‘Hot Chocolate for Heroes’ benefits military families

Volunteers from the Canadian Hero Fund braved the chill at Bloor an St. George on Monday morning to give out hot chocolate for donations.

U of T students founded the group a month ago to help military families. They have an ambitious goal: to raise $2.5 million in the next five years to be put towards scholarship opportunities for the children and spouses of fallen soldiers.

“Most children who would qualify for the scholarships are too young right now, so the demand will be more prevalent 10 to 15 years down the road,” said Michael Ball, an exec and a final-year U of T student. Still, the group hopes to start giving out awards as early as this fall.

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After three hours at their sidewalk table, the Fund is $804.39 closer to their goal. Ball estimated 200 visitors stopped by.

Ball said the group has been contacted by interested students from U of T as well as Dalhousie, the University of Alberta, McGill, and others.

They’re catching attention elsewhere, too. Army News turned up to gather footage to show soldiers overseas. The L’Espresso Bar Mercurio location at the Woodsworth residence donated the hot chocolate; All Signs and Sign-A-Rama gave free banners.

More information can be found at herofund.ca, or by following the group’s Twitter and Facebook pages.

South Asian Studies reduced to a minor

U of T formally scrapped several specialist programs in the Faculty of Arts and Science at a meeting of the Academic Programs and Policy Committee on Tuesday. Changes will take effect in the 2010-2011 academic year, and students already enrolled in the deleted programs will not be affected.

The specialist and major programs for South Asian Studies will be cut, leaving only a minor program. University officials argue that the change will make the program more “cohesive, relevant, and useful in the work place.”

Judith Poe, a professor on the committee, questioned how the university intended to strengthen the program by cutting the specialist and majors. A spokesperson for the university replied that she didn’t know and cited insufficient demand.

In total, 31 students are currently enrolled in the specialist, major, and minor programs for South Asian Studies.

“I hope efforts will be made to re-establish those programs,” said Matthew Purser, a third-year student on the committee. “Even though it may not be such a large number of students that are going to be enrolled in specialists and majors, it’s still important for the students who are in them now, and for those who would like to have them in the future.”

The other cancellations, which passed without debate, disband joint specialist programs between departments like English, philosophy, history, and economics, which require the same number of courses as double majors.

“Certainly in all the years I’ve been involved in AP&P, this is a banner year for program deletions,” said Cheryl Regehr, vice-provost of academic programs. “But they’re not huge, substantive changes in terms of student choice.”

Regehr added that the decision did not involve discontinuing any specific courses and would not entail any additional costs, although she admitted that she did not know how much the university would save as a result.

“I don’t really feel like anybody is losing a choice, because there are other options available to them that would almost be equivalent to the ones being deleted now,” said Purser.

The committee also took the first step toward starting a kinesiology program at U of T, voting unanimously to refer the issue to the Academic Board. Professor Gretchen Kerr, associate dean in the physical education and health faculty, said that faculty surveys indicated strong student demand for a Bachelor’s program in kinesiology.

“Our sense is that if we have a Bachelor’s program, far more students would be interested in coming to U of T,” she said. “I think it would be very important in terms of recruiting students to U of T, and meeting the demand for kinesiologists in the field, for U of T to go in this direction.”

Campus flasher on the loose

Four instances of indecent exposure at U of T have been reported in the past two months. Campus police believe that the same person is responsible for all four incidents, three on St. George between Bloor and College, and one at Hart House.

The suspect is described as a white male around 35 years old; 5’8″; about 142 lbs; with short dark hair; small dark eyes; thick eyebrows; facial hair (stubble); and a raspy voice. He was seen in a navy toque and a navy hoodie with the hood up.

“We are actively investigating this,” said Sam D’Angelo, campus police operations manager. He said he does not believe U of T is being “targeted, per se.”

“We’re a city campus, open, and surrounded by many types of socio-economic buildings. It’s a convenient place for all types of individuals,” he said.

D’Angelo advises students not to engage with the individual and to contact campus police as soon as possible if they believe they have seen him. He added, “If you feel safe, and are at a safe distance, try to get a photo of him.”

