Cracking Harper’s cabinet

A certain Cabinet Secretary once remarked that cabinet ministers must possess a unique talent: propensity for constant activity with no actual achievement. Well, Stephen Harper has exceeded this standard with his new ministerial rollout. By expanding his crew to 38 (up from 34), the Prime Minister has confounded critics yet again, charmed supporters old and new, and laid the foundations for the next step in his master plan.

Anyone who knows anything about Harper’s style will not be surprised to learn that the various appointments, demotions, and lateral movements involved a great deal of calculation, yet these moves raise more questions than they answer. Consider the increased number of female MPs now holding portfolios. After the 2006 election, Harper took heat when he appointed fewer women to cabinet than the Liberals did—a mistake he went out of his way not to repeat. The number of women Harper appointed this time around (11) is exactly the same as his predecessor back in 2003. Coincidence, or an attempt to match (but not exceed) the Liberal track record? One thing’s for sure—this move will definitely consolidate the slow gains made by the Conservative Party among female voters in the last election.

Some of the ministers Harper hired are political neophytes, such as Lisa Raitt, the former Toronto Port Authority boss who soundly whupped the floor-crossing MP for Halton. Garth Turner was appointed. So was Peter Kent, the famous face of Global News who erased Susan Kadis’ 10,000 vote lead from the 2006 election, and Bob Dechert, the Tory insider and Bay Street lawyer (now that’s an odd career choice for a Conservative MP, eh?) who now holds Mississauga–Erindale. What do these three have in common? They represent newly held GTA ridings and possible command centres for a storm-the-gates operation to be conducted in the 416. One wonders why Paul Calandra, who snatched Oak Ridges–Markham in a shocker, and Lois Brown, who took Belinda Stronach’s former riding of Newmarket–Aurora, were left out.

The moves Harper made with his senior ministers have brain-cramping implications, both good and bad. Promoting Quebec lieutenant and steady hand Lawrence Cannon to Foreign Affairs will bring some stability to the portfolio and cover Harper’s French flank. Moving U of T law school grad Tony Clement to the less-scrutinized Industry file cements Clement’s reputation as a jack-of-all-trades (he previously held Environment, Transport, and Health portfolios at the provincial level) and suits his quieter personality, while clearing the way for the new Nunavut MP, Leona Aglukkaq to take over the reins at Health. Keeping Jim Flaherty in Finance was the logical extension of Harper’s “stay-the-course” message on the economy, while putting former Natural Resource Minister and B.C. MP Gary Lunn in the Ministry of Sport penalty box defused the anger over Lunn’s role in the isotope crisis of last year, and ensured that the Vancouver 2010 Olympics are overseen by a West Coaster.

However, returning Gerry Ritz to Agriculture Minister despite his mishandling of the tainted meat scandal, while demoting Heritage Minister Josée Verner to Intergovernmental Affairs for failing to deal with the fallout of the Conservatives’ arts cutbacks makes little sense. The widely-respected James Moore takes over Verner’s Heritage post instead of a high-profile portfolio, despite being one of the most put-together people on Parliament Hill. Equally baffling are Parliamentary brawler John Baird’s move away from Environment to Transport and Infrastructure, while Red Tory and rumoured Harper successor Jim Prentice is appointmented as Baird’s replacement on the Climate Change file. Prentice is widely respected (even by Liberals) and enormously capable, but unless he can withstand Liberal attacks on the Harper government’s climate change record, he may be steamrolled. Baird has the opposite problem: if he goes toe-to-toe with the management of cash-strapped people-movers (such as our TTC) and resentful provincial governments over infrastructure payments, he could get himself into a fight he can’t win.

There’s no easy explanation for Harper’s cabinet choices. But one thing’s for sure: he’s got every pundit in the whole country (including yours truly) trying to find answers. If your decisions leave the entire country trying to read your mind, you couldn’t have done too badly.

Josh Lieblein is a pharmacy student who likes politics, which makes him a political scientist of a different sort. He encourages left-wing students to denounce his writing as loudly as possible, because he needs the publicity.


We emerged from watching the election results into the heart of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A noise from a cheering crowd was audible from around the corner and my friends took off to see what was going on.

People had enveloped the street from all sides and brought traffic to a halt. The spirit of the crowd was pure joy and disbelief at such good fortune. A huge weight had been lifted as the starkest contrast between political moods had taken place. There was so much joy people didn’t even know how to express it. Some were making noise however they could, banging wooden spoons on pots. Some felt that they needed to climb on top of things. Every car had to stop for the crowd whether they liked it or not, cars were now props for people to climb on top of and demonstrate the revolution. One person climbed on top of a bus.

