Eight years after U of T graduate student Elan Ohayon was beaten and arrested for protesting homelessness by sleeping out in Allan Gardens, the City of Toronto and Toronto Police have paid a settlement of $116,000 to him and the two activists who were present at the protest. The activists have announced that the money, totaling nearly $70,000 after legal costs, will be directed at funding grassroots housing initiatives throughout the city in the next five years.“The money will be put in a trust fund by the Allan Gardens Project,” said Oriel Varga, Allan Garden activist, alumna, and staffer of U of T’s part-time student union. “We will review submissions and pick ten every year with $1,000 funding each project. We want to support local projects and creative ideas and continue our activism.”The Allan Gardens “sleep outs” began on August 1999, running for 120 successive Friday nights until November 2001. Protestors, including students and other community members, called for the government to provide adequate housing for the homeless, and set up temporary measures while housing projects were underway.Organizers wanted to shed light on regular instances of police harassment suffered by the homeless sleeping in Allan Gardens.In October 2000, the protesters were harshly awoken and arrested by a pair of police officers. Ohayon claimed that police assaulted him and destroyed his video recorder.During his bail hearing, Ohayon did not accept the condition not to go within 50 metres of Allan Gardens, and was sent back behind bars only to be released a few weeks later.Following the arrests, Ohayon, Varga, and Alex Brown, a third activist, continued sleeping in Allan Gardens every week. They reacted against police aggression by launching a lawsuit which finally reached settlement on December 2008, just days before the scheduled trial.Varga currently faces charges stemming from an unrelated protest against rising fees. Last year she and thirteen others were slapped with criminal charges after a March 20 sit-in at Simcoe Hall. Charges against nine of the original fourteen have recently been dropped.Civil rights lawyers Peter Rosenthal and Vilko Zbogar represented the activists. Had there been a trial they would have argued that given the lack of safe affordable housing, the homeless have the right to sleep out and set up shelter free of police harassment. The lack of affordable housing also meant that a police crackdown of the kind that took place in Allan Gardens was a violation of Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the right to life liberty and security of person.Referring to the considerable amount of time it took to settle the case, Varga said, “Unfortunately it shows how long it takes with the courts. This is time we don’t have to spare; two people die on the streets everyday.” Varga terms homelessness a “national disaster.”
Allan Gardens housing activists get 116K from settlement
Peter Munk named Companion of the Order of Canada
The namesake of U of T’s Munk Centre for International Studies has been named to the top level of Canada’s highest civilian honour. On Dec. 30, the Governor General named Canadian businessman Peter Munk among 60 new appointees to the Order of Canada. His fellows among this year’s additions to Companion of the Order are Céline Dion and Ben Heppner for their contribution to Canadian music, and Stephen Jarislowsky for leadership within the business community. This is a promotion for Munk from the award of Officer of the Order, which he received in 1993. The announcement at the end of December cited Munk’s “contributions as an entrepreneur and a philanthropist, helping to establish world-class health care and education institutions in Canada and abroad.”Among Munk’s business ventures is Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold-mining corporation, of which he is founder and chairman. Barrick has drawn fire from human rights and environmental groups at home and abroad for environmental degradation caused by its mines, and forced evictions of indigenous communities. Industry watchdogs draw links between the company and the murder of anti-mine critics by paramilitary death squads in Colombia and Peru. In 2006 the company made headlines with its plan to move glaciers within the UNESCO-protected San Guillermo World Biosphere Reserve for its Pasqua Lama mine on the Argentina-Chile border. The company has since been granted permission to mine in the area on condition it not disturb the glaciers.The new appointees to the Order of Canada will receive their insignia at a ceremony later this year.
