A stale electorate

Canada needs democratic renewal. Recent events in Ottawa highlight what has existed since Confederation. That Parliament’s virtual stalemate passed for progressive, democratic change demonstrates the need for serious reform.

Canada today is a vast, multicultural, multilingual society. Like many developed countries, it is increasingly urban but maintains a strong rural, agricultural base. Its culture is the result of a unique and highly successful fusion of First Nations and British and French colonialist traditions, making it one of the most diverse societies in the world.

And yet Canadian politics are as fractured as ever, perhaps for these reasons. The 40th Parliament is a collection of regional parties, elected by the lowest voter turnout in national history (59 per cent); its governing party, the Harper Conservatives, received only 37 per cent of the popular vote. The Conservative Party’s share of the popular vote was just over one per cent higher than the previous election, but it managed to gain 19 seats and weaken the Liberal opposition considerably. The popular vote shows that the Harper government’s expanded mandate had little to do with the upswing in support. Rather, it was the result of a relatively minor shift among certain regions of the electorate disappointed by one of the weakest Liberal campaigns in recent history, compounded by an atrocious voter turnout.

The Conservatives dominated the Western provinces and rural parts of Ontario and the Maritimes; the Liberals and New Democrats maintained their traditional holds in Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver, and other urban areas (the NDP also made gains in the north). Though there were minor anomalies in regional trends, like the surprise NDP victory in Outremont, nothing much changed between this and previous elections. A virtual two-party system exists in Canada: Liberal and Conservative governments exchange power roughly every decade, while minority and majority governments are elected largely due to regional strongholds.

We can’t ignore the implications of this political stalemate. The Conservative budget, unveiled last week, was a hodgepodge document, so counterintuitive to Tory ideology that it risked alienating its own support base (one commentator nicknamed the Prime Minister “Harpo-Marx”). In all likelihood, the Harper government will last only a short time, offset by a Liberal Party reinvigorated by a popular new leader. The next election will likely produce a Liberal government, but what then?

The new government will likely be elected regionally: Quebec, for instance, has seen an upsurge of Liberal support due to the Prime Minister’s criticism of the Bloc in the wake of the Liberal-NDP Coalition agreement. Once again, this multifaceted society will be governed by a Parliament comprising a mishmash of regional interests, a diverse patchwork of MPs squabbling over equalization payments and status details. None of the parties will govern with a national mandate. Splintered provincial issues will continue to dominate Canadian politics.

If there is hope, it lies in electoral reform. Strategic voting and voter apathy are widespread under the current system. Many citizens cast their votes based on the “lesser-of-two-evils” principle, especially those who support third parties: simply put, it’s pointless to vote NDP in Calgary-Southwest, just as it’s pointless to vote for the Conservatives in Hamilton Centre. The only way to justify principled voting is the funding each party receives for its share of the popular vote—and to most of the electorate, this is a negligible sum. A better electoral system would balance Canada’s regional differences, ensuring a more proportional distribution of seats in Parliament. The Mixed-Member Proportional system voted on in the last Ontario Provincial election would give each member of the electorate two votes: one for their preferred local candidate, and one for their preferred governing party. Though referendums on such reforms have been struck down in Ontario, British Columbia, and other provinces, there has yet to be a serious public discussion of their implementation at the Federal level.

Hopefully Canada’s next governing party, whether Conservative, Liberal, or New Democrat, will attempt to address problems of regionalism in this country and the grave threat they pose to Canadian unity and the integrity of national democracy.

Obama Watch

The Obama administration has shepherded in a new era of transparency and mutual responsibility, but an onslaught of financial scandal has threatened to derail the core message of his presidency. It should come as no surprise that many of his cabinet appointees bring with them not only vast knowledge and expertise, but a suitcase full of tax demons. After all, they are the quintessential Washington insiders: well-connected to the corruption-ridden establishment.

The dismemberment of President Obama’s cabinet began in early January, when then Commerce Secretary-designate Bill Richardson withdrew his name because of a federal investigation into his business dealings. Soon afterwards, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had his laundry aired in the national media when it was revealed that he had failed to pay $34,000 in taxes over the course of three years, and hired an immigrant housekeeper with illegitimate paperwork. Then came the disgrace of another high-profile Washington figure: appointed Health Secretary Tom Daschle. His troubles with the IRS and dangerously close relationships to lobbyists and the health insurance industry made it painfully clear that he could no longer continue his duties honestly and honourably. On Tuesday, he withdrew his name as well—and on that same day, Chief Performance Officer Nancy Killefer withdrew her candidacy because of tax evasion.