Someone I was with climbed on to the back of my bike and as I rode down the street, I contemplated the hopefulness of the country in which I now reside.

The entire city seemed overjoyed, every person you passed on the street was eligible for a high five. It felt like a shared victory, something everyone could take credit for.

This mood, which I think is shared in all of urban America, is the greatest success of this election.

Science throws a wrench into the gay rights debate

When it comes to gay rights, penguins are an example for humanity: certain species sometimes form same-sex, monogamous partnerships. In 2004, two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo were given a fertilized egg from a heterosexual couple. They cared for the egg and raised it as their own. This story was picked up by most media outlets, re-igniting a long-standing debate about gay partnership. In the field of genetics, there is a related million-dollar question: is there a gay gene?

This proposition could prove to be watershed issue for certain groups. If it turns out that homosexuality is entirely determined by one’s genes, it may lead to genetic screening and possibly selective abortions in a worst-case scenario. Gay rights groups already grapple with Evangelical Christian organizations such as the infamous Exodus International, who treat homosexuality as something that should be “cured” by the almighty power of Christ.

Research on the topic is hard to decipher. In the battle between nature and nurture, the outcome seems to be a tie. In studies using identical twins (to control for the influence of genetics, as their genes are identical), both genetics and the environment have approximately equal influence on an individual’s sexual orientation. If one identical twin is straight, the other has a roughly 50 per cent chance of identifying as a homosexual later in life. Fifty-fifty probabilities are a gambler’s dream—but also a frustrating answer when it comes to this long-standing debate.

The outlook becomes increasingly cloudy when one considers the prevalence of homosexuality in nature. It occurs in many animal groups, particularly in social animals. Many species of monkeys and apes display homosexual behaviour in various forms; it is well known that the amorous Bonobo chimpanzees use homosexual sex as a way to peacefully resolve conflicts between males. Observed in over 1,500 species, it seems unlikely that homosexuality is a negative side effect of natural selection. Rather, it serves in binding social groups and reducing aggression between members of the same species.

Defining homosexual relationships as an anomaly is a fallacy. Rejecting the influence of human evolution and replacing it with the edicts of conservative religions and societal norms automatically marginalizes those who break the mould. If the freedom of choice we’re given in the Western world affords us liberties ranging from free speech to the right to carry weapons, surely we can allow ourselves a choice of spouse that comes without conditions?

The idea that same-sex marriage is a danger to the traditional family model and erodes the sanctity of marriage is ludicrous. Although evolution dictates that only heterosexual partnerships can result in fertile offspring, this is no reason to expect all members of society to subscribe to the heterosexual, monogamous model.

At either end of the spectrum, finding an answer to the gay gene question is problematic. If homosexuality is determined to be a genetic difference in one subset of the human population, it is all too easy to erroneously describe homosexuality as a disease. If we move to the opposite side of the debate and consider homosexuality a choice, “curing” people of homosexuality—treating it like an addiction or worse—unfortunately gains traction.

Homosexuality, for better or worse, is most likely a combination of environmental and genetic cues. There is much evidence indicating that brain structure and response to hormones may affect one’s sexuality. What bearing this has on one’s sexual orientation may never be absolutely certain.

When it comes to societal pressures dictating a response to same-sex marriage, the proof is in the pudding: only Spain, Norway, and Canada give same-sex couples the same legal rights as opposite-sex couples. The various statuses afforded to same-sex couples form a patchwork quilt across the American states—unsurprisingly banned in the unflinchingly socially conservative Bible Belt, but allowed in “dangerously liberal” California. But the battle is seemingly unending. Proposition 8, which passed on Tuesday’s ballot, will ban gay marriage on a state constitutional level if a court challenge doesn’t put a stop to it.

Surely, if a couple of flightless birds have figured out same-sex partnerships, we can too.

Bond Reborn

“The theory was, we make Casino Royale as if there had never been a James Bond movie made in the past,” said co-producer Michael G. Wilson, describing the creative process behind what’s quickly become a new generation of Bond films.

When Wilson visited Toronto to promote the latest Bond venture, Quantum of Solace, he brought to the roundtable interview director Marc Forster, new Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, and 007 himself, the steely-eyed Daniel Craig. Over a series of interviews at the Hazelton Hotel, the group discussed how they set out to dramatically change the Bond franchise.

While most fans have welcomed the bloody realist aspects of the new films, some mourn the loss of the larger-than-life technical elements that were Bond’s trademark for generations. “Hopefully through this process we’ll create the new icons rather than trying to just re-adapt the old icons,” said Wilson.

