rest of us, showing the way in a time of trouble,” he said.

Managing SARS wasn’t the only notable achievement of her career. Promoted to Chief Medical Officer of Health for Ontario, she developed the colour-coded food safety alerts now mandatory for bars and restaurants, not to mention her work on the city-wide smoking ban.

“Tellers of the truth should tell the truth and run,” Premier McGuinty said. “She would never run.” An influential figure in the Toronto community, Dr. Sheela Basrur was a champion for public health. She will be missed.

No travel to danger zones, says McGill

McGill students might have to rethink their study abroad plans. Under a new policy, students can’t take part in university-related activities in countries deemed dangerous by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the McGill Tribune reported.

The administration says that Quebec law leaves the school vulnerable to potential lawsuits from students in case of accidental injury or death, even if students sign liability waivers. A memo to deans, directors, and chairs barred travel to countries with level three (avoid non-essential travel) and level four (avoid all travel) warnings.

Among the 20 off-limits countries are Afghanistan, Haiti, Indonesia, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Regions in 39 countries, including China, Colombia, and Russia, are also restricted.

“If I were a [prospective] undergraduate or PhD candidate […] I would probably reconsider McGill,” grad student Carine Chehab told the Tribune. Upset faculty say these changes can damage student recruitment, especially for graduate students that specialize in banned countries and regions. Chehab said she wasn’t given credit for an internship in Lebanon because of the country’s level-three warning.

Morton Mendleson, the deputy provost of student life and learning whose office handles the new policy, said the issue of travel warnings is under review. Mendelson expects the revised travel policy to be finished by the end of October.

How does U of T handle travel to dangerous areas? “For a higher level of caution, undergraduate students may be suspended [from travels] but if an advisory is the third or fourth level, we still permit graduate students the activity,” said Safety Abroad Office advisor Holly Luffman.

“But graduate studies have to be academically appropriate and risks have to be essential for their studies,” she added.

Ryerson leaves student info unsecure

Ryerson University is conducting an investigation into a security breach that occurred two weeks ago, in which confidential documents were left in unlocked offices at Kerr Hall South.

According to student newspaper the Eyeopener, boxes labeled “shred” and “confidential” were strewn about the empty office space. Payroll stubs, past exams, and student numbers, along with staff tenure reports and resumés were among the documents waiting to be shredded.

Although the documents have been removed, the university’s violation of Ontario privacy laws means students’ private information was temporarily compromised.

Ontario universities are bound by the 2006 Freedom of Information and Privacy Act, under which students have the right to access their own official records and academic information. Student information held by universities is considered private and must be protected under the act.

An investigation is underway to discover how and why the breach occurred. Affected individuals have been informed of the incident and the measures taken to secure their records.

Reinventing the Rosenbergs

The emotional apex of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America is the scene where Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost says Kaddish—the Jewish prayer for the dead—over the body of Roy Cohn in 1980s New York. Cohn was the lawyer responsible for the 1951 conviction and subsequent execution of her and her husband Julius. The idea of an innocent victim absolving her executioner’s crimes makes Kushner’s scene poignant. But moving as it is, the drama carries new meaning today: 55 years after the Rosenbergs met their fate in the electric chair, the Cold War’s most famous casualties have been recast in the annals of history.

Last month, Morton Sobell, the now-91-year-old co-defendant in the Rosenberg trial, confessed to The New York Times that both he and Julius Rosenberg were spying for the Russians.

Sobell’s remarkable admission followed the release of incriminating grand jury documents from the original 1951 trial, half a century after his adamant denial of involvement in Cold War espionage. The event brings years of American left-wing support, controversy, and speculation to a grinding halt.

Since their deaths in 1953, popular opinion has painted the Rosenbergs as no more sinister than members of the U.S. Communist party. Their widely presumed innocence had, by the time of Sobell’s confession, turned their story into an American tragedy. The two were sold out by Ethel’s own brother, and their death sentences issued at a time of such strident anti-Soviet paranoia that lawyers boasted jokingly that they could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. The Rosenbergs came to symbolize martyrdom to left-wing dissidents and fighters for civil liberties. Writer Jean-Paul Sartre called the case “a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation.”

Now, even the Rosenberg’s two sons—perhaps the world’s most recognizable Cold War orphans—are conceding their father’s guilt to the press after years of defending his innocence.

After over five decades, the proverbial jig is up for Julius Rosenberg. But what does this mean for Ethel?

Among the trial documents released by the U.S. federal court was a statement made by the Rosenbergs’ sister-in-law showing that the infraction for which Ethel was ultimately convicted, typing up key notes to give to the Soviets, was almost certainly false.