Now, tax cheaters are not unique to any party; freeloaders exist harmoniously in both Republican and Democratic coteries, all the while maintaining cushy government jobs. What is perhaps most infuriating about all this scandal is the notion of a revolving-door syndrome, where politicians and civil servants flow in and out of the White House regardless of past financial transgressions or conflicts of interest with the private sector. Average taxpayers, on the other hand, are under constant scrutiny. Any indiscretion on the commoner’s part could lead to stiff penalties, or in extreme cases, jail time.

This obvious double standard has been commonplace for quite awhile. But in his first week in office, the president set forth stricter laws to tackle ethical misconduct and promised to open up the White House to the rest of the country, expanding it beyond a select few. On the bright side (if such a thing exists), we are all bearing witness to the humiliating fallouts of administration officials and eagerly awaiting their replacements. While it may be amusing to watch these tainted political figures struggle to explain themselves in the public eye, the standards are set even higher for the next cabinet selections. The president’s team needs to be a strong, cohesive unit in order to effectively implement economic and domestic policies. It would be ideal to bring more progressive voices into the White House, those with fewer attachments to Washington circles—or at the very least, those who actually pay their taxes.

Long and winding road

“Everybody in the band is an avid dreamer,” says Alex Pulec, guitarist and songwriter of Sadie May Crash, whose kaleidoscopic sound is a mixture of theatrical pop and 60s rock ‘n’ roll. “We’re obsessed with things that are surreal…we get excited by things that are out of touch with reality—it’s what we do.”

The members of Sadie May Crash played in different bands at their Toronto high school, but when each group fell apart, the four core members were left searching for musical counterparts. Pulec and his elegant lead singer, Paige Boy, were free to collaborate, meeting up with bassist Mike McDonnell and drummer Jason Cipparone soon after.

“Paige was one of the only people who listened to all of the music I listened to,” comments Pulec about their early days. “We bonded over writing songs—it’s hard to find people like that. The two of us started writing tons of songs, and Mike and Jason entered the picture later on. They’re totally creative, and we all put our own spin [on the band’s sound].”

“The name comes from a lot of things,” he continues. “We kind of had an obsession with this fictional entity named ‘Sadie,’ and Paige just put the words together. We’d write songs, and we’d want to play them—but we were so nervous. When people would ask who wrote the songs, we’d say, ‘Sadie—yeah, you don’t know her….’ We like the element of unpredictability to it, we don’t want to do anything that people have heard before.”

The band has come a long way since the days when they attributed all their work to an imaginary svengali. Sadie May Crash have established themselves as a force in the local underground scene—releasing a four-song demo, winning a Toronto Independent Music Award last summer, and headlining the Mod Club on New Year’s Eve. This Sunday, the band celebrates another milestone, playing the Wavelength Music Series at Sneaky Dee’s, an event that’s considered by many to be the height of the independent music scene in Toronto.

“We have lots of new songs—we’re constantly writing.” says Pulec. “But we’ve always been focused on our live show…there’s sort of a feeling that you get addicted to when you’re standing on stage. You work, you put your blood, sweat, tears, and energy into something—and that’s the one moment when it’s exploding out.”

The creative upstarts recently realized another dream—building their own rehearsal space. They took over an abandoned house set for demolition and, along with local experimental band London Parachutes, ripped out the carpets and covered the walls with surrealist paintings. Bursting with colour and life, the space has become an artistic haven to work and play music.

“We’re kind of like a bunch of sponges. Wherever we live, play, or hang out—we just kind of suck everything up, and then it oozes out of each of us in our own way. We’re inspired by everything that’s circling around us.”

The new studio might be the perfect place to let the surreal spin of their minds filter into the planning of their debut album—which Pulec says is the band’s next step. But the demolition date looms, and bulldozers may soon crash into Sadie May Crash—but then again, they say that conflict is the god of all creation.

Sadie May Crash play the Wavelength Music Series at Sneaky Dee’s (431 College Street) this Sunday. Doors are at 9:30 p.m.

UTM daycare centre overpriced, late Mississauga campus parents protest high costs of service

UTM is yet to begin construction on a daycare facility that was due to open this month, leaving student parents with a temporary, unlicensed service.

