The Individual Soldier

“Bang, bang, Canada!”

It was as sweltering hot as it always is in Afghanistan. Sweltering hot, dusty, and extremely uncomfortable under a layer of Kevlar. Three months into a tour of duty, complacency starts to set in. As I drove my jeep through the bustling, overcrowded, traffic-congested market of downtown Kabul, I tried to keep my eyes open, but found my mind wandering. I thought about home, and family and milk that wasn’t irradiated and stuffed into tetra-paks for six months. Black is all I remember—it’s as if the whole world suddenly went into slow motion. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but the sight of a barrel pointed directly at my left eyeball looked to me like a giant yawning chasm ready to swallow me whole.

I can’t remember telling my hand to reach for my pistol, but I could already feel the familiar caress of the cold steel grip in my palm, my thumb instinctively breaking the catch on my shoulder holster. Incoherent nothing spilled out of my mouth. If I died here at least my co-driver might have time to react. It was too close, there was no way I could draw my pistol in time. My legs were already coiled, launching me out of the vehicle towards my assailant—who was nothing more than a young boy holding a toy gun. I was hanging halfway out the side of the jeep as he turned and ran to hide behind a laughing friend. He was just a child looking to play cops and robbers. I still haven’t figured out which one he thought I was.

I slid back into my seat and closed the clasp on my holster. From the passenger seat, my friend points to the gear selector and says, “You stalled it, Jason.” Heart still in my throat, I try my best to look cool and carry on with our patrol. Brave little guy, I think to myself.

It seems like war used to be an absolute business. It was Us versus Them in the World Wars. Even Vietnam had a shadowy, Communist antagonist that some portion of the American population could rally against. The wars fought today in this new age of terrorism aren’t as clearly defined.

It’s easy to discuss war using concrete sums like body counts and dollar figures, less so to talk about soldiers coming back with post-traumatic stress disorder or serious injuries. All we get are gloomy snippets of gossip, spoken in hushed tones, about so-and-so who couldn’t readjust after coming back from Afghanistan.

In this pile of data—treated by the media as entertainment more than cold, uncomfortable fact—the most important number of all is ignored: one. Why don’t we talk about the individual soldier? What is the human cost of this war that some of us have so much stake in?

Across the board, news outlets have done a poor job of relaying what it’s like to be a soldier. Only when Rick Mercer or a group of retired hockey players visit the troops do we seem to get a sense of the men and women on the ground in Afghanistan. Even then, the look is a superficial one at best and cannot speak to the depth of the experience.

Sadly, it feels as if Don Cherry on Hockey Night In Canada is the best source for an understanding of the individual soldier—he’s the only talking head humanizing what feels like a distant, endless war. Cherry seems like the only person on TV who cares when a soldier dies, compared to the standard news anchor relaying the facts deadpan with no further explanation: age, regiment, hometown, “You were a hero and Canada thanks you.”

My close friend Jason was a soldier. He was part of the first rotation of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. When “roto zero” deployed, there was much uncertainty about the mission and the risks involved. As a member of the armored corps, it was his job to thread his Bison tank through the taxis and pedestrians clogging the streets of Kabul. While he was only gone for six months—a far cry from the 12 to 16-month rotations of some American soldiers in Iraq—it was still a stressful time. I had never paid such close attention to the news, reading and re-reading every dispatch regarding the war. Jason came back to us in one piece, albeit with some new grey hairs. He had some close calls.

Traffic again—typical in the Kabul market area. I sit, looking alert, trying not to let my mind wander again. My partner in the passenger seat is a rookie with no common sense. I catch him looking at a commotion on my side of the vehicle and snap at him to pay attention to his own area of responsibility should someone use the distraction to attack us. A soldier had been killed with a zip gun in this zone just a week before. My partner looks back. “Is that yours?” he asks, pointing to a plastic bag lying next to his foot. It definitely wasn’t there when we started our patrol. Inside are a dozen hand grenades. Duds. Probably dug up from some little old lady’s garden.

If the risks are so great, why did he go to Afghanistan? His answer was unexpectedly straightforward.

I went to Afghanistan because I truly believed I could make a difference. I stood by and watched comrades give their lives for a mission that they believed in. Afghanistan is a country full of people who need help, and if we’re not there to fight, the bad guys will pick on those who have no way of defending themselves. If we just walk away from this mission, the ones who will suffer are the Afghan people. The Afghanis want to be free, but have no way of achieving that against an enemy who will kill anyone who doesn’t fit into their ideology.

It was an unwelcome bout of déjà vu when Thomas, a friend of mine from high school, deployed to Afghanistan a few months ago. At his going-away party, I wondered about his reasons for engaging in the war.

I decided to go because I wanted to put my training to good use, and it seemed like an exciting challenge to go to another part of the world. It’s been a huge eye-opener seeing all the things we take for granted back home, like daily showers, air-conditioned houses, even a change of clothes. Most of the locals wear the same man jammies pretty well all their lives.

