Pro-choice camp overwhelms anti-abortion protest

The pro-lifers were outnumbered and backed into a corner at this year’s annual face off between pro- and anti-abortion protestors at Harbord and St. George. A group of 25 from the Centre for Women and Trans People drowned out the five from U of T students for Life, as both sides chanted and waved posters.

Clad in pink shirts and raising placards that read “Women have the right to choose!” and “Choice matters,” protestors braved the heavy snow and passed out flyers and pins to students passing one of the highest traffic areas on campus.

The campaign by U of T Students for Life was not publicized, but pro-choicers say they found out about it early enough to prepare a counter-protest. The lifers, who held the event to protest the 20th anniversary of the Morgentaler Decision that legalized abortion, held posters reading “Abortion kills children” and chanted, “Women united will never be defeated.”

The pro-choice protestors said abortion is not the murder of a person, as defined by Canadian courts, a fetus is not legally considered a person. On moral grounds, they added, forcing a woman to have a child against her will is against Canadian values.

Students for Life also holds a yearly protest late in the winter semester called the Genocide Awareness Project, where they compare abortion to genocide. GAP has seen admin objections on campuses due to graphic images. At U of T, the annual protest traditionally takes place at St. George and Harbord.

Bell curve this

If there is a hell, entrance will certainly be bell-curved, and University of Toronto students will be particularly well prepared. U of T’s great leaders are altering students’ grades with little regard for the ethical status of this practice, or what questions it might raise about the university itself.

As a student assistant in a college registrar’s office, I’ve dealt with the issue of grade adjustment more than once. Without fail, the affected student wants to know what he or she can do about it. The answer I have to give is squat. The system is stacked firmly against students, as it so often is at U of T. Bureaucrats and bureaucratically-minded professors make the rules—all we can do is follow them.

The Faculty of Arts and Science Calendar outlines the procedure for adjusting grades. It states explicitly that “the departmental review committee, through the Chair, and the Faculty review committee, through the Dean, have the right…to adjust marks where there is an obvious and unexplained discrepancy between the marks submitted and the perceived standards of the Faculty.” Students take note: administrators have the right to change the grade you earned if they don’t like it. And there is nothing you can do about it.

Several important issues are raised here, including the autonomy of our instructors. As U of T students, we’ve all heard the adage that at Harvard, if a professor gives out too many C’s, she has to go before a committee to defend her grading policy. At U of T, the inverse holds true: if a professor gives out too many A’s, she has to go before a committee to defend her methods. This could cue a discussion about our inferiority complex, but more importantly, it demonstrates that professors are not truly in control of the grades they hand out. Concerns about “Faculty standards” outweigh worries about an instructor’s professional judgment, eroding the fundamental relationship between teacher and student on which a university is built.

The premise that the grade you earn should be the grade you get is perfectly fair. Alterations to earned grades, whether they are inflated or deflated, are faulted in both the simplest sense—students do not receive what they have earned—and in the sense of the long-term value of a university education. If marks are no longer based solely on a student’s performance as evaluated by a professor, it breaks down that fundamental relationship.

For anyone who cares deeply about the future of higher education and about the University of Toronto specifically, grade alteration ought to provoke outrage. A university of this size invariably has a small army of administrative personnel, including many professors who have become administrators in one capacity or another. However, the threat that this army poses to the relationship between students and professors cannot be ignored. If the university has any hope of remaining relevant—and I’m sure that it does—we have to protect the autonomy of instructors and the rights of students. Among these rights ought to be the right to receive a fair, unadjusted grade reflecting your performance, not the perceived standards of the Faculty of Arts and Science.

Province orders York union back to work

Things are looking up for students at York, who may be back to school on Monday.

Last night at 10 p.m., the TA’s union announced it was dropping its lawsuit against the Ontario government for creating back-to-work legislation.

“We have done everything in our power to stand up for the quality and accessibility of education at York in this round of negotiations but, for now, it’s time to get our students back to class,” said CUPE 3903 spokesperson Tyler Shipley.