Prosecutors in the Rosenberg trial were especially hard on Ethel: they hoped to gain leverage over her husband in order to ultimately secure his confession. Both Ethel and Julius remained tight-lipped, ultimately put to death for Julius’ misdeeds.

What has historically been viewed as the joint tragedy of “the Rosenbergs” is a story that still rings with judicial injustice. More than a case of political witch-hunting, the real heartbreak is Ethel Rosenberg’s execution for refusing to hand over her husband. The ballad of the Rosenbergs might just be Ethel’s personal requiem.

The hippie food edition

Friday’s Food on Fire conference at New College felt like an industry party for young, urban intellectual do-gooders. As a well-intentioned supermarket shopper who unfortunately can’t afford organic produce, I felt crass, corrupt, and out of place.

“Biofuels, Global Warming and Food Security,” read the conference poster’s earnest marquee, stationed against a tabletop gallery of photos by a miniature collective of Equity Studies students. Comfortably dressed 20-somethings with flawless complexions hobnobbed over their latest urban farming exploits while I nervously topped my travel mug with complimentary coffee and attempted to shove a half-muffin into my face. Naturally, it was at that exact moment that I heard my name called.

My dear friend Liz, a woman wholeheartedly impassioned by food sustainability and the joy of feeding, had shown up out of genuine interest (and not just journalistic curiosity). She did not look pleased.

“Are you writing about this?” she asked me. I told her I was, but that I was also curious.

She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Somewhere in your article, you might want to make a wisecrack about how most of the people running this thing are big, fancy academic men, when women are usually the ones doing the work in the kitchen.” Whether or not my friend’s observation is a provable statistic, her remark brought up an important point: meals embody nourishment, associated with caretakers—frequently women—and the home. This conference, from what I observed, seemed to largely gloss over this fundamental point.

I’m probably being curmudgeonly, but an air of intellectual cronyism seemed to permeate the discussions I attended, rendering them nearly inaccessible. While one might expect this at a university-sponsored conference, for a genuinely curious spectator with no background in food activism, it was thoroughly uninviting. And Liz—my hands-on-experienced, farm shareholding, self-taught chef extraordinaire ally—seemed a bit perturbed.

“You know, ideally I would like to work in ‘The Movement,’” she said, punctuating her last two words with the auditory equivalent of scare quotes. “But I wish the discussions here had more practical applications. None of this stuff applies to me getting involved. Or getting a job. There are no jobs. Forget it, you better get in with the right people right away and volunteer for like three years, or you’re screwed.”

Liz’s frustration struck a chord with me, the outsider convinced that, at any second, someone at the conference would figure out I was a meat-eating hack and kick me to the curb. I might like to get involved with “The Movement,” but I’m not convinced that “The Movement” would be too thrilled to get involved with me.

Conference aims to stimulate environmental activism at U of T

The hot topic of climate change was on everyone’s mind at the recent Climate Catastrophe and Social Justice: Analysis and Action conference held at the U of T. Sponsored by Science for Peace and supported by GSU Student Justice Committee, UTERN, and Students Against Climate Change, it was both a student activist and academic conference featuring many speakers and workshops on climate change topics.

A desire for results was the day’s theme. Cheryl Teelucksingh, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Ryerson University dispelled the myth that “people of colour do not care about the environment” through her discussion about environmental justice and racialization.

Also addressing the topic was 22 year-old Ben Powless, co-founder of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition and student at Carlton University. Powless spoke about issues close to home, such as the impacts of the environment on Indigenous peoples and the Arctic. He argued that by framing climate justice within a human rights context, it “gives Indigenous and impacted communities the right to speak for themselves and empower them to participate in debates [about climate change].”

Environment in relation to business was another key issue. Dr. Leslie Jermyn from U of T’s Anthropology Department critiqued capitalism in her speech, as did Dr. Jim Stanford. He discussed the problems of nature regulation under capitalism, providing his own solutions. One suggestion for positive change was “to think about Toronto not as simply a built space or simply a human space, but it is also a natural space… and all its meanings, [and] how we live with nature in cities.”

The climate change conference provided not just analysis, but also action. A panel of speakers providing legal, political, and practical directions for reducing our footprint took the stage in the late afternoon. Theresa McClenghan, a lawyer from the Canadian Environmental Law Association discussed how the public can affect environmental law. Albert Koehl critiqued the transportation system and provided simple, yet powerful advice saying, “If you’re going to deal with global warming, you have to get out of your cars.”

