Harper’s last stand

“They want to take power, not earn it,” announced a flustered Stephen Harper in the foyer of the House of Commons last Friday. He was referring to a deal in the making, signed on Monday, wherein the Liberals and NDP would join forces to form a coalition government with the support of the Bloc Québécois.

Quit your whining, Harper.

The coalition vote was supposed to be held this Monday, although it’s been delayed for a week. Since then, Harper has scrambled for a way to hold on to power. Meanwhile, the coalition deal has developed, and public support is growing.

This crisis started because the Conservatives, who were elected to resolve the troubled economy, presented an unsatisfactory fiscal update. The plan proposed cutting spending, limiting rights for public workers to strike, and tightening pay equity.

None of these proposals were well received, and neither was the policy to reduce public funding for political parties. This move would have benefited the wealthy Conservative Party and greatly afflicted the over-budget Liberals, along with the growing Greens. Although Harper claimed this is what triggered the deal, party funding is not the issue.

With a looming economic crisis, it’s time for Canadians to join together against the storm. It’s about time the left-wing parties reached some sort of coalition. Jack Layton flat-out refused to do so during the election, causing anyone who didn’t want Harper (read: the majority of Canadians) to split their votes between the Liberals, Bloc, and Greens. Many resorted to a pathetic attempt at strategic voting.

Election night left Canadians bitter—$300 million spent, and for what? The Conservatives still have a minority, the Greens still have no seats despite growing support, and the left-wing parties are engaged in the same power struggle as before.

This raises an important question: why are we against coalition governments? They work for Italy, Japan, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan, and India, along with most of northern Europe. The only federal coalition in Canadian history was during World War I, under high-pressure circumstances. Coalitions use consensus-based politics. As one look at our political parties shows, Canadians need consensus more than anything right now.

Of course, the left-wing parties have different priorities. Each group spoke viciously against the others, but their platforms are quite alike. With a looming financial crisis that demands action, it only makes sense for parties to work together to save the country from ineffective Conservative governance.

Critics argue that a coalition will cause a schism. None of the left-wing parties are led by individuals from Western Canada, the only significantly prosperous region of the country. Western Canadians may feel that they don’t have a voice, and the Bloc’s involvement suggests a closer step towards separation.

But that’s not likely to occur. The unity of Canadians, despite how much they despise each other, is not threatened. We are united in crisis. We are fighting a war on economic disaster. And during a war, a country unties.

Those fighting for the Conservatives to maintain power are mainly social conservatives. Their frustrations stem from Harper doing little to serve their interest. But keeping him in his place certainly won’t change anything.

The person central to the coalition debate, however, is not Stephen Harper. Governor General Michaëlle Jean will make the decision. The fundamental rule of our democratic parliamentary system is that the prime minister must have, and demonstrate, confidence in the House of Commons. This rule is widely unknown, and has led to dreadful confusion among Canadians.

The GG isn’t supposed to base her decisions on public opinion, but rather parliamentary opinion. If the publicly elected MPs don’t have confidence in the prime minister, there is no democracy, and the system doesn’t work. It is the GG’s role to find a way to make the system funtion. This means dissolving parliament to cause an election, unless there is an alternative option for establishing confidence.

Assuming this coalition is put in place, Dion is set to take the reigns. Although he proved himself a poor campaigner, most political scientists agree he has the intellect and policies needed to help Canada, at least temporarily. The question of who will lead the government after he steps down next year remains unanswered, although it would be surprising if this coalition lasted that long. A coalition of three parties—one socialist, one separatist, and one wracked by infighting—evokes the image of three blind mice.

As soon as the financial crisis is dealt with, we will without a doubt be headed for another election. Hopefully we can finally have one based on the two most pressing issues: the environment, and electoral reform. Until then, let’s get Harper a tissue, and help the rest do what’s necessary.

