‘The Tamil Tigers don’t speak for me’

Last Tuesday, Gayathri Naganathan was helping set up a 24-hour public fast to draw attention to a war in Sri Lanka that has left as many as 300,000 civilians caught in the crossfire. As she went about her business, a student passing by commented that it was “interesting” that the Tamil Students’ Association was demonstrating against human rights abuses. Naganathan asked why, and the student replied that he had read that morning in the National Post that the Tamil Tigers were “slaughtering civilians” in Northern Sri Lanka.

“And then before we could even get into a discussion he walked away,” said Naganathan. “Automatically, because we’re the Tamil Students’ Association, we are terrorists?”

At about the same time that Naganathan was getting ready for the TSA’s fast, the former president of the Canadian Tamil Students’ Association was in a Brooklyn courtroom, pleading guilty to organizing a $900,000 weapons deal to provide guns and surface-to-air missile launchers to the Tamil Tigers. The group, known officially as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Canada. The 29-year-old Sathajhan Sarachandran was arrested in an undercover investigation conducted jointly by the FBI and RCMP.

Coming at a time when Tamil community groups are mobilizing to protest violence and social injustice in their home country, public speculation stirred by the confessions has forced the groups to continually reiterate that they do not support the LTTE.

Thousands have protested over the past few weeks, in front of the Sri Lankan consulate and provincial legislature, making human chains and filling University Ave. with their signs and slogans.

Despite Sri Lankan conflict’s ethnic lines, dividing the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority from the Tamil Hindu minority, the Toronto protests have pointedly avoided politics. Tamil-Canadians and their supporters refuse to take sides, saying that right now the only important thing is to stop the violence.

“Somehow because of the current trial, people just assume that anyone who’s taking a stand on a humanitarian issue that’s happening is automatically a terrorist,” said Naganathan.

A Globe and Mail article published last week characterized Toronto’s Tamil community as deeply connected with the LTTE and called Scarborough the “capital of Eelam.” The article anonymously quoted a letter the paper received denouncing various 24-hour public fasts in Toronto as “an attempt by Tiger supporters to ‘safeguard their Mafia LTTE leadership’ and raise funds for an ongoing fight.”

“I’m a Tamil Canadian and I can tell you that I’m not directly influenced by the Tamil Tigers,” said Naganathan. “It’s really disappointing to see especially the media jump on board with this fanaticism of terrorism,” she added. “Because that’s not the truth.”

Naganathan has said that coverage of Sarachandran’s trial takes away from the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka. “The genocide that’s happening in Sri Lanka is comparable to Rwanda, and the international community is turning a blind eye,” she said.

Milly Thanagarajah, a 28-year-old who took time off work to protest, expressed outrage over being associated with the Tigers. “Canadians think we all belong to the Tigers,” she said. “That’s like saying all Caucasians are in the Ku Klux Klan. I don’t even have a speeding ticket.”

A green plan to be envied

Unusual as it may sound, the US has decided to go green—greener than Canada. Obama is a man of his word: he is delivering on his promises, enacting bold change. These changes will affect Canada as much as the States. To demonstrate, let’s compare our governments’ “green” credentials.

Obama’s energy plan, which includes a Presidential Climate Change Action Plan, aims to increase dependence on renewable energy. The Harper government’s much anticipated budget merely toys with the idea of green energy. Obama’s praiseworthy energy plan aims to reduce US oil consumption, produce more efficient cars, and substitute ethanol for petrol. Part of Obama’s economy stimulus, the plan will invest $150 billion over the next 10 years to build clean energy, creating five million jobs in the process.

Harper’s plan for the energy sector is vague. The Harper government’s budget includes $2.4 billion for clean energy projects over the next five years. This sum creates an illusion of greenness, but cannot hide the inadequacy of the overall strategy. Obama’s plan will not only increase investment in renewable energy, it will reduce oil consumption. Unsurprisingly, the Harper government’s budget does not aim to reduce oil consumption—it tries to make fuel “clean.” Canada’s renewable energy industry, particularly the wind, solar, biomass, and hydro sectors, is not pleased with the federal budget. Conspicuously absent was any provision for expanding the ecoEnergy for Renewable Power program, which supports new power projects. Some will argue that to spare even $2.4 billion for the renewable energy sector in such economic times is more than sufficient—but is the US’s economy any better?