If, as Wilson implied, Casino Royale was the death of the old franchise, Quantum of Solace might very well be the funeral, paying respects to old spectacle while charting new terrain.

Marc Forster—whose previous work on Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland made him a surprising choice for a Bond director—has introduced an unprecedented “art film” agenda into the new series. He also pays homage to past installments with retro visual cues, including one nostalgic set piece that will send audiences all the way back to Goldfinger.

“I felt it was an interesting era for Bond,” remarked Forster on the earlier installments, “so I wanted to bring that back into it and sort of juxtapose it to the modern look of MI6.”

Forster’s acknowledgment of the Bond tradition certainly doesn’t hinder him from taking bold artistic steps in Quantum. He gives the action sequences an elemental theme, played out over land, water, air, and blazing fire. Using abstract techniques for a gunfight that takes place during the opera Tosca, itself containing parallels to Bond, a massive blue eye onstage resembles 007’s ever-watchful peepers. That’s a lot to chew on for an action flick.

Another refreshing element is Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, who delights in the fact that her character Camille is the first in the series who doesn’t sleep with 007. “She’s different,” said Kurylenko. “She’s like Bond in a female body. She’s almost equal to him. What’s nice is that in this film, she has her own story. She exists without Bond—she has her own mission. Other girls, somehow existed [through] Bond only.”

While everyone celebrates the updated series, the film’s star is doing as much as he can to maintain the tradition.

“I haven’t done anything to modernize the character,” said Craig, speaking to his Bond’s harder edge. “If anything, I’m trying to cling onto the past.”

“There’s something archaic about him. I want him to remain misogynistic to a certain extent because I like the debate between him and M, because M is the balance there. He’s the one that’s sort of behaving badly as a man, and she’s the one that’s slapping him down.”

Craig had his arm in a sling, due to an old injury that hasn’t quite healed over the course of two Bond movies. But it doesn’t prohibit him from bouncing with enthusiasm while describing his onscreen persona.

“He likes fast cars, beautiful women, champagne. He likes all the things that James Bond has always liked. I tried to come at it from a new angle, to refresh it as opposed to trying to re-invent it.”

Another change that Quantum introduces is a direct engagement with current sociopolitical issues, concerning dwindling resources and the evil powers trying to control them. Craig insisted that such developments were plot choices that “just happened to get more and more relevant as the hours tick by.”

“Bonds have always been naturally apolitical,” the actor reminded us. “I’ve always maintained that it’s a Bond movie. We can’t go down the political road. We mustn’t because it’s not our job to do that. But ultimately, to comment on it and make it as pressing as possible is also very important because it’s a modern movie.”

Craig would rather see elements of the old series returned to the new films, particularly recurring characters like Q and Moneypenny. However, he recognizes that these additions can’t simply be thrust into the creative process.

“I don’t think you could offer a good actor a part and say, ‘The part’s Q, remember how it was played? That’s exactly what I want.’ I think that’s kind of offensive to give to an actor. I would love it to be properly written it and give it to an actor, saying, ‘What are you going to make of that? Invent something.’”

While Craig advocates for Bond’s old tricks to be retained, he won’t compromise the integrity of the story being told. In the new film, Bond doesn’t go topless (to the dismay of women everywhere), doesn’t bed the Bond girl, and doesn’t even utter such famous catchphrases as “Shaken, not stirred” and “Bond, James Bond.”

“It didn’t fit,” explained Craig. “Putting it in because it should be there just doesn’t make sense to me. It jarred in the final cut. It was something that didn’t fit in with the movie.”

But such an absence won’t be disorienting. There are still the exotic locales, beautiful women, luxury cars, countless martinis and the iconic music. As Craig assured, “You’re never in any doubt that you’re watching a James Bond movie.”

Quantum of Solace opens November 14.

Toronto students march to Queen’s Park to protest tuition fees

Thousands of students from schools across Ontario marched to Queen’s Park yesterday, Nov. 5, to demand lower tuition fees.

The annual, province-wide Day of Action was arranged by the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario as part of their Drop Fees campaign. The U of T Students Union and Graduate Students’ Union are members of CFS.

On Tuesday, Dave Scrivener, VP external of UTSU, was busy handing out fliers in Sid Smith, where UTSU members had been working an information table all week.

“I think it’s pretty likely [that fees will drop] if students put pressure on the government,” Scrivener told a skeptic undergrad. He described student response to the campaign as “overwhelmingly positive.”