Campus Community Police can be reached at 416-978-2323 or communitypolice@utoronto.ca

Guy Maddin: The Truth Uninhibited

“I thought I would use these clips to sort of support an answer to a question I get every now and then: ‘Why do you make movies that look and feel the way they do?’” This is how Guy Maddin began his lecture/presentation May I Blow My Bugle Now? My Life In Clips, which he delivered Tuesday night to a standing-room-only crowd at Innis Town Hall. This isn’t the only question Maddin regularly receives. He continues, “Or, ‘Have you ever considered making a regular Hollywood movie?’…or, ‘Have you ever considered alternating–like, making a good, moneymaking Hollywood movie…and then making one of yours?’”

“Well…I can’t. Had I been able to, I probably would have quit making my own movies a long time ago.”

“I’m just a primitive,” Maddin explains afterward. “I’m a technophobe, and I’m technologically clumsy, and that’s sorta what I’m going to be talking about tonight.”

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Primitive? Maybe, but the all-around Canadian national treasure and director of My Winnipeg (2007) and The Saddest Music in the World (2003) is the only working director whose films are genuinely otherworldly. His low-budget oddities, filmed on musty soundstages with 8mm black-and-white film stock and equally inspired by surrealist and silent movie aesthetics, are so bizarre and unhinged in tone and spirit that they look like messages from an alternate reality.

Maddin opened a weeklong series of events at Innis College with a collection of clips from films that share kinship with his own films’ heightened realities.

“I knew I just would never be technically proficient—that I would be the filmic equivalent of my daughter at arts and crafts hour—and I thought I would start watching movies that were equally primitive. So I found myself drawn again and again to films that weren’t trying to set up a dramatic illusion, but kind of brazenly showed off their artifice, brazenly showed off the very mechanisms of film.”

Clips ranged from well-known classics (King Vidor’s glossy melodrama Duel in the Sun, Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) to underground film (George Kuchar’s The Devil’s Cleavage, Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or) to more experimental work, like a version of the Bela Lugosi potboiler The Invisible Ghost with certain dialogue and characters erased, or a sex-free post-apocalyptic drama commissioned from a porn company (“I swear there’s no porn in it! It’s the actors’ default mode: ‘I’ve got this egg…I’d better lick it!’”).

“I became a young father at 21,” Maddin says. “Within a couple years my daughter was making drawings, and I was astonished at how beautiful they were in those days before she knew ‘the rules’–lines, vanishing points, all about perspective. I love the stuff as much for what it excluded–a missing body now and then, a missing nose–as what it included.”

“One of my favourite ones was, she said she was drawing a shoe, but it was a shoe [with] a man in the shoe driving a car with his own shoes underneath, and then she just glued…she didn’t really glue it, she just put some Alphaghetti noodles on top and they just sorta dried there. And it was so beautiful for some reason, and there was no real logical explanation for it, but I was really moved by it.”

Maddin’s films, with their outsized emotions and eccentric mise-en-scènes, take melodrama to the point of absurdity—and indeed melodrama was a concept Maddin spent much time defending. “Good melodrama is like a dream. In your dreams, if you’re lucky, you get to possess the person, or punch the person, or cry your eyes out, or flee someone you fear rather than stick it out in dread, because there’s a species of honesty that gets distorted and is trying to express itself. So, in good melodrama the truth is simply uninhibited. People who lust after each other do something about it; people who hate each other do something about it; there’s all sorts of crazy coincidences that facilitate the consummation of all these desires.”

“There’s something about all these clips that have always inspired me to continue as a filmmaker, because I was always scared that since I had no experience in theatre and I wouldn’t be very good at directing actors, what if I got an actor that was just out-of-control hammy? I sorta decided, Well, if I put something that’s melodramatically true on the page and then I couldn’t control the actor, then they would just be un-inhibiting the truth.”

“When you’re expressing the truth, over-the-top isn’t too much.”

Guy Maddin’s week-long residency at Innis College concludes today with a screening of My Winnipeg at Innis Town Hall at 7 p.m., and tomorrow with a roundtable and screening of Brand Upon the Brain. For more information, visit humanities.utoronto.ca.

U of T blows McMaster out of the water

With about a month to go until the OUA championships, U of T’s star-studded swim team reminded McMaster that they are a force to be reckoned with. Winning 19 out of 24 events at Varsity Pool last Sunday more than justified both the men’s and women’s victories of 89-49 and 78-60, respectively.

“Dual meets are an important part of our final preparation as they force the swimmers to go one-on-one against the other swimmers,” said Blues’ assistant coach Linda Kiefer. Clearly the team agreed as they delivered nothing less than outstanding performance after outstanding performance.

