A U of T student was among seven protestors arrested Monday for a day long sit-in at finance minister Jim Flaherty’s Whitby constituency office.“We got the message that [Flaherty] was too busy to speak to us. We negotiated to speak to the chief of staff and he was not interested in having any kind of discussion,” said Indra Noyes, the fourth-year psychology student who was among the seven.Last Saturday marked the third such protest in recent weeks by the group People for Climate Change, which formed to pressure the government to take stronger action on climate change as world leaders gather for negotiations in Copenhagen. Demonstrators have also occupied the offices of environmental minister Jim Prentice and labour minister Rona Ambrose.The group wants Canada to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 25 per cent of 1990 levels by 2020. On Monday, they delivered a letter to Flaherty, calling on him to make commitments that include passing the Climate Change Accountability Act and signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. “Climate change is a human rights issue, and First Nations in Canada are feeling climate change worst and first,” the letter reads.Protestors crashed the office at 9:30 a.m. and chained themselves together, while others picketed outside. Police arrived shortly after but let them stay until 4:30 p.m., when the office closed. Two protestors had to be carried out.During the day, demonstrators sung, chanted, tweeted, and spoke to media. Their rendition of “Hey Jim”—a take on “Hey Jude”—failed to net a meeting with the minister.Flaherty’s office could not be reached for comment. Press secretary Chisholm Pothier told CTV that occupying the office was “the absolutely worst way to get a meeting with the minister.” Pothier said the group did not make a formal request to meet Flaherty before the protest.All seven were charged with criminal mischief, trespass, and loitering, according to Noyes. They also had to sign an agreement of non-association until their Jan. 14 court date, with exemptions for those who work together.Noyes sits on the board of the U of T Environmental Resource Network, and is involved with Rainforest Action Network Toronto and Community Solidarity Response Team, an activist group that works with communities affected by Canadian mining companies. The companies have long denied allegations of human rights abuses from at least 30 countries.Despite what she called an incredibly disappointing response from Flaherty’s office, Noyes said there are more sit-ins planned, though she did not know specifics.“Non-violent direct action has been a part of every single struggle of social change,” said Noyes. “If our government doesn’t lead, then the people will lead and the government will have to follow.”
A little bird told me
“The revolution will not be televised, but it will be tweeted.” Such sentiments were expressed frequently during the turmoil over last summer’s Iranian elections. When foreign press was barred from attending demonstrations against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Twitter became the easiest way for dissidents in the country to make their voices heard.The phrase could also apply to last week’s annual general meeting of the Canadian Federation of Students. The controversial Motion 6 passed, making it harder for member unions to defederate. (Thirteen campuses across Canada have defederation campaigns underway; 11 have already submitted petitions. A spokesperson said the changes will not affect petitions filed before the national executive meeting in January.) A massive reform package, aimed at making the CFS more transparent and accountable to its members, was mostly rejected.The CFS allowed one journalist accreditation to cover the AGM: Emma Godmere, Ottawa bureau chief of the Canadian University Press. But journalists from the McGill Daily and the Concordian came as members of their student union, and proceeded to use Twitter to cover the event at #cfs09. Godmere also used Twitter to live-blog the event.The CFS stopped the unaccredited McGill Daily and Concordian reporters from posting under their papers’ banners; they continued tweeting under their own names. The reporters from the Quebec student papers posted tweets like “…no francophone media at all will be allowed in. Shame.” Godmere, with tweets such as “Motion referral carries with amendment,” was allowed to continue posting as a CUP reporter.“I was approached by a CFS staff member who casually mentioned that if the other two papers kept tweeting, the official media credentials for CUP could be retracted in the near future,” said Godmere.Twitter opened a floodgate of opinion and debate from people who would not otherwise have had a say, either because they did not attend the AGM or because CFS policy forbids reporters from interviewing delegates until after the closing plenary.Twitter accounts covering the event came in four categories. Pro-CFS posts came mostly from CFS staffers or supporters, while anti-CFS posts were mostly made by student politicians and reform supporters. Live blogs had journalists and others giving play-by-plays. Lastly, joke accounts were designed to disrupt, add humour, or embarrass members on either side.It wasn’t always easy to follow the action. Both the pro- and anti-CFS factions would endlessly re-tweet the same sentence, occasionally leading to a wall of identical text.There were also accounts with minute differences in their names, making it difficult to distinguish legitimate accounts from saboteurs. For @cfsQuebec, an account from frustrated Quebecois students, there was @cfs_Quebec, posting, “I need some gum to cover my beer breath.”Reactions to the passing of Motion 6 elicited such responses as “Motion six defeated, 1/3rd of delegates question top-down authoritarianism, BUT chair fails to recognize result” from @CFSQuebec.