U Winnipeg bans bottled water sales

Last week the University of Winnipeg became the first Canadian university to ban the sale of plastic water bottles on campus. In a referendum held by the U of W Students’ Association, almost 75 per cent of students voted in favour of the ban.

The sale of water bottles will be phased out by Fall 2009. Students will be encouraged to bring reusable bottles, and three water fountains will be installed in thoroughfares.

The campaign to ban plastic bottle has been ongoing for over a year, a joint effort between the Canadian Federation of Students, the Sierra Youth Club, and the Polaris Institute.

“Students at the University of Winnipeg have great pride for our campus,” said UWSA president Vinay Iyer. “The fact that we have joined with our administration and taken ownership over our environmental impact on campus sends a strong message across the country—it was a community effort.”

Not such a great nation

Under most circumstances, the abduction of children from loving homes is considered a crime, and creates a public outcry. When the children in question are Aboriginal and the country is Canada, the practice ceases to be a source of mass anger, confined to the realm of private shame. This is another skeleton in the closet of Native Canadian relations, and its recency turns our notions of Canadian identity as a just and inclusive nation on its head.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) estimates that between the years of approximately 1960 and 1990, upwards of 11,000 Aboriginal children (the actual numbers are likely much higher) were removed from their families and adopted into primarily non-Native homes. Many of these children were surrendered out of fear, their families subject to coercion by government officials and social workers. This period of government-supported abduction and forced adoptions peaked in the 1960s and would come to be known as the “sixties scoop”—a distressingly catchy, lighthearted title for a practice that could be fairly described as downright genocidal.

In recent years, history has slowly recognized the massive human rights violations perpetrated by Canada’s residential school initiatives, in which thousands of Native Canadians were transplanted from their homes and communities into mission boarding schools that aimed to “kill the Indian in the child” through a system of cultural alienation, marginalization, and abuse. By comparison, the sixties scoop remains largely overlooked, despite the fact that it served as a continuation of the residential schooling era’s traumas. How quickly we forget.

So much of Canadian identity is centred on an idea of inclusiveness. We proudly distance ourselves from the melting pot model of forced assimilation, opting to envision ourselves as part of a cultural mosaic made whole by its many-numbered parts. Though we are repeatedly faced with the consequences of our past—statistics of Aboriginal poverty, poor health, mental illness, and abuse as red flags of where we’ve gone awry—we often tiptoe around the darker truths of our history, like a family hiding a tremendous secret. The truth is incongruous with the way we, as self-identified Canadians, would like to see ourselves. Yet, it is a truth that thousands of Native Canadians face every day.

Many of the adopted scoop children are now adults seeking to reunite with their families and communities of origin. These individuals face a bevy of obstacles with regard to processes of reunification. Over the passing decades, many birth parents and elders died. Siblings have scattered, and names have been changed. Practical concerns are compounded by muddied questions of identity and assimilation. How, after all, does one re-enter a community after a lifetime of indoctrination against it?

For those who have survived the scoop, the quest for recognition and restoration is under way, with a multi-million-dollar class-action lawsuit filed against the Attorney General of Canada in the Ontario Superior Court. According to a recent Toronto Star report, the claim charges government for mishandling its constitutional responsibility to Aboriginal people by delegating child welfare services to Ontario, which the claim says resulted in the erasure of Aboriginal identities and constitutes “cultural genocide.” This lawsuit comes nearly 18 months after the federal government established a $1.9-billion reparations plan for victims of the nearly 150-year legacy of residential schools in Canada, followed by a formal apology by PM Stephen Harper last June. While it would be naïve to believe that a similar victory for those affected by a policy of forced adoption would be a cure-all, acknowledgment would be a good start.

Obama Watch

It’s been just over 60 days since the inauguration, but expectations of President Obama could not be any higher. The pundit-ocracy has been in a state of obsession, with calls for immediate action and demands of quick results in repairing the economy. Yet no particular dollar figure or policy implementation has successfully assuaged the media’s anxiety.

Listening to the mainstream press for an extended period of time could convince anyone that the president has not lived up to the role of economic saviour. Furthermore, he hasn’t managed to end world hunger or bring peace to all nations with the snap of his fingers. What pundits have failed to recognize is that the White House has been incremental in their plans for relieving distressed financial institutions of their “toxic” burdens: funnelling billions of dollars to banks via the federal bailout program, carrying out a stimulus package which has already gone into effect, and structuring, with meticulous detail, a workable budget to reduce the deficit. On top of all the economic policies put forth, a number of significant executive decisions have been signed into law, some overturning Bush’s controversial bans. One would think that this was sufficient for such a young presidency. Apparently, not so.