FF14 off the hook and on the attack
The protracted legal and PR battle that began with last March’s sit-in at Simcoe Hall continues, with news over the December holiday that the Crown has withdrawn its charges against nine of the 14 arrested in connection with the protest. The rescinded charges mean that no current U of T student is in court over the sit-in.The self-styled Fight Fees 14 was quick to assert their group solidarity, though only five of them remain under scrutiny.“We were charged collectively and continue to fight collectively,” said the group’s spokesperson, Gabi Rodriguez. Rodriguez is among the U of T students whose charges were withdrawn.While the case has been out of the headlines since the start of the school year, the FF14 will try to re-enter the spotlight with a “celebratory and movement building” event expected in late January. Police arrested the 14 based on allegations from U of T’s administration that the occupation of Simcoe Hall turned violent. University employees claimed they were forcibly confined to their offices by a 30-strong group of students including the 14. Much of this evidence has not been made public, and with charges withdrawn, it likely never will be.Rodriguez has responded aggressively, pointing to the evaporating criminal charges to say they were unfounded.“The charges were bogus from the start. They were a politically motivated assault on political organizing at our campus,” she said. “The Crown was unable to provide timely and complete disclosure to what were clearly empty allegations.”Members of U of T’s administration could not be reached for comment over the holiday weekend.
All in self-defence?
As Gazans struggle to make ends meet in what is essentially the world’s largest concentration camp, the Israeli government, in its battle to shore up diminishing support for the upcoming election, launched the deadliest attack on Gaza in recent memory: over 400 dead and 2,100 wounded on the fifth day of the onslaught. The grotesque irony is that if this election stunt works and the ruling coalition wins, it would represent a victory for Palestinians, otherwise left at the mercy of the highly bellicose Likud party whose charter calls for the annexation and settlement of the entire “Land of Israel.” In Israel, a shift to the right is complete: diplomacy has been crossed off the agenda, and Israeli politicians remain locked in a contest of exercising belligerency.The latest blitz follows Israel’s year-and-a-half-long Gaza blockade, described by Richard Falk, the U.N. Human Rights Council special rapporteur for the Palestinian territories, as constituting a “flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law as laid down in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” In response to his statement, Israel expelled Falk from the occupied territories and barred his re-entry. So much for the only democracy in the Middle East.Sadly, this wouldn’t be the first time Israel showed contempt for human life by collective punishment. The nation has choked Gaza for decades; the latest assault is the final nail in the coffin. After suffering months of medicine shortage because of the blockade, underfinanced and understaffed Gazan hospitals are ill-equipped to treat an overwhelming number of injuries, leaving victims to die in their hallways. Gaza’s sewage system is in crisis. Blackouts and water shortages are a daily occurrence, and human rights groups are warning of an impending humanitarian catastrophe.
Israeli officials have justified the assault by declaring it an overdue exercise in self-defence. They have placed blame on Hamas for its “brazen violation” of the “lull”—a ceasefire brokered by Egypt back in June—by firing rockets at Sderot, a town that has taken the brunt of Hamas attacks.While the former claim does merit some empathy, the allegation that Hamas broke the ceasefire is a complete fabrication. The BBC, along with Zvi Barel, a journalist for Haaretz, reported that in November—conveniently close to Election Day in the U.S.—Israel “unilaterally violated” the ceasefire when it blew up a tunnel in Gaza, killing six in the process while having the audacity to “[ask] Egypt to get [Hamas] to hold its fire.”
Israel apologists have taken a different approach to granting the nation impunity for the attack. In a pitiful attempt to downplay international outrage at the sheer disproportion of the onslaught, Alan Dershowtiz, a leading pro-Israel activist and civil rights lawyer who approves the use of torture and collective punishment, concocted a tale of pure fantasy. He proclaimed that the Israeli Air Force held human life in such high regard that it dare not attack a civilian establishment, even if it was housing the dreaded Qassam rockets. But if so, why does Israel blackmail ailing Gazans to spy for them in return for medicine? Why did it demolish homes in order to make way for its infamous barrier wall, ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice? And more importantly, why does it consistently ban international media from Gaza? To argue that these are legitimate actions for the sake of national security ignores the basic tenets of international law.Consider that Hamas’ rockets have killed 20 Israelis in the past seven years, while 5,000 Gazans were killed by Israeli jets, tanks, and helicopters during the same time frame. The issue is not the vast disparity in power, but that one side is the occupier and the other is the occupied. If you were dispossessed of your land and had to live under a foreign occupation for four decades, any action you took could be justified as retaliation to the occupation of your land.