The gap between the Obama administration’s ambitious investment in renewable energy and the Harper government’s inadequate version of energy planning will have significant ramifications for the Canadian economy. The US has prepared itself for a transition to a sustainable economy, one that several European countries have already adopted. Canada mustn’t fall behind, but with only $2.4 billion to spare on renewable energy and no sign of policy change to reduce oil consumption, the federal government will be unable to adapt.

Canada is the largest importer of energy to the US, but Alberta’s oil sands will become less significant as US oil consumption decreases. Oil exports to the US will taper off, resulting in a major blow to our economy. In order for Canada to prosper, the Harper government has to invest substantially in renewable energy, which—believe it or not—is economically promising.

The danger of climate change has provided North America with an opportunity to boost its economy while protecting the environment. Energy prices contributed significantly to the economic slowdown, and it will be the development of renewable energy that creates better economic times. Obama has been quick to exploit these opportunities, and his pragmatic move is a wake-up call for the Harper government to do the right thing before it’s too late.

TA union reaches tentative settlement

Those fearful of a TA strike at U of T can heave a sigh for now.

U of T admin reached a tentative settlement Thursday afternoon for a three-year labour contract with CUPE 3902, the union representing TAs, course instructors, and Accessibility Service workers.

The CUPE 3902 bargaining team will present the contract to its members at a meeting this evening. If the members agree to support the tentative settlement, a ratification vote will follow.

CUPE bargaining team spokesperson Rebecca Sanders was optimistic about the agreement’s prospects for ratification.

“We feel that we did manage to address most of the core concerns that we were bargaining for, to our satisfaction. Our members will probably feel the same way.”

Though terms of the agreement will not be made public until after ratification, Sanders went on to say that the bargaining team is satisfied with the agreement.

“We feel it is a fair settlement, that’s why we’re recommending it. Obviously, every settlement leaves something to be desired, and more work can be done.”

If the tentative settlement is met with approval at tonight’s meeting, CUPE 3902 members will be able to vote for ratification by secret ballot starting this evening. Voting will continue on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the official results will be available on Wednesday night.

Should the settlement be ratified, the university will avoid the threat of a TA strike that has loomed since the expiry of the previous contract in April 2008.

Sanders said that if the agreement is rejected, the two sides would resume negotiations, and a strike would not be immediate.

Freshly Pressed

Franz Ferdinand – Tonight (Domino)

It’s been four years since their last studio release, and Franz Ferdinand have returned in fine form—the Scottish quartet’s latest effort, Tonight, is brimming with disco-inflected rhythms and infectious melodies.

While the tracklist presents a marked change from their earlier albums, it’s reassuring to hear the Glaswegian boys doing what they do best at the core of Tonight. The roaring riffs, pounding percussion, and booming vocals of Alex Kapranos combine to produce a medley of danceable grooves. It’s not quite a new sound; rather, an expansion of their old one.

The bass-heavy opener and lead single, “Ulysses,” packs a powerful punch with Kapranos alternating between a rasp and a roar. The sing-along chorus repeats a hook so catchy it’s impossible to get out of your head.

The rest of the album lives up to expectations, with “No You Girls” composed in traditional Franz style with an addictive chorus and accompanying handclaps, and the cheeky “Turn It On,” where Kapranos croons: “You know I’ll get you on your own.” New forays into electronic territory such as “Twilight Omens” deliver irresistible synth flourishes, while the eight-minute “Lucid Dreams” features a hazy, extended riff.

A number of unexpected discoveries bring the album to a close. The ethereal “Dream Again” provides a surprisingly mellow finish to a highly energetic album. The closing track, “Katherine Kiss Me” is an acoustic ballad that tells the same story as the jaunty “No You Girls” from a softer, more vulnerable perspective.

The result is a collection of fun, danceable rockers capped off with a lilting finish, as Kapranos ironically bemoans: “You leave me dancing alone.” But if this album is playing, there’s little chance of that being anyone’s fate.