Jason described Afghanistan as a hot, unforgiving country. In his words, “Everything gets filled with sand and everything smells really bad.” Decades of instability, a booming drug trade that no one seems able (or willing) to control, and a government seen as anemic and unable to establish democracy have made it a difficult part of the world to live in. Nonetheless, Thomas says that many of the locals are appreciative of the work our soldiers are doing.

To be honest, it’s a bit of a shock being there, not just with the higher altitude and extreme heat, but seeing the local people. I’ve been working Entry Control Point 3 at Kandahar Airfield, which is where all the locals come in when they’re working on the base. They do a lot of the clean-up jobs and even some of the construction.

Some of these people have been around since the Russians invaded, so they’ve gone through some rough times, but they still manage to plod on one day at a time. The average worker makes only a few dollars a day, but it can go quite a ways to keep them and their family fed. We employ a fair amount as interpreters; they tend to make more money but they’re also trusted with more responsibility. I know of a handful of them that have more than one job. One of the interpreters is actually a practicing doctor who uses his pay from us to fund his hospital.

On a recent overcast weekday morning, I witnessed what at first appeared to be an accident on a Highway 401 overpass in Whitby. A fire truck was parked on the curb, with lights flickering and sirens silent. I then noticed about a dozen people holding Canadian flags, standing close to the railings facing east. They were awaiting the body of a Canadian soldier killed in action, being transported along the Highway of Heroes from Trenton to Toronto.

I had a similar feeling then as I did a couple years ago when I saw a friend of mine from grade school on the front page of the Toronto Star. He was sitting on the bumper of a vehicle in Afghanistan with two other soldiers. The look on their faces was one of pure sorrow—just before the picture was snapped, they had learned that some fellow soldiers had been killed.

From everything I’ve seen and heard, things are getting a lot better there for them. They have schools to send their children to, cleaner water to drink, and for the most part, places to earn some money. They are very much willing to work, and whenever there are tussles in the lines into the base they sort themselves out quickly to avoid being held up. The majority understand English. They don’t speak it very well, but it’s not hard to get a message across. Locals have approached us several times to report caches of rockets or IEDs. A lot of them are willing to help us help them.

Some activists talk about the war in blanket terms, painting our soldiers as child-murderers and villains. They don’t agree with the mission and refuse to support our troops. It is easy to draw lines in the sand and say their point of view is unpatriotic, but this probably isn’t the case. Can we really say this is a “just war?” Are we doing more harm than good? Should we be pressuring our government to pull our troops out of harm’s way? None of this matters as much as the person on the ground.

Why don’t we talk about the human cost?

The Varsity Magazine Presents: The Cost of Living

Table of Contents

  • Habitat: Convocation Hall with Head Usher Rachel
  • In Season
  • U of T’s Electrical Grid
  • Features

  • The invisible 40 per cent – If you’re a student who takes care of a parent, a sibling, a grandparent, or your kids, you’re not alone – U of T just treats you that way
  • This ain’t your dad’s recession… yet? – Three students get the recession talk from their parents. Dads have good advice!
  • In transit – Read this while hiking it up to the north pole. A long look at our lives as commuters
  • If that place goes, the whole block goes with it – Workers at the Korex soap factory have been striking since June. Why hasn’t anyone noticed?
  • Is the SPP Dead? – If that place goes, the whole block goes with it – Noticed an awful lot of policy “harmonization” with the U.S. lately? If the ultra-secretive security and prosperity partnership were a conspiracy theory, it wouldn’t be this scary
  • A Complicated kindness – U of T sponsors refugee students for their first year, but they’re on their own after that
  • Remembrance Day Supplement

  • What would an Afghan War memorial look like?
  • The Individual Soldier
  • Culture Wars
  • Editorial Address

    When the Great Ice Storm froze eastern Canada to a standstill in 1998, I was in Grade 7. My dad and I woke up early one morning in Toronto, and drove up to our cottage near Parry Sound, loading the SUV with pretty much anything you might need if facing an ice storm. We then drove to where the majority of my parents’ family trees live, in the belt between Kingston and Ottawa. It was a fun and surreal experience. I learned a valuable lesson about how the times you grow up in affect you for the rest of your life.

    My dad’s parents lived in what was once their summer cottage. They had absolutely no electricity when we reached them. When we got there, we unloaded our supplies, including a generator that my dad and his brother-in-law set up for my grandparents to use.

    If you’ve ever had to use a power generator, you’re very cognizant of just how much electricity a house uses. You can’t run everything at the same time. You have to make choices, tradeoffs. An argument quickly ensued at my grandparents’ house. My dad and uncle thought it was important to have things like heating. My grandparents were very sure they needed to run the freezer. During an ice storm.