In light of his alleged ineffectiveness as a leader, President Obama has taken to the cameras in order to broadcast his plans to a much larger audience. He’s been on a whirlwind tour, starting off last week in Los Angeles, where he addressed a packed town hall audience with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger during the day and chatted with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show at night. On Sunday, he was interviewed on 60 Minutes. On Tuesday night, he held a second press conference at the White House. During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Obama was criticized for speaking in a too “professorial” manner, but in these times, does it really hurt Americans (or the country’s image) to have a president that is knowledgeable and self-assured in discussing the economy?

No doubt, there will be some in the press that disapprove of his demeanour or oratorical style, but the aim of these appearances was to convey confidence and carefully explain the complexities of economic policy to average citizens. This steady salesman-like approach was epitomized at Tuesday night’s press conference, where the president pushed for optimism and hope, and emphasized the need for comprehensive policies that address the top domestic concerns.

The outcome of the administration’s actions to stabilize the economy and stifle rising unemployment has yet to be seen in full scope, but what has been delivered thus far has been significant. Obama’s decision to take his arguments to primetime television was a good one. It’s an excellent advertising tool for the White House, promoting openness and accountability, and it benefits the TV programs by giving their producers some of the highest ratings in years. The message tug-of-war will likely play on, as the media tries to ingrain inaccurate perceptions of the president into the public consciousness. But Obama has style, substance, and strong approval ratings on his side.

Living Arts: My Super Bowl

I’ve always been an art lover.

Growing up, my house was the one with beautiful paintings lining the walls, the rare book library gleaming on the shelves upstairs, the classic 45s spinning on the record player. I decided to become a critic because appreciating the finest in artistic pursuits is the only way I know.

Yet for as long as I can remember, the act of making art has been the bane of my existence. I can’t draw, paint, sculpt, or act to save my life. I can operate a standard camera, but take a beautiful photograph? Forget about it.

While it’s true that I spent four years singing in an indie band, my inability to play any instrument proficiently led me to never consider myself a true musician.

In fact, my lack of artistic skill has been a constant source of frustration, so when it was time to write this piece, I decided to meet the challenge head on.

I dreamt up the idea of these Living Arts features because I wanted to see U of T students getting involved instead of standing silently in the audience. I knew it would be difficult, but I was determined to participate. If it meant getting my hands dirty and risking personal embarrassment, well, so be it.

I resolved to avoid any medium in which I needed to produce a realistic or captivating image, so sketching and painting went out the window immediately. I needed something that any idiot could do, given the right materials and a few minutes training.

Luckily, it wasn’t long before I hit upon the art form that matched my limited skill set—pottery. No messy paint, no colour schemes, no designs of any kind. How hard could it be?

I’ve long been an admirer of the Gardiner Museum of ceramic art, which offers clay studio classes twice a week. It seemed like a perfect fit.

For the uninitiated, the Gardiner is like the ROM’s low-key, attractive cousin. Located right across University Avenue, next to Victoria College’s girls-only residence Annesley Hall, the Gardiner has been through Toronto’s 21st century museum renaissance phase and emerged with a gorgeous collection of sleek interior designs and stunning ceramics.

As my sister Caroline and I descended into the Gardiner’s immaculate basement, sparkling white walls and glass partitions made up the clay studio that would be the setting of my triumph or tragedy.

The kindly instructor Karen provided us with a brisk three-minute tutorial—the many steps of which, I must admit, slipped my mind almost immediately.

As we sat down and began kneading the first bits of clay, Caroline was kind enough to deliver a word of advice: “Focus on your hands, not the piece.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what she was talking about, but it was easy for her to be confident. She’s an old pro when it comes to pottery. As a child, Caroline was the type of girl who had her birthday party at a ceramic painting studio. I took my buddies to a baseball game.

I swallowed my pride and accepted whatever help she could offer me. Sibling rivalry could wait until we took part in something that I wasn’t completely hopeless at.

At first, I was completely unaware of exactly how pottery works. Here’s the simplest explanation:

You grab a chunk of dry clay, splash some water on it, and smack it onto a flat metal wheel whose revolutions are controlled by a pedal at your feet. You begin by pressing your thumbs into the middle of the clay, and slowly pull outwards to create a bowl shape. My task was to take these simple steps and translate them into something that I’d be able to eat my Lucky Charms out of. To put it simply, I was scared.

I sat down to face the wheel, my only ally. This was where Caroline’s words came in handy. It’s imperative to work the clay by feel rather than sight.

I quickly learned the most important attribute of a great pottery artisan—a steady hand. With the wheel spinning and your hands massaging the clay into the perfect form, one false twitch of the thumb and your work goes from championship bowl to unidentified soggy mess.

My first realization was a pathetic one—I had horrible pedal control. I’d get the clay spinning and inadvertently hit the accelerator just when things were looking up.

My first two attempts were miserable failures. I overstretched my first bowl to the point that it flattened out like a vinyl record. I contemplated turning it into a dinner plate, but that would have been taking the easy way out.

An hour went by as I screwed up bowl number two. I seem to remember it at one point resembling a candle holder, but the details are sketchy at best. Novices all around me were beginning to craft fine looking pieces. Could I really be capable of screwing this up?

