Sands of Grime

Images of barren grey wastelands were projected behind him as Canadian author and journalist Andrew Nikiforuk summarized the thesis of his most recent book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. A native Albertan, Nikiforuk argued that his province has become a “petro state,” and that the whole of Canada will follow, perpetuating an unsustainable, toxic industry.

Speaking at U of T’s Munk Center on Tuesday, Nikiforuk said that despite the province and oil industry’s arguments to the contrary, the extraction of oil causes major loss of biological diversity. “It’s an earth-destroying economy […] All the predictions are that woodland caribou will become extinct within the next 10 years in northern Alberta.” Nikiforuk also argues that decreasing water and air quality causes increasing cancer rates for Albertans.

A peculiar thing happens in regions reliant on privatized oil industries, said Nikiforuk. They tend to have long-term politicians, low taxes, and low voter turnout. Once the politicians start relying more on oil revenues than tax dollars, their loyalty falls to the oil companies. Recognizing this, locals become disillusioned and stop showing up at the polls. “People just stop voting,” explained Nikiforuk. “Why bother? You’re not being represented. You’re not paying any taxes so there’s no accountability.” He cited Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and Sarah Palin as examples of this.

As the industry expands and dependency on foreign customers—particularly the United States—grows, Nikiforuk sees numerous risks for the Canadian economy and sovereignty. “One of the consequences of becoming a petro state, of course, is that you have a petro dollar; your economy becomes pegged to the price of oil and we’ve seen that vary dramatically in Canada.” Nikiforuk fears that with trade deals being made to further tie the Canadian economy to the American one, sovereignty could become a big political issue. “In the end, if we continue at the rate we are going […] the economic integration could very well end Canada’s sovereignty.”

By the conclusion, Nikiforuk’s lecture was not only about scorched landscapes and tar, but national issues like Canada’s world reputation and conscience. “Canada has reached a point now where we need to have a national debate about the pace of development of this resource. If we do not, we will fail as a country.”

Far from heaven

Oscar-nominated writer/director Deepa Mehta has been criticized in some conservative circles for her progressive views on the role of women in Indian society. Her most successful film to date, Water, depicted a woman who, after being widowed during infancy, was forced to live the rest of her life in a poor monastery. The film inspired protests that were supported by the Indian government.

Her latest work, Heaven on Earth, follows Chand (Bollywood icon Preity Zinta, in a revelatory performance), a young woman who moves to Canada to enter into an arranged marriage. Upon arrival, Chand finds that her new husband Rocky (Vansh Bhardwaj) is cruel and abusive, providing her with pitiful living conditions.

When Chand confides in a co-worker about this frequent spousal abuse, she is told to grind a particular root into his drink that will supposedly make him love her forever. This recipe proves to have unforeseen consequences. Mehta is unblinking in her depiction of domestic violence, filming scenes of the couple’s home life with unsettling intimacy.

When I spoke with Mehta, I assumed the arranged marriage was the film’s centre. “Who cares about arranged marriages?” she said. “Arranged marriages happen in our country, Canada, through computers—you know, ‘’ That’s an arranged marriage. The movie is about [immigration], when you give up everything that you have known, and have no relations.”

She looked straight at me. “If you go to India, you will be lost. It’s a mainstream white myth that I wanted to break.”

What exactly is this myth? “In Canada, working class immigrants have no dignity. And people in the mainstream are used to seeing how somebody makes [a successful living in their adopted country], or they’re used to seeing films about Bollywood.”

“The reason I made the movie is this is something that really bugs me.”

Mehta paints a nightmarish portrait of cultural displacement. Chand, whose grasp of the English language is modest with an understanding of Canadian society that is even more negligible, is symbolic of the common existential crises of immigrants moving westward. She is stripped of power and treated as sub-human, unfamiliar with even the most commonplace customs of her new country.

Mehta explained the central emotional and psychological dilemma of many immigrants. “What people generally lose is their sense of self. That’s what this movie is about.”