What does 2009 hold for the Middle East conflict?
The use of force to deter any resistance is a brutal exercise in futility that will only coarsen the people at the receiving end. A case in point would be Hezbollah, which is stronger now than it was before the Second Lebanese War.However you look at it, the prognosis is grim. Already Israel has turned down a truce proposal, its forces are amassing at the border with Gaza while Arab countries, ever divided and fearful of offending the U.S. by getting involved, have resorted to media mudslinging, each condemning the other of inaction. Egypt’s credibility as a mediator has been severely undermined as its relations with Hamas take a turn for the worst, and Gaza teeters on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe. Now we are left with the same question posed by the last Gaza debacle: how can Israel expect peace if it continues to illegally occupy Gaza (in violation of Resolution 242); build illegal settlements (a transgression of the Fourth Geneva Convention); and defy the international community by showing no respect for the most basic principals of human decency?
Strike possibility looms
U of T faces the possibility of a teaching assistant strike if ongoing negotiations fail between admin and unit 1 of CUPE 3902 the union representing TAs university-wide. 3902 and the university have jointly applied for conciliation at the Ontario labour board to help mediate negotiations in January. Over 1,100 union members cast a ballot in December with around 700 of them voting in favour of a strike if talks break down.“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 human resources & equity.The union’s demands include: childcare assistance for students who are parents, measures to address large tutorial and lab sizes, wages that keep up with inflation, health benefits, and tuition assistance for unfunded students. At present TAs earn $36.5 per hour. The union argues that this amounts annually to $3,500 below the U of T’s published cost-of-living estimate of $18,500 per annum.The union is seeking public health care coverage for international students, who currently pay out-of-pocket for private, for-profit coverage under the University Health Insurance Plan. Of particular concern to the union is the university’s proposal to eliminate the tuition assistance fund, which helps graduate students in programs with deregulated tuition.In the face of a TA strike at York University, classes for 50,000 York students have been discontinued indefinitely. Contract faculty and TAs walked off the job on Nov. 9 with job security and graduate funding among their key demands.A similar situation is unlikely at U of T, given that bargaining has been ongoing for months with both parties showing a desire to work constructively. The union has received support from the U of T Students Union and Graduate Students Union. “Nobody wants a strike, but students and university employees have to stand together to defend accessible education. We support our TAs for trying to do so,” said UTSU president Sandy Hudson.Students in Support of CUPE is a newly formed ad hoc group of undergraduates. They hope to avert a strike by pressuring the U of T administration to offer a fair contract to teaching staff. Additionally, they aim to provide educational programming to inform students about issues facing university workers. “They deserve job security. What they’re asking for is not outrageous and it is an issue of social justice and that’s why we’re on their side. Their [TA’s] working conditions are our learning conditions,” says group member Parmibir Gill.“We don’t want to go on strike. It’s disruptive to undergrads and to our members. It’s the last option when all else fails, but we certainly hope we aren’t forced into that option,” says Rebecca Sanders, Teaching Assistant at U of T. The last TA strike was held in 2000, followed by U of T’s announcement it would offer graduate funding guarantees. U of T was the first university in the country to offer minimum guaranteed funding to students in most graduate programs.
