TAs move in for the strike

U of T teaching assistants will vote on a strike mandate from Dec. 3 to Dec. 9. If they pass the mandate, their unit of the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3902 will have the option of striking should contract negotiations with the administration break down.

CUPE 3902 has been bargaining with U of T since July. Improved maternity leave, smaller tutorials and labs, wages tied to inflation, improved health and dental benefits, and a two-year contract are currently on the table.

The union hopes to gain momentum from a yes vote, but the prospect of an actual strike will have to wait at least until February, after either the admin or the union has sought conciliation from the Ministry of Labour. If the parties still don’t reach an agreement, the union can then strike.

“The university continues to bargain with CUPE 3902 and we are hopeful that we will be able to reach an agreement that is acceptable to both parties without a strike,” said Angela Hildyard, VP of human resources at U of T. Several meetings are scheduled between the union and admin, starting today.

CUPE bargaining team spokesperson Rebecca Sanders said that they had reached agreements on several smaller issues, but not major monetary concerns.

“Before the strike vote they said no to our maternity and parental leave program,” said Sanders. Since the strike vote was announced on Nov. 4, she said, the proposal has been revisited.

Not all teaching assistants are supporting a possible strike. Mathieu Roy, a TA at U of T, wrote in opposition to TA strikes in the National Post, “I’ve had a taste of the exceptional conditions and wages, and believe me, you will never find better for a part-time job: $36 per hour, health and dental benefits for the entire family, flexible schedules, guaranteed re-hiring until graduation.”

“I can tell you from personal experience that TAs usually work considerably greater hours than what is in their contracts,” said Sanders. She argued that at those rates TAs earn $15,000 a year, which is below the poverty line. Sanders added that to complete their degrees, grad students complete hours of research outside of TA duties, for which they are paid little or nothing.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union and the Graduate Students’ Union have both pledged support for CUPE 3902. A strike would only occur in the event of a serious breakdown in negotiations. In September, the Steelworkers union passed a strike mandate but reached an agreement with admin before they were due to strike.

“None of our members want to go on strike, but it is one of the few tools left to us if our demands are denied,” said Sanders.

TAs at York University went on strike on Nov. 6, shutting down classes. No resolution is in sight. The York Federation of Students has been criticized for announcing public support for the strike, even though 50,000 York students could lose a semester.

The Experimental Cinema of Takashi Ishida: A Treatise

Occasionally, if one is lucky, one experiences a work of art that evokes a visceral reaction, one that is downright sensual. Consider certain passages of Swan Lake, with two dozen ballerinas moving together in perfect formation. Their routine is so graceful, fluid, and aesthetically pleasing that I have to remind myself to breathe. Or Mozart’s piano sonatas, or Beethoven’s ninth symphony, which are among the most powerful works of art ever conceived. I even find myself tearing up at the sound of David Bowie’s “Life On Mars”—and that song doesn’t even make sense. (I invariably cry out: “It’s true—Mickey Mouse HAS grown up a cow!”)

While I can only speak for myself, these works go beyond simple entertainment, evoking a transcendental emotional, psychological, and physical response. It involves a sense of breathlessness, a widening of the eyes, and a tingle in the back of the spine. It’s no orgasm, but it’s about as close as art can get.

Most films focus on plot and characters. As a result, they lack the purity to evoke this sensual reaction, engaging the viewer on a more intellectual level. In fact, I think colour cinematography, which lacks the elegant simplicity of black and white, further distances us from such a feeling.

Experimental films, which do away with narrative in an attempt to strike at our visceral emotions, often end up even more coolly intellectual than their mainstream counterpart. I’ve been frustrated in the past by video installation art that confuses more than it enlightens, wondering what emotions were supposed to have been evoked. A truly transcendent experimental artwork must contain a strong level of technical proficiency and, dare I say it, earnestness.

This leads me to Takashi Ishida, a Japanese painter, performer, installation artist, and filmmaker whose films will be the subject of the Cinematheque Ontario retrospective Takashi Ishida in Person on December 3. While Ishida’s short films are experimental, they’re not inaccessible. He is, above all, a meticulous and skilful formalist, interested in experimenting with the composition of the film frame, and setting his compositions to beautiful classical music. According to the Cinematheque program guide, “Ishida rigorously explores the tensions between perspective and flat space, rectilinear and organic form, linear progression and repetition.” His stuff is pretty, too.