Dream tower revisited

Over the past year, the University of Toronto has cracked down on student dissension to a worrisome degree. Last March’s Simcoe Hall sit-in—a peaceful protest against rising student housing costs—ended in the arrest of 14 activists who are currently facing criminal charges (carrying sentences of up to 15 years) and the threat of expulsion. Prohibitively expensive security fees have been imposed on “controversial” events on campus, and posters criticizing a U of T donor for legitimate reasons were removed by the administration. Groups like AlwaysQuestion and Ontario Public Interest Research Group have been under fire for organizing protests. And despite overwhelming student opposition, senior administration continues to push its agenda. Though an UTSU-organized plebiscite showed that 93 per cent of students, faculty, and workers opposed David Naylor’s corporate-friendly Towards 2030 plan, it was still approved by Governing Council (which reserves eight seats out of 50 for students).

U of T’s administrators continue to tell the university community that their protests are unnecessary, and that student activists are too radical to be taken seriously. They are wrong. Historically, almost every major student victory at U of T has been the result of grassroots campaigns. On-campus daycare was created due to occupation of university buildings in 1970. In 1972, undergraduates won access to Robarts Library by organizing sit-ins and a general assembly at Convocation Hall. An end to the men-only policy at Hart House in 1972, campus space for the Women’s Centre in 1986, U of T divestment from Apartheid South Africa in 1987, and the adoption of the first anti-sweatshop policy by a Canadian university in 2000 were all won by sit-ins. Since U of T’s foundation, students’ most significant protests were about creating their own solutions to the issues they faced. And there once was an effective, student-organized counterpoint to university bureaucracy: Rochdale College, a free, cooperative college near campus.

Forty years ago, U of T students took on the university’s top-down approach directly. Bypassing their symbolic, but ultimately futile positions in university governance, they created their own alternative. In a society where inequality was deepening, Rochdale had an open-door policy. Onlookers attacked Rochdale as a “’hippie heaven,” “a haven for dropouts,” and a “place where people went to buy drugs.” But while the college attracted its share of deadbeats, these critics missed the point: Rochdale was an experiment in freedom, representing a vision we are still fighting for.

For the first time in history, students had become the owners of a six-million-dollar college. They had complete self-governance, with their own police force and court.

Rochdale’s government policy was decided at open assemblies. All members of the co-operative were invited to attend, participate in debate, and vote. Academically, Rochdale was just as free: it offered no structured courses, curriculum, exams, degrees, or traditional teaching faculty.

A revolutionary spirit had overtaken much of North America, and student movements had yielded over 300 tuition-free universities across the continent. Rochdale, right in our own backyard, was the largest, and arguably, the most successful. Free universities offered student-organized classes, but did not issue degrees. Anyone could obtain a BA from Rochdale by donating $25 to the college and answering a skill-testing question (such as “What is the capital of Canada”); MAs were earned by a donation of $50, and a skill-testing question of the applicant’s choice. A PhD could be had for $100, no questions asked.

Rochdale became fertile ground for free thought and radical idealism. Traditional professors were replaced by “Resource People” from various academic and non-academic backgrounds, who led informal discussion groups on a wide variety of subjects. It offered a catalogue of courses that would never be offered for credit at mainstream schools, and students built their own degrees. Everyone at Rochdale was both a student and a teacher: it was co-operative living, a democracy where students called the shots. Moreover, it was egalitarian, as oppressed and working-class pupils were offered free alternative education. It was a radical think tank, a place to discuss cultural movements past, and to experiment with workable alternatives to the status quo.

There were many attempts to shut down Rochdale, but it survived for seven years, from 1968 to 1975. As the college became the target of police invasions and mass evictions, it remained the symbol of an era. The U of T governing body, outraged at Rochdale’s open-door policy, locked down the college and issued keys to residents only. In response, tenants began to copy and distribute the keys freely. Undeterred, the governing council set up a paid security force on a 24-hour alert (ironically, some of these security officers were bikers at Rochdale). Residents were often subjected to harassment, and police raids were common—in the early days, cops were frequently welcomed with balloons and confetti and, in one case, a cake that read “Welcome 52 Division.” Tenants started a petition to stop police harassment, but the police would have conducted the investigation themselves. Eventually, the college was closed due to political pressure, and on May 30, 1975, police carried the last residents from the building by force. The doors were welded shut, and the building remained empty for years. Today, it’s an apartment building named after a senator.

