Out of the frying pan

More word on the Fight Fees 14 legal case came from U of T on Monday, as the school announced it will consider reopening a probe on whether to start Code of Conduct hearings against the nine U of T students whose criminal charges were dropped last week. The news came from U of T’s Strategic Communications office, which released the school administration’s official response to news of the Crown’s withdrawal of charges related to a sit-in protest in March.

The only U of T student still charged is a minor who cannot be identified.

The nine students whose charges were dropped have entered a “peace bond,” an agreement similar to a restraining order. Under the terms of the peace bond, the nine students may not enter Simcoe Hall without giving a heads-up 24 hours in advance. They also may not demonstrate inside of U of T buildings. The peace bond stays in effect for one year.

“Very often a peace bond is a way of resolving a weak criminal case,” said the students’ lawyer, Mike Leitold.

The prosecutor had not disclosed all the evidence against the students. Leitold said that the Crown had only confronted the students with “a very frail case, but nonetheless the students decided to move their lives forward by getting these very serious charges dropped.”

The university had previously launched an investigation to decide whether to charge the U of T students among the FF14 with violating U of T’s Code of Non-Academic Student Conduct. The code governs student behaviour outside of the classroom, and allows expulsion, an option the school has exercised in the past. According to the administration statement, the investigation was suspended to await further evidence, which was expected to surface during the criminal trial. With that trial now out of the question, the office confirmed that the investigators will now deliberate on whether to resume the probe or close it for good.

FF14 media spokesperson Gabi Rodriguez, herself among the nine students who signed the peace bond, reacted to the news, saying the administration had already promised in writing not to restart the investigation.

“[The administration] were informed of the peace bond terms before they were signed, and agreed that the terms were satisfactory,” said Rodriguez. “It’s kind of why the peace bonds were signed.” According to her, the FF14 feared their charges would be dropped only to have the Code of Conduct procedures resume, and that they sought and obtained the administration’s assurance that this would not happen.

The FF14 had already turned the charges’ withdrawal into an attack on what they called the administration’s use of scare tactics against campus protests, saying the dropped charges were a sign that the university had exaggerated the case against them. A press release issued last March by U of T’s president David Naylor called the sit-in a case of “thuggish tactics by mobs,” and publicly alleged that students at the protests had committed serious crimes including assaulting U of T staff and uttering threats of bodily harm against police officers and their families.

U of T stood by its account of events, denouncing the FF14’s statements as containing “very serious errors” and proposing to set the record straight. The university maintains that staff at Simcoe Hall were “confined against their will and were subjected to abuse and harm” at the sit-in.

“Administrative allegations of harm were not reflected in the charges laid,” said Rodriguez. “The lack of meaningful evidence which led to the dropping of charges seems convincing that our administration is willing to make empty allegations that are entirely political in nature.”

“From our perspective, we see this as the case beginning to crumble,” said Leitold, characterizing the peace bond deal as “a reflection of the weakness of the criminal case and the fact that these were political actions, not criminal actions.”

Both sides of the dispute capped off their respective declarations by taking shots at one another. “The University hopes that, in future, issues of concern will be brought forward in a responsible manner and it will continue to listen and to respond through the various means that exist for responsible dialogue between the University and its constituents,” reads the U of T’s statement.

Rodriguez responded that “frankly, the students hope that in the future the administration will be more responsible. Their entire case fell apart.”

Whoa, Canada!

On January 5, twenty-two teenage Canadians lit up Ottawa’s packed Scotiabank Place as they beat Team Sweden 5-1 to capture their fifth straight gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championships. The tournament, which saw the puck drop on Boxing Day, glued hockey fans firmly onto their couches for the past ten days. For many, it’s a holiday tradition that rivals the turkey dinner on Christmas day or over-consumption on New Years Eve.

But when the competition is held in one of the European hockey countries, such as Russia or Slovakia, the fans share the same enthusiasm as they do for a Saturday morning peewee practice. Why is it so different in Canada? Why do we care?