“Thousands of students across the country getting ready to revolt against the CFS if motion 6 passes…” from @TBYS_.And from @csuconcordia, “CSU and other schools walk out of CFS meeting!”On the lighter side, an account claiming to be the “Cdn Fed of Goats” said, “but i wanted bleat on motion 6!!!” “Concerned delegates cannot find hot dog cart. Can an insider please confirm where the hot dog cart is located,” chimed in @foodsolidarity, while @cfspalin contributed such tweets as “All the mavericks in the house put your hands up.”Joey Coleman, a blogger for Globecampus who was following #cfs09, told The Varsity the social network “broke the wall.” Coleman, referencing the CFS’s reluctance to allow media coverage, added, “Twitter is impossible for the CFS to stop, short of installing cell-phone jammers.”Coleman has followed past CFS AGMs, and said Twitter made this one different. “[Previously] we didn’t really find out about what was going on behind the scenes—you heard whispers.”Godmere, at the closing plenary session when all the motions were voted on, used Twitter to provide up-to-the-minute coverage. She said she enjoyed the discussion the site facilitated, but worried about the “negative voices involved in that dialogue.”Godmere said that some of the joke accounts added humour to the proceedings, but others only added further divisions. “You had no idea if it was someone inside or outside [the AGM] tweeting,” she said, adding that some delegates voiced concerns of privacy violations.For more coverage, see “Double or nothing,” also in this issue. Follow The Varsity on Twitter here.
A moving feast
Last Sunday, the Muslim Students’ Association and the Muslim Association of Canada gave away food and held a dinner for over 200 families at the Scadding Court Community Centre. Community members gathered to commemorate Eid-Al-Ada, the Feast of Sacrifice, which occurs the day after pilgrims performing the Hajj in Saudi Arabia descend from Mount Arafat.“It’s a celebration of devotion to God and occurs at the end of the major pilgrimage,” said Anton Kurtanik, the MSA’s community affairs coordinator. “To symbolize the sacrifice of Abraham, they [Muslims] sacrifice an animal.”Traditionally, Muslims will sacrifice an animal for Eid-Al-Ada, keeping a third of the meat for their family, giving a third to their friends, and the final third to the less fortunate.Volunteers distributed over 1,800 pounds of halal meat, the equivalent of of 60 lambs and one cow, to over 750 people. “Considering it was the weekend before exams, it was amazing to see so many volunteers come out,” Kuratnik said. MSA members numbered 30 among the hundred or so volunteers. After the meat was distributed, families dined on chicken curry, salad, potatoes, and rice. A children’s table provided face-painting and crafts.The MSA can be reached at uoftmsa.com and email@example.com
Words Action Thoughts Community Heart, a U of T based group with over 400 members, works with children and youth in the Regent Park community. WATCH sends volunteer tutors to Lord Dufferin Public School to work with students aged five to 18.On Dec. 16, the group will host its 11th annual holiday dinner. Volunteers will deck out Hart House’s Great Hall with a Christmas tree in preparation for an evening of music, games, food, and presents from Santa. WATCH is aiming for over 170 children to attend, and hope to have 60 to 70 volunteers.“We really aim to give the children a nice Christmas, because many of the families we help can’t have a big dinner or give the kids nice presents,” William Sanh said, the group’s sponsorship coordinator. Most of the toys have been donated through six toy drives they held this year.“The classrooms are overcrowded and the teacher cannot help them one-on-one,” said William Sanh, the group’s sponsorship coordinator. WATCH also runs an after-school program called Girls and Boys K Club, where student volunteers run an arts and crafts room and help kids with homework, as well as supervising kids whose parents work late.“All of our volunteers find it great because they get to a build a close relationship with the kids,” Sanh said.WATCH holds a blood drive each semester, and members also volunteer at a soup kitchen at the Church of the Redeemer at 162 Bloor St. W.To get involved with WATCH, check out their Facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Double or nothing
The Canadian Federation of Students has made it harder for member unions to leave. At the CFS annual general meeting from Nov. 25 to 28, representatives voted to double the number of signatures required to hold a defederation referendum, cap the number of referenda that can occur simultaneously, and increase the mandatory waiting period between successive referenda.The CFS also rejected the majority of a reform package aimed to make the organization more transparent and accountable to its members.The CFS is a national lobby group, made up of over 80 student unions and representing roughly 500,000 students, according to its website. Thirteen members have defederation campaigns underway.