Nothing like Rochdale has happened on campus since. The only remnant of the ambitious college is a statue of an unknown student, representing the one-time attempt to create a home for those who simply wanted to exercise their right to learn. But Rochdale is a shining example for those of us who continue to agitate for change. The work we do as activists may not always be easy, fun, or rewarding, but it is our responsibility to challenge the status quo. Without students like us, the university is impotent. We demand free education for all, without barriers. Rochdale demonstrated that this is achievable.

Semra Eylul Sevi is a member of the “Fight Fees 14.”

Obama: progressive or pragmatist?

As President-elect Obama’s transition team takes on the seemingly insurmountable task of fixing a broken country, they’ll grapple with a laundry list of requests from the left and the right. The global financial meltdown, military occupations in the Middle East, and ecological catastrophe are currently on everyone’s mind.

But to some, there is a much more pressing issue at hand. Conservatives say that President-elect Barack Obama mustn’t steer too far to the left: America is a centre-right nation, and must be governed based on centre-right principles. After the Republicans’ tremendous loss on election night, the pundits could only comfort themselves with denial. But there’s no denying that on November 4, the United States sent a powerful message to the Republican establishment and the international community, demanding a new direction in governance and a progressive face in the era of 21st century politics.

While the lengthy campaigning enabled voters to better engage in the political process, the desire for progressive action and rejection of conservative ideology was evident. Poll after poll indicates that Americans want universal healthcare coverage, income redistribution, financial regulation, energy reform, and a diplomatic approach to foreign policy. These issues are at the core of the progressive movement, and Obama’s campaign reflected these emerging goals. With the financial burden weighing heavily on his shoulders, Obama needs to be prepared to make short- and long-term investments to get the country back on track. He has to start by amassing a cabinet filled with innovative thinkers and like-minded intellectuals to help shape the new agenda.

While some recent appointees have been less-than-stellar selections, it is worth noting that Obama appears to be naming the most diverse cabinet in history, appointing bipartisan and pragmatic figures. Tom Daschle for health and human services secretary is a sound choice, as he has long been a fierce proponent of affordable public healthcare. Janet Napolitano, Obama’s nominee for secretary of homeland security, is a wise selection as well. As Governor of Arizona, a western state with illegal immigration woes, she could redirect attention to a domestic concern that’s virtually vanished from the news. Some in his economic inner circle, like future National Economic Council head Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner, while holding impressive credentials, are proponents of financial deregulation, and arguably tied to the Wall Street scandal. Will they implement the right policies to get the country out of this mess?

President Bush’s defense secretary Robert Gates will retain his role in the new administration. A supporter of bloated military budgets, nuclear weapons, and an ongoing occupation in Iraq, his misguided Republican worldview may interfere with Obama’s plans for tough diplomacy. As the saying goes, only time will tell. However, forward thinking has not been forgotten. For the first time in history, the President-elect will appoint a chief technology officer to oversee the IT sector and maintain competitiveness with booming technology industries in Asia. Google CEO Eric Schmidt could put his ingenuity and tech smarts to great use by helping the administration into the 21st century. Obama has continuously stressed the need for a transparent and Internet/blogger-friendly government, and with plans to keep a laptop in the Oval Office, it is likely that the White House website will look more like Facebook than a stagnant collection of press releases and documents.

While he may value intellectualism and competency over ideology, Obama’s promise to turn the page on the old Washington and look ahead towards a new and improved country seems difficult to fulfill. As the transition rolls on and more names start to float in the news, the decisions Obama makes will ultimately define him, as an individual and as a president.

Making snow despite the elements

School seems a world away when your skis cut cleanly through a thin coating of snow, sending up a shower of fresh, white powder. But what if the temperature isn’t cold enough for snow to form? Could nature really sabotage the perfect ski holiday? Fortunately, today’s technology is so advanced that Mother Nature is no longer in complete control of snow distribution. Resorts use snow machines to extend the length of the season, while ensuring that snow is the right consistency for skiing and snowboarding.

Snow is naturally produced as cloud temperatures drop. Water vapour condenses into droplets, which remain in the atmosphere until they grow too large. Water doesn’t actually freeze at 0°C, but at much lower temperatures. In clouds, small pieces of dirt, bacteria, and other small particles called nucleators cause water particles to group together. These particles expend energy in their attraction to nucleators, causing them to cool until they form ice crystals. As the crystals drift within the cloud, more water molecules gather around them to form a snowflake, which begins to fall as it gets larger and heavier. The drop will remain a snowflake, provided temperatures remain cold enough. Otherwise, the drop falls as rain.