Bill 145, “York University Labour Disputes Resolution Act,” will have its third reading today at 10:30 a.m. The soon-to-be-defeated union is holding a rally at the same time to “celebrate and honour all that we have done and achieved over 85 days of strike,” according to its website.

On Sunday, Queen’s Park held a special sitting to propose the bill. After the NDP blocked the first reading, the bill needed a second and third reading. Had it passed at the first reading, students would have already returned to class.

Once approved, the bill will need royal assent by the Lieutenant Governor, followed by a 24-hour period before students can return to class.

York’s last strike record was some 76 days, which took place in 2000-2001.

The union, which represents 3,300 striking employees, warned it would continue pursuing negotiations in the future.

“York has never been committed to the process,” Shipley told The Varsity. “There was no deadlock here. There was simply one side that refused to bargain.”

York’s struggle is seen as a prelude to a possible province-wide university strike in 2010 that would affect 330,000 students.

CUPE has worked to synchronize most of its Ontario university contracts to expire next year. This raises the possibility that multiple university unions will unite in labour negotiations and collaborate on a strike if dissatisfied.

Although some CUPE unions only represent secondary staff, such as food and custodial workers, others, including U of T and Ryerson, represent teaching assistants and contract faculty.

The York Federation of Students has faced criticism for siding with CUPE. YFS recently offered all 50,000 undergrads $100 each as part of a relief fund and is petitioning university officials to refund students for lost tuition.

The union also launched the “Don’t Pay a Cent” campaign, urging students not to pay any fees, although the university had already postponed payment deadlines until classes resume. Their constituents are way ahead of them. “I do not feel represented by Osman and Co. so will I get my membership fee back?” wrote Amrisha Sharma in the York Strike Info Facebook group.

A class-action lawsuit was announced Sunday against York University, on the basis of violating the Consumer Protection Act.

The strike, which started Nov. 6, has been a source of much media attention, generating over 50 Facebook groups. Endless demonstrations have taken place, including a Tuesday march from the Ministry of Labour to Queen’s Park where four people were charged for assaulting and obstructing police.

Shipley said the arrested “were victims of police incitement” who have since been released.

With files from Saron Ghebressellassie

Pie in the sky

Nothing pierces the veneer of the powerful like a cranberry crumble

As you might have guessed, Wikipedia defines “pieing” as the simple act of throwing a pie at someone. But there’s meaning behind the dollop of strawberry rhubarb staining the corporate bad guy’s sleeve, or the apple cobbler soaring onto an elevated podium. Originating from slapstick comedy, pieing is now used for political purposes—a relatively harmless way for the powerless to express political angst.

Lately, the practice has made a comeback. Recent victims have included rebellious English journalist Jeremy Clarkson, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, one-time presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, and writer David Horowitz. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was creamed just before presenting a speech to Brown University.

While pastry-hurling may be undignified, it serves as a statement more than a criminal act. The cranberry crumble is not hurled with the intention of bodily damage, but as a symbol of absurdity—a way of laughing in the face of the powers that be.

Pieing is activism. It urges members of congress to make choices that benefit the majority. It disrupts a speech, exposing the shadowy speaker for what he or she really is. The act of throwing a pie is not a personal attack. It is an attack on hubris, corruption, and greed. The shame it causes to politicians can be constructive: it can motivate authorities to change their behaviour. Indeed, pieing exposes lies, misdeeds, and injustices by harnessing disorder. How delicious.

U of T to buy back planetarium

As proof of changing times, a property given away in 1967 now costs $22 million. U of T announced on Monday that it is buying and developing the planetarium south of the Royal Ontario Museum as part of an ongoing expansion of the St. George campus.

The McLaughlin Planetarium was given to the ROM from U of T in 1967, free of charge. Since 1995, the building has been closed to the public and used as office and storage space. Though there has been considerable interest in the location, all development projects so far have been stifled.

The first major commercial proposal for the space in recent years was withdrawn after public opposition that then-director of the ROM William Thorsell called “too deep and broad” to defeat. Eighteen months later a 46-storey condominium tower was proposed. U of T’s decision to buy the building officially marks the termination of any such plan.

Some of the strongest criticism of a residential project came from the university. There is speculation that it played a significant role in stalling the various development projects, although until now the university has not expressed interest in the location.