—Niamh Fitzgerald

VVVV

LATE OF THE PIER – FANTASY BLACK CHANNEL (EMI)

If the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse chose to descend upon a sweaty London nightclub, it’s a reasonable assumption that “Hot Tent Blues,” the crashing minute-long intro to Late of the Pier’s full-length debut, might provide the soundtrack. But those 76 bombastic seconds of guitar and synth flourishes announce a different type of Judgment Day. After releasing four singles that set the UK underground on fire, Late of the Pier’s Fantasy Black Channel has arrived, armed with a fistful of frenetic party-starters.

It was always assumed that British nu-rave would be a short-lived fad, but Late of the Pier’s urgent, futuristic sounds are an indication that the annoying moniker isn’t ready to die just yet. In fact, the album seems to be the work of a manic bunch of garage rockers who somehow got their hands on expensive synthesizers, old drum machines, and a boatload of MDMA.

Mixing influences the way they might mix pills on a night out, “White Snake” has all the off-kilter madness of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with body-shaking grooves taking the place of head-banging riffs. While singer Samuel Dust’s lazy vocals take a backseat to the infectious synth line of “Space & the Woods,” he turns around and cranks it up to screeching hair metal territory on “Focker.”

For all their quirks, Late of the Pier are infinitely satisfying when they turn down the drug-induced mania in favour of a straightforward hook, hence the uber-cute music box instrumentation of “Random Firl” and the soaring glam-punk chorus of “Heartbeat.”

Fantasy Black Channel is the best 60-minute party you’ll find on record so far this year, and by the time you work your way down to “Bathroom Gurgle,” the debut single that set the hype machine in motion, you’ll be exhausted, dehydrated, and disoriented by the best kind of sensory overload.

—Rob Duffy

ANIMAL COLLECTIVE – Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)

Since the 1970s, 14-year-olds around the world have engaged in a similar ritual when it comes to the appreciation of complex works of art: sparking a few doobies and convincing themselves that they understand Dark Side of the Moon. In teenage logic, a month’s worth of mescaline would only begin to help me figure out what’s going on with Merriweather Post Pavilion, the latest LP from American art stars Animal Collective. It’s hard not to feel let down by the big, muddled mess that this record poured into my headphones.

The principal problem amounts to surplus. More than any of their other releases, Merriweather is desperately in need of an editor—there are choice melodies here, but damned if you can hear them under all that plinking, plunking, and pounding.

The album’s few effective songs benefit from their relative attempts to rein in their creators. Standouts include “Into the Flowers” and “Summertime Clothes,” which boasts the album’s most linear melody, relying on the endearing repetition of “I want to walk around with you.”

The rest is designed to be thought provoking, but comes off as an insipid jumble—like the irritating electronic xylophone refrain of “Daily Routine,” or the drum-circle drone vocals that drown out all discernable rhythm on “Lion in a Coma.”

Sadly, the Collective seems to have abandoned the tempo and time signature switches that made tracks on Sung Tongs, Feels, and Strawberry Jam such curious delights. The sonic experimentation that’s marked their best work has taken a turn for the worse, leading to grating synthesizers, murky feedback, and intolerable percussion (how did they find so many things that sound so shrill in one studio?). There’s something empty about complexity for complexity’s sake, and Merriweather has turned Animal Collective into a band with a cold drum machine where their heart used to be.

—Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy

Vv

ANDREW BIRD – NOBLE BIRD (Fat Possum)

Andrew Bird is a man of many layers. A self-proclaimed instrumentalist, Bird whistles his way into melancholia with “Oh No,” the first track on his latest record Noble Beast. He experiments throughout the album with his above-average whistling skills, and drawing on elements of jazz, folk, Latin and country, lulls his eclectic influences into a surprisingly coherent and intricate album.

“Oh No” provides a reassuring hand-clap to counter its whistled melody, while Bird exercises his linguistic powers with an unsettling vocal turn. “Masterswarm” laces a Latin beat with mournful vocals, layering a mournful violin loop interspersed with a whistled tune you’d expect to hear on the wind of an abandoned country road.

For Bird, words themselves seem to carry very little meaning, as nonsensical lyrics are crooned, relished, and repeated throughout the album. “Tenuous” picks up on a country vibe, with Bird singing confidentially, “Tenuous at best was all he had to say / When pressed about the rest of it, the world that is / From proto-Sanskrit Minoans to Porto-centric Lisboans / Greek Cypriots and harbor-sorts who hang around in quotes a lot.”