It’s a matter of pride. As the Great White North is constantly overshadowed by the beast beneath us, there’s little to call our own. We don’t produce eight time gold medal winners at the Olympics, we don’t challenge for the World Cup (or even compete for it), but hockey is ours. It’s what we do, and it’s what we do well. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Mario Lemieux scoring the ’87 Canada Cup winner, or Jordan Eberle netting the tying goal with only 5.4 seconds left, as he did last Saturday night, paving the way for a dramatic Canadian shootout win against the Russians. In hockey, Canadians can feel as though they’re on top of the world.

The competition provides a much-needed break from the mid-season monotony of the NHL. A third of the way through the season, the already drudging league falls into a dull routine. NHL-ers put forth a half-decent effort, earn their paycheques, travel to the next city, and do it all over again. But with the injection of the World Juniors, fans are given a taste of hockey that’s untainted by professionalism. Not earning a single cent, the boys play with nothing but passion, excitement, and national pride. Through sheer determination (and quite a bit of skill), John Tavares single handedly got Canada back into the final round robin game against the Americans by scoring two straight goals to bring the team within one of the tie. P.K. Subban revved up the crowd with his boisterous energy even more than he did with his all-star performance. And Dustin Tokarski, a kid that was told he would never make it, backstopped the team to their victory. The eager glint in the players’ eyes that often fades after years in the NHL shined bright during this tournament.

But what really keeps Canadians glued to their televisions is a sense of the familiar. The players aren’t from some lofty realm of athletic elitism, inaccessible to the common Joe. They’re our brothers, our cousins, our sons, and our high school classmates. If you grew up in Canada, chances are you’ve known someone just like six foot six defenseman Keith Aulie from Rouleau, Saskatchewan, or Chris DiDomenico from Woodbridge, Ontario, who was once overlooked by the OHL because of his size. Perhaps you went to school with an Angelo Esposito from Montreal, rejected three years in a row by Team Canada before finally making the cut, who scored the gold medal-winning goal in Monday night’s game. The team inspires the next generation of young players to believe that it doesn’t take divine intervention (or corporate endorsements) to make it. They salute all the regular people who’ve helped them along their way. They may be from the other side of the country, but they strike close to home.

One couldn’t help feeling a sense of national sentiment when the 1,800 square foot Canadian flag surfed over the Ottawa crowd. The tournament is more than a showcase of sport. It’s a reinforcement of our pastime, and an expression of our social fabric.

What really keeps Canadians glued to their televisions is a sense of the familiar. The players are our brothers, our cousins, our sons, and our high school classmates.

Jewish women occupy Israeli Consulate

A U of T student was among eight Jewish and Israeli women that occupied the Israeli Consulate yesterday for about two hours to protest the ongoing Israeli invasion into Gaza that has killed more than 700 people.

“It was an action in solidarity with the people of Gaza, we were there to demand that Israel stop its massacres,” said Jennifer Peto, a Master’s student at OISE. Peto was one of a group of ten women, led by Ryerson professor Judy Rebick.

The reasons for the protest were two-fold, said Rebick: “One was to bring attention to the fact that many Jews don’t agree with Israel, and that we’re only hearing one voice. The second is that we’re really upset about the assault on Gaza right now.” The Israeli Consulate responded by calling in the police.

Toronto Police seized the protesters for trespassing and causing a disturbance. “They handcuffed us and put us in a paddy wagon, I guess we were handcuffed for about an hour and a half, and then they let us go,” said Rebick.

Peto said they had no problems getting into the building in smaller groups, at around 10 a.m. “We had had valid reasons to get in, we are all Jewish so we were treated quite respectfully,” she said. “Israel is an apartheid state, so if you’re white and Jewish, they treat you extremely well. Some of us speak Hebrew and were able to do that. They treated us amazingly… At least until we sat down on the floor.”

Before the police entered the scene, said Peto, the consulate security grabbed her and tried to drag her out. “One of us was taking pictures,” she said. “He slapped her camera and she got hit in the face.”

The communications office at the Israeli Consulate did not return The Varsity’s phone calls.

Judith Deutsch, president of activist-prof group Science for Peace, was unable to get into the building. “All of us also felt that there was insufficient attention to the complicity of Canada not calling for a cease-fire,” said Deutsch. “Actually being the first country to withdraw funds in 2006 [when Hamas was elected] and not recognizing the government that was elected.”