“Canada is a country of immigrants. It’s not heaven on earth. Some of us really do well as coloured people in a white country, but some of us are ghettoized, and some of us are marginalized. Some of us have no recourse—we can’t even read outside a certain environment. Yet, we work from 9 to 12 every day, and half our money goes to tax dollars. What are we getting? We are not getting dignity. Everybody in Heaven on Earth is a victim.”

50,000 pleas for tuition freeze

The Canadian Federation of Students presented the Ontario government with a petition containing 50,000 signatures at Queen’s Park on Oct. 22, demanding an immediate decrease in post-secondary tuition fees.

CFS contends that Ontario’s 2005 plan for post-secondary education has failed to curtail tuition fee increases. CFS chair Shelly Melanson claims that the plan, titled Reaching Higher, has propelled Ontario’s undergraduate fees to the second-highest in the country.

On the same day Ontario announced a revised budget to address the economic crisis ensuing from the U.S. stock market collapse. Melanson said that postsecondary education was a “wise investment during an economic downturn.” She went on to cite the major investment that Ireland made towards education during a recession and how it transformed the country into its current knowledge-based economy.

The education budget will remain unchanged, and continue along the Reaching Higher framework in the revised budget.

Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities John Malloy said Reaching Higher had been developed to facilitate an increase in student assistance. “The government’s primary objective is to ensure that postsecondary education is as accessible as possible,” he said.

Malloy stated that current fee-hike restrictions on post-secondary institutions will remain in place. The minister also emphasized that the government was most interested in aiding students who had the greatest financial need to ensure that postsecondary education would continue to be accessible to those from the lower income strata.

Tokyo Police Club Are Getting Desperate

In the strangest combination of Can-rock and American network television since Feist danced with a bunch of penguins on Sesame Street, local indie-pop darlings Tokyo Police Club are set to make a guest appearance on Desperate Housewives in November.

When a few male characters bust out their old guitars for a battle of the bands, Tokyo Police Club show up and blow them out of the water. It’s hard to say why the Canadian quartet was specifically selected for the program, but it’s certainly a great career move.

While the guys may be able to churn out two-minute post-punk ditties in their sleep, how will they fare alongside such refined thespians as Teri Hatcher and Nicollette Sheridan?

It will be a thrill to see these Toronto boys tread their Chuck Taylor All-Stars all over Wysteria Lane, but if every twenty-something indie rocker in Toronto was already jealous of TPC’s success, imagine the furor of envy that would break out if one of the band members hooked up with Eva Longoria. So what if it’s all scripted?

UNB student under investigation for hate crimes

A University of New Brunswick law student is under investigation for disseminating hate speech online. The student is accused of spreading hate literature against women, blacks, First Nations, homosexuals, the mentally disabled, and other minority groups.

Shane Martinez, also a UNB law student, discovered the website——while trying to find his classmate’s contact information online. Martinez, who was working on a class assignment with the student in question, was shocked to find the site, which he says goes as far as to promote genocide against the mentally disabled.

But when The Varsity checked, the site seemed more of a repository of juvenile practical jokes—admittedly incredibly mean-spirited ones—than the fanatic hate forum Martinez described.

For example, in a comment that is representative of the site in general, user RedNeckClown made a post titled “fun sex prank,” which read: “after you’re done bagging your girlfriend wip [sic.] out a fresh condom and claim you forgot to put on one to begin with.” RedNeckClown lists his location as “Far From Black People.” Another, higuy93, suggests emptying a friend’s shampoo bottle and filling it with Nair hair-remover. This is roughly the pinnacle of discourse on the site—most forum threads quickly degenerate into users insulting each other. Martinez claims the student had been posting hateful comments over the past few years under the user name ROB. In March 2008, Shane filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.

When The Varsity checked for evidence of hate crime, the only posts by ROB that were found still online dated back to 2004. In one representative post, ROB advised would-be pranksters, “pranking isn’t for cowards. If someone is bullying you, pranking them won’t help, it will only prove how much of a loser you are. Don’t be a fag [sic.], kick your bully’s ass, if you need a baseball bat or a piece of rebar to do it, that’s ok.”