Bird seems to employ words not for their dictionary meaning, but for their linguistic power. On Noble Beast, words become tools of noise and elements of sound assuming meaning on their own terms.

Overall, Bird creates an album both exotic and intimate, something you wouldn’t be surprised to hear crooned between lovers on a South American seashore. He diverts from his traditional folk, pop, and chamber-pop influences, and in fleeting moments, captures a certain a transcendent uniqueness.

—Emily Kellogg

VVVv

TWO TONGUES – TWO TONGUES (Vagrant)

The self-titled debut of Two Tongues is a collaborative effort between Max Bemis and Coby Linder (of Say Anything fame) and Chris Conley and David Soloway of legendary New Jersey punk band Saves the Day. While one might expect a breakthrough from these pop-punk heavyweights, the album plays like a mildly interesting collection of b-sides off Say Anything’s last release.

Bemis’ gasoline vocals are as emotive as ever, though his newfound celebrity has diffused his manic tendencies, making his lyrical and vocal delivery far less convincing. Any follower of Saves the Day’s recent work will know that adding Conley’s voice yields similar results to that of a female backup vocalist. Gone are the days of Conley’s ballsy teenage vocals on early records like Can’t Slow Down and Through Being Cool. Instead, listeners are forced to endure his nasally falsetto interspersed with Bemis’ yelps about unrequited love.

Stylistically, Two Tongues shuffles around between standard, dual-vocal pop-punk (“Wowee Zowee” and “Come On”) and awful, 70s-style guitar-rock (“Don’t You Want to Come Home” and “Back Against the Wall”). While the glory days of messenger bags and shaggy bangs are long gone, the assumed credibility of this release disappears when it’s played in full. Bemis can’t seem to stray from his faux-minimalist, boy-with-guitar persona, and Conley is simply too weak in vocal chords or testosterone to contribute anything of substance.

Fans of Saves the Day and Say Anything will be sorely disappointed by this half-assed project. Apparently money does buy happiness, and I wish these guys would have gotten dumped (or, at their age, divorced), which might have provided adequate subject material to make this album memorable.

—David Pike

V

UTSC could get new sports centre

U of T’s Scarborough campus could host a $170-million sports facility, should Toronto win the bid for the 2015 Pan-American Games. The arena, slated for the strip along Military Trail currently used for parking lots, would be the core facility of the games. Amenities include two 50-metre competition pools, 10-metre diving tanks, a multi-sport field house, a gymnastic facility, and a training centre.

The building would cost UTSC $37.5 million. The federal and provincial governments would cover 56 per cent of the costs, with the school and the city of Toronto splitting the remainder. Franco Vaccarino, principal of UTSC, said the opportunity was “too good to ignore,” though the current financial situation was considered. “We are coming out of the gates on this one. A lot of the timing and details still need to be worked out.”

UTSC students will have automatic membership to the facility after the games.

Currently, UTSC students only have access to the facility at the Scarborough campus, and have to pay additional fees to use the downtown athletic centre. “The current facility is extremely sub-standard, and regardless of the Pan-American games there is a serious need for a facility,” said Vaccarino. After UTSC’s enrolment ballooned with the double cohort in 2003, he added, “the size of the current facilities are not aligned with the size of the student population […] We would likely be going forward with a similar number in terms of our particular needs, regardless of the games.”

The facility will likely require a student levy, and Vaccarino said the admin will coordinate with the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union and students. SCSU president Zuhair Syed said there will be a fixed levy for infrastructure and start-up costs. After completion, a user-based fee will be applied, likely through a rise in compulsory fees.

“[The student union] can’t officially endorse the project until they have solid numbers on what it will cost the students,” said Syed, though he did call UTSC’s gym “overpacked and way too small.” He cited a number of other shortages, such as inadequate study space, parking, and clubs funding. “We don’t hear too much about an athletics facility,” said Syed. “There’s a million and one issues. It’s not the number one priority right now.”

At St. George, students pay $18 a year to operate the new Varsity Centre bubble on Bloor Street. The university initially produced funds to construct the facility after students refused to pay for it. Last year, after the Faculty of Physical Education announced that the facility would only be available for student use if the students paid a levy for its upkeep, undergrads voted in favour of the levy in a hotly contested referendum.