    As far as my grandparents were concerned, the matter was perfectly clear. You’re allowed to freeze alone in the dark, but you do not let food go bad under any circumstances. This is was what being young during the Depression taught them.

    In this year’s Massey Lectures, Margaret Atwood spoke on the subject of debt, how our views on the subject have changed, and where they’ve remained constant. Atwood reminds us that aside from what we owe to the bank, everything we think we own we’ve actually borrowed from the planet. Andrea Yeoman’s map of campus electricity use is an important first step in examining what we’re borrowing.

    In her lectures, Atwood recounted her parents’ attitude towards money. Given the Maclean’s cover story a couple weeks ago on the joys of frugality, it seems we’ve come full circle. More and more, I find I have questions for my grandparents, were they still around, about their experience of the Great Depression and how it influenced their life choices. I wonder how living during the current world financial instability will influence our own. Kelli Korducki has compiled three unique perspectives on this subject: students interviewing their parents on how they made it through the last time around.

    Our finances are to some extent the fruits of our own choices. But the cost of living in this country are also determined by the machinations of a small group of elites. If you’re a Canadian or an American under 20 years of age, you’ve lived your entire life under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or the FTA that preceded it.

    Those agreements have shaped our lives. There are secretive talks in the works about an add-on to that agreement, called the Security and Prosperity Partnership. Alex Molotkow sets out to find out what the SPP could mean, and is already meaning, for you.

    Nominally, this issue is about the cost of living. Unintentionally, it’s become an issue about families

    There’s another theme running throughout these stories: U of T is a commuter school.

    What we don’t talk about often enough is how this commute permeates every aspect of our lives. Shoshana Wasser’s story of how difficult student refugees find the move out of residence tells us that being a commuter is really a different way of life.

    Jane Bao’s piece on the cost of commuting details some extremely long rides to school, but the frustrations of those travels are ones we all know. They’re opportunity costs—school, work, money, family, friends—all traded in the strange currency of the GO Train schedule.

    Those who worry about a super-lefty nanny state are missing the point when it comes to funding public housing, transportation, and family care. Cutbacks curtail personal freedom and the ability of the individual to rise above their circumstances. As one student caregiver asks in Allison Martell’s story, “How much of my life do I have to put on hold?” Student caregivers are some of the best multi-taskers U of T’s got. Why is the city, the province, and—because of U of T’s national prominence—the country, losing it’s most important resource in transit?

    We often hear that those who fought in the World Wars were fighting for our way of life. For Remembrance Day we examine the human, emotional, and cultural costs of war. Whatever your opinions about wars past and present, we must consider what it is we ask soldiers to put their lives on the line for. Remembering is important—it’s our debt for living.

    Culture Wars

    Professor Jens Hanssen’s office is a cramped room on the third floor of U of T’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. Stacked bookshelves line three walls, forming a library in a variety of languages, but mostly English and Arabic. A few titles stand out: The Economy of Cities, Problems of Everyday Life, and Transforming Loss into Beauty. These three books represent a cause close to Hanssen’s heart, the preservation of Iraqi cultural institutions in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion.

    Hanssen was part of a group of Middle East Studies professors who traveled to Baghdad in June 2003, just weeks after the end of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign by Coalition forces.

    The group, known as the Iraqi Observatory, produced a 30-page report on their fact-finding mission, describing the conditions of the city’s libraries, archives, and universities, and recommending what must be done to save Iraq’s cultural history from destruction.

    “The decision [to go] was made even before the invasion,” he says. “We anticipated that the universities were going to suffer. I was watching like everyone else, with tears in my eyes as Baghdad went up in flames. I just had to go.”

    Hanssen downplays the obvious risks involved.

    “This was before the UN headquarters were bombed. It was even before critics could imagine how horribly wrong the US occupation would go. In hindsight, it was perhaps the only window that was safe.”

    Upon his arrival, Hanssen found a city torn apart by the bombing campaign, and a society degenerating into chaos and civil disobedience.

    “At the border, there were no visas or passport controls. The way we got through was [my colleague] Keith Watenpaugh, the only American, would ask these young kids, the soldiers, ‘Where are you from?’ They would say mainly southern states, Texas or Arkansas, and Keith would say, ‘Oh, I have a cousin there.’ And that was our carnet de passage.”

    “The Americans were just not in any position to guard the border at the most basic level. That’s to be blamed for the insurgency coming across the borders.”

    Over the course of this nine-day fact-finding mission, Hanssen documented what he saw with a handheld video camera. Upon his return, the footage was edited down to two 10-minute videos entitled The Destruction of Baghdad’s Cultural Heritage.

    The videos, which Hanssen has made available for public viewing on YouTube, provide a unique perspective of post-war Baghdad—one that’s impossible to find on the evening news.