UNB communications manager Dan Tanaka told The Varsity, “The allegaations are serious and the panel is looking to determine what, if any, impact the alleged activities have had on the learning environment within the faculty.” The panel, along with the board of deans and the president, is expected to make a decision in late November. UNB told The Daily Gleaner. “We’re dealing with allegations at this point.” Because the incident occurred during the student’s own time and while they are off-campus, it lies outside the university’s disciplinary code. The university has, however, set up a panel to further investigate the matter.

If the student is found guilty, the consequences could range from a mere letter of reprimand to an outright expulsion from UNB. The Fredericton Police is also investigating the incident as a possible public incitement of hatred.

$25,000 at stake for Governor General’s Literary Awards

The 2008 finalists for the Governor General’s Literary Awards, Canada’s top prize for literature, were announced on Tuesday.

Seventy-three authors are vying for awards in seven categories, including fiction, non-fiction, children’s literature, and translation. Both English and French titles are eligible to win the $25,000 prize.

The current frontrunner in the fiction category is Rawi Hage, also nominated for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize and Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His novel Cockroach is narrated by a struggling immigrant in Montréal who must come to terms with the privileged lives of his neighbours. Other high-profile nominees include Nino Ricci, author of Origin of the Species, and Rivka Galchen, selected for Atmospheric Disturbances.

In the non-fiction category, James Orbinski has been generating serious buzz with his book An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the 21st Century. Orbinski, the founder of Doctors Without Borders/Médécins Sans Frontières, offers his perspective on the effectiveness of aid workers and non-profit organizations in politically unstable countries.

Toronto-based author Mariko Tamaki received a nod in the children’s literature category for her graphic novel Skim. Centered on a private-school outsider, this book has been well received by those long past their high school years.

This year’s jury includes novelist Jane Urquhart and Toronto’s Poet Laureate Pier Giorgio Di Cicco. The winners will be announced November 18.

York U TA’s vote to strike

(updates below)

York University teaching assistants are set to strike if a settlement between CUPE Local 3903 and the York administration cannot be reached by Nov. 6.

A strike mandate vote held last week garnered 85 per cent support from the union’s 1,192 members, including teaching assistants, graduate assistants, and contract faculty. As a result the union’s position has gained strength at the bargaining table.

The union’s demands include wage increases that account for inflation, an annual adjustment reflecting the cost of living, elimination of tuition fees for union members, and increased job security for contract faculty.

Faculty of Arts dean Robert Drummond is negotiating on behalf of the administration and has stressed the importance of reaching a compromise.

“Nobody gets everything that they want in a deal, but we want to find out what things they think are most critical,” he told the Excalibur, a York U campus newspaper. “In some cases we will be able to find a resolution, and in other cases it may be more difficult.”

Christine Rosseau, chair of the CUPE Local 3903 spoke to Excalibur, criticizing the administration’s lack of urgency in reaching a resolution.

“It’s been the administration who has been delaying things. We’ve been bargaining since June, and we’ve been met with nothing.”

Both sides maintain they are hoping to find a resolution without the need to disrupt classes. However, neither remains very optimistic.

York Federation of Students will be endorsing CUPE Local 3903 and supporting their actions to reach a fair collective agreement.

“YFS is supporting CUPE 3903, who are primarily students,” said Hamid Osman, president of York Federation of Students. “Teaching assistants and graduate assistants want a fair deal, and it is up to the administration to come to the table and propose that.”

While many York students support the union, but many fourth year students are concerned about how a strike would affect their commencement.

Keshini Budhoo, a fourth year psychology student, said, “The TA’s are an important part of classes and they do work hard. I think they are entitled to a pay raise but it is unfair to students who are looking to go to graduate school and are in their last year. They will be put at a disadvantage if the semester has to be extended.”

It remains unlikely that a resolution will be reached before the strike deadline. However, talks between the two sides are set to increase in frequency as the date draws closer.

Update November 7

By the Nov. 6 deadline the administration and CUPE 3903 were yet to reach a settlement, and York University’s contract faculty, teaching and graduate assistants, went on strike. All classes are cancelled, with picket lines at every university entrance.

