Why is the government limiting our right to information?

Last year, the Globe & Mail revealed that Canadian Forces in Afghanistan had been turning over their detainees to certain Afghan authorities that would almost certainly torture their prisoners. The backlash was incredible, and then-Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor’s dithering handling of the situation got him shuffled out of the ministry.

The Globe’s reporters obtained the records of prisoner transfers through the Access to Information Act, a delightful little piece of policy enacted by the Trudeau government in 1983 that allows all Canadians access to government records. According to the act, information that is restricted to the public should be limited, and restrictions should be reviewed independently of the government. The act has been well used over the years—other “fun” moments in our country’s proud history uncovered through access to information include the sponsorship scandal and the tainted blood scandal.

While it would be comforting to believe that our government is fully transparent and that all information could be easily accessible from any government institution, we don’t live in that kind of utopia. Citizens—particularly journalists—requesting information have recently gone up against the bureaucratic equivalent of the Berlin Wall.

Since the current government has come to power, the average wait time for access requests has risen from 30 to 60 days to 150 to 250 days, with some requests taking over a year. The backlog is typically higher for some departments, such as Defence and Foreign Affairs.

The delays are no coincidence or mere fluke. The government’s strategy is a simple one—make information- seekers wait a ludicrous amount of time to get their records. Information requests lead to reports that expose the federal government’s bad behaviour, and the government would rather not have inconvenient, scandalous information surface— particularly when Ottawa is in election heat.

The delays are simply inexcusable, particularly since many journalists, NGOs, and other investigators can’t release a conclusive report until they make two or three subsequent requests. In a case of human-rights violations, like that of the Afghan detainees, each subsequent request could end up in tacking on another 200-odd days during which Canada condones and contributes to abuse, or even torture.

Robert Marleau, who’s been Canada’s Information Commissioner since last January, is partially to blame. He’s been widely criticized as being soft on government departments that are slow to fulfill requests. Marleau is the opposite of Sheila Fraser, our tough-as-nails Auditor-General. A position vital to governmental transparency shouldn’t be in the hands of a hesitant do-nothing. Whether Marleau is a Conservative lackey or not is irrelevant, he’s playing into the hands of those in power and limiting our ability to judge our elected leaders.

In light of last week’s discovery of the “Tiger Team,” a team of military officers whose main role is to limit the Canadian public’s knowledge of our role in Afghanistan, this becomes more disturbing. Created by the Department of National Defence in the wake of the Afghan detainee revelations, Tiger Team has been described as an additional barrier for those attempting to get access to information about our military.

For a government that rode into office on a platform of transparency, complicating access requests isn’t helping their image. If there’s no hidden agenda, then why hide information?

Throwing away the compass

The Catholic school boards in Calgary and Halton, Ontario, both recently chose to ban Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy from its school libraries. The decision to remove the trilogy from the boards’ libraries, which are also open to the public, came after some parents complained about anti- Church rhetoric in the books. While Pullman is a self-professed atheist, and the trilogy does make negative reference to an institution that is similar to the Catholic Church, the work can also be read as broadly anti-establishment or anti-dogma and not against the Catholic Church specifically.

The fictional universe of Pullman’s books does however feature an authoritarian villain named Magisterium, who dictates to children what is right and wrong, good and bad. No doubt the irony of the situation is lost on the Halton Catholic District School Board, which is now telling children what they can and cannot read.

The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass were published between in 1995 and 2000, and have been in the schools for nearly a decade. If the books have such questionable content, then they should not have been allowed on library shelves in the first place. The renewed interest in this series comes from the recent release of the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. The decision to re-evaluate the trilogy comes seven years after the release of the final book. No matter—better late than never, apparently.

The HCDSB felt that the trilogy was not in keeping with the Catholic values it espouses to its students. However, to ban the books from the school libraries, especially when the movie adaptation has created much interest, is pointless. Nothing says “this is exciting reading material” like being told that a book is banned.

