Arson hits McMaster rez

Most of the 559 residents of Brandon Hall at McMaster University in Hamilton awoke to a blaring fire alarm at approximately 4 a.m., Saturday Oct. 18, and stumbled into the cold autumn air in their pajamas. The few who didn’t woke up smelling smoke.

“We heard the alarm, and thought that it was just some kind of prank, or a drill. We were just making our normal route out of the building when we saw the fire coming from the elevator. A lot of people slept through the alarm altogether,” recalled first-year student, Mika Iwata.

The early morning fire at the university residence had four people sent to the hospital.

The Ontario Fire Marshall’s Office on Saturday deemed the fire in McMaster’s largest residence hall arson, sparking a full-fledged investigation involving every student present at the time of the fire. With no university personnel at the residence hall after 3 a.m., the culprit only needed a swipe card key to gain entrance to the building.

“We don’t really know anything about the investigation,” said Iwata. “We heard that the fire started in the elevator with a bunch of newspapers and some lighter fluid, but they haven’t confirmed anything. We had to talk to the cops, though. Most people are more annoyed and stressed than scared. We’re all pissed that we don’t have our stuff, though most of us found a place to stay.”

A large percentage of the displaced students are staying with friends or relatives. The rest are temporarily accommodated at the Ron Joyce Stadium team rooms and the Ivor Wynne Activity Center.

The fire came at an inopportune moment. McMaster University is in the midst of mid-term exams and assignments. Due to the fire, residents are missing their notes and textbooks, along with other personal items.

“I wouldn’t want to speak for the student body as a whole,” said University spokesperson Andrea Farquhar, “but most students are more worried about their belongings, academics, and their residence than they are about the fire. Nothing is due this week for these students, but the arrangements are made with individual students, depending on whether they feel able to write their exams or not—given the situation.”

Extensive steps have been taken by McMaster to ensure that students have a successful year. The majority of residents have been able to acquire their essential belongings. The university estimates that they will be able to move back into the residence in January.

“We’re trying to reassign housing in groups,” continues Farquhar, “We’re really looking at the long run, trying to make sure that these kids not only have somewhere to live, but a good experience, and a sense of community.”

In the meantime, the investigation continues through Detective Marco Delonte, head of Hamilton police’s arson unit, though no developments have been made public.

“We really can’t disclose what’s going on with the investigation, without sabotaging our own investigation,” said one McMaster security officer. “But I can tell you that we’re working with the cops, and they’re all over the place conducting the investigation.”

Film Review: Changeling

With a perfect blend of style and substance, Clint Eastwood’s films have become so impeccably crafted they’re practically boring.

It’s simply become too difficult to get excited about a director who, after Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and the Iwo Jima movies, seems capable of belting out an Oscar frontrunner in his sleep. I’m sure I could cut and paste much of this review for Eastwood’s Gran Torino, due for release later this year. He’s become so predictably good.

With Changeling, Eastwood adapts the compelling true story of the Wineville Chicken Murders and the corrupt LAPD of the 1920s into a well-packaged period piece.

Angelina Jolie seems comfortable playing the classic Hollywood damsel, ably losing her celebrity in the role of Christine Collins. Through this character, Jolie brings a delicate balance of fragility, restraint, and torrential emotion to the film.

Collins is a middle-class woman whose kidnapped son is replaced with an impostor by the scandal-fraught Police Department. After she dares to challenge the impostor’s identity, the LAPD send her to the loony bin (it’s almost hard to believe that this is true, but it did indeed happen).

Changeling is a harrowing story that uses its protagonist as the only beacon of virtue. Eastwood’s trademark gray aesthetic is on full display—the only distinctive, colourful images are Jolie’s crimson lips and the occasional splash of blood.

Yet the film fails to properly develop any other character. Though Collins’ many virtues may have been exaggerated, she’s depicted as a brave, patient heroine, and a true figure of female empowerment. The only other agent of any complexity is a wily serial killer whose wry sense of humour makes his perversity all the more disturbing.

While Eastwood offers a respectable treatment with economical storytelling, the film’s exquisitely framed and studio-polished look lacks the rawness of real life. Consequently, the viewer is never entirely engaged with Collins’ story. Instead, we’re fully aware that we’re right in the midst of a Clint Eastwood blockbuster that has its sights set firmly on the Academy Awards.

Rating: VVV

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, ‘MatchMaker.com.’ 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—www.prank.org—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 prank.com, 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 prank.com 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.