Rebick pointed to Conservative MP Peter Kent, who blamed Hamas for Israeli shells that killed 40 Palestinians, including children, at a U.N. school in Gaza this week. She said the protest aimed to challenge the media’s distorted portrayal of the conflict. “It’s portrayed as a war between two equal forces, and the Israeli forces are overwhelmingly more armed more soldiers, they are disproportionately reacting to rockets that came before this happened, and they are killing civilians left, right and centre, and it’s not justified.”

Blues spike back

The Varsity Blues women’s volleyball team hosted the 18th annual National Invitational Tournament on January 2-4 at the Athletic Centre.

The Blues finished in second place with a 2-1 record, behind tournament champions the York Lions, who finished with a perfect 4-0 record.

In the tournament’s opening day, Toronto defeated the Winnipeg Wesman with a total of 3-1 (25-20, 20-25, 25-17, 25-22). On Saturday, U of T lost to the York Lions with a score of 1-3 (25-21,18-25, 16-25,19-25). The Blues finished the tournament with a 3-1 (26-24, 18-25, 25-17, 25-19) win over the Saint Mary’s Huskies.

“It was a great way to start the second season, especially since there was some tough sets that we won. We rose to the challenge, and in the finals we demonstrated our ability to play,” said head coach Kristine Drakich. “We felt very good; everyone put in a real team effort, everyone contributed. This helped us to get focused and prepared for the second half of the season.”

Fifth-year Blues star Caley Venn was named the tournament all-star for her incredible play throughout the weekend.

In the game against Saint Mary’s, Venn and Heather Bansley tallied 14 and 13 kills respectively.

Bansley is currently leading in the OUA, and second in the CIS, averaging 5.64 points per game. She has been selected to be part of the Canadian National Beach Volleyball team.

Club Profile: Medieval martial arts

A few mornings ago I was walking down a busy downtown street during rush hour. The world felt slow; cars crawled towards an unending stream of red lights, drivers planted in their seats. Out of nowhere, two young men on svelte road bikes appeared, weaving in and out of traffic. They were challenging one another, taunting and shouting, grinning maniacally all the while. Their enemy was the environment, and sure of victory, they approached the fight with reverence and respect. But make no mistake: they were enjoying the hell out of it.

Meeting David M. Cvet was kind of like seeing those two young men racing down the road: he is all sureness and energy, bound together in an enormous 6’7” frame. The progenitor of the AEMMA (pronounced ‘Emma’), or Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts, Cvet’s organization is dedicated to recreating the philosophies and combat techniques of l´arte dell´armizare, based on an early 15th-century manuscript by Fiore dei Liberi. It details in both verse and illustration various combat and defence techniques using weapons common to a medieval fighter: daggers, swords, spears, and poleaxes.

Cvet saw the manuscript while on contract work in Italy in the late 1990s and instantly realized he could combine his fascination of medieval history with his love of steel weaponry, especially swords. “I wanted to do a martial arts activity that is not a re-enactment,” he says, referring to places like Medieval Times, the suburban spectacle that has more in common with theatre than combat. Instead, he aimed to reconstruct the art from scratch, and to adhere to its concepts as closely as possible.

When he got back to Canada, Cvet recruited a few like-minded friends and began applying what he knew of the manuscript to his own training. He soon retired from his day job as an IT specialist and dedicated his life to spreading medieval martial arts throughout Toronto. AEMMA has since grown into a non-profit school where history buffs and weapons nuts alike can pursue the strengthening of one’s mind and body. A dedicated group of about 25 men and women now train several times a week. “It has to be a lifestyle choice,” says David. “My wife refers to AEMMA as the other woman.”

Like many of the Eastern martial arts, AEMMA incorporates three elements into its rigorous training: books, brain, and brawn. “Eighty per cent of fighting is inside your head. You want to look for opportunities to take advantage [of your opponent] and not turn it into a brawl.” Many of AEMMA’s members spend as much time wielding bookmarks as they do broadswords, and, according to Aaron Bolarhino, both are equally important.