According to Saaliha Malik, VP equity of the UTM Student Union, the opening has been rescheduled several times since September 2007. It was most recently scheduled for February 2009, but in a Jan. 12 email to students, the administration said that they had been overly optimistic with their timeline.

“We’ve built a residence building, a library, and a gym in the last three years, but we can’t build a daycare centre,” said Malik.

Construction of the centre was delayed because the university was unable to obtain a city permit until Jan. 23 of this year. Construction plans have now been approved, but students are still waiting for the university to announce a new timeline.

UTM dean of Student Affairs Mark Overton said, “We can’t commit to an opening date yet but are working with the project’s architects, engineers, and contractors, along with the operator, to finalize one. It will be shared widely as soon as it is available.”

For now, parents have to rely on either off-campus services or the temporary child-minding centre at UTM. Malik claims this facility is not a substitute. “This is not a licensed facility, it was only a temporary service that should have only lasted four months.” She added that the centre has limited space and can only take in five children at a time.

She said student parents are concerned that their numbers are too small for the university to care about them. There are currently 30 students waitlisted for services at the new facility.

Parent students are also taking issue with proposed increases in the price of services. “Many parents can’t afford the new proposed rates. They are probably going to look for something off campus in the Peel region which is cheaper,” said Malik.

The temporary childminding centre costs parents $5 per hour with a maximum limit of $40 per day. The hourly rate will no longer be available at the new centre. Full-time students would pay approximately $49 to $75 a day. Part-time students would receive lower rates than full-time students, but they too would see their overall charges increased.

According to Overton, the matter is out of UTM’s hands. Rates are fixed by the daycare operator, U of T’s Early Learning Center.

Malik argues that the administration could have hired a less expensive operator from the Peel region.

Parents can appeal to Peel authorities for child care subsidies, and those who do not qualify may apply for funds from the university. UTMSU is creating a $5,000 bursary to help parents in need and is also looking into other ways to offer support.

Losing it with The Virgins

The Virgins spent 10 months of 2008 on the road, and as they embark on their first North American headlining tour, it doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down any time soon.

Born and bred in Lower Manhattan, the band’s sound is a relentlessly catchy blend of new wave and disco with roots planted between CBGB’s and Studio 54.

“It’s the music that was around when we were kids,” says guitarist Wade Oates over the phone from a stop in Minnesota. “We liked the whole white-rock disco thing that people were doing in the late 70s. Bands like The Kinks and The Rolling Stones would just try and fail at doing disco, which we thought was cool. But we also took a lot of influence from what Nile Rodgers was doing in the 80s with the band Chic.”

The Virgins were conceived on a photo shoot in Mexico when uber-hip New York photographer Ryan McGinley introduced Oates to frontman Donald Cumming. The pair got to talking about their various musical projects, and the band was born.

But Oates insists that modeling was never his dream. “That’s the one and only time I’ve ever done that, and if anything it’s just cemented the fact that I hate getting my photo taken.”

Oates, Cumming, and bassist Nick Zarin-Ackerman played together for a year without a drummer before Atlantic Records caught wind of their performances at downtown Manhattan parties and quickly signed them. They immediately held exhaustive auditions to find a drummer, finally settling upon Erik Ratensperger.

From there they marched into the studio, enlisting celebrated hit-maker Sam Hollander (Gym Class Heroes, Boys Like Girls) to transform the bedroom demos of their first EP into the glossy, radio-friendly pop of their self-titled full-length.

“Everyone had been telling us to do the gritty, downtown rock thing, and we thought, that’s been done so many times, especially over the last ten years. Let’s go with the radio guy. Let’s not go with the guy who records everything lo-fi. Whoever is the biggest guy [out there], let’s go with that guy.”

“He brought a lot to the table. There was a lot of butting heads—it’s harder to work with a guy who has his own vision. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but in a totally positive way.”

Once the band had found their signature sound, their creativity began to take off.

“We kind of flourished in the studio,” says Oates. “‘Teen Lovers’ was written on the spot. The song was done in 22 hours. Donald and Nick had this idea of doing a Latin thing—it started as a Gloria Estefan song, but it totally didn’t end up that way.”

Instead, with its breezy yacht-rock vibe and a sweeping chorus hook, “Teen Lovers” turned out to be one of the album’s most irresistible tracks.