Wednesday’s protesters were on board, yelling slogans from a flatbed truck outside Con Hall. A large group from York was the last to join students from St. George, UTM, UTSC, Ryerson, George Brown College, OCAD, and Trent University.

“I think that education is a social good, so society should take care of it through the state,” said Ricardo Habalcan, a fourth-year economics student at U of T.

According to CFS, Ontario’s per-student funding is 25 per cent below the national average. Between 2002 and 2008, annual tuition for a U of T Arts & Science student rose from $4,107 to $4,776. The increase was more dramatic for international students and those in professional faculties, such as law or engineering.

In 2004, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty honoured an election promise to freeze tuition fees. Two years later, he replaced the freeze with his Reaching Higher framework, which allowed tuition to rise but also increased the amount of loans and grants given to students. This framework is in its fourth of five years, a fact CFS has highlighted as the provincial government decides what to do next.

According to Greg Flood, spokesperson for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, the government has no plans for change and “continues to move forward with the implementation of the framework at this time.” For proof that Reaching Higher is getting positive results, Flood cited an increase of 100,000 post-secondary students in Ontario, 120,000 new student grants, and student loan default rates that are the lowest in Ontario’s history.

NDP leader Jack Layton took a different stance.

“With the kind of student fees and student debt that are facing students now, it’s a huge obstacle to achieving the potential we have as a country,” Layton told The Varsity just before boarding the rally truck. “So this action by CFS is vitally important for drawing attention to the barriers and obstacles.”

Obstacles like Shannon MacInnes is facing. “I am currently $32,000 in debt and I’m not even finished my second year,” the history and visual arts student said.

For many students, amnesty from skipping classes wasn’t enough incentive to go to the rally. “We don’t have amnesty from tests that in the future will cover this material,” said Richard Cerezo, a third-year math major.

“I feel as an international student, a lot of these rallies and things don’t apply to me because my fees go up all the time anyway,” linguistics student Dylan Uscher chimed in.

For those who came, the message was clear. In the words of Andrew Thomas, a fourth-year environmental science major, “It’s important to get students together and show the government that we’re serious, and that we need tuitions dropped.”

For your eyes only: Q & A with Daniel Craig

The James Bond star visited Toronto in mid-October to promote his latest globetrotting adventure, Quantum of Solace. Here’s what he had to say.

The Varsity: Many actors appreciate working on a series because of the long character arc. Was that part of the appeal of playing Bond?

Daniel Craig: I didn’t look towards the long term. I only looked to the movie we were doing. The idea of taking the character on and doing a sequel only came about because we seemed to have unfinished business from Casino Royale. He’d fallen in love, had his heart broken, and had been betrayed, which was the message that we were trying to get across in Casino Royale. This betrayal had thrown him, because the man never loses at cards, never loses at love, never loses anything. He’s James Bond. And to just paper over in the next movie by going off and saying, “Oh yeah there was that girl once,” seemed to be the wrong thing to do. It’s James Bond—it isn’t Henrik Ibsen. You can’t apply the same rules. I’m enjoying taking it on and giving it some continuity.

TV: After the success of Casino Royale, is there less pressure, or more pressure with the follow up?

DC: It’s a bit of both. Put it this way, I’d rather be in this situation than the other—if we’d had a dud last time. I’m incredibly proud of what happened with Casino Royale for all sorts of reasons. It’s taken on a life of its own. We all sort of sat around saying, “Well that’s great we got one success, but what do we do now?” These are high-class problems.

TV: With all of the acclaim and attention, does it ever get tiresome to constantly dissect a role with reporters?

DC: It’s my responsibility to do that. I can’t present something like this on such a large scale and then go, “I don’t want to talk about it.” It would be childish and disrespectful to the people who are lovers of the franchise. And those people are my bread and butter now, so I have to be very respectful of that. Hopefully the work I put into it generates discussion.

TV: Was it easier to perform Bond’s stunts now that you’ve had some practice, or was it more challenging given the new film’s large scale?

DC: The challenge really rose this time, and I was grateful that it did. The trouble is that I volunteered last time, and unfortunately, they seemed to think that I could do it [again]. I just feel like I owe it to the part to get involved.

TV: Why do you think the Bond franchise has maintained its appeal?

DC: The honest answer has got to be that it’s not a particularly original character. The characters have existed forever. It’s a lone hero who’s trying to figure out the truth, and figure out what’s right and wrong. That goes as far back as probably anybody can remember. Something happened in the 1960s. Sean Connery and [original Bond producer Albert R.] Broccoli were responsible for setting a tone of movie making. If you look back at the early movies like Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger, when James Bond travelled, they [filmed] on location. They took the movie with them so that when you watched these movies, you were transported. Back then it was hellish to fly anywhere. I can’t imagine what it was like trying to get a crew [together]. It’s bad enough now. We struggle to do it now. And that tradition has [been] consistent throughout.