    While the Western media focuses on the monumental tasks of installing an autonomous government and ultimately, the withdrawal of Coalition troops, Hanssen’s work highlights the challenges faced once the bombings subside—the reconstruction of Iraqi culture.

    He begins at the Iraqi National Library and Archive, burned and heavily looted in the chaos that followed the Coalition invasion. In his video, the salvaged books are piled six feet high, without any attention paid to classification.

    An official from the Iraqi Academy of Sciences suggests that the looting was perpetrated by specialists who sought the most priceless volumes for sale on the black market.

    Looking back, Hanssen disagrees. “To be honest, for textual and archival stuff there’s not a great market. I don’t think it was market-driven. But many of the libraries that we visited had very valuable editions, and we still haven’t really got a sense of what went missing. There are other people, Iraqis, who are [working that out].”

    Dr. Saad Eskander is one of those people. Named the director of the INLA in 2004, Eskander took on the task of restoring the library’s collection, even if it meant conspiring to steal back thousands of volumes.

    The subject of features in the Washington Post, The Guardian, and GQ, Eskander has become the face of the movement to rebuild Iraq and preserve its cultural heritage. He’s also put his life at risk in doing so, as the INLA has become a primary target of insurgents who aim to disrupt Iraq’s reconstruction.

    Hanssen is sympathetic to the struggle of Eskander and his colleagues.

    “We tried to get a sense of not just the destruction, but also the sense of powerlessness on the part of these librarians,” he says. “It’s natural that [they] should blame dark forces, how else to comprehend this cultural looting that wasn’t in anybody’s interest? And that it would be done by Iraqis themselves…”

    Politics play a role in every aspect of Iraq’s reconstruction, especially with the Hawza, a secretive group of non-state officials who form a volunteer security force at the INLA.

    “The Hawza is the religious college of Shiites. We asked ourselves, ‘Why would these well-organized, well-drilled young men come in and cart books into their mosque in Sadr City?’”

    Hanssen believes they acted with political interests in mind.

    “These guys were extremely loyal and organized. They probably wouldn’t have done the looting, they were genuine. But it wasn’t necessarily out of a greater sense of the historical and cultural value of these books. To guard these books was a bargaining chip—the Hawza can present itself as a guardian of Iraq’s heritage. Groups were forming in anticipation of some future Iraqi state.”

    The building of such a state would include a strengthening of not only libraries and archives, but academic institutions as well. Hanssen recalls the strong sense of community he perceived at Baghdad University and Iraqi Academy of Sciences in 2003.

    “It was a period where everybody was pretty hopeful. Anxious, but hopeful. Most people, even the thousands who held Ba’ath membership, were genuinely happy that Saddam’s regime was gone. You had men and women sitting on benches, laughing, socializing. It didn’t feel any different from other campuses in the middle of the summer.”

    Hanssen conducted his report during the period between the fall of the Ba’athist regime and the rise of the violent insurgency that threw Iraq into turmoil.

    “Our report was critical, but if we’d written it three months later, we would have been far more critical. We were so optimistic. We made these recommendations thinking it would only be a matter of time before we can start rebuilding. We couldn’t foresee just how bad things were going to go. Since we spoke to these professors, some of them have been killed, others went into exile.”

    The principal recommendation of the Iraqi Observatory’s report was to integrate Iraqi universities into the international community of higher education. In the five years since Hanssen’s trip, many initiatives have been proposed, including a plan to build a state of the art American campus in northern Iraq.

    Given the strength of the insurgency, Hanssen believes current prospects are grim.

    “These are isolated [ideas]. To build a parallel, Americanized higher education system I don’t think will work. When Obama withdraws, should he withdraw, any treaties and contracts might be null and void. Even if there are all the right intentions, people are hedging their bets. The [Iraqi government]—I don’t think it stands on firm ground. The future will tell us.”

    In Season

    1 THE ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO opens its Frank Gehry-designed doors free to the public November 14 to 16. With a 50 per cent increase in viewing space, and Canadian contemporary showings from Seth, Shary Boyle, and Tim Lee, we’re so excited we might just stop studying for eight seconds.

    2 They say Bloor and Ossington is the new Queen and Ossington. Notorious party promoter Trevor Coleman (Circa) is set to prove it with THIS IS EXPLODING! MULTI-ACTIVE FUN!, a DJ dance party featuring U of T alum ANIMAL MONSTER (stuffed likeness pictured here) with “Conversations With Smart People” for a scant five bucks. Set at Ethiopian restaurant Habesha Club (875 Bloor St. W.). There goes the neighbourhood.

    3 Quash your Halloween blues with Toronto writer Derek McCormack’s THE SHOW THAT SMELLS (ECW Press), a macabre carnival kitch-o-thon that tells dead baby jokes like no other. Perfect streetcar material, if you can keep your jaw from dropping at McCormack’s ephemeral prose.