With their debut album complete, the boys got a massive boost in exposure from an unlikely source—the CW’s glamourously vapid teen drama Gossip Girl. In a twist of fate, the band and the soap opera turned out to be a perfect combination.

Tunes like “Rich Girls” and “She’s Expensive” document casual romances with vain heiresses, and the album’s subject matter fits Gossip Girl so well, it’s almost as if The Virgins had been specifically commissioned for Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf.

“It was really random,” says Oates. “When someone first told us about it, we thought it was the Gilmore Girls, so we were kind of weirded out. Once someone explained it to us, we thought, ‘Oh, that’s awesome and stupid and the right kind of weird. It’s a show about young kids that are rich and take drugs—sign me up!’”

“I remember the Twilight-looking kid (the brooding Chuck Bass) was listening to ‘Rich Girls’ while he was really bummed out. That was the most random thing I’ve ever seen. But they had him listening to it on his iPod, [portraying that] this character likes this band, which I thought was pretty cool.”

But life has funny way of mirroring art, and Oates confides that he too has experience with a debutante from the Upper East Side.

“I dated a girl that lived on 105th and 5th when I used to live on 13th and 5th. I used to ride my bike all the way up to her house. I was so tired that I used to fall asleep every day and she broke up with me.”

Does Oates imagine the band will call Lower Manhattan home forever?

“We’re gonna move to Nice and wear straw hats. That’s the plan, but not until we’re well into our 60s.”

The Virgins play the El Mocambo (464 Spadina) tonight with Lissy Trullie and Anya Marina. Tickets are $12.50 at Ticketmaster and Rotate This.

Four sit-in students to have their day in court

The crown is moving ahead with trials against four of the so-called “Fight Fees 14″. The trial date was set after the Crown withdrew charges against nine of the 14 originally accused of confining five administrative workers in their offices during a sit-in last fall.

A video taken during the sit-in shows protesters filling a hallway in Simcoe Hall and shouting at police officers trying to remove them from the building.
While the Crown has set a trial date for Sept 28, defense lawyers for the four say the Crown may have failed to disclose evidence that could weaken its case.

“We don’t think it’s complete, frankly. We think there’s other disclosure that’s outstanding,” said Mike Leitold, lawyer for three of the accused. “But the Crown takes the position that all things have been provided that are relevant.”

Nine other defendants recently signed the agreement in order to end legal proceedings. About 30 people participated in the Simcoe Hall sit-in last March, to protest a 20 per cent residence fee increase at New College.

The remaining four accused are Oriel Varga and Chris Ramsaroop, both employees of the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students, and Farrah Mirandah and Liisa Schoffield of the Ontario Public Information and Research Group. Leitold represents all of the above except Varga, who is represented by Selwyn Pieters.

Katie Wolk, an APUS staffer speaking on behalf of Varga, told The Varsity that the four have refused to sign a peace bond agreement—similar to a restraining order—which they consider an infringement on their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The terms of the peace bond are that the individuals may not enter Simcoe Hall without giving 24 hours prior notice, and may not demonstrate inside of U of T buildings. The bond stays in effect for one year.

Previously, Varga was jailed overnight for refusing to sign highly restrictive bail conditions which, among other things, barred her from speaking to her co-defendants, with whom she works in her capacity as APUS executive director. Varga was successful in arguing down the stringent conditions.

There remains a fifth accused, a minor being tried in youth court, but those charges will be formally withdrawn later this month, said Leitold.

For the other four, the trial will proceed unless the Crown chooses to withdraw the charges.
Noting that charges might be withdrawn if evidence surfaced that weakened the Crown’s prospect of convicting the four, Leitold discussed what he characterized as gaps in the disclosed evidence.

“There are certain officers’ notes that we’re surprised are not in existence,” he said. “The [police] officer in charge of the investigation doesn’t have any notes, according to him, so I’m surprised by that.”

Leitold added that both he and Pieters held concerns over disclosure. “Mr. Pieters has list of things [missing from the Crown’s disclosure].”

Pieters declined to comment on the case before its resolution.

Urinetown a comedic whiz

A Port-a-Potty was placed conspicuously outside Hart House this week, hiding a pleasant surprise for all who dared to venture inside. Inside the stall awaited free tickets to Urinetown, the 2009 UC Follies production opening tonight at Hart House Theatre.