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Competition opened with the home team setting meet records in both the men’s and women’s 400m medley relay and setting the bar for the level of swimming to be expected in the ensuing singles events.

The men’s team, by now a solid fixture on the national swimming scene, demonstrated exactly why they are where they are. Astounding in and of itself was the fact that Zack Chetrat, Martyn Forde, and Curtis Samuel all picked up a gold in single events, and even more impressive were the dual victories and meet records of Mike Smerek and Stevan Kalaba. But let’s not forget Cameron Cummings—identified as the star of the day by coach Byron MacDonald—who won all three of his events and shaved .56 of a second off a record that had stood for seven years in the 50m backstroke.

The performance of the women’s team was nothing to balk at either. Single event winners included Heather Maitland, Rebecca Sharpe, and Kaleigh McKinnon while Pamela Ruksys and Andrea Jurenovskis were both victors two times over. Ruksys took the gold in both the 400m individual medley and the 400m freestyle further emphasizing she has the potential to be “a real threat in the longer races for sure,” according to coach MacDonald. Jurenovskis added a meet record in the 100m freestyle and a meet record in the 50m backstroke to her resume demonstrating her supremacy in the shorter races.

Although they successfully wrapped up their last dual meet for the 2009-2010 season, for the stand-out Blues swimmers things are just heating up. Next weekend they’re slated to host the Ontario Cup, which is a dynamic competition featuring swimmers across the province not only at the university level, but high school as well.

Not long after that, they’ll be at Brock University in search of OUA titles. Head coach MacDonald sees the pecking order as comparable to that of last year. The men are looking to defend their place on the top of the podium and the women, who placed second last year behind the Western Mustangs, may face a similar fate again this year. Zsofi Balazs, who was the top recruit in the country coming into this season, suffered a concussion last fall, and MacDonald thinks it’s unlikely that she will be able to compete for her team as they attempt to seize the provincial laurels.

Regardless, it’s easy to see that the Blues won’t disappoint. As they near the close of another mind-blowing season, nothing less than the best can be expected. It can be guaranteed they will dive head first into some serious sink-or-swim competition.

Fringe Science: Talking death

Dr. Yvonne Kason is a retired family physician and was an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Toronto for 27 years. She is an internationally recognized expert on near-death experiences, and is the author of a recent book entitled Farther Shores: Exploring How Near-Death, Kundalini, and Mystical Experiences Can Transform Ordinary Lives. (Kundalini is a psycho-spiritual energy believed to reside in a sleeping body.)

The Varsity: What is a near-death experience?

Dr. Kason: A near-death experience is a mystical and/or out of body experience that frequently happens to people when they are near death. It can happen to people when they are both physically near death (i.e., clinically dead) and also when they are psychologically near-death. For instance, if a person is in a dangerous situation and thinks they are going to die, but in the last minute nothing happens to them, they can also still have a near-death experience.

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TV: What are some of the hallmarks of a near-death experience?

DK: Research has suggested that there are about 15 characteristic features of a near-death experience, but on average, a near-death experience will have around seven features.

The most frequent symptom is a feeling of peace and calm. For instance, even though a person is about to die and is afraid, with the beginning of the near-death experience, there is an immediate feeling of calmness. Another common feature is leaving the body, which can be experienced through either moving through a tunnel or simply finding yourself outside of your body, looking down and witnessing what is happening around you. People can also experience a life review, where one very rapidly recalls a peak event or key incidences in one’s life. There is also commonly an experience of being enveloped in a soft, white light. In this place, people report being filled with a feeling of unconditional love. Within this light, people also report seeing deceased loved ones, angelic beings, or religious figures, all of whom explain what has happened to them. Finally, there is usually a very abrupt return to the body and a very strong conviction of the reality of the experience.

TV: Are there any long-term effects of having a near-death experience?

DK: Unlike hallucinations or dreams, the impact of near-death experiences seem to be permanent, ongoing, and transformative. Firstly, it tends to make people lose their fear of death and convinces them they will exist in spirit following the death of their physical body. This is generally the case even if such beliefs are totally outside the individual’s belief system before the near-death experience. There is also usually a psychological maturation following a near-death experience. For instance, people can quit drinking and stop doing drugs. People’s spiritual lives are also significantly shifted as well, promoting a more spiritually focused lifestyle. For example, an atheist may become a pastor. If a person is religious before the experience, his or her religious views tend to become less dogmatic, shifting toward a belief in God.