Unable to go, unwilling to stay
The controversial Motion 6 passed last week, requiring future defederation campaigns to collect signatures from 20 per cent of the student body, up from 10 per cent.It stipulates that only two unions can hold defederation referenda in any three-month period. If a defederation referendum does not succeed, universities will have to wait five years to hold another, and colleges will have to wait three years. The motion was raised by Carleton University’s Graduate Students’ Association. Defederation campaigners already complain of a too-small window for referenda: no vote can take place between April and Sept. 15 or between Dec. and Jan. 15, and at least two weeks of campaigning must precede voting.The changes will go into effect when CFS’s national executive meets in early January, but will not affect petitions that have already been submitted, said CFS national treasurer Dave Molenhuis, the designated spokesperson for defederation matters. The meeting date has not been set.In August, defederation petitions were circulated at 13 colleges and universities across Canada, including all four CFS member unions in Quebec. Eleven student unions have already formally submitted petitions to the CFS.Molenhuis confirmed that 11 petitions were delivered but could not provide the names of student unions who submitted them. He said the petitions will be reviewed and verified by the national executive in early January.“In some cases we need to review the authenticity of the petition,” he said. This process entails checking whether signatories are students of the school in question, whether they belong to the union, and whether there are duplicate signatures. CFS often works closely with school registrars to check student IDs when verifying petitions.If the petitions are verified and passed by the national executive, the process for referenda outlined in CFS bylaws requires that the CFS and the student union each delegate two representatives to coordinate the logistics of defederation.An agenda for the AGM, leaked prior to the meeting, lists all motions and the reasons behind them. Among the arguments for Motion 6 is that 10 per cent is too small a number and that 12,000 signatures (or 10 per cent from each of the federation’s smallest unions) could result in 10 referenda; that petitioning underway is “a coordinated plan to destabilize our Federation by a small group of individuals;” that it is “fundamentally anti-democratic” to hold multiple referenda in a small period of time because “the Federation and its members would have no reasonable opportunity to present a case for continued membership.”Molenhuis said that multiple referenda would not provide any serious financial implications for the CFS. “Our budget reflects our current situation and there is allocation for that,” he said. Asked what the CFS expenditures on referenda would be—the unions are responsible for running referenda—Molenhuis said he would have to ask CFS national chairperson Katherine Giroux-Bougard.For the most part, student union presidents whose campuses have defederation campaigns have not taken an official stance.While Rick Telfer, president of Western’s Society of Graduate Students, said that the union has no position on the matter, he made disparaging remarks about defederation campaigners. Telfer was formerly general manager for the U of T Students’ Union.“Those who are seeking to defederate here at Western are closely aligned with Conservative Party activists,” Telfer wrote in an email to The Varsity. “SOGS is a non-partisan organization and I expect that graduate students at Western will continue to support student unity, instead of an orchestrated and partisan attack on our Federation.”Western petition organizer Dan Dechene said that his personal reason for dissenting arose from a lack of transparency and accountability to member organizations from CFS, and not due to party politics.
The 43 motions that make up the CFS reform package were put forward by the graduate student unions at McGill, Concordia, and the University of Calgary, as well as the University of Regina Students’ Union and the Alberta College of Art and Design Students’ Association. CFS-Quebec endorsed the package and helped draft the proposals after it was given a mandate to do so by members.Proposed reforms included allowing individual students to opt out of paying CFS fees (Motion 74), disclosing executives’ salaries (Motion 48), allowing the media access to meetings and supporting their right to report without fear of legal reprisal (Motion 20), publishing a list of all legal action taken by CFS-Services (Motion 47), and launching a judicial board to study the implications of CFS legal action, which totaled $225,000 between 2006 and 2008 (Motion 62).“About 90 per cent of the motions were shot down and none were accepted straight-out for what they were,” said Erik Chevrier, an exec on Concordia’s Graduate Students’ Association and a petition organizer. (Concordia submitted their petition on Nov. 6, with 711 valid signatures recognized by the dean of students.)Chevrier said two amended motions were passed: to list boycotts online, and to record meetings. The latter was amended to include only the opening and closing plenary, where a designated minute-taker would type up minutes from recordings and make the minutes available to members.Reform advocates say the proposals would make the CFS more transparent and accountable to members, and could resolve unions’ reasons for wanting to defederate. According to the McGill Daily, proposal authors charge the CFS of being ligitious, authoritarian, bureaucratic, and run by “out-of-touch ex-student politicos,” in the first page of the omnibus motion.Opponents say the reforms are an attempt to undermine the organization. In a letter to CFS members, Giroux-Bougard called the package “a thinly veiled attempt, by a member, to undermine the progressive work that the Federation undertakes, through a campaign aimed at discrediting the elected national leadership, humiliating the unionized staff, and undermining the organisation and its work.”For more coverage, see “A little bird told me,” also in this issue.