    4 DIABLOS MUFFINS are the grab bag of campus baked goods. You think it’s blueberry until all of a sudden there’s a chocolaty Nutella centre and a cream cheese filling. And what’s more, the Mohawked barista gave you accurate change this time! Way to keep us on our toes, guys.

    5 We all have our Harry Potter fantasies, it’s just that studying in THE EMMANUEL COLLEGE LIBRARY allows us to live them. With its immense chandeliers, creaky bookshelves, and sneering librarians, you’ll be muttering the imperius curse in no time—even if it’s just to your jerky Policy TA.

    6 There might be more to life than indie rock, but after listening to Chris Berube’s radio show ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, we don’t really care. Airing each Friday from noon to 2 p.m. on CIUT 89.5 FM, this U of T undergrad has managed to score interviews with the genre’s hottest debuts, including Of Montreal, Girl Talk, and Lykke Li. Download the podcast at

    7 Just in time for winter slush piles, get a free tune-up from the fine folks at BIKE CHAIN, U of T’s on-site bicycle repair centre. Bike Chain is located in the basement of the International Student Centre (33 St. George St.), and offers free instruction on how to repair your 10-speed.

    8 When it comes to traversing a wintertime campus, you’re going to need waterproof boots. May we suggest these TRETORN WELLIES, available for $79 at Get Outside (437 Queen W.)? With fur lining and an array of shiny metallics, you’ll avoid the post-lecture soaker.

    9 Screening The Godfather, Shoot The Piano Player, and Apocalypse Now this month, THE BLOOR CINEMA is a great way to catch your classics on the big screen for cheaper than a rental. Sweet talk a Varsity staffer and we’ll get you in for free. Check out for a full schedule.

    U of T’s Electrical Grid

    From 1990 to 2005, St. George campus underwent major changes. Its population grew by 13 per cent while gaining 23 per cent more floor space. Over this time, electricity usage also increased, by 29.3 per cent. While a portion of this increase can be attributed to the inherent demands of supporting more people and space, it is also due to the amount of electricity-demanding technology used on campus. While computers and other devices now permeate nearly every building on campus, this wasn’t the case in 1990.

    Prior to 1995, off-site suppliers provided St. George campus with all of its electricity. Today, Toronto Hydro and Ontario Power Generation provide only 75 per cent of campus electricity. The other 25 per cent is generated on campus, using an eight-megawatt gas turbine. Installed in 1995, this co-generational turbine creates energy at the central steam plant via natural gas combustion.

    St. George campus’s supply is by no means unlimited. In many areas, the infrastructure that distributes this power is working at full capacity, and needs to be replaced. This complicates renovation in buildings that use excessive amounts of power from the St. George distribution system. Substantial modifications will be needed for renovations incorporating large research equipment, especially in the southeast area of campus. Research will need to be cut back or moved to another location to avoid brown-out situations. Already in some buildings experiments with large electricity needs can only be run outside of peak hours.

    The Wallberg Building is the number-one priority when it comes to energy insurance. Loop 1 of the campus’s 4,160-volt system currently feeds electricity to the building. Any changes made to the electrical system would need to include the Pratt building, Engineering Annex, and Electrometallurgy buildings, as they are sub-fed from the Wallberg building. Loop 1 is further strained by providing power to the Mechanical Engineering, Rosebrugh, and Fitzgerald buildings, as well as the Sigmund Samuel Library and the Canadiana Gallery. Should one part of the loop fail, the other sections wouldn’t be able to handle the increase in power, leaving many buildings in the dark.

    Habitat: Convocation Hall with Head Usher Rachel

    If he’s in a good mood, facility co-ordinator Bruce Anderson will talk about the secret agents who stake out Convocation Hall. No, really.

    One lesser-known point of interest regarding U of T’s foremost rotunda is that undercover operatives regularly snoop around the premises during high-profile events. (Excluding commencement, unless you know something we don’t). Even Margaret Atwood, who became Canada’s secondary head of state when she forced Stephen Harper to retreat from his war on art, didn’t rate one Mountie. On the other hand, Al Gore, who became America’s secondary head of state when he was actually elected in ’92 and ’96, brought a battalion of security to the dome last year.

    “CSIS, the FBI, MI6…we’ve had all sorts of security in here,” Anderson recalls.

    MI6? I imagine Britain’s secret intelligence service, which has somehow

    maintained its cosmopolitan air of Cold-War romance, operating in my old sociology classroom.

    Anderson oversees the ushers of Con Hall—the irregular, constantly changing event crew that guards the entrances, points you to your seat, and generally blends into the background—though not quite as impeccably as the suit-and-ear-radio crowd. Any student can sign on to usher an event, getting a free seat and payment in cash. Another point of international intrigue: Con Hall is one of the few places foreign students can legally work without a green card.