The research literature has also suggested that the degree to which a near-death experience is transformative is dependent on whether the person experiences the loving light. Near-death experiences without the loving light do not necessarily lead to transformation.

TV: How did you become interested in this subject?

DK: I became interested in the subject based on my own personal experiences. When I was a resident here at the University of Toronto, I was assigned to Sioux Lookout [a small town in northern Ontario] as part of my medical training. I performed a medical evacuation of a native Indian by airplane, and the airplane crashed, and in that airplane crash I had a white light near-death experience. After I recovered, I wanted to discover what happened to me.

Also, once I started talking at both medical conferences and public events about near-death experiences and the fact that I had one, my medical practice became flooded with people coming from all over who wanted to see me as a doctor, to tell me about various types of experiences—not just near-death experiences, but also kundalini and mystical types of experiences. People were searching for a doctor who had some sort of understanding and could help them integrate what they were experiencing. This is what drove me to specialize in this area, and it became the focus of my medical career.

TV: What sort of research have you been involved with in relation to near-death experiences?

DK: I did a project with a clinic that I helped coordinate called the Spiritual Emergence Research and Referral Clinic, where we collected case histories of the patients that were coming to me and to a few other doctors who had advertised that we would counsel patients with any of these diverse experiences. It was very basic research because it was really a new foray into an emerging field. The second research project I worked on was with the Kundalini Research Network where I was the chair of the questionnaire project where we collected over 600 case histories from people around the world who had been experiencing kundalini and/or near-death experiences.

TV: How did the academic and medical community respond to you and your colleagues’ research?

DK: I have a two-pronged response. The first response is advice I got from a very senior person in the Faculty of Medicine, which was “do research.” He said as long as you are doing research, it does not matter the topic and that it was legitimate within the practice of medicine.

The second response from the medical community was fairly positive because I always tried to present a grounded perspective, based on clinical experience and the literature. During the ’90s there was no information about near-death experiences in the medical curriculum. When I started talking at conferences during this time, I had several doctors tell me after how grateful they were because they later ended up having patients who described near-death experiences, and because of my talk, felt qualified to diagnose them as such. The reception was lukewarm positive!

TV: Many contemporary theories suggest near-death experiences are hallucinations that are by-products of a malfunctioning or dying brain. Do these theories satisfactorily explain the near-death experience?

DK: No, it does not support the research. I say this because it is very clearly documented that people can have experiences very similar to a near-death experience, or even a full-blown near-death experience, when nothing has happened to their body—so their brain is not in the least bit dying.

I will give you a story a Vietnam veteran told me. He was a soldier, and in one particular battle, a grenade landed right in front of him and he was absolutely certain he was going to die. When he saw the grenade land, all of a sudden he went out of body, he expanded, he went into a life review, and he was seeing the tunnel with the light, and all of a sudden he was back in his body. The grenade malfunctioned and did not go off. I have had similar stories from other war veterans as well. Nothing is physically wrong with these people, yet they still have full-blown near-death experiences. It does not make sense that near-death experiences are due to chemical imbalances of a dying brain.

TV: Is there evidence to suggest individuals actually leave their body upon experiencing a near-death experience?

DK: Yes. There is good research evidence by Kenneth Ring. He had people who had near-death experiences write down what they had observed was happening in the room when they were out of body. For instance, one woman noticed a shoe hiding above a large lamp in an emergency room. The shoe was completely unobservable from the ground. When the lady was resuscitated and later asked by Ken Ring to describe what she had seen, she off-handedly mentioned the shoe and what it looked like. The shoe was found, just as she had said. That was one of the cases Ken presents to support as to whether we could get confirmation of what people observe while out of the body.

More information on near-death experiences and Dr. Kason’s research is available at farthershores.com and the International Association for Near-Death Studies at iands.org.

Give me a job!

“Have you ever swept a floor before?” asked my new superior, a unibrowed high school student proudly wearing a shirt that read “I pwn noobs.” He was in charge of my training at the latest of a string of minimum wage jobs. “Because you obviously don’t know how to do it the right way,” he continued. “Do you have any work experience?”

I’m 22 years old, and I have a Bachelors of Arts Honours degree from the University of Toronto, where I majored in English Literature and German History. In the past four years I’ve worked in offices and restaurants, and garnered four Dean’s List certificates. Yet I’ve been in the trenches of job searching for a few months now. Here’s what I’ve learned.