Two U of T professors have been wooed by the University of Michigan, and a petition is underway to ask that U of T match the offer.Juhn Ahn and Amanda Goodman both teach courses on Buddhism for the religion department; Ahn also teaches for East Asian studies. Ahn said their possible departure is “tangentially related”—the two are married. Megan Wahlberg, president of the Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health Student Union, started the petition to Cheryl Misak, U of T vice-president and provost. The petition calls on Misak to “protect these programs that promote diversity at our university.”The BPMSU serves an undergraduate minor program with around 100 students and three or four faculty members, according to Wahlberg.Both the professors and Misak’s office declined to comment, citing confidentiality of ongoing negotiations.“Right now we’re in the midst of negotiations,” said Ahn. “So a lot of the ink that has been spilled on the table is fresh.”Speaking hypothetically, Ahn said his departure would “burden two departments as opposed to just one, and both departments are relatively small so their burden would be high.”Students have criticized U of T for prioritizing more mainstream programs with commercial potential, such as engineering and commerce, arguing they have shortchanged smaller programs like interdisciplinary studies.At recent town halls, a number of representatives from academic unions for interdisciplinary programs expressed concern over a faculty of arts and sciences review. Speakers were worried their programs would be cut, resulting in what they saw as the potential loss of diversity at U of T.Ahn expressed no such worries. Neither did John Kloppenborg, chair of the religion department. “The university has a very clearly stated priority to promote interdisciplinarity, diversity, and our department has been […] in the forefront of promoting exactly that,” he said.
A day of sorrow and hope
A soft, melodious ringing drifted across University College on Tuesday, Dec. 1 as the bells of Soldiers’ Tower ushered in World AIDS Day. The tolling also began a series of musical performances, followed by an address from professor, doctor, and author Prabhat Jha in Hart House’s Great Hall.The choice of music set the tone for the evening.After law student Roy Lee’s tolling of the bells, Michael Thibodeau, a piano grad student, played Chopin’s “Fourth Ballade in F Minor, Op. 52.” a piece chosen for its moments of gladness but also sorrow. Opera student Lindsay Barrett, a soprano, belted out “Morgen Opus, 27, No. 4” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Both songs contained themes of looking beyond one’s current situation and believing that a bright future is in reach. Throughout the performances, black-and-white photos taken in Africa and South Asia, some of ill patients and others of children and adults laughing and smiling, were projected on a large screen.An upbeat number by U of T’s 2009 Dance and Drum Ensemble, led by percussionist and faculty of music instructor Kwasi Dunyo, rounded out the musical acts. Called Bambaya, the dance originated among the Dagbamba/Dagbani people of northern Ghana to give thanks to divinity at harvest time.Keynote speaker Prabhat Jha, the medical world’s equivalent of a rock star, is a professor at U of T’s school of public health. His speech addressed the sobering reality of the global AIDS pandemic but also left a glimmer of optimism. A founding director of numerous medical institutes, Jha has written several books on the economics of tobacco use and the potential for a public health care system in India.Jha related his experiences in a Madras hospital when he realized he was surrounded by deathly ill people who were mostly younger than him. “As a physician, I was prepared to see the tragedy of death,” he said. “But I was unprepared to see the tragedy of helplessness, sorrow, and resignation.” As Jha sees it, pandemics can change the course of history, often for the worse, but doctors and researchers can work to bring sound science to the ill and make positive change.AIDS once threatened to create a disaster in India, but the Indian government and the World Health Organization realized the role of sex work in spreading the disease and made efforts to increase awareness and condom use. “[It] changed a potential catastrophe in India into a manageable public health problem,” said Jha, adding that rates of infection have gone down in south India by half.Jha called AIDS the “first big challenge in the irreversible era of globalization.” But if universities keep the pandemic a priority, he said, there may be hope on the horizon.This Thursday, the U of T chapters of Oxfam and UNICEF will host directors from various HIV/AIDS relief and advocacy organizations. The event, “Withholding Hope: Canadian red tape and the fight to get AIDS medicine to Africa,” features Canadian and African perspectives on the challenges to exporting medicine. The discussion will be followed by letter-writing to MPs. The event runs Dec. 3, from 6:30–8:30, at OISE room 2295.