The annual University College musical is a tradition dating back to the 1920s. According to director Neil Silcox, “people have really come to expect a quality production from the Follies.” Silcox, who recently played Edgar in Hart House’s King Lear, is one of the few professionals in a cast comprised largely of U of T students. Adds Andrew Knowlton, who stars in the role of Bobby Strong, “It’s a great match between those who are experienced in the world of theatre and those who are just getting started. It creates a really great energy.”

Of course, a certain vivacity is required to pull off a piece like Urinetown. “It’s a fun, hum-able script,” explains Knowlton. “Every song is an homage to a different musical, from Miss Saigon to Les Misérables. But at the same time, it’s meant to be a satire of the musical genre.” Whereas musical theatre tends to take itself quite seriously, the self-deprecating Urinetown isn’t afraid to make fun of itself.

The story centers on a village in which a prolonged drought has led the government to outlaw private toilets. When the corrupt Urine Good Company intervenes to create a pay-per-use public washroom, the right to pee becomes a privilege: those who refuse to pay for toilet access are shipped off to a faraway, unknown colony called Urinetown. Citizens are left wondering how they will possibly be able to relieve themselves from the dire situation.

“Clearly, there are lots of built-in jokes about urine,” laughs Silcox. “But while we could stick with sophomoric gags, we’re aiming for smarter sense of humour. So, when the occasional lowbrow joke comes up, it’s much more effective.”

The farce of the play owes much to the Neo-Futurist theatre troupe that first produced Urinetown in 2001. This Chicago group aimed for honesty and modernity above all, and Urinetown fit in perfectly with their values.

“This could be a true musical, set in the real world,” explains Silcox. “There’s no Hollywood feel. The ‘bad’ characters aren’t entirely bad, but the ‘good’ ones aren’t quite good either.”

Although Urinetown mines the hilarity of a world gone topsy-turvy over bladder concerns, it also presents a warning to where society may be headed. The concept of a water shortage rings true against current unease regarding limited resources and sustainability. “We do want people to think about environmentalism,” explains Silcox, “but we also want them to have fun. It’s a really fun show.”

A fun show, but not necessarily comprised entirely of light themes: Urinetown also delves into issues of corporate abuse and citizen rebellion, climaxing on a less-than-happy note. Will Silcox’s lighthearted approach translate well to the story?

“I’m enjoying the chance to play it ‘schmakedy,’ to play it big,” attests Naomi Skwarna, acting in the part of Soupy Sue. Accordingly, if Urinetown is fun for the actors, it’s bound to be a whiz for the audience as well.

Urinetown runs at Hart House theatre tonight through February 14. Tickets are $14 for students.

TAs ratify deal

The members of CUPE 3902 voted 97 per cent in favour of the new settlement reached last week between its bargaining team and U of T. The deal lasts three years and expires April 30, 2011, which throws a wrench into CUPE’s plans for a province-wide strike in 2010, when a number of university contracts expire. The union, which represents teaching assistants, contract course instructors and accessibility workers, will now start to implement the new settlement.

CUPE 3902 has announced their next objective: launching a drive to organize post doctoral fellows, one of the few remaining groups on campus who aren’t represented by the union. A launch event at Alumni Hall is scheduled for Feb. 10.

The details of the settlement:

  • Three per cent salary increase per year, starting September 2008, except for 2009-10, which will see .5 per cent. Payment will be made retroactively to cover the fall 2008 term.

  • For childcare benefits, the university will make a yearly increase of $60,000.

  • U of T will pay the union $2.4 million to run its own healthcare plan. The new HCSA will have maximum allocation of $500 for employees who work 50 hours or more.

  • Increased sick leave, which includes three days of full pay for TAs, and 5 days of full pay for course instructors.

  • New mothers can choose between two months’ paid maternity leave or an EI provision top-up of salary, which lasts up to 17 weeks.

  • A month of paid parental leave, which applies to adoptive parents, fathers, and mothers who wish to take added time off after maternity leave.

  • A new healthcare fund for international students. U of T has agreed to provide the union with a lump sum to offset UHIP expenses. International students can bring in receipts for added costs, and the union will disperse the appropriate funds.

  • A new Provost’s Working Group on the Undergraduate Tutorial Experience, consisting of four professors and two TAs. The group will assess the educational value of U of T’s tutorial groups and present a report by March 2010.