    The most senior usher, Rachel, has been working events in Con Hall for six years, ever since she was an undergrad. Hoping she could shed some light on what MI6 gets up to on their visits, I ask what it would take to get black-bagged and dragged off.

    “Get in the way,” she laughs, before offering assurance that the national security types are ordinary people who mostly make sure no one blocks a politician’s path. No doubt they’ve already gotten to her.

    Next time you’re in Con Hall, if you’re not on the lookout for men whose bowties are actually cameras, try and spot the handiwork of the ushers’ arch-villains: engineers. Con Hall is a bull’s eye for the manic, purpled, cannon-monkeys whose undergraduate attempts to annoy civilization give way, ironically, to careers spent building sturdy trusses and keeping city sidewalks well-surveyed. According to Anderson, they usually go for windows—the higher the better. Well-equipped applied scientists bent on ludicrously dangerous break-ins have been known to scale the building’s exterior wall or even, in one case of Batman-like ingenuity, “walk directly up” the protruding brickwork.

    Great minds, no doubt.

    The invisible 40 per cent

    Three years ago, Karolina Szymanski was working, studying part-time at U of T, and caring for her father, who had terminal cancer. She was also pregnant. The morning after her father’s funeral, she went into labour. Szymanski, now 25, is a full-time student in fourth year balancing a Work-Study position and a full course load while raising her two-year-old son. Szymanski’s story may be dramatic, but as a student caregiver, she is far from unique.

    “There is this general perception that your typical undergraduate student doesn’t have family responsibilities, which is not true,” says Magdalena Rydzy, interim manager of the Family Care Office, which advises and advocates for caregivers on campus, and serves thousands of U of T students each year.

    According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, more than 40 per cent of U of T students spend time each week caring for a dependent. We might imagine student caregivers as older, part-time, or graduate students, but the NSSE shows that many full-time undergrads also have family responsibilities. Caregivers are as diverse as the student body. Some, like Szymanski, are parents, while others look after siblings, sick or aging family members, or disabled loved ones.

    When crunch time hits, Lindsay Foster wakes up at 5 a.m. instead of 6:30. Early morning is the best time for the 42-year-old single mother of five to get work done.

    “I dropped out of school in grade nine. I was a drug addict for about 15 years, and was married to a biker,” she says. After leaving her husband, Foster entered treatment, high school, and finally the Transitional Year Programme at U of T. She is graduating this spring, and hopes to go on to a Master’s in social work.

    Foster’s kids range from age 11 to 20. The four that live at home attend three different schools—some mornings, Foster makes two trips in her van before walking her youngest daughter to school. Then she hops on a bus for a 45-minute trip to campus. Driving is just too expensive.

    The commute is a common stressor for student caregivers. In recent years, the United Way’s Poverty by Postal Code report has tracked the movement of low-income families to the inner suburbs, where housing is cheaper but services are scarce.

    “Lots of students live in the suburbs and they commute,” says Rydzy. “Students have told us that if they could find affordable housing close to campus, then their lives would be really simplified. They wouldn’t have to commute for such a long time, and they could find childcare and other resources downtown.” Foster agrees.

    “If there were affordable housing units close to campus, my life would be radically different in terms of having more time with my kids,” says Foster. “It’s really tough to have any sort of quality time with them. It seems like in the evenings, after I pick them up, it’s just a steady stream of chores.”

    U of T operates Student Family Housing, a 713-unit development east of campus, but there’s a waiting list.

    When her children were younger, Foster was able to depend on her mother for help. Other parents are not so lucky.

    “We don’t really have a very good childcare plan as a nation,” says Rydzy. “There are no childcare spaces. Most of our full-time students qualify for childcare subsidies, but if there are no spaces [in local daycares], they can’t really access that resource.”

    Szymanski started trying to get her son into daycare when he was only three months old. It took two years to line up both the subsidy and the space. “It felt like a miracle that I should happen to get them both in the same week,” she says. There is a year-long wait to obtain a spot in on-campus daycare.

    Parents are the most visible student caregivers at U of T, but they are not alone. Amina Stella, a third-year employment relations student, has three step-siblings under the age of nine, who she looks after a few times a week. Stella cooks, cleans, and entertains. She also works part-time and plays soccer.

    “I do get a chance to go out, but I have to plan,” she says. “I have to tell my mom or my dad in advance, and say, ‘This is what I want to do, I’m not going to be here, so figure something out.’” Even so, Stella’s situation is more flexible than many—the Family Care Office works with students who have primary responsibility for younger siblings.

    Not all caregivers look after children. Liem Vu is a fourth-year criminology student. Five years ago, his grandmother had a stroke, which left her partly paralyzed.

    “Before, my grandmother was really healthy, she was able to make her own meals,” says Vu. After the stroke, “she wasn’t able to cook or even use the microwave safely.” Vu’s grandmother, now 89, lives with two of her daughters. Three afternoons a week, Vu pitches in.