Action took another form through a series of workshops. Each presentation bridged the gap between speakers and audience, allowing for discussion of practical action happening within campus and throughout Toronto.

Those who attended the transportation workshop spoke with members of Bikechain, U of T’s bicycle repair facility and supporter of carbon-free commuting. Another group debated how society could achieve a future richer in green technologies. Representatives from FoodShare and Local Food Plus—organizations that help build sustainable food systems—addressed food’s connection to climate change.

The workshops were a hit with students, “phenomenal” even, as described by Eric Bear, an OCAD student currently studying Integrated Media. He enjoyed the free-form format of the workshops, but wished they had provided more time for discussion.

In a post-conference interview, Paul York, a conference organizer and board member of Science for Peace, articulated several aims of the conference saying, “there was definitely an activist component to…[the conference], aimed at stimulating progressive environmental activism at U of T and encouraging people to get involved who were not involved before.” This activism was addressed in the Climate Camp workshop. Climate camp is active in the U.S., England, and Africa, and will take place in Ottawa in 2009. According to Paul, “The basic idea is that young people get together and live together for a few days[…]in a makeshift camp during which time they have intensive workshops and discussions with experts on climate change and collective resistance to social injustice. Sometimes Climate Camp results in non-violent civil disobedience action[…]to bring media attention to the issue.”

The Climate Catastrophe and Social Justice: Analysis and Action conference was more than just a meeting of minds. It was a call to youth-oriented action against climate change. Based on the success and strong attendance of the October 4 conference, the call was heard.

Editorial: Towards Private Education

The future looks bleak. U of T president David Naylor’s grand ambitions in his Towards 2030 plan, will steer the university towards an Ivy League model. If all goes according to Naylor’s plan, by 2030 the university will be a research-focused institution that relies on endowments, gouges students on tuition and cuts undergrad enrolment.

The plan recognizes that the province is shortchanging universities. Ontario remains the province with the lowest per capita post-secondary education funding—largely a result of massive cutbacks during the Mike Harris days. Naylor would have the university master its fiscal woes by jacking up tuition and lobbying for more corporate cash.

The university, it seems, has given up on affordable higher education. To justify the fee increases, Towards 2030 cites the 50 per cent of university students who leave U of T debt-free. It’s hardly a healthy goal to leave the rest of the graduating population in debt. The focus should be on those that do leave debt-ridden, and on the people who never make it to the university because they fall through the gaps in the financial aid system.

So far, Naylor has refused to join students and community in a combined appeal to the province for increased funding. It’s because students want lower tuition fees, and the president won’t have it.

Governing Council will pass the proposal on October 23, no questions asked. GC’s subsidiary committees—Planning & Budget Committee and Academic Board—have already accepted Towards 2030. GC will refuse to consider concerns of the U of T Faculty Association and student unions: that increased fees and corporate involvement will further compromise university accessibility and integrity.

Did anybody bother to ask the student body or the faculty what they think of the plan? It’s clear that this document serves corporate interests—and corporations have plenty of representatives who get to vote on Thursday. The U of T community has everything to lose—but with a few easy strokes, a powerful few will quash the needs of 70,000 stakeholders. The token eight seats given to students on a 50-member Governing Council supposedly give the student body a voice on the university’s most powerful decision-making body. Too bad the university can so easily turn a deaf ear.

Chemicals That Changed The World: Uranium

Arguably the most controversial element of the 21st century, uranium is responsible for the generation of green energy via its use as a nuclear reactor fuel, and the construction of nuclear weapons.

Uranium is a silvery white metallic substance with the highest atomic weight of all the naturally occurring elements. Discovered in 1789 by German chemist Martin Klaproth, for the first 145 years following its unearthing it was primarily used for tinting glass neon green and yellow.

Subsequent to the creation of the Manhattan Project, it was exploited for its fissionable chain-reaction properties in pursuit of developing the nuclear bomb. Fission is the process by which an atom is split into two, overcoming the strong nuclear force that binds it together. By breaking this bond, a tremendous amount of energy is released, in heat and radiation.

Uranium’s distinctiveness stems from the fact that the neutron byproducts of its fission can instigate fission in other close by uranium atoms, causing a powerful chain reaction. This reaction can be released all at once, as seen when the “Little Boy” atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. It can also be used in a controlled manner, like in the Candu Nuclear Power plant in Pickering, Ontario.

As a nuclear weapon, uranium has no doubt changed the world. However, it has also provided new hope for environmentally-conscious ways of generating electricity, helping confront global warming and reduction of greenhouse gases.