Ishida’s 18-minute The Art of Fugue (2001) sets the music of Bach to a series of abstract images, beginning with a series of rotating geometric shapes, eventually depicting animations of ornate Japanese emaki (picture scrolls). This film, like so much of Ishida’s work, captures the balance between purity and discipline, and is a staggeringly beautiful work of art.

His other films are similar achievements. Three Red Stripes (2005) features a man making odd noises in front of a backdrop with three vertical red stripes, until Ishida melds the sounds into a hypnotic buzz. Then there’s Film of the Sea (2007), which blurs the line between reality and fantasy with its curious juxtaposition of sea footage and a wall that leaks a stylishly blue liquid. Emaki 1 and 2 (1995, 1996) continue Ishida’s fascination with emaki scrolls set to music.

These laborious, literal descriptions of Ishida’s experimental films are useless. What matters more is their considerable visceral impact. To describe the exact nature of this impact would probably require a more appropriate medium than a newspaper article—perhaps a poem or a piece of music could do it justice. Better yet, just see the films yourself.

The Bills are coming to Toronto

Soon, the Buffalo Bills will call Toronto home.

On December 7, they’ll take on the Miami Dolphins in Canada’s first-ever regular season NFL game. To promote the landmark match-up, Buffalo Bills quarterback Trent Edwards was recently at the Rogers Centre, signing autographs to preview the game.

On paper, this will be a home game for the Bills. However, they’ll actually be playing more than 150 kilometres from Ralph Wilson stadium, leaving behind some familiar home-field advantages.

Buffalo weather can be harsh this time of year, with high winds, snow, and freezing rain influencing game outcomes. While this has benefited the Bills in the past, playing in the dome-covered Rogers Centre means giving up this potential advantage. When asked how it might affect the Bills’ performance, Edwards admitted it’s been on his mind.

“I’ve thought about [it],” he said. “Last year’s game we played [the Dolphins] in December in Buffalo and it started snowing. We beat them […] and I think a lot of that had to do with the weather conditions, that we were able to get on them early. [But] we’ll have other factors that will allow us to hopefully win this football game.”

Another advantage the Bills will lose is the presence of fans that call Buffalo home. However, Edwards noted that it felt like a home game when the Bills first played in Toronto in preseason against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He added that the fans will need to make a lot of noise. “This is a home game for us and we’re going to need a home atmosphere,” said Edwards. “That comes with fans being loud and making sure that the Dolphins on third down can’t hear their calls. That’s going to be pretty big for us.”

What started out as a strong season has turned sour for the Bills when they hit a four-game losing streak. The impending game against Miami will be a tough match-up. The Bills have lost all three of their divisional games this season. However, their recent performance against the Kansas City Chiefs indicates that things are back on track. Edwards rushed for two touchdowns in that game, giving him three on the season, the most of any Bills quarterback since Jack Kemp in 1966. He also posted a career-high quarterback rating of 121.0 in Buffalo’s best offensive feat this season.

Edwards earned his first NFL start early last season, just a few weeks into his rookie year. Since then, he’s embraced his role as leader of the offense—a responsibility he takes very seriously. “Obviously, as a quarterback and as a young guy you need to find the best [leadership] formula. That’s number one on my priority list, making sure I’m setting the example for these guys and I’m doing everything I can personally to make sure that I’m allowing my team to win on Sundays,” he said.

When met with questions about his confidence, the young quarterback displayed poise. “I don’t consider myself a fearful football player,” he said. “You can’t play this position and have fear in your game.”

Downturn deflates endowment cushion

As markets continue to crumble, U of T holdings are falling with them.

“The endowment has at this point lost the cushion needed to sustain payouts in the absence of a recovery,” reads a Nov. 19 memo from U of T VP and provost Cheryl Misak and VP Business Affairs Cathy Riggall. The memo says that U of T will look for alternatives to meet its payments from the endowment, promising, “We will meet our commitments.”

“The value of the endowment and the value of the pension fund have both declined,” Riggall told The Varsity in an email. Final decisions on how to handle the situation won’t be reached for some time, said Riggall.