It would have made more sense for the school board to let the volumes remain in the library, and follow up reading of the books with a critical discussion of their content. Children and adults alike need to be able to face criticism of their institutions and learn to defend their beliefs. Faith that cannot stand up to a series of children’s books is fragile, and the Halton board’s decision reflects a telling fear that their students’ faith will not be able to hold under criticism.

It’s time to protect Canadians abroad

The Iranian-Canadian community was in utter shock with the announcement in June 2003 that Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian photojournalist, was dead after three weeks in custody in Iran. She had been arrested for allegedly taking pictures outside a prison in the capital city of Tehran. Two years later, Ramin Jahanbegloo, a philosopher and professor at the University of Toronto, was also arrested in Tehran’s Mehrabad airport after being labelled an anti-government political activist by Iranian officials on flimsy pretences. He was held for 125 days in Evin prison, the same jail where Kazemi was beaten to death. Despite the diplomatic storm between Canada and Iran that followed Kazemi’s death, it appears that the Iranian government still has no commitment to protecting the rights, and ultimately the lives, of visiting Canadians.

Both Kazemi and Jahanbegloo were arrested because of their academic pursuits. Kazemi was in Tehran to photograph protests against the Iranian government, Jahanbegloo suspected for his academic papers criticizing the Tehran regime’s Holocaust denial. It is unacceptable that Canadians or anyone else should be subjected to imprisonment simply for participating in academic or artistic life.

Unfortunately, unexpected incarceration and harsh treatment is not reserved for visitors in Iran. The local population is subject to all manners of abuse by its officials. But we have a special responsibility to protect our citizens. We are risking the loss of brave, bright minds, and we must initiate change before it is too late.

The development of an international contract that shields professionals from abuse, incarceration and torture would protect citizens, especially those searching for information to further Western understanding of other countries. Travelling professionals must be protected under a contract from any further abuse. Even after crossing the border, you’re still a citizen, and professionals should not be discouraged from discovery. Unless visitors can be safeguarded from falling into the same harsh misconduct that was inflicted upon Kazemi and Jahanbegloo, we are breeding an ethnocentric future in research.

Inhumane detainment, torture, and death is a price no one engaged in academic pursuits should have to pay for their work. It’s time for Canadian government officials to propose an international treaty guaranteeing the safety of foreign academic research before even more intellectual writers, researchers, and journalists are discouraged from travelling abroad to study.

Not over the barrel yet

In past decades $100 for a barrel of oil had been touted by end-of-the-worlders as an apocalyptic event that would bring about the demise of modern industrialized civilization. That psychological barrier was surpassed on January 2, and while the mainstream media were quick to jump on the story and play up the drama, the real impact of this episode was minimal. If prices are to remain constant at the $90 mark—as many commodities analysts believe to be the new norm—there is no denying that associated costs will rise.

Over the past 100 years oil has become the life blood of Western civilization and our absolute dependence on this natural resource cannot be overstated. This is precisely why no matter how expensive oil becomes, people will still continue to behave as if it was business as usual. As much as any staple crop, oil has established itself as essential to our existence, thus the higher price of oil will not bring about a dramatic change in our behavior and attitudes. At least not quite yet.

While the $100 price does have a marked psychological impact on consumers and analysts, it’s more bark than bite. In real terms oil is still remarkably affordable to the middle-class in all industrialized nations, especially in North America where the cost of filling up a tank of gas remains less than half of what it costs to a person in Europe, mostly due to taxes levied by European governments. Even as North Americans complain about the rising costs associated with increasing oil prices, an elementary shift in our attitudes and corresponding changes in our lifestyles are still a long way away.

The good news is that North Americans, led by the infinite wisdom of Hollywood stars, appear to be coming about, embracing smaller, more fuel-efficient cars along with emerging alternatives such as diesel power and hybrids. However, even as a fringe minority in the West begins to demonstrate the first inclination to conserve and reduce our addiction to oil, they may already be too late.

The millions of people in China and India who are emerging into vibrant middle-class societies, yearn for the same things we in the West have taken for granted for so long. Nearly six million new cars will be on China’s roads in the coming year, and they will require millions of barrels of oil to fuel them.