The snow produced by machines is the same as naturally-produced snow. Both processes require only water and cold air. Traditional snow machines, or snow guns, have two hoses: one connected to a water supply, and another that provides compressed air. This air pushes the water particles tightly together, reducing their ability to move. When the air is released, the particles spread, and can move more freely. As they are scattered through the air, they use up energy and absorb heat from their environment. Some resorts use airless snow guns, which employ nozzles to atomize the water stream into a mist. A powerful fan located inside the gun then blows the droplets into the air. This design is often preferred, as it doesn’t require a supply of compressed air.

Although these powerful machines are credited with longer ski seasons and a greater variety of trails, there are limits to their snowmaking abilities. Just as particular ground-weather conditions are needed for natural snow, snow machines can only produce snow at certain temperatures and humidity levels. The most important factor in snowmaking is the wet bulb temperature. Also known as the relative humidity level, it determines the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere. When there is more vapour in the air, water or snow cannot evaporate easily, as the air is already saturated with water. As a result, it takes longer for water to cool under high humidity conditions, making it difficult to produce larger quantities of snow. Ideal snowmaking conditions necessitate temperatures between -10° and -20°C and low levels of humidity.

Snow machine operators have to consider more than just the environmental conditions. They must also monitor the proportions of water and air in accordance to the needs of the slope. The density of snow is chiefly determined by the size of water droplets created by the gun. Dry snow has a low amount of water, which makes it the best snow for skiing. Wet snow, which has a higher density, is used to build a foundation on the trails. It is produced twice a year to create depth, while trails are regularly coated with dry snow throughout the season.

Since temperature and humidity levels vary greatly across the slopes, snow makers must pay careful attention to the weather, and adjust each machine accordingly. Many ski slopes use central computer systems that are connected to weather-reading stations. These computers determine the best combination of water and air based on the data recorded.

Snow making technology is more widely used than you may think. Hollywood producers, agricultural engineers, and aircraft designers all depend on this technology. Although they require a great deal of power and water, snow machines are relatively easy to operate. So the next time you’re sitting in the chalet after flying down the slopes, you can impress your friends with your knowledge of the science of snow.

Provost’s democracy committee suspended

The Provost’s Advisory Committee on Democratic Processes in Student Government, appointed a month ago to create guidelines for student unions, remains suspended after the undergraduate and graduate student union presidents have boycotted it.

Interim provost and VP Cheryl Misak announced the committee in a memorandum to the U of T community last month. The committee would be charged with developing a framework for student unions to follow in order to receive their union dues. The provost met with student union leaders yesterday to convince them to get back on board.

“I have a few letters challenging the legitimacy of the committee. I’m meeting with the student leaders and will try and persuade them that this is a good thing. (But) if they continue to throw objections at the committee, I will just disband it,” said Misak, prior to the meeting.

Students say they were given until 5 a.m. to accept or reject the invitation to rejoin the committee. Misak asserted that she would create the guidelines regardless of whether she has an advisory committee. She could not be reached for comment after the meeting.

“It is grossly contrary to democracy for the university administration to assert itself as superceding democratic decisions made by a student union’s membership,” says Sandy Hudson, president of the U of T Students’ Union in a letter to the provost refusing to participate in its first meeting on Nov. 19.

All students pay levies to their student unions, collected and distributed by the university. University policies stipulate that if the provost has reason to believe that a student union is not operating in a democratic fashion, he or she may decide to withhold that union’s membership fees.

The committee formed after the provost, called to intervene in fraud of the Arts & Science Union elections, decided to withhold their levies until a proper election had been conducted.

“I don’t know if the university has the right to withhold fees if whatever they deem as democracy doesn’t take place. However if there’s gross misconduct, then obviously they’re going to have to take some steps to look into it,” said Terry Buckland, ASSU staffer and president of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students, who was also invited to sit on the committee.

All three major student unions on the St. George campus have rejected the administration’s authority to affect their internal affairs by withholding membership fees. They have pointed out that such a move would be illegal in the case of labour unions.