“York University says their hands are tied. We’re earning a wage we can’t live on. We can’t afford to go on strike, but the long-term benefits tell us we can’t afford not to strike,” says Punan Khosla, a York University teaching assistant.

The strike could potentially be debilitating for undergraduate students. “Some people are saying that [the strike] is causing an inconvenience for so many students, but it’s the administration who is causing the inconvenience because they’re not willing to compromise,” says York student Deena Dadachanji.

In 2000, CUPE 3903 held the longest strike in Canadian university history, lasting 76 days.

The administration has not returned the Varsity’s repeated phone calls. The union has said they will continue the strike until the administration agrees to go back to the bargaining table.

–Saron Ghebressellassie

Much more than heavy metal

The Wallberg building on the north side of College Street extends all the way from King’s College Circle to St. George. As the sizeable stronghold of U of T’s vast engineering empire, it exudes a sense of scientific prowess. Upon entering this unknown territory, I am met with questioning looks. “I’m looking for students in metallurgy,” I say. But the students seem just as confused as I am.

I can’t say I blame them—after all, what exactly is metallurgy? Visions of swords and tempered steel come to mind, accompanied by the sound of hammers pounding iron. It sounds like some mysterious medieval craft, a U of T secret involving fully-armoured scientists mixing metals in the basement.

In my unremitting quest to solve this mystery, I am eventually directed to a series of administrative offices in the easternmost division of Wallberg. This is the home of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering—MSE for short. I have found my answer.

Part of the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, MSE is the discipline that studies relationships between the structure, properties, performance, and processing of materials. Until 1998, it was known as the Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science, until a decision to update the department’s image was made to attract more students to the field. According to departmental chair Professor Doug Perovic, the department is an important one. “There are a lot of personal and emotional attachments to metallurgy. It’s a long-standing important part of what we do, and it’s a big part of what Canada does,” he says. “Although we do a lot with metals, we wanted to get the message out that this department does a whole lot more.”

MSE encompasses the more traditional study of metallurgy, as well as newer fields like nanotechnology, ceramics, polymers, and biomaterials. From the atomic level, to large scale production and extraction of materials, undergraduate and graduate students are exposed to a wide range of options.

“This department has a lot of interdisciplinary connections, and a lot of cross-appointments between faculty,” says Varuna Prakash, a MSE graduate now pursuing a Masters in clinical biomechanical engineering. “It’s very diverse.”

As the smallest undergraduate engineering department at U of T, MSE students benefit from small class sizes and the chance to really get to know their professors. They also get hands-on experience in research labs and within the industry. Although it may be small, the MSE department at the University of Toronto happens to be the largest in North America, and is ranked first in Canada.

“It’s one of the smaller disciplines of engineering, but it’s crucial,” says Perovic. “Just look around—everything is made of materials, and whether it’s aerospace or automotive, cell phones, or hip implants and heart valves: we do all that. That’s on the product end. But on the primary end, this stuff has to be taken out of the ground. That’s the metallurgy process side: refining, smelting, [producing it] cost-effectively with less environmental damage. That’s what we continue to advance in our research.”

The Department of Materials Science and Engineering may be demanding, but it is highly applicable to a broad range of disciplines. “Engineers turn up everywhere,” says MSE undergraduate and graduate counsellor Maria Fryman. In fact, graduates of the University of Toronto’s MSE program have gone on to study medicine and business, with some working in the metallurgy industry, or pursuing PhD degrees in materials.

So why study materials science? According to one professor, MSE allows us to bridge different areas of technology, and fuse the traditional disciplines of science to gain a deeper understanding of nature. New streams of research like nanotech and biomaterials are based on the traditional basis of metallurgy. There are many socio-economic issues attached to the extraction and processing of metals. While one third of Canada’s economy is related to mining and materials, these numbers aren’t seen in the workforce.

Material scientists and engineers are crucial in the production of all the things we use on a day-to-day basis—from clothes and electronics to buildings and bridges. So as it turns out, there’s more to metallurgy than mixing metals in a basement after all.