“Faculties and division are currently engaged in preparation of budgets for the next five-year period, and are advised to plan for cuts and restrain any non-essential spending,” reads Riggall’s memo. She said next year’s budget is being drafted now, but won’t be final until March or later.

U of T’s assets amounts to some $5.5 billion, which include $2.8 billion in pension funds and $2 billion in endowments. Payments from the endowment go towards scholarships, bursaries, and research projects.

University spokesperson Laurie Stephens said that employee pensions will not be affected despite the downturn, as the university is obligated to pay them in full. So far, no hiring freezes are planned at U of T, unlike the six-month freeze at Waterloo. Stephens said that student bursaries would be the last to go. “If it continues to worsen, whatever we do will have the least impact as possible on students and faculty,” she said.

Allison Webb, secretary to the Planning and Budget Committee, said she could not predict if there will be significant change to next year’s budget as a result of the financial downtown. In the meantime, all eyes are on the market.

Throwing Open the Barn Doors

Toronto’s recent art renaissance has been characterized by the addition of fresh modern designs to historic institutions such as the Royal Ontario Museum, Royal Conservation of Music, and Art Gallery of Ontario. Nestled in a residential neighbourhood bordered by St. Clair and Christie, the Artscape Wychwood Barns incorporate environmental innovations (geothermal heating and a storm water reuse system) and preserve the industrial history of the 60,000 square foot, 85-year old buildings. For their commitment to the environment, the Barns were designated the first Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED)-certified heritage building in Canada.

The eight-year, $21.2 million redevelopment was funded by three levels of government in addition to private donors. The finished project provides 26 units of rent-geared-to-income housing for artists and their families, 15 affordable work spaces, 13 offices for non-profit arts and environmental organizations, as well as rehearsal, performance and event spaces that connect art, environment, and community.

The Barns herald a new generation of community centres in Toronto—for the community by the community. The project is a collaboration of arts, environmental leadership, and urban agriculture, emphasizing sustainability in response to the neighbourhood’s needs. “We heard from the local community their aspirations for a place that was a centre for the environment, a centre for the arts, and people wanted affordable housing. We decided to combine all of those things together,” says Artscape President and CEO Tim Jones.

Built between 1913 and 1921, the Wychwood Streetcar Barns served as a streetcar repair facility for the Toronto Civic Railway, boarded up and left derelict in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 2001 that Artscape received the green light to begin the design and consultation process. It was quickly discovered that the Barns were a brownfield site.

Brownfield sites range from abandoned commercial properties to underutilized industrial parks where previous usage has resulted in contamination. “We had to lift out two metres of dirt around the entire site in order to bring it back to life,” says Jones. “We were inspired to think as green as possible and we were motivated when we learned there were no other LEED gold-certified heritage buildings in Canada.”

The rehabilitated site, complete with 127,000 square feet of park grounds, a community art gallery, and urban gardens earned a Canadian Urban Institute Brownie Award for Excellence in Project Development, recognizing the site’s innovation, environmental sustainability, and leadership in brownfield redevelopment in Canada.

Established in 1986, Artscape has developed six multi-tenant art centres with a mandate to create an infrastructure to advance Toronto arts and culture. Artscape projects have helped to redefine historic neighbourhoods, regenerating Parkdale, Queen West, Toronto Island, the Distillery, and Liberty Village.

The completed project was very much a community endeavour. The November 20 launch, presided over by Jones, Mayor David Miller, and city councillor and staunch supporter Joe Mihevc, saw hundreds of locals and art enthusiasts fill the Covered Street Barn. The event opened the doors to publicly accessible spaces, but also studios and artist live/work space, as a way to connect community members with their new neighbours.

This project was not always met positively by local residents. An aggressive campaign to stop Artscape from redeveloping the property included legal threats, a website dedicated to anti-Artscape sentiments, and an audit proposed by a small enclave. Residents stressed their concern for lost park space and fears of increased traffic in the form of crowds from theatre productions, visiting educational groups, and patrons of the food bank housed in the Barns.

Visual artist Erin Munro leases one of the studio spaces, and has waited years for something to be done. “I grew up in Toronto,” she says, “and I would walk by here everyday and see it boarded up and wonder what was going on with this property. There were talks for a long time about it being redeveloped, but it didn’t look like it was going anywhere.”