Frosh charged with Mac arson

A first-year McMaster student has been charged by Hamilton police in connection with the Oct. 18 fire at Brandon Hall. The residence had to be evacuated in the early morning after smoke and fire alarms roused almost 600 sleepy students.

Emerson Pardoe, a 19-year-old resident of Brandon Hall, has been charged with arson endangering human life and arson endangering property. Four students were taken to the hospital to receive treatment for smoke inhalation.

“The fire was made much more shocking because it was deliberately set, and because a McMaster student has been charged in connection with the case,” Phil Wood, associate vice-president of Student Affairs and dean of students at the university told the McMaster Daily News.

Pardoe was taken into police custody on Monday. Looking distraught during the court proceedings, he was released into the custody of his parents for $50,000. He has been prohibited from any contact with McMaster staff or students and must remain with his parents in Scarborough.

Currently, McMaster is housing Brandon Hall students in various hotels while repairs are carried out. Students will be able to move back in January at the earliest.

The Giller Prize

The winner of the Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious award for fiction, will be announced on November 11 to little fanfare outside the literary community. Nevertheless, all the glitz and glamour of the prize’s star-studded gala (Margaret Atwood and Bob Rae are two of the judges) will go on, even if it hovers well below the mainstream radar.

The theme of this year’s shortlist is the idea that to be Canadian is to be from somewhere else. Multiculturalism is the pride of our country, and it’s heavily reflected in our fiction. What does this mean for storytelling? It allows heritage to propel the plot and shape the characters’ collective mentality. This is the experience of many Canadians and it’s important that we write about it.

The Shortlist

Joseph Boyden’s most recent effort, Through Black Spruce, is a double helix of a novel that follows Cree bush pilot Will Bird and his niece Annie. It switches narratives between both characters, merging the plot lines during its crescendo. Annie’s journey begins in tiny Moosonee, Ontario, as a search for her model sister leads her into the dangers of urban life. Will speaks to his nieces from within a coma, recalling his multiple run-ins with a local drug lord. While Boyden’s narrative is interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention, it occasionally veers into the territory of a mid ’90s CBC miniseries. Boyden is one of Canada’s brightest new talents, and though the book is melodramatic, the quality of his prose makes up for some predictable plot choices.

Speaking of melodrama, Anthony De Sa’s Barnacle Love is rife with it. A book of interconnected short stories follows the life of Manuel Rebelo, a Portuguese immigrant who has left his home in the Azores to become a fisherman in Newfoundland. Sexually abused by a priest and betrayed by his first love, Rebelo’s sad history eventually manifests itself as a severe drinking problem. De Sa’s novel is a Canadian version of the lost American Dream, demonstrating the consequences of one’s failure to live up to such high expectations.

Cockroach, Rawi Hage’s new novel, screams at its reader from beginning to end. Coming off the massive success of his first novel De Niro’s Game, the winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Hage hasn’t toned down his aggressive style. The unnamed protagonist is a contemporary version of Dostoevsky’s classic antihero, The Underground Man, complete with alienation, rage, irrationality, and dark humour. Wandering through Montréal, fighting off his kleptomania and a war-affected history, the Iranian meets an interesting cast of characters who, for the most part, enrage him. All Kafka insect references aside, the best parts of the novel are when he envisions himself as a cockroach. The metaphor is perfect, with imagery done so well that it’s difficult not to sympathize with the character’s insanity. While Hage should win, I doubt he will.

Good to a Fault, the oxymoronic title of Marina Endicott’s new book, does not apply to the plot—it’s nearly flawless. Lives instantly change when a car accident throws Clara Purdy into the home of the Gage family. When their mother is diagnosed with lymphoma, Clara is forced into the role of matriarch. The novel is charming and funny, as Clara is forced to adjust, eventually welcoming the situation.

Mary Swan’s The Boys in the Trees is a melancholic but fulfilling read. It follows a small town in Ontario rocked by a rather shocking crime committed by the patriarch of a newly arrived Canadian family. Set in the late 19th century, the story is told from multiple perspectives, including members of the family, neighbours, and even a gun. Characters are developed slowly as each narrator works through the crime. At times, the complex structure makes it difficult to determine which perspective is revealed, but the prose is outstanding—vivid and emotionally charged. Without question, The Boys in the Trees deserves the Giller Prize.