The faculty is looking at a similar funding model for the planned Centre for High Performance Sport across the street from the Varsity Centre. Bruce Kidd, the Phys Ed dean, has said students will be expected to fund its operations, pending approval from the Council on Student Services.

The Pan Am Games bid decision is expected in October. Should Toronto win, the facilities at UTSC are to be completed for 2014.

Taking graffiti off the streets

In the heart of Toronto’s uber-hip Bloorcourt Village, the Funktion Gallery oozes with personality: on one wall, Ronald McDonald, Grimace, and the Hamburglar drive a miniature graffiti-painted moving van carrying X-rated cargo. To the left hangs a Warhol-style portrait of Dirty Harry. Straight ahead are racks of T-shirts from Funktion’s successful clothing line. And scattered around the space are various art pieces of all sizes that have been heavily influenced by Toronto’s vibrant graffiti subculture. This is no ordinary gallery.

Stay a few minutes and you will undoubtedly run into José-Gabriel, 23, the gallery’s founder. A well-spoken, passionate leader, José-Gabriel did not enter the gallery scene under typical circumstances.

He credits Funktion’s genesis to a transformative event in 2002 when, on one of his first nights out with a spray can, he was arrested by an undercover police officer. Upon his arrest, the then 16-year-old José was handed over to two other officers who proceeded to beat him severely, leaving his face mangled and his heart disillusioned: “[Having once looked up to them], I was living in fear of the police in my neighbourhood. I became a scapegoat for a lot of things. I didn’t have trust in anybody.”

After his discharge, the police security videos depicting José-Gabriel covered in blood mysteriously vanished. He opted not to press charges. While his assailants were never brought to justice, they did unwittingly propel José-Gabriel towards his calling.

“Everything changed right then. I went from thinking, ‘I’m never going to do [graffiti art] again,’ to where I am today. If I hadn’t gotten the shit kicked out of me I probably would have stopped, but I think everything happens for a reason. I just decided this is what I’m going to do.”

Seven years later, the scars have healed, and José-Gabriel (presumed by many to be the graffiti artist Kismet) is motivated. With the help of several local artists including Jamie Roy, Will Gaydos, Brendan Go, Adrian Vit, Nalin Sharma, and TFUK, José-Gabriel has built an innovative social movement that resists categorization. Combining street art, apparel, and live music, the movement has a headquarters at the Funktion Gallery. In addition to public visits, the gallery hosts parties, exhibitions, graffiti events, and live performances for up-and-coming local artists.

The people at the Funktion Gallery are building a community that is now being embraced by a larger neighbourhood hit hard by a deepening recession.

José-Gabriel says his neighbours in the Bloor and Lansdowne area have been friendly and receptive to his vision, frequenting the gallery since its December opening. He believes the Funktion crew are “bringing a totally new vibe to the neighbourhood. [Residents] like seeing the younger crowd coming through and supporting all the businesses here, because a lot of people are going under right now.”

While detractors have argued that putting street art in a gallery betrays the essence of the medium, getting this movement away from the streets is deliberate and ethically motivated.

“[The gallery] is a way for us to give back after all the damage we’ve committed and all the bad things we’ve done as youth. We destroyed a lot of the city when we were younger. As you grow older, you realize if someone was to scratch my windows, I’d be really pissed off. You gain a certain amount of respect for what you’re painting on, and I try to get that through to everybody who comes through the door. A lot of kids come through here, and I know who they are—they’re serious vandals. But I tell them to paint on something that has been abandoned.”

Ultimately, these principles are critical to José-Gabriel’s conception of the Funktion Gallery’s larger goals within the community. “You’ve got to build a moral system for people,” he argues, “or else there’s no structure, there’s no control. Even though that’s the whole point of graffiti—the lack of control—there has to be a certain amount of respect for the people around you.”

The Funktion Gallery is located at 1244 Bloor Street W. Their next event, “A Mysterious Date w/ Answer” runs February 12-21. Tues. to Fri., 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sat. & Sun, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Muslim student group targeted at Queen’s

One evening in late September, Saad Baig, co-chair of the Queen’s University Muslim Student’s Association, found that the group’s club space had been broken into. Approximately $700 was missing. The next day, a sign directing students to the QUMSA office was vandalized. The defaced poster read “Queen’s University Muslims should die.”