To put things into context, global proven reserves (oil known to be in the ground) is estimated at nearly four and a half trillion barrels, which means that there exists 140 years’ supply of oil on this planet. Indeed extracting usable fuel from oil sands in Alberta as well as major deposits of oil shale in the U.S. requires a more extensive refinement process and will inevitably result in the continued rise of oil prices.

The demand for oil in industrializing nations, driven by industrial and consumer demand in emerging economies, will only continue to grow. Many speculate that this competition between different societies for a finite resource will bring about World War Three. It just might, though definitely not in our foreseeable future. Meanwhile, in the coming months we will learn to cope with $100 oil, and just as surely we’ll kick up a fuss when we hit $200 a barrel a few decades from now. Maybe then the crisis will be for real.

It’s Not Rocket Science – Episode 5

Another day at the office

Except in this case, the office is a giant, futuristic research facility. This collection of pictures showcases some of the incredible structures built for research purposes, including the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico that makes a cameo in the James Bond film Goldeneye. I bet working at these cool places makes Mondays that much easier.

Link: tinyurl.com/2seo3s

We’re not the only ones doing it (the world’s oldest profession just got older)

According to a recent study of long-tailed macaques in Indonesia published in Animal Behavior, they engage in what can be construed as prostitution. Male monkeys were observed grooming females in exchange for sex, getting twice the action on average compared to males who didn’t groom females. When there were more females available, the amount of time spent grooming decreased, suggesting a supply and demand relationship. Oddly enough, I don’t get the same results when I offer to groom the women I meet.

Link: tinyurl.com/22oz2j

The coast is toast

Global warming is a familiar—and pressing—concern. Perhaps equally important is considering the effects of excess nitrogen input on aquatic ecosystems, a topic that has received little attention in the mainstream media. Fertilizer run-off from agricultural operations is the number one source of this nitrogen, but the dumping of untreated human waste and certain industrial processes also contribute to the problem. Once the excess nitrogen is washed into the ocean by streams and rivers, runaway growth by phytoplankton (algae) depletes the available oxygen, resulting in the death of fish and other marine life. Eventually, large “dead zones” with little biological activity are formed, such as in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi River drains into the ocean. Recent research by the World Resources Institute brings very bad news: out of 415 identified affected zones, only 13 are recovering. I propose a ban on vegetables—that should reduce fertilizer run-off and make kids happy the world over.

Link: tinyurl.com/yux6ff

The magic of stardust

NASA scientists have decided to take fairy tales seriously and look into stardust. After chasing down a comet and collecting samples of the dust blowing off its core, the Stardust spacecraft returned to Earth in January 2006. The samples it brought back have given researchers a good look into the past of our solar system, as the comet is thought to have formed 4.57 billion years ago along with our Sun and the planets. No word yet if such findings allow individuals to fly or make wishes come true. Link: tinyurl.com/yuysx7

Probably endorsed by Mike Huckabee

The New Christian Science Textbook. Thankfully, it’s not real…yet.

Link: tinyurl.com/yre6qp

Switchgrass may put corn out of a job

The first results from a large-scale trial using switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) to produce ethanol biofuel are extremely promising. Already, scientists are claiming that using switchgrass-derived ethanol can cut carbon dioxide emissions by 94 per cent compared to an equal volume of oil. As well, the team led by Ken Vogel of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service in Lincoln, Nebraska determined that switchgrass delivers 540 per cent more energy than is required to grow, maintain, and process it into ethanol. The U.S. Department of Energy seems to be onboard with biofuel, planning to build six biorefineries by 2010. Although not a solution to the growing climate change crisis, biofuels are a step in the right direction, allowing the developed world to wean itself off petroleum-based energy sources. The downside is the loss of food production from the fertile land used to grow biofuel crops. One per cent of the world’s fields (12 million hectares) is already being used for this purpose. Expect this issue to be a contentious one in the near future. Corn has already filed suit for wrongful dismissal and lost wages.