“They have in the past failed to remit fees that were democratically voted on by students,” said Hudson. In 2003, the administration refused to collect a levy for the Canadian Federation of Students after students voted to join in a referendum. This occured after the administration received complaints about the legitimacy of the referendum.

Hudson was concerned with the process by which the advisory committee was formed. She said it was inappropriate that she had been asked to participate as an “individual,” rather than as the student union president. “Student unions should appoint their own representatives to such a committee and report back, seek guidance, direction, and approval to such an important matter as policies that guide the collection of fees,” said Hudson.

Misak said she believes there was nothing controversial about the appointments. “It’s my committee. I can seek advice from whoever I want to ask advice from. I invited the people who I thought would be wonderful on it, including student leaders and faculty with the most expertise and progressive inclinations.”

“The first committee was gate-crashed by people who weren’t on it,” said Misak. The meeting was a closed-door meeting, and outsiders were not allowed to attend.

Hudson said that for the moment, she would respond by asking for more time to be able to take the matter to the board.


Oh Christmas tree

Christmas trees are ubiquitous during the holiday season. Currently, 30 to 35 million natural Christmas trees are grown each year, most of which come from farms or plantations. Tree farms currently consume over one million acres of land.

On average, Christmas trees grow for 12 years before they are harvested. Like other crops, the trees require fertilizer, as well as pest and weed control treatment. Unlike other crops, Christmas tree farmers spend a lot of time shearing their trees—cutting off leading shoot tips and the ends of lateral branches to control tree growth. This practise increases the number of branches as well as the density of the tree’s foliage. It also enforces the Christmas tree’s trademark conical shape.

Christmas trees are harvested between early November and mid-December, depending on climate and species. Some are helicopter-lifted from the farm to shipping yards, where refrigerated trucks are used to transport them to local retailers. When it comes to choosing a tree, consumers are no longer restricted to the species grown in their region, as trees can be ordered and shipped from across the country.

For trees shipped from farms to retail stores, freshness is largely decided by how they have been stored. The freshest trees will be found bundled and watered. The needles of a fresh tree should break crisply when bent, with the exception of pine trees. Pine needles do not break unless they are very dry. Another common test for vitality involves shaking the tree trunk; if a tree is fresh, it will not lose many needles.

A live tree can last five to six weeks. It should be watered regularly—the National Christmas Tree Association suggests one litre for every inch of the tree’s diameter—and kept away from vents, or other heat sources. The tree should be discarded before it completely dries out, as to allow the wood to be recycled.

Of course, there is a synthetic alternative to natural Christmas trees. When artificial trees were first introduced in the 1800s, they were modelled after their living counterparts, and made from wire and dyed feathers. Currently, most artificial trees are created from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Artificial trees are often the only option for people with allergies to terpene, a chemical found in the sap of natural Christmas trees.

There is debate over which tree-type is more environmentally friendly. Surprisingly, real trees are considered better for the Earth, due to the PVC present in synthetic trees. After manufacture, toxic pollutants can remain in the material. Much of the substance ends up in landfills, as recycling it is difficult and unprofitable. In addition, lead is sometimes used to stabilize the PVC in artificial trees.

Natural Christmas trees can be recycled, absorb carbon dioxide, and create a habitat for small organisms while growing. However, they are sometimes treated with herbicides and pesticides, and are often transported long distances to retailers. For this reason, the environmentally conscious should consider buying locally, organically grown trees.

CAMH facing workplace safety charges

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health is in court today and may have to pay four and a half million dollars in fines.

The centre has been charged with violating the Occupational Health and Safety Act for failing to make their work environment safer. In total, there were nine charges laid by the Ontario Ministry of Labour for failure to develop and implement violence-prevention procedures, as well as failure to protect workers.

If convicted, CAMH may be fined up to $500,000 per offence.

CAMH was ordered to improve workplace safety after two violent incidents occurred last year.

On November 12, 2007, a patient jumped over a Dutch door (which splits in half horizontally), entered a nursing station and attacked two female nurses, leaving one with a broken shoulder.

Five days later, a patient entered a nursing station and broke a male nurse’s jaw. Security staff didn’t have keys and a panic button was not working.