In recent years, there has been a series of attacks on Muslim students at Queen’s. QUMSA Co-chair Isra Rafiq said that between 2002 and 2008, there have been seven break-ins at the QUMSA office.

“People in the university community are either tip-toeing around us or they are making assumptions about the way we think or the way we feel, and a lot of people think we are hyper-sensitive over everything that has happened.”

The most recent attempt was in mid-October, when the perpetrator sawed through a recently installed metal sheet covering the wooden office door. These incidents prompted QUMSA to close their prayer room for the first time in 40 years. The attacks have not been limited to the QUMSA office. In October 2006, on the eve of Eid al Fitr, an Islamic holiday marking the end of Ramadan, a banner celebrating the event was set on fire.

Rafiq said that campus security has responded by setting up a phone in the QUMSA office for emergency assistance. Convex mirrors have been placed so that people approaching the office can be seen. Queen’s admin have offered to assist with an anti-Islamophobia campaign and anti-discrimination training for student leaders and faculty members.

“The administration has approached us and they have offered to assist us but nothing has been put in cement,” says Rafiq. “It’s a matter of how much we can expect. We don’t know whether [the admin] will be able to follow through with what they say they are going to do.”

Queen’s has struggled with issues of race and discrimination before. In 2001, then-VP academic Suzanne Fortier asked for an investigation after six faculty members resigned, citing racism on campus. The Henry Report authored by a York University professor adressing the issue, concluded that a significant number of the campus community experienced discrimination, highlighting the role students have played in perpetuating it. Since then, faculty members have formed the Queen’s Coalition of Anti-Racist Faculty, asking the admin in December to create a more effective response plan for future incidents.

Early last semester, the university introduced the Intergroup Dialogue Program in residence. The program enlisted six student facilitators to live in residence, engage students about race issues, hold social functions, and step in when conflicts arise.

In the meantime, QUMSA encourages its members to record incidents of discrimination on its website, producing a timeline which currently stretches back to 2005.

“As anybody else we find it quite shocking that such incidents should be taking place anywhere, let alone on a university campus where you find that people are generally more open and more tolerant,” said Yaser Khan, Communications Director for U of T Muslim Students Association.

“After such incidents, you need to feel support from the university, to condemn the event and reach out to the Muslim community,” said Khan. “We felt, given the nature of those incidents, the university’s response wasn’t strong enough or immediate enough.”

Professor Profile: Plumbing the depths of oceanographic research with Dr. Wittnich

Dr. Carin Wittnich is the senior scientist and veterinarian with the Oceanographic Environmental Research Society (OERS). One of the society’s directors, Wittnich leads the organization’s scientific and rescue initiatives. She is also a full professor of Surgery & Physiology at U of T, director of the Cardiovascular Sciences Collaborative Program, and was recently awarded the 2008 Undergraduate Teaching Award from the Faculty of Medicine. The Varsity sat down with Dr. Wittnich to discuss her involvement with OERS and the opportunities it provides to U of T students.

The Varsity: What is Oceanographic Environmental Research Society, and how did it start?

Dr. Carin Wittnich: That requires a complicated answer, as OERS is a multifaceted organization. OERS was incorporated in 1996, and is the brainchild of Mike Belanger, who is the founding director and president. It was started because of the obvious need in Canada to have a group focused on issues and welfare, in the domains of education, research, and rescue, specifically for marine mammals. However we have since expanded our maandate because of the need to include terrestrial animals that are caught in disasters.

TV: OERS is not entirely focused on marine mammals. There are various programs oriented to rescue terrestrial animals when needed. How does the affiliation with the University of Toronto make either of these two tasks easier? Are there any obstacles in fulfilling the objectives of this society?

CW: Because OERS is very committed to providing very high-quality education at every level, having the University of Toronto here in Toronto provides an excellent venue to accomplish that at the postsecondary level. Since the University of Toronto did not have [much of a] marine mammal focus prior to our initiatives, by working together, OERS is able to provide University of Toronto students the exposure that they would not otherwise have. OERS is very proud and happy to be a partner with U of T which also ensures that the education provided is both of high standard and fun! So it’s kind of perfect.