    “I go over around lunch time, heat up her lunch, take her downstairs, making sure she gets down safely, and just sit with her while she eats,” he says. “On other days my brother comes and takes my place.”

    A care worker comes by twice a week to help Vu’s grandmother bathe. This is about as much aid as most families can expect from the government, says Lynne Gallagher, who works with caregivers for Family Care Toronto.

    “If somebody needs 24-hour care, the most they can get is 20 hours a week, and those are people who are really in critical need of support,” says Gallagher. “Most people get a couple hours a week.” An aging population is putting stress on the system, and funding has not increased along with demand.

    Vu’s family is managing, but others struggle to bridge the gap. The majority of care has always been provided by families. “There is a perception that the families are there, and that they are able to do it,” says Gallagher. But families can be more complicated than the government assumes.

    Daniel Bader, an upper-year English student, spent years estranged from his father. “He was a very mean person. He was an abusive person, to some extent,” says Bader.

    In 2001, Bader’s father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Now he has difficulty walking, and cannot drive. A care worker visits four days a week to help. Bader doesn’t consider himself to be a caregiver, but he drops by a couple times a week.

    “I go over, and I do his banking for him, I cook sometimes, I get him groceries. Most of the time we just talk,” he says. He isn’t sure what role he should take on as his father gets sicker.

    “It’s an open question, as to whether I will need to [become a caregiver], whether if he becomes worse he won’t be able to afford the help,” says Bader. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m a bit scared about that. How much of my life do I need to put on hold?”

    It’s a question all caregivers ask themselves at some point, and the answer can be discouraging. The result is stress, even mental illness. Caregivers are particularly susceptible to depression, as Rydzy knows well from her casework at the FCO.

    “A few weeks ago I saw a graduate student who is also a caregiver of her elderly mother, who is ill. She commutes an hour and a half every day to campus downtown, and she works, and her mother is sick,” says Rydzy. “This student is under stress, she feels guilty, and it’s really challenging.”

    Rydzy argues that administrators could do more to support student caregivers. Most part-time graduate students qualify for little or no funding, with daycare subsidies and grants restricted to full-time undergrads. In some cases, this forces students into full-time status when they would rather study part-time.

    “Before having my kid, I was balancing work and school, because I did not wish to take OSAP,” says Szymanski. “I just felt uncomfortable with the debt.” But as a part-time student, Szymanski could not qualify for Dollars for Daycare, UTAPS financial aid, interest-free OSAP, or a daycare subsidy. The university advised her to become a full-time student.

    “Finally someone at the Family Care Office sat me down and said, ‘Listen, this is what you have to do to stay afloat.’ Without them, I would not have done it, and I would have been in a terrible situation,” she says. But student caregivers need more than money.

    “Especially for full-time undergraduate students, there is little flexibility for accommodating students for family care issues,” says Rydzy. A sick child may not excuse student parents from a test. Some students depend on the compassion of individual professors. Others become mired in bureaucracy.

    “When I was eight months pregnant, I walked into my registrar’s office [to reschedule an exam] and I had to provide documentation for the fact that I was pregnant,” says Szymanski. Since then, Symanski has had to exhaustively document every family responsibility.

    “I think it would be really nice if people could just take our word for it. I find that trying to prove all these things all the time is a strain, and it’s also a financial strain.”

    Despite bright spots—help from the FCO, an emergency grant from a registrar, a sympathetic professor—student caregivers feel invisible, even unwelcome, on campus.

    “We cannot compete [in terms of marks] with your average single 18-year-old student. The fact that we can do these three things and still survive—that shows you how valuable we are as people and as students,” says Szymanski. “I really wish that U of T could see that.”

    This ain’t your dad’s recession… yet?

    The recession-proof powers of the Jheri Curl:

    Jon Medow interviews his father, Dan Medow

    Jon: Tell me about your experience running a business during the recession period of the early ’80s.

    Dan: The early 1980s. That was the era of the Jheri Curl.

    At that time I owned a company called Standard Distributing out of Detroit, Michigan, and we were suppliers of ethnic hair care products to major chain stores across the United States. If we’ve pegged this period correctly as the period of the Jheri Curl, then I can tell you that the company did not have a recession.

    Until that time, [the Jheri Curl] had only been done in salons, where they would charge patrons in excess of $100 to effect this particular style. Well, there was a company based out of Texas by the name of ProLine and its owner, Comer Cottrell, came up with a retail version of this salon treatment. Comer called it the ProLine Curly Kit, and this kit sold for $6.95. Suddenly, a style that had cost over $100 dollars could be achieved for less than $10.

    So what happened was that this took off and was, at that time, our fastest-selling item. We were selling it literally by the truckloads. We could not get it out fast enough. They could not make it fast enough.