Link: tinyurl.com/2t4gtj

From the excessive technology files

Because a television set ain’t nothin’ unless it can be seen from space, Panasonic unveiled a 150-inch plasma TV at the recent Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. Boasting four times the resolution of the best flatscreen sets currently on the market, this beast features almost nine million pixels. I am envisioning playing Halo 3 on this television and drooling…a lot.

Link: tinyurl.com/yocrw3

These guys are real jerks

Even the insect world has do-nothing free-loaders. Alcon blue butterflies (Maculinea alcon) have evolved a unique method of ensuring that they get fed in their larval stage: they mimic the odour of young ants. Worker ants mistake the caterpillars for ants from their own brood and take them back to their ant colony where they are fed and taken care of. The caterpillars, to add insult to injury, eat some of the young ants they are surrounded by. Researchers working in Denmark determined that they caterpillars use scent molecules to accomplish the con job. The closer the caterpillar’s scents are to the ants own, the quicker they are picked up and taken back to an ant colony. The race goes not to the swift and strong, but to the clever cheaters in this case.

Link: tinyurl.com/39o8ym

Prof jailed in Iran returns to U of T

In April 2006, while passing through Iran en route to a Belgian conference, U of T professor Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo was arrested, blindfolded and carried off to Tehran’s Evin prison. For the next 125 days, the Iranian-Canadian Jahanbegloo was confined to Evin’s Ward 209, frequently used for detaining political prisoners. Other than the three brief visits from his wife, he was held in solitary confinement.

Today, Jahanbegloo is busy teaching two courses and settling into an office at the university’s Centre of Ethics, a stark contrast to the two-by-three-metre cell that held him 18 months ago.

“My first reaction was like any normal human being. It was half fear and half astonishment as well as the uncertainty of not knowing what was going to happen to me.”

He was never charged with a crime or allowed to speak to a lawyer.

“I had to create my own rhythm of life by reading anything I could get my hands on, doing exercises, fighting against depression, and somehow trying to build my confidence and hope for the future,” explained Jahanbegloo.

During the first 40 days of his imprisonment, Jahanbegloo was only allowed two blankets to sleep on, no reading material, and was blindfolded whenever he left his cell for showers or bathroom breaks.

During interrogations, Jahanbegloo discovered that he was suspected of spying for foreign powers and inciting a “soft revolution” against the Iranian regime. the Calgary Herald reported speculations that the suspicions stemmed from an article Jahanbegloo wrote criticizing Iran for denying the Holocaust. Jahanbegloo, however, said that his mere participation in intellectual life was held up as evidence of treason.

“They were telling me that the fact that I had been going to conferences was somehow spying and working against the security of the Iranian state. I never thought going to a conference was spying. I never wanted to spy for anybody, but yes, I had been to conferences and meeting with Canadians and Americans,” said Jahanbegloo.

After over four months in prison, Jahanbegloo was told family members had reached a “bail agreement” with the intelligence ministry, and he was released. His Iranian and Canadian passports, confiscated by the Iranian Revolutionary Court, were never returned.

Since the release, Jahanbegloo has published a book based on notes he wrote on scraps of cardboard in jail, and lectured all over the world, but has not returned to Iran.

“Now that I’m back at U of T, I’m really happy. I’m looking forward to going back to teaching and seeing my students.”

Jahanbegloo teaches two poli sci courses at U of T. Next year, he will offer a new course, Politics and Non-violence.

Though he said he believes his arrest was fueled by his academic work, Jahanbegloo vowed not to censor himself, adding that his experiences as a political detainee have most definitely influenced his work and outlook.

“I will continue with my work of dissidence as a philosopher. I think that my days in prison have given me a new view of humanity and also of ethics and what can be ethical in the 21st century,” he said.

Paying back the sandman

With the spend-happy attitude surrounding the recent holiday season, the arrival of financial strain and buyer’s remorse has arrived for many. As personal collections of plastic cards were processed faster than gifts could be wrapped and financial balances monitored, most students were oblivious to a new form of debt they quickly racked up: sleep debt.