Criminal code endangers sex workers: panel
Ambiguous laws on prostitution often leave sex workers in a Catch-22 situation, according to a panel at U of T’s law faculty held on Monday. Two women—Marcia McFarlane and Donna Bascom—told personal stories about the dangers of the sex trade. The panel also featured Alan Young, a professor at Osgoode Law School and a criminal lawyer.Speakers said that criminalization endangers sex-trade workers by increasing health and safety risks and decreasing opportunities to leave prostitution. Sex workers are more vulnerable to attack when they work in dark, abandoned areas to avoid detection. They also have limited options when dealing with potential customers, and have to quickly assess risks and decide whether to accept a client.“I was beaten, raped, and left for dead,” recalled Boscom. A truck driver found her naked in a ditch. McFarlane told the audience about severe abuse she experienced from her clients.“I don’t care what you think about the sale of sex,” Young said. “But the one thing everyone seems to agree with […] is that the laws we currently have are irrational, inconsistent, hypocritical, and self-defeating.”In theory, prostitution is not illegal in Canada. But the Criminal Code enforces laws that criminalize everything associated with it—occupying or running a “bawdy house,” procuring or living on the avails of prostitution, and public communication intended for prostitution. The ostensible benefit is to protect the public from negative consequences of prostitution.“There has been a 200 per cent increase in the number of women in prison in the last decade. Women who act out in self-defence, women who live in violence: these are the women we send to jail,” said Zahra Dhanani, legal director of the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women, which hosted the event. “They are experiencing being criminalized and re-traumatized and imprisoned from the violence they experienced.”Young spoke of Gary Ridgeway, the “Green River serial killer” who murdered 48 sex workers because he knew they would not be reported as missing. “We’re walking a tightrope where we act very liberal and allow the sale of sex, but every avenue that a sex worker can take to protect herself is foreclosed by law,” said Young. He concluded, “You tell me what the benefit is of trying to eradicate a trade that will never go away.”
To defederate, or not to defederate
Daniella Kyei, VP Equity for the University of Toronto Students’ Union, told The Newspaper in an article published in November, “It isn’t completely realistic for any single body to represent all 41,000 undergraduates.” This is a glaring contradiction to the “Welcome Statement” on UTSU’s website, which declares, “UTSU is your students’ union.” There’s a conspicuous gap between UTSU’s claim to represent all U of T undergrads, and the reality that on a campus as diverse as St. George, one group cannot represent all, leaving many feeling powerless and unrepresented.At St. George, the sense of being disenfranchised has grown to such a degree that there is widespread talk of defederation around campus. Leaders from many of the colleges and the professional faculties have expressed a desire to separate from UTSU. Jimmy Lu, president of the Engineering Society, told us “Engineers have always had a UTSU separation committee. UTSU campaigns do not provide any benefits to engineering students…” Francesca Imbrogno, president of the St. Michael’s College Student Union, told The Varsity that defederation is a possibility, remarking, “opinions around SMC are pretty serious because no one sees the cons of defederating.” SMCSU will even be holding a town hall on defederation in January. Finally, Daniel Tsekhman, president of the University College Literary and Athletic Society said, “The UC Lit aims to be driven by the opinion of the UC community. If students want to leave, then we will start an open discussion to see if it’s the best option.”The size of our university community is a big factor in the increasing divide between UTSU and U of T, as students generally feel like a number within the larger university community. The colleges and faculties, on the other hand, promote a sense of identity. They tend to have focused, medium-sized student governments where it’s easier to feel connected to local representatives.Barring a road-to-Damascus-conversion, UTSU will continue to operate with little transparency and accountability. The colleges and professional faculties already have the infrastructure to provide the services that UTSU provides, such as the health/dental plan and the TTC metro-passes. Catherine Brown, president of Victoria College Students’ Union told us, “At the end of the day, before VUSAC defederates from UTSU we need to make sure that any services we lose from defederating we could provide ourselves.” The colleges and professional faculties could work together to provide these services, while being connected more directly to the students they represent.If students want a mechanism with which to exit or enter the University of Toronto Students’ Union, the UTSU executive must provide one.