    Other people, of course, caught on to the technology and brought out similar items. We had a definite advantage here, so we sort of blew past the recession at that time because the style was the driving force of the market, as it often is.

    The interesting thing is that because the industry at that time was style-driven, this could happen. If we hadn’t had that style, we probably would have been in the tank.

    Jon: So, without the Jheri Curl, the early ’80s could have been disastrous for you?

    Dan: Yes, they could have been. But on the other hand, we were selling products that were not terribly expensive, so people could use them no matter what. In the African-American community at that time, probably the majority of women were straightening their hair. And if they were going to straighten their hair, they were going to straighten their hair. People are going to do their hair no matter what; one of the last things that will go [in times of economic hardship] is appearance. People will wear clothes until they either become very out of style, or need to be replaced, but hairstyles, haircuts, makeup, lipsticks, will continue to be used on a regular basis. It’s safe.

    Intellectual cops and industrial salt:

    Kelli Korducki interviews her father, Rick Korducki.

    Kelli: What was your experience of recession?

    Rick: My experience of recession happened approximately between the years of 1975 and 1980. During this time, I was in university.

    While I was in school it was so difficult to find employment, even for students. You felt really fortunate if you were able to find a job. There were hardly even fast food jobs available.

    Then, when we graduated, we faced a horrible job market. If you didn’t come out of school with a very specific skill that just happened to be in demand, you found yourself going for all sorts of things.

    I remember knowing people who were very overqualified for the jobs they were doing. I knew a guy who graduated from university with high distinction, very bright, and he was selling clothes in a clothing store for some time. He eventually wound up becoming quite successful, but for people who were leaving school at that time, it took three or four years longer to get into a meaningful professional career path than it probably would have otherwise. There were a lot of people who were in a holding pattern, underemployed, while waiting for the economy to turn around.

    Kelli: Do you see any parallels between what you experienced then, and what’s happening with the economy now?

    Rick: Definitely. Of course, we’re not really in it to the extent that we will be soon.

    I had a friend who was a police officer in a Denver, Colorado suburb that only hired university graduates. So I went out there and actually applied for a job as a police officer, and of course it didn’t take them a long time to figure out that I was very ill-suited for that type of employment.

    Employment was so bad that I remember interviewing for a job as an industrial salt salesman. I answered an ad in the classifieds and drove down to this place in the industrial valley in Milwaukee. This guy sees me and he asks me if I have any sales experience. I say, “Not really,” but explain to him that I’m a liberally educated person and that I have a university degree.

    So, he walks me out and we’re standing next to this mountain of industrial salt, like about two or three stories high and he tells me, “Well, there’s the salt. It’s really a product that kind of sells itself.” And I said, “I guess it better.” Needless to say, I didn’t get that job.

    Kelli: What was your degree in again?

    Rick: My degree was in Latin American Studies and Spanish Literature.

    Everybody in Argentina has a story:

    Bill Rios tells his son, Dan Rios, his side.

    The best story of terrible things—stupid things—is the story of what happened to us while living in Argentina.

    We have the visa to go to Canada. We have our ticket and we sold everything we owned. Anything that had to go to Canada had already been sent: we were ready to roll.

    We sold our apartment and signed the papers after the banks closed on April 1, 1982. We wake up the next morning to find that Argentina was invading the Falklands. Money exchanges were shut down across the country—we couldn’t exchange the Argentinean pesos we were given for American dollars.

    In an act of desperation, I went to a foreign exchange dealer and bought third-party cheques in U.S. dollars at a 40 per cent premium. In one day, we lost 40 per cent of our life savings.

    A month later, when we were leaving, I could have bought two and half apartments like the one I sold with the money I had. The peso’s value dropped like a rock. We knew that the war was lost, but it took 48 hours for Argentineans to learn they had lost the Falklands to the British.

    The economy went into a tailspin. It kept going for the next six years, to the point that the elected president had to turn over governmental power to the newly elected president before his term was up. The entire country was falling apart. This was Carlos Menem, who sold the country and privatized everything. Then it collapsed again.

    The problem only stopped when Menem took the drastic measure of declaring one peso equal to one American dollar. It stopped inflation dead in its tracks—but it caused yet another governmental bankruptcy.

    You learn to live with the inflation. You don’t have a budget, you don’t know how much money you are going to earn next month, and you can’t save. The money that you save loses value. The trick is to be constantly in debt as much as you can. The more money you owe, the better off you are.

    How do you handle the crisis? Ignore it. You have to disconnect. A trick we used to have for going to the supermarket: because the inflation was so high, they would re-mark the prices twice a week. You would go to the market, and if it was one of the days when they were changing prices, you would see where they were adjusting the prices, and run ahead to the other parts of the store that weren’t yet changed. You could save five to seven per cent if you did this.

    How do you deal with it? You have to be resilient, you have to be adaptive. You have to have guts.

    Everybody has a story in Argentina.