A student’s daily sleep requirement averages between seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep a night. Skipping it results in an accumulation of sleep debt, or lost sleep. Sleeping only six hours a night earns us one to three hours of sleep debt. Repeat that for a week and it grows into seven to 21 hours of lost shut-eye that has to be reclaimed.

With North American culture demanding extended work and social schedules, allotting time for snoozing seems self-indulgent when those extra hours could be used for completing more work. Stepping away from the books and paying closer attention to your needs, however, will have your body thanking you through improved concentration, motor skills, and overall mood and motivation.

Even with the benefits associated with obtaining enough sleep, most students, according to the Journal of College Student Development, ignore the need to doze. Often, they are unaware of its influence on academic, social, and emotional problems.

Ignoring the problem will not eliminate it because of the unusual way sleep debt functions. Unlike financial payments, there is no way to save up on sleep to pay something that may be accumulated later. Establishing good habits is the only way to prevent it.

The first step for students who have accumulated a large sleep debt is to reduce it. For many, the weekend is a good time to catch up.

Counsillors Christopher Hurst and Ling Ling Hui host Counselling and Learning Skills Services’ “Sleepless in Toronto” workshops to help sleepdeprived students, suggest obtaining two days of unrestricted sleep on a weekend as an effective way to reducing sleep debt.

Establishing and maintaining regular sleep and wake times, even on weekends, can help to regulate the biological clock. Setting a routine conditions the body to expect sleep and wakefulness. Getting the same amount of sleep every night becomes easier if the body knows that those hours are designated for it.

Some additional tips to obtaining quality sleep include exercising regularly (although avoid it within three hours of sleepytime) and to have limited naps of 15 to 20 minutes early in the day to avoid disrupting nighttime rest. As well, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and heavy meals before sleeping is a good idea.

Taking proper measures to ensure a good night’s dreams, and erasing sleep debt as soon as warning signs present themselves, is the key to maintaining a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Although sleep may not be on most student to-do lists, staying in bed a few more hours may be the solution students are looking for by obtaining a quality sleep to gain a quality performance.

To sleep is human—to sleep in, divine.

Time to CA$H in

University of Toronto commerce students are bracing for this Saturday’s Battle for CA$H competition, sponsored by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario.

There, 39 teams of undergraduate business students selected by student societies from 18 universities across the province will aim to out-fox each other for rewards that include impressing future employers, and also a respectable pile of money.

Evgenia Volodarski, one of this year’s competitors, was also involved in last year’s competition, in which U of T excelled in technical aspects, but lost out in peer judging of their ethics.

“Maybe we were a bit big-headed,” she allowed, promising to be “more humble” this year and “win with decorum and class.”

Team spirit is strong among the first-year students of St. George’s highly competitive commerce program. Andrew Lenjosek, a commerce freshman, said he hopes to beat competing schools to “keep up the U of T pride.”

Beyond bragging rights, prizes include major resumé material, according to competitors.

“I’m really looking forward to representing University of Toronto, the amazing networking opportunities, and the chance to meet other students from their respective universities,” said Belinda Chiu, a junior ambassador for the Accounting Society of U of T.

“It is a great way for students in all years to not only develop their teamwork and interpersonal skills, but also […] a chance to interact with leaders in the accounting industry—notably experienced representatives from the Big Four accounting firms,” added Chiu’s teammate, Boyan Zhao.

All teams will aim to beat last year’s CA$H champs—UTSC—for the $3,000 first place prize and the additional $1,000 that goes to the winning university’s accounting club.

According to Bessie Qu, a second-year commerce student involved in several committees of ASUT and the Commerce Student Association, CA$H allows U of T students to see how they measure up against students from other universities, especially in skills not taught in the classroom.

The competition, which will take place at ICAO’s offices in Toronto this Saturday, will focus not just on arithmetic, but also problemsolving, teamwork, and strategizing.

“All the math skills in the world cannot help without these competencies,” said Perry Jensen, of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario. “[CA$H] is also a chance for major employers to talk about what they are looking for and a chance to win money. And who doesn’t love money?”