The Ontario Nurses’ Association, which represents 569 registered nurses at CAMH, claims violence at CAMH continued, with 23 attacks before the year’s end.

“In ONA’s opinion, not enough is being done to keep nurses safe on the job,” said ONA president Linda Haslam-Stroud.

U of T runs several research, clinical, and outreach partnerships with CAMH. U of T’s department of Psychology works closely with the cetre, often running programs out of CAMH.

The incidents have sparked controversy and debate about mental health issues.

Last month, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, representing non-nursing staff at CAMH, commenced a campaign of bus shelter ads. The ads, which have since been removed after complaints that it stigmatized patients, featured a woman with a bruised eye and the text: “No more excuses. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health must protect its staff from violence. It’s the law.”

“Hospital workers deserve no less than a safe job environment,” OPSEU president Smokey Thomas said in a statement. “I don’t regret for a moment that ads were placed.”

“Nurses do face workplace hazards more serious than in many other professions,” said Haslam-Stroud, pointing to a CBC investigation which found nurses more likely to be assaulted and injured on the job than police officers and firefighters.

Eric Preston, vice-president of human resources at CAMH, told the media that CAMH had implemented a workplace violence prevention strategy and trained staff in time for a deadline this February.

“We have a lot of processes and training in place to make things as safe as possible,” Preston told the CBC. “Can we do better? Certainly. Can we do more? Definitely. Will we be doing more? Absolutely.”

ONA told The Varsity that although CAMH does have a violence prevention policy, it lacks such a program. This would entail in-depth risk assessments, routine equipment assessments and training staff.

While the ONA applauded the charges laid by the Ontario Ministry of Labour, many are critical of the charges which, if implemented, will affect an agency that funds research on mental health issues. Others wonder how much potential charges may affect funding for security and safety programs.

Gastronomy: Dessert

Following a hearty holiday dinner, many find themselves satiated, lethargic, and a little tight in the waistband. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop us from devouring a generous serving of apple pie, or downing a glass of creamy eggnog. Despite having stuffed yourself to the limit, why is there always room for dessert?

Ghrelin, a hormone in the stomach responsible for stimulating appetite, is partly accountable. Hungry or not, ghrelin causes the brain to be more receptive to visual cues, such as appealing desserts. The brain responds and relays the sensation back to the stomach, often translating to the signal that stimulates appetite. For people with a sweet tooth, this craving is hard to resist.

Dr. Jay Gottfried of University College London conducted a study of the neurological impact of “selective satiation,” or what he prefers to call “the restaurant phenomenon.” MRIs were performed on 13 volunteers and live brain activity was studied in response to different stimuli. Volunteers were shown computer images while the sweet aromas of ice cream, vanilla, or peanut butter wafted past them.

“At various points before, during, and after scanning we asked them to give us pleasantness ratings for the smells,” said Gottfried. “Unconsciously, the volunteers began to associate the images with the smells.” The images that appeared when a pleasant aroma was present received higher ratings. When the volunteers ate the ice cream or peanut butter, brain images showed a strong emotional response. Additionally, the impact of the olfactory stimulus was weakened. “A person’s response to the peanut butter odour changed after eating some peanut butter, but a vanilla smell made the brain light up again. Eventually, the abstract picture associated with vanilla evoked the responses, but again they weakened after the volunteers ate,” explained Gottfried.

The study found that the amygdala—the area of the brain that processes emotions—and the orbitofrontal cortex were stimulated in response to the sweet aromas. Damage to either of these regions could cause Kluver-Bucy syndrome, whereby patients consume large amounts of food or attempt to eat non-food items. Abnormalities in these regions are speculated to have a role in over-eating disorders.

Another study conducted at Queen’s University suggests a somewhat bizarre alternative. William Ruddock and his colleagues investigated the hypothesis of an accessory dessert pouch either in, or attached to the stomach. While this pouch would not be localized in any anatomical record, Ruddock and his colleagues used a dessert-like substance termed chocoglucofructogalactomaltolactosucrografin (or Fudge-o-grafin) in an attempt to visualize it. Study subjects were winners of pie-eating contests who claimed to always have room for dessert. The results showed that there was a hollow out-pouching from the antrum of the stomach, ranging from 150 to 1600 mL in size, which they called the “Pot de Crème.”