The whole science of marine mammals has a lot of relevance also to professions like medicine. We can learn a lot from the adaptations of marine mammals to their unique environment, as well as the toxins from man they are faced with. The science of marine mammals is not as widely removed as it initially seems. Certainly in diving physiology, a lot of what researchers or clinicians know or understand comes from marine mammal research. One incredible point about the Faculty of Medicine is that it is supportive of new things to open students’ minds, because the faculty here realize that medicine is not the traditional medicine anymore, especially in cases where you have cross-disease among animals and humans. So it is not like animals are in this box, and humans in another box anymore.

TV: Many think this society’s main concern is oceanographic research. However, there are many opportunities U of T undergraduates could take advantage of through OERS. Could you elaborate on that?

CW: Absolutely. In each of Research, Education, and Rescue, OERS has developed a number of programs. I think primarily interesting at U of T are the courses that we are putting on. We have an entry-level science 199 seminar-style course, which is an introduction to marine mammals and their environment that runs under the EEB department. Also in second year we offer two courses, one through EEB, which is focused on ecology and conservation, EEB216, that has been running for four years now, and a new course, PSL280, offered through the Department of Physiology, which focuses on the anatomy and physiology of marine mammals. This course grew out of the original EEB216 course due to a high demand from science students for a course that they could get a recognized science credit, whereas EEB216 was created as a science distribution course for arts students primarily. In addition, we have a third-year course, PSL380, Diving Physiology Adaptations of Marine Mammals, which is a more demanding course. There is also a third-year marine mammal field course, PSL378, where a small group of students get to experience a very hands-on dissection of a marine mammal—a unique opportunity no matter where you might be located.

For career development, OERS has developed a broad spectrum of internships, where students can get exposure to various fields including a pre-veterinary opportunity, [and] experience the career opportunities available to veterinarians who chose the more non-traditional career path. We have research internships, including biomedical or marine mammal, depending on their interests.

OERS’s rescue program has evolved significantly from its beginnings and now has two pillars on which it stands. There is a division within OERS called the Disaster Response Division (DRD), and that division has two parallel activities: one focused on marine mammals, the other on terrestrial mammals. For example, if there is a marine animal death, we have been asked to conduct or participate in autopsies to determine the cause of death. We are developing a Canada-wide stranding network, to bring together all interested parties from across the country to provide support and assistance as needed. Regarding the terrestrial animals, we have trained volunteer animal rescue teams that would deploy upon request to assist in the rescue of animals caught up in disasters. One example of this was our volunteer team deployment after Hurricane Katrina and more recently to assist with an animal situation in Montréal, where OERS-DRD was asked to help.

TV: Are there any volunteer opportunities for undergraduate students offered by OERS?

CW: Absolutely, we are always looking for volunteers. There is specimen preparation for all the ongoing courses. Students who have previously taken some of these courses can quite often help us set up, and even for the dissection course, volunteers can join. We need fund-raising, web development, etc. The opportunities are limitless and there is plenty of room for everyone.

TV: You received the 2008 Undergraduate Teaching Award from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. How did OERS help in this achievement?

CW: I received this award for the new marine mammal courses that we have put on, specifically, the first physiology field course PSL378. If OERS had not provided me with the support needed to run this course, I could never have been able to offer this excellent addition to the curriculum. It is no exaggeration to say that without OERS I would never have been able to get these courses up and running, nor win the award.

TV: Do you have any advice for undergraduate students interested in pursuing this program?

CW: Well, I think that undergraduate students are the leaders of the future, and at U of T we have a very strong reputation in creating such leaders. The marine environment is often seriously neglected, so I encourage students to step up to the plate, and get involved with organizations such as OERS, who have this under-represented area as their main focus. A large portion of our planet is aquatic and if we do not each do something, there will not be a healthy planet for us to occupy. With a balance between the rigors of the academic demands placed on them, I hope undergraduates volunteering their time will effect positive change. Despite the need for high GPAs, even professional schools at the U of T recognize the importance of volunteering and factor this into their admissions selection criteria. OERS welcomes all who wish to donate some of their precious time and be part of the solution!