President David Naylor called the situation “a win-win for U of T, the ROM, and the public,” claiming that “the acquisition will deliver long-term benefits to our students and our community and provide much-needed room for the expansion of U of T’s academic facilities.” The specific use of the site remains undetermined. University spokesperson Robert Steiner said the land would ease the “massive space crunch at the St. George campus.”

VIC411: from ‘Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature’ to ‘Natures of Documentary’

Courses often change their designations while maintaining a more or less consistent syllabus, but never to my knowledge has a course maintained its designation while completely changing the course material. Until now, that is. Graduating literary and film students, as well as curious students like myself, signed up for VIC411: Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature during the summer. We looked forward to a course that was highly praised by those who had taken it in the past. Unbeknownst to us, and much to our dismay, someone had decided that VIC411: Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature was to be VIC411: Natures of Documentary. This someone made the change without notifying the students enrolled, telling departments cross-listing the course, or even updating the information on ROSI (not that ROSI is by any means reliable.) Today the course still appears under the designation, VIC411: Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature, on ROSI. Not even the slightest effort was made on behalf of graduating students, not to mention students taking the course to fulfill a program requirement.

The only alert to undergrads about the change was far from sufficient: an update to the one paragraph course description on the Victoria College website. It was as if the department had tried not to freak out students by announcing the sudden and rather drastic changes. The course was renamed Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature: Natures of Documentary, yet the syllabus makes no reference to either postmodernist theories or literature. Not only that, but no other department/program website where the course was cross-listed was updated, meaning that the departments partnered with Victoria College had not been notified of the change either. The Cinema Studies Institute has not recognized the change, despite the course being part of its Category D: Interdisciplinary Courses.

This lack of communication is not only disrespectful, it is incomprehensible. The matter was not discussed or negotiated with students, the major stakeholders. The administration covered their tracks with a disclaimer: “All course descriptions are subject to change”.

Part of our frustration is that we do not understand the reason for the changes. Students were told that the course was modified because Julian Patrick, the professor teaching Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature, is on sabbatical. According to the regularly updated Victoria College website, Julian Patrick is currently teaching courses both at Victoria College and in the English Department, which means he is not on sabbatical. If a professor is unavailable to teach a course, for whatever reason, the course should either be cancelled or a replacement professor should be recruited—to teach the same course. This is not only a matter of miscommunication, but deliberate misinformation.

Federal budget gives campuses a facelift

As Canadians debate the 2009 budget released Tuesday, some provisions may provide assistance to student job-seekers and university infrastructure.

A $12 billion allotment goes to university infrastructure, part of an $85-billion five-year stimulus package. “Accelerating repairs, maintenance and construction at universities and colleges will provide substantial stimulus in communities across Canada,” reads the online budget summary. Schools can definitely use the cash: the Canadian Association of University Business Officers estimates a collective deferred maintenance backlog of $5 billion for Canadian universities.

The budget also promises to improve summer job prospects by funding the Canada Summer Jobs program with $20 million over two years. An additional one-time $15 million grant will go to the YMCA and YWCA to provide new internships. Short-term funds for Canada Graduate Scholarships will see another $87 million, and science and business internships, $3.5 million.

“We are pleased that the government has not forgotten post-secondary education when planning for infrastructure spending across the country,” said Trevor Mayoh, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. “However, if the government of Canada truly wants to create the ‘jobs of tomorrow’ then serious stimulus monies must be committed to enhance access to and persistence in higher education.”

OUSA has several recommendations for investing in postsecondary education, such as increasing up-front grants to students, extending the non-repayment period for Canada Student Loans from the current six months to 12 months, and making the period interest free.

Short and sweet

As part of its selection of the top 10 Canadian films of the year, the Toronto International Film Festival Group also compiles a list of the year’s finest homegrown shorts. 2008’s picks are predictably uneven, but the mix contains enough worthwhile pieces to attest to our fair nation’s perennially underrated cinematic prowess. The shorts will screen during two programmes at Cinemathèque Ontario, making stimulating viewing for those who want to support our film industry but just can’t work up the emotional energy to take in Atom Egoyan’s latest.

