‘Hey Jim!’

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.

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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 communications@uoftmsa.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 uoftwatchcommunity@gmail.com

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.

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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.

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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.

UBC student union moves to withdraw UN human rights complaint

Two student union executives at the University of British Columbia are facing impeachment for filing a human rights complaint to the United Nations over affordable education. Last Thursday, Blake Frederick, president of the Alma Mater Society, and Tim Chu, VP of external affairs, held a press conference to announce that the AMS, which represents over 45,000 students, has put forward the complaint regarding the federal and provincial government’s failure to provide accessible post-secondary education to all.

“Since the tuition fee freeze was lifted in 2002, student fees in British Columbia have more than doubled. The high cost of tuition means that many capable students, particularly those from lower-income families, are unable to get a university education,” said Frederick. The complaint to the UN claims that the provincial and federal governments are violating Article 13 (c) of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, which states that “Higher education shall be made accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”

In a press release, Katrina Pacey, counsel for the AMS, said, “We are asking the UN to hold the government accountable for their complete failure to live up to their commitment to provide accessible higher education.”

The UN complaint took the community, including other AMS execs, by surprise. The AMS Council held an emergency meeting last Saturday, and unanimously voted to retract the complaint. The council also called for Frederick and Chu to resign for not consulting the council and the student body before submitting the complaint. Frederick and Chu did not attend the meeting.

“This wasn’t something that had been talked about in the student council, or in any public meetings for that matter,” Matthew Naylor, council representative for the faculty of arts, told The Varsity. Andrew Carne, representative for the engineering faculty, wrote in an email, “AMS Council, which acts as the board of directors for the society, was completely blindsided by this and first heard about it through an article in the Vancouver Sun.” He added, “[T]his is greatly concerning [sic], as it means the entire process of drafting the complaint was carried out in secrecy without consulting students or their elected representatives on Council.”

Frederick told The Varsity that the executive committee was made aware of this complaint and agreed to go forward with the case. “We raised the topic of the UN complaint several times at our executive committee meetings […] VP finance Tom Dvorak and VP academic and university affairs Johannes Rebane signed the contract with Pivot Legal Society to go forward with the complaint,” he said. “Council would have knowledge through the [minutes of the] executive meetings sent for approval.” Dvorak and Rebane did not respond to calls and emails for comment.

A special council meeting is set for next Monday to recall Frederick and Chu. Frederick and Chu were given until Wednesday to resign. If they do not, the council will impeach them at Monday’s meeting. Frederick said the pair have no intention of resigning.

Facebook groups for the two sides have sprung up. As of press time, the group “We oppose the AMS impeachment of Blake Frederick and Tim Chu” had 386 members, and “Impeach the AMS President and VP External” had 1,287 members.

Just a bunch of hot air

On the morning of Dec. 1, an e-bulletin was sent around to the U of T community confirming that we had signed on to the made-in-Ontario sustainability pledge, titled Ontario Universities: Committed to a Greener World. Critics say this isn’t enough, deeming it a watered-down version of the Presidents Climate Initiative.

The original PCI was drafted in the United States, and now has 615 signatories there and 13 in Canada, most of them in British Columbia.

In Ontario, Trinity College at U of T signed it, but the initiative has been met with resistance from the Council of Ontario Universities, and in particular, U of T’s president David Naylor.

Critics of the Ontario version say it is less effective and less binding than the original version. Joanna Dafoe, who helped establish the UTSU Sustainability Commission, has been a strong advocate for the older, nation-wide PCI. She criticizes the newer, Ontario version as “inconsequential for reducing the university’s carbon footprint.”

A line-by-line comparison of the two versions shows how they differ in key respects. Unlike the older version, Ontario’s rewrite does not specifically address climate change, but speaks broadly about how universities could advance sustainability. It does not include mention of greenhouse gas emissions targets, it omits Ontario colleges, and it advocates a voluntary rather than regulatory or binding framework.

The Canadian PCI requires “a comprehensive inventory of all greenhouse gas emissions.” What Dafoe is waiting for, she says, “is the willingness on the part of the administration to make a sustained effort to reduce emissions.”

Naylor’s argument against the Canadian PCI is that U of T’s campus is too large to accurately measure greenhouse gas emissions: “It’s like saying you’re going to measure the chemistry of chicken soup,” Naylor told The Varsity in an interview last April, calling the PCI “more show business than substance.”

However, Dafoe points out that U of T has already measured greenhouse gas emissions on campus, through a building-by-building inventory of emissions, complied by the university’s Sustainability Office. Measurements of emissions from utilities, waste, and transportation are available on the SO website, she notes.

Danny Harvey, a climate scientist and professor of geography, says there are several ways U of T could reduce its carbon footprint. Creating energy-efficient facilities should be the top priority, he says. Some university administrators are wary of the costs associated with substantial building retrofits and green design, but Harvey points out that universities could see significant financial savings over the long term from energy-efficiency retrofits and better design.

Other student leaders appear to be split over the COU’s position. The Canadian Federation of Students and Sierra Youth Coalition are critical of the Ontario PCI as committing only to the “status quo.” In contrast, Dan Moulton, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance is quoted in the COU press release as saying, “Ontario’s students appreciate this pledge.”

Dafoe adds, “the adoption of a comprehensive sustainability framework for the entire university is really important in terms of making environmental gains on campus.” She is skeptical whether that will be accomplished if the Ontario universities set the bar low for themselves with their own version of the PCI.