Israel is not “the enemy”
There are three constants in life: death, taxes, and Israel taking the blame for every misery suffered by the Palestinians. The Western media’s coverage of the latest conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas is no exception. We can already see a general consensus: Israel is accused of being belligerent and trigger happy, a practitioner of human rights violations.It is not surprising that most observers have offered little to no appropriate context in which to view these events. For example, none of the major media outlets have deemed it necessary to point out the elephant in the room: Hamas, an avowed terrorist organization that presides over the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, is constitutionally committed to Israel’s destruction (“Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it”—The Hamas Charter). In ruminating on why Israel has completely “moved to the right” and seemingly “crossed off” diplomacy as a viable solution, my colleague Mr. Mahmoud and others would do well to keep Hamas’ nature in mind. Coupled with repeated violations of established cease-fires and a constant rain of rockets on Israeli civilian centres, is it any wonder that Israeli citizens usually regard peace overtures with cynicism?
The issue of human rights needs context as well. My colleague criticizes Israel for kicking out U.N. Human Rights special rapporteur Richard Falk, arguing that such a move was “undemocratic.” But Falk—a man who has previously called Israel’s practices in the occupied territories “genocidal” and deemed suicide bombings against Israeli civilians a valid method of “struggle”—is indicative of the U.N.’s abject failure in objectivity. With no criterion for member selection other than geography, the current U.N. Human Rights Council features an all-star cast of human rights violators, including Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. In its first year of operation in 2007, the council condemned only one state—Israel—despite the ongoing genocide in Darfur and the systematic starvation of the North Korean people by their dictator Kim Jong-il. Israel has committed its share of human rights violations, but one cannot objectively assess its flaws with information from such a biased source.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the term “disproportionate force” should be clarified. It is true that current UN estimates place Palestinian deaths at 400 and injuries at 2,100, while only three Israeli civilians have been killed. But behind these numbers lies a clear distinction: while Hamas specifically targets Israeli civilians, the IDF operates on the basis of minimizing civilian casualties against an enemy that uses its own population for cover and camouflage. It is not surprising that so many Palestinian civilians have been killed or injured in the ongoing violence when its own elected government uses them as human shields. The current conflict gives us the example of a responsible, democratic Israeli government defending its people by hunting down the initiators of violence, contrasted with a manipulative Hamas government that defends its militants through its citizenry.Even under an alleged blockade, Israel has transferred 6,500 tons of food and medicine to Gaza since operations began, while the World Food Program has discontinued shipments of food because Gaza’s warehouses are full. It is entirely possible, especially given the horrible conditions my colleague describes, that most of this humanitarian aid will go to waste as Hamas confiscates it for its own militants and party operatives.
What does 2009 hold for the Middle East conflict?
My colleague ends with a legitimate question: how can Israel expect peace? As someone who believes that Palestinians need and deserve their own state, it is difficult to see any good following from Israel’s current actions. Israel certainly lays its own obstacles to peace in the form of continuous settlements in the West Bank (carried out by rogue Jewish zealots), ironically undermining the legitimacy of its more moderate Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas. But if violence is slowly becoming the only road for Israel to go down, it is just as much a result of Palestinian militancy as it is Israeli bellicosity. Peace and diplomacy requires a modicum of mutual trust, but it is hard to trust an opposing side whose government desires your destruction and wantonly attacks your civilians. And consider Israel’s disappointments: Camp David failed in 2000 despite Israel giving in to almost all of Yasser Arafat’s demands; a 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza has only seen more rockets hit closer to the Israeli interior; and a democratic Palestinian election replaced a corrupt negotiating partner in Fatah with the terrorist outfit Hamas. In provoking Israeli retaliation, it is not Israel but Hamas who has hammered the final nail in the coffin of a lasting peace deal.Joshua Xiong is the President of Zionists @ University of Toronto
Student leaders boycott democracy committee