Set up in a modest-sized space flooded with natural light, she’s excited to settle into her new space. “The best part is there are multi-disciplinary people around. There’s a real sense of community and diversity. It’s really a dream come true to finally be here.”

Online classrooms never too crowded

Don’t love the idea of getting up early for a morning class? You might not have to any longer.

You can take classes from home instead, through the webOption, a program that posts lectures online. Offered through UTSC, and open to all U of T students, webOption lets participants follow lectures from home, only going to campus for midterms, final exams, and tutorials.

“The hope was to enhance traditional lectures by giving students more flexibility,” said Steve Joordens, a psychology professor who’s in charge of the program.

UTSC launched webOption in 2004 to accommodate the double cohort of undergraduate students after OAC was eliminated. John Bassili, chair of the psychology department, recorded lectures and posted them online for students who couldn’t fit in the lecture halls.

This year, webOption offers more than 25 online courses, from management to biology. Although most are in science and math, Joordens hopes to expand the program to other disciplines.

Students said they chose webOption for various reasons: convenience, safety after night classes, accessibility issues, less distractions, and not waiting to take a class. Tapes and slideshows are posted a few hours after the class, while night course lectures are posted the next morning.

All recordings are archived and some are re-used from fall and winter sessions to provide a summer option. Students can meet with the professors during office hours and email questions.

Students sign up on ROSI for lecture period LEC60, indicating a webOption course. They can later choose to transfer between the online and in-class lectures.

“The videos are rather low-quality, but it’s the sound that matters,” said Joordens. Occasional glitches include interference from wireless microphones or problems with the tapes. Sometimes whole lectures must be re-given in a spare room.

Joordens acknowledged that this option doesn’t work for all students and professors, and that in-class interaction can be vital to certain courses. Some students, however, don’t need the classroom to have discussions.

“There were times that my family and I would learn about some very interesting issues that would lead us to a topic of discussion over dinner,” said Eleni Kanavas, a student who used webOption for introductory psychology.

Earlier this year, Joordens and Bassili published a research paper in the Journal of Distance Education, which found no significant difference between online and in-class students.

The program costs about $25,000 per year to run. “The goal is student satisfaction, not making money,” said Joordens. “[It’s an] economic way of doing something tangible.”

He added that the program is considering podcasts, and may develop a separate office with full-time staff.

This October, U of T president David Naylor’s controversial Towards 2030 framework document was approved by Governing Council. The plan included methods to deal with increasing numbers of undergraduates, including capping and reducing admissions. Online classes could be one way to address these problems, but lack of campus resources remains an issue: many have complained about webOption students filling UTSC computer labs.

The Right is still right

Alex Nursall’s GOP-bashing article (“The craziest party that could ever be”) is an example of why the Republican Party’s future should be left up to conservatives. More a collection of stereotypes and clichés than substantial analysis, the article revealed all the worst extremes of modern North American liberalism: condescension towards common folk, suppression of intellectual difference, and dismissal of the ideological opposition. I was instantly reminded of why I crossed over to the Right in the first place.

Although my conservative colleagues have sufficiently demolished Nursall’s polemic in The Varsity’s comments section, I am compelled to make a few brief observations. In a cautionary sentence about how evangelicals are increasingly voting Democrat, Nursall writes, “The Republicans are losing their base, and if the trend continues, they’ll be nothing more than a party of fanatics, clutching at their guns and religious texts, weeping bitter tears for an America that never existed in the first place.” Given that evangelicals and social conservatives make up a large portion of the GOP base, this sentence is self-contradictory: if the base is eroding, the party should be left with anything but gun-toting church-goers. She laments that Mr. Obama was unfairly lumped together with Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers, but the two indeed served on the CAC board together and Ayers made a small contribution to Obama’s campaign. It was not hatred that motivated Mr. McCain to warn of this association, but concern about Mr. Obama’s judgment.