An AEMMA member for four years, 21-year-old Aaron has received the rank of scholler, or scholar, an accomplishment earned by enduring savage bouts against several provosts¸ or masters, with a range of weapons of his choosing. He currently heads AEMMA UofT, and, with Cvet’s help, is recruiting on campus. “AEMMA is one of my favourite courses at U of T,” he says, referring to the heavy emphasis on studying the many theories associated with Fiore’s manuscript. He commutes from Kitchener twice a week to attend university, and to practice. Lean, muscular, and goateed, he comfortably embodies both the scholar and the martial artist persona that AEMMA nurtures. But, he assures me, it is the sheer exhilaration of the fight that keeps him coming back.

“Human beings are inherently violent,” says Cvet, smirking. “Here is a chance to turn that violence into something useful. It helps you grow as a person, and I tell you, when you get into a free play fight, and you’re doing armoured fencing with swords, with spears, it’s freakin’ intense. But you know what, all the while we’ve got a big smile on our face. It is just so much fun.”

Watch for AEMMA UofT around campus, and check out a real tournament on Saturday, March 21, at the ROM.

Faculty union, staffers wrangle over salary

Two unionized staffers at the University of Toronto Faculty Association aren’t happy about their salaries, and they are in a position to strike.

UTFA refused to increase the salary of one of the members. George Luste, president of UTFA, says salaries are determined by a grid system. “The position she holds falls in the third level of the grid,” said Luste. “Her pay is higher than that of her level. UTFA’s offer was to give her one-time-only supplements to her salary but not add to base until the grid increases catch up to her salary.”

Since a fixed percentage of each employee’s salary is put towards their pensions, the staff member feels the salary dispute directly affects her pension.

“Although there is no literal reduction in these contributions, not increasing her salary affects the overall amount contributed towards her pension,” said Jim Morrison, the CUPE National Representative. The UTFA employees belong to CUPE 1281. “It was written in the collective agreement that there would be a 1% increase in her salary, which the UTFA want to remove,” he added.

Both sides have been negotiating the issue since before the winter break.

“We are willing to talk,” said Morrison, “The last thing we want to do is to strike.”

These negotiations come at time when UTFA is trying to negotiate for the faculty and librarians it represents.

“There is a difference between the academic and office staff,” said Luste. “The two negotiations can’t be compared. The salary systems are not the same.”

Morrison said the staffers’ demands are comparable to workers in the same sector. Considering the contracts only affects two members, Morrison said, “I don’t see what the big deal is.”

CUPE expects a response from their latest proposal this week.

North of the 49th parallel lies affordable education

It turns out Canada is more than just a destination for draft dodgers and war resisters. With lower tuition costs and a strong U.S. dollar, American students are turning to Canadian universities as an affordable alternative to U.S. colleges.

According to the Boston Globe, the number of Americans attending Canadian universities has risen by 50 per cent since 2001. The average tuition for undergraduate international students is $14,487 (US), far less than what American private schools and some public universities ask for.

Canadians universities are also less competitive.

In recent years, schools like U of T, McGill, and Concordia have seen a new level of interest from Americans, especially from students in the Boston area attracted to the cosmopolitan setting and proximity of Toronto and Montreal.

Iran jails Toronto blogger

Popular Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakshan has been detained on accusations of spying for Israel, Iran confirmed on Dec. 30.

The U of T sociology grad was deemed the “Blogfather” ever since he ignited the blog boom in Iran in 2001, after publishing instructions online on how to type in Persian characters.

Judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi told reporters that Derakhshan was charged with insulting religious figures.

Derakhshan also defied Iranian law when he made high-profile visits to Israel. His aim was to break taboo contacts with Israel, and to give Israelis a different view of Iran.

“Too bad, I don’t care,” Derakshan blogged afterwards. “I’m a citizen of Canada and I have the right to visit any country I want.”

Iran views Israel as its archenemy and states that it has forbidden Israeli spy networks in the country.The Toronto Sun reported that Derakshan could face execution. A foreign affairs ministry spokesperson said Ottawa is keeping tabs on the matter.