Patrick Gaze’s Mon Nom Est Victor Gazon is a dark, dark comedy—very well made, but almost excruciating to watch. Victor, the ten-year-old narrator, is shocked to learn that both his uncle and an older student at his school have recently committed suicide. After reasoning “my mom said that my uncle committed suicide ‘cause there were more things that made him sad than things that made him happy,” Victor tallies up the good and bad things in his life to decide whether or not he too should do the deed. Gaze knows how to manipulate his audience (with his blend of comedy and tragedy, I was reminded of Hitchcock’s quote about “playing the audience like a piano”), and he captures his protagonist’s childlike innocence perfectly—perhaps a little too perfectly.

Next Floor, by Maelström director Denis Villeneuve, is a giddy absurdist satire about the calamitous happenings at a lavish dinner party with a group of wealthy upper-class men. Villeneuve’s visual style is reminiscent of the baroquely formal landscapes of Terry Gilliam’s bourgeois parodies (particularly Brazil), and his dry wit and strong sense of comedic timing make the film’s central joke work.

Kazik Radwanski’s Princess Margaret Blvd. is an effective impressionistic and bittersweet film about an old woman’s gradual submission to Alzheimer’s, evocative in its treatment of the disease. Similarly emotive is Mike Rollo’s Ghosts and Gravel Roads, an atmospheric portrait of empty landscapes and abandoned locations in southern Saskatchewan. Theodore Ushev’s Drux Flux is a politically charged animated film, which contrasts images of industry and Soviet propaganda in a montage style that can only be compared to Sergei Eisenstein.

Less successful is Semi Chellas’ Green Door, a complex, ambitious attempt to weave several unrequited love stories and mistaken identity shenanigans amongst six apartment dwellers, two of whom are dead or dying (one of whom is played by ubiquitous Canadian media figure Don McKellar). Green Door is fitfully amusing, but tries to cram too much into its 13-minute running time. It’s hard to be impressed by complex character relations when the characters themselves aren’t given enough time to develop.

Kevin Lee Burton’s Nikamowin (Song) begins with voice-over of a Cree Canadian asking another Cree why he does not speak his tribe’s language. The rest of the film depicts different Canadian landscapes to the sound of distorted, rhythmically enhanced Cree audio. The prologue suggests that the film’s goal is to make a case for the beauty of the Cree language…but wouldn’t any language sound beautiful if subjected to so much electronic manipulation?

The biggest puzzler in the roster is Chris Chong Chan Fui’s Block B. It’s hard to describe, but imagine a cross between Jacques Tati’s Play Time and Andy Warhol’s Empire, and you might have an idea. This 20-minute film is comprised of two ten-minute shots of an Indian apartment building, with copious day-to-day activity barely visible on each of the floors. “Observational cinema at its most extreme and audacious,” writes Alex Rogalski in the Cinemathèque programme, and that’s definitely accurate. The film is visually beautiful, thematically rich (Rogalski notes that we “learn much about the social structure of the Indian working class” —perhaps we also view the activity from the perspective of God?), and very trying on the viewer’s patience. Certainly the silver screen is the only way to really appreciate this undeniably unique achievement.

The best of the shorts is Marie-Josee Saint-Pierre’s Passages. Animated in sparse black-and-white (the background is black, while shifting, malleable foreground figures are thin, white outlines), Passages is a first-person account of Saint-Pierre’s ordeal with the Canadian health care system while delivering her baby. Treated by hospital staff seen as incompetent and lacking empathy (they are depicted as clowns, robots, and wild animals in the animation), her baby nearly dies from the results of a botched birth. Passages is the angriest and most powerful of the shorts, and also the one that plays with the cinematic form to the greatest effect.

Programme 1 plays at Cinemathèque Ontario on January 31st at 9:15 p.m. It contains Ghosts and Gravel Roads, Drux Flux, Green Door, Next Floor, and Block B.

Programme 2 plays on February 1st at 7:15 p.m. It contains Mon Nom Est Victor Gazon, Nikamowin (Song), Princess Margaret Blvd, Passages, and La Battue.