In any case, Nursall’s “hatred” theory for why the GOP lost the election doesn’t hold water in the face of a few facts. If Americans so resented conservative “intolerance” and had moved to the centre, why was it that Proposition 8—the California ballot initiative to ban gay marriage—passed by vast majorities in the country’s most liberal state? Why is it that the Democrats who beat out incumbents for congressional seats in both 2006 and 2008 were mostly socially conservative populists, like Virginia senator Jim Webb? There is indeed a looming problem for Republicans in the future, but hatred isn’t it. Instead, it is an inability to think and argue innovatively about the economic issues of today—globalization, health care, and education.

In the economic boom times—2002 and 2004—Republicans were able to tout their family values and national security credentials to an inherently conservative working class. But since then, economic hard times have convinced the Average Joe to place his checkbook above partisanship. These woes go beyond the inflation of early 2008 and the financial crisis of the summer. Dating back to the 2004 outsourcing scare, American workers have seen their wages stagnate while corporate profits skyrocket. This is not due to executive greed, as the Democrats assert, but simple economics: American workers have been facing increasing competition from cheaper foreign labour in the rising economic powers of China and India. Increase the global supply of unskilled labour, and the price of labour falls.

In 2008, the Democrats, with their natural big government and pro-union slant, offered an arsenal of solutions: universal healthcare, middle-class tax cuts, and tuition credits, all funded by higher taxes at the “top five per cent” of the income bracket. All the Republicans could come up with was a plethora of tax cuts at a time when marginal tax rates were historically low. They had no plan for education, and McCain’s healthcare plan, though fundamentally sound, was barely mentioned during the campaign. No wonder the working class picked handouts over trickle-down. The data resonates with this line of thought: CNN polls showed that in two swing states, Florida and Ohio, 62 and 61 per cent of voters cited the economy as their top priority, respectively. Of those voters, Mr. Obama beat Mr. McCain by a margin of 7 to 14 points.

If the Republican Party is to make any serious comeback in the future, it must come to grips with its economic problem. It’s correct on the fundamentals: tax cuts and free trade have served the U.S. well since Reagan’s time in power, delivering robust economic growth. But on class equality issues, the GOP must come up with alternatives that help the Average Joe without overweening government intervention.

Mass rapes in the Congo are ‘sexual terrorism,’ says doctor

“Hundreds of thousands of women are humiliated, dehumanised and without protection in the Congo,” Denis Mukwege told a crowd of 1,500 at Convocation Hall Friday night. As a surgeon, Mukwege has witnessed the results of brutal acts of violence against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The founder of the Panzi Hospital in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu, he described his work performing reconstructive surgeries for women who have been raped and mutilated.

Mukwege spoke of villagers rounded up by soldiers in the middle of the night, armed men raping and mutilating women in public as their helpless family members look on, and hundreds of thousands of girls, some as young as three years old, left scarred.

“These acts go beyond sexual desire. They are driven by a political and socio-economic agenda,” said Mukwege, calling the mass rapes “sexual terrorism” where perpetrators seek to gain power over the country’s precious mineral resources. The epidemic of sexual violence in the Congolese conflict has been called an unprecedented use of rape as a political tool.

“This kind of rape that takes place leads to a loss of identity,” said Mukwege, causing physical and mental wounds. “When husbands witness their wives being raped and they cannot do anything, it’s shameful for them. It’s shameful for the community and for the family.” The most natural result, he said, is the displacement of entire communities that subsequently allows rebels and warring parties unrestricted access to important mining areas.

Also in attendance were Stephen Lewis, former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, and playwright Eve Ensler. Both are outspoken activists for the plight of the Congolese women and have worked with rape victims at the Panzi Hospital.

Lewis and Ensler questioned the role of the international community in the disaster. “On Nov. 21, just one week ago, the [UN] Security Council voted 2,800 more peacekeepers and 300 more police personnel for the Congo. No one knows which countries they will come from. No one knows when they will arrive. No one appears to know anything,” said Lewis. He added that the ongoing conflict needs a force of tens of thousands, not merely thousands. The speakers emphasized that the harsh reality contains potential for change. Ensler underlined the strength of the women she met and their potential empowerment, given the right resources, while Lewis encouraged audience members to pressure local politicians.

“We continue to be optimistic on the ground because there are men and women like you tonight who’ve begun to wonder about the fact that there are more than five million four hundred thousand deaths related directly or indirectly to the war without any measures to be taken to end this catastrophe,” Mukwege said.