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Graduating from university is scary; graduating into a recession is even scarier. But all the warnings that I overheard during my university years didn’t even begin to prepare me for the reality of the job market. My advice to current students: lower your expectations. It’s all downhill from here.

Us university graduates are often from middle-class families, where we were born into privilege and viewed education as a given. But we’re a generation that has to face the daunting possibility that we will never achieve the financial or economic security that we grew accustomed to as children. While many of our baby-boomer parents jumped up an economic class from their families, it’s quite possible that we’ll have to abandon the upper and middle classes for a working class existence.

The past few months on the job search have taught me to take less for granted while simultaneously being more wary. There’s a lot of shadiness out there, from illegal unpaid training shifts to temp agencies that demand commission before placing you in a job. The best defence is a good offence, and that’s gained by knowing your rights and deciding what you will and won’t settle for.

Just by browsing through the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s website, I’ve realized that a fair number of the employment opportunities I’ve been offered have been illegal. Even simple laws such as a mandatory 30-minute break for every five consecutive hours worked are often violated in the service industry. And if you work more than 44 hours in a work week, you qualify for overtime—meaning all subsequent hours are time and a half.

Temporary employment placement agencies are another risky business. A great number of office or administrative positions are filtered through temp agencies, and joining one is a helpful way to get a leg up on the competition. But know your rights—there are some sketchy-ass agencies out there. It’s illegal for a temp agency to charge you for joining their organization, and they can charge commission only once they have placed you in an employment opportunity. They are also not allowed to charge you for providing you with information about a company or for prepping you for a job interview—places will actually try to do this! By law, a temp agent has to inform you of the salary of the position, including benefits, hours of work, pay period, and complete contact information of the position of employment so you can contact them if you have any further questions.

Minimum wage in Ontario right now is $9.50, but it’s going up on March 31 to $10.25. The minimum wage for alcohol servers is $8.25, and is rising to $8.90. Make sure you remind prospective employers about the increase, because many will be conveniently ignorant of the change. When you come across an employment violation, confront the employer about it and report it to the Ministry of Labour.

Prorogue protests planned across Canada

Nationwide protests will push for parliament to resume as scheduled on Jan. 25. Rallies are scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 23, in every province and territory except Nunavut. Over 40 Canadian communities, including ones in New York and London, are planning rallies. The protests are organized through the Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament group on Facebook, which at press time has over 185,000 members.

Many details for the Toronto rally, set for Dundas Square, have yet to be confirmed. The first planning meeting took place at Hart House last Friday, but had to move because of overcapacity.

“We want to encourage the MPs to go back to work on the 25th no matter what Harper wants,” said Justin Arjoon, a Botany student at U of T and central rally coordinator for Toronto.

Despite interest from MPs like Bob Rae, the Toronto planning committee will not allow Members of Parliament to speak at the rally. “We don’t want the MPs using our platform in order to campaign for their party. We want to keep this nonpartisan,” he said.

“They can attend the rally, they can watch us on TV. Just because they’re not speaking doesn���t mean they can’t hear us.”

Shilo Davis, national rally coordinator and McMaster student, is skeptical of the rallies’ ability to influence Harper.

“I don’t see them going back, to be completely honest, based on the response so far. [But] at the very least we want our government to know that we aren’t happy, and that it’s more than just a Facebook movement,” said Davis. “It is regular Canadians who are behind this.”

More information can be found at noprorogue.ca

Armchair activism?

A protest planned through Facebook flopped on Tuesday, Jan. 11. The group Ontario College Students Against A Strike was started by Humber College student Graeme McNaughton to protest a potential province-wide college strike. The protest was to precede Wednesday’s vote by the Ontario Public Services Employees Union on whether to strike. OPSEU represents over 9,000
teachers, counsellors, and librarians at more than 24 college faculties across Ontario.

Of the 22,000 members that joined the Facebook group, 4,000 signed the online petition, and 356 students—representing over 11 schools—promised to walk out of their classes in protest. McNaughton said he had also found student volunteers to lead walkouts at these schools.

According to the Toronto Star, the number of protestors never exceeded 20, prompting the paper to dub the incident as the latest example of Facebook “slacktivism,” where online membership counts did not translate into support on the ground.—Alex Ross