Vice-president and provost Cheryl Misak officially disbanded her Advisory Committee on Democratic Processes in Student Government on Dec. 8, after student unions collectively decided to pull out.The committee, made up of students and faculty members, was created by Misak in November 2008 to advise under what conditions the administration could withhold student union funding. Earlier, Misak was called in to freeze Arts & Science Student Union funds following a rigged election. While university policies give the provost authority to freeze funding in case of undemocratic procedure, the student unions have either refused to accept this authority, or been skeptical of it.According to Graduate Students’ Union VP external Sara Suliman, the committee’s purpose was unclear. She says there was no written terms of reference clearly stating the committee’s objective, and that they were perturbed by the lack of specificity. Arts & Science Student Union president Colum Grove-White adds, “I was upset with the way the communication was handled. It made student groups very suspicious about what the admins’ motives were.”A major grievance on behalf of student representatives was the committee’s membership structure. Numerous student members were asked to sit on the committee as individuals, not as representatives of their respective student union constituencies. Suliman says, “You are not able to detach yourself from your experiences as a representative.”After several of the unions including GSU and U of T Students’ Union boycotted, Misak suspended the committee in early December. She told student unions that there would be no discussion regarding the terms of the committee, and that students could opt not to participate. The student leaders from GSU, ASSU, UTSU, Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students, and the two satellite campus unions elected to leave.Misak said she will unilaterally set up a list of guidelines to follow, regardless of the committee’s presence.UTSU president Sandy Hudson said that participating in the advisory committee would have legitimized the administration’s claim on the authority to withhold funds. She said that the union was now in a better position to contest an admin decision and withhold its levy.Misak states in her letter to the members: “I had wanted student leaders to be participants in these discussions, but by their own volition, they will not be involved in it.” Grove-White remains optimistic, saying that regular meetings are going to be set up between student leaders and the provost, tackling real issues that matter to the students. “If we get some proper communication going,” he says, “it could be a really positive thing.”
One hard-earned win for the good fight
It took nine months of delays and stressful court proceedings, but charges against the “Fight Fees 14” (FF14) are finally starting to be withdrawn. Nine of the 14 activists have had their charges rescinded completely, and the remaining five expect to be vindicated soon. The fate of the students who remain threatened with investigation under U of T’s Code of Student Conduct (possibly resulting in suspension or expulsion) hangs in the balance.These withdrawals expose the charges for what they were: groundless and politically motivated actions, part of a crackdown on student dissent by the university administration. They were a result of the Crown’s failure to provide complete disclosure in court, most likely due to a lack of evidence and public pressure—the aftermath of last March’s peaceful Simcoe Hall sit-in against student fee hikes and unaffordable housing. The protest ended when police, acting on orders from senior U of T administrators, broke up the demonstration with aggression. The bail conditions imposed on alleged participants—which sought to restrict any protest against fee hikes on campus—were particularly worrisome to advocates of free speech.Despite the threats that March 20’s events revealed, protest wasn’t quelled. As the story gained momentum, more students and workers became outraged. The Committee for Just Education (CJE), which formed soon after the sit-in, was designed to withstand increasing pressure from university staff and police. Working towards similar goals—the elimination of tuition fees, student and worker parity in decision-making, and an end to the repression of dissent—they organized follow-up demonstrations and an emergency meeting at Steelworkers Hall. On April 10, a Governing Council meeting (during which tuition fee increases were approved) was relocated, and students were barred. When the University Affairs Board met in May to finalize tuition hikes, students came prepared. The Board acted predictably—the meeting was closed to students, then relocated to UTM.The administration’s attempt to silence opposition comes at a time when universities are embracing corporate interests at the expense of public education. U of T is entering the realm of for-profit education, through tuition fee increases and the encouragement of corporate involvement in research. Postsecondary education is moving out of reach for the vast majority of students as a result of rising tuition fees, while academic integrity is compromised.The abandonment of some FF14 charges is the result of political pressure from students, workers, and the community, as well as the case’s fundamental lack of substance. Unfortunately, despite students’ and workers’ clear message that the corporatization of education is unacceptable, the administration has shown no signs of amending its agenda to deregulate fees. We must act now to take control of our university, and to open its doors to our communities.Visit www.fightfees.ca or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about the struggle against inaccessible education, and what you can do to help.Semra Eylul Sevi is a member of the CJE and one of the “Fight Fees 14.”