I was running out of time. My third chance would be my last. I got the wheel spinning and the basics were there, but I needed some one-on-one guidance.

“Karen!” I called out. “Over here!”

Karen approached and took stock of my situation. Her invaluable pep talk gave me the shot of confidence I needed to see it through to completion.

It was large enough, solid enough, just the right size for a hearty serving of chicken noodle. It was complete.

I beamed down at my finished piece: a practical, if not quite flashy, soup bowl. And was I ever proud.

I looked at my community of pottery makers around the table. To my surprise, everyone was wowed. Even the silent tough guy at the corner wheel cracked a smile and said, “Look at him—he doesn’t want to touch it. He’s savouring the moment.” He was right.

As time expired, I lifted my bowl and delicately placed it on the trolley to be fired, the technical term describing the kilning process that turns clay into ceramic. I had six weeks to pick up my baby and bring it home.

The last step in the process was designed to be the easiest—stamping my initials into my bowl. By this point, I was more than cocky. I had done the impossible, and I wielded the wooden stamps with passion and verve, the final touches on my masterpiece.

I looked down in horror to discover that the D was backwards.

I laughed out loud and passed off my error as an homage to carefree, fingers-in-the-clay, kindergarten-style artwork. Which, all things considered, is exactly what it was.

The Gardiner Museum hosts drop-in clay studios every Friday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. Tickets are $8 for students and go on sale 30 minutes prior to each session.

Sorrow in the sea

A destructive transformation is approaching, and its seeds are germinating in our oceans. These are the warnings of Alanna Mitchell, associate of the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the 2008 Atkinson fellow for public policy, in her most recent contribution to the war against climate change, Sea Sick: The Global Oceans in Crisis. We must heed these admonitions because, as Mitchell writes, “the vital signs of this critical medium of life are showing clear signs of distress.”

Yes, that big pool in our backyard is in peril. It has fallen into misuse and neglect, without much concern from its land-dwelling assailants. It’s unfortunate that the oceans are so easy to ignore, Mitchell points out, even though they make up 99 per cent of the living space on the planet.

Overfishing, chemical dumping, rising sea levels, carbon in the atmosphere, coral bleaching—we’ve all heard of these phenomena, but never have they been combined into a single unified picture of the ocean’s health. Indeed, this is what makes Sea Sick so unique; as a former Globe and Mail environmental reporter, Mitchell’s journalistic expertise makes all the pieces fit.

It’s a complex puzzle stemming from her global travels, combining interviews with leading marine scientists with her first-hand experience in the depths of the ocean.

In a recent interview with The Varsity, Mitchell describes one such journey to the Dry Tortugas, 914 metres into the deep blue. She traveled with a group of marine biologists in search of genetic material for a potential cancer treatment. Enclosed in a metallic shell that served as her only protection from the crushing pressure, her fear was palpable. “It was part of the planet that no one had ever seen before,” she says. “It was transformational—an almost otherworldly experience. It was mind altering, game changing.”

Mitchell explains that the ocean can be directly connected to our health. However, the relationship is reciprocal. The ocean will lose its ability to offer us its bounty if we continue on our current ruinous path.

Evidence of a colossal change in the chemistry of the ocean is mounting. Mitchell describes it to me as a “switch of life”—as the mechanisms of the global ocean change, life as we know it will simply die out, making way for an entirely new system. This is a terrifying prospect because, as she reiterates multiple times, “most of life is in the ocean.”

One concern which could lead to this “switch” is the rising level of acidity in the ocean, something that has remained relatively constant for millions of years. “Putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which then gets absorbed into the ocean, is changing the pH of the whole global ocean. It’s critically important because life exists within a narrow range of pH,” Mitchell explains. “We’re getting to the point where the life that exists in our ocean is going to be disconnected from its evolutionary pH.” Though it’s now been widely accepted, this theory was controversial as little as three years ago.

Another problem is fish farming practices. “If you’re going to do fish farming, which a lot of people say is the answer to the protein crisis that is coming to the planet, you’ll have to think of local species that are low on the food chain and how not to damage the ecosystem,” she says. “And that’s what’s happening in China, a country that produces half of the world’s farmed fish. They’re taking a huge bunches of the mangroves [and destroying them]. It’s much like slash and burn agriculture in the ocean. This part of the ecosystem is being damaged for short term aquaculture profit.”

However, Mitchell doesn’t entirely share her contemporaries’ opinions of China. In his most recent book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas Friedman expresses a fear of China’s growing economy and their budding propensity to be more “American.” He claims that their destructive path—specifically the unrestrained usage of coal burning power plants—will determine the fate of the planet, provided the west doesn’t set a proper example.

“They have green policies, but [whether] they’re on the path to actually implementing these policies has yet to be seen,” Mitchell explains. “Conceptually, [China is] much further ahead than we are in Canada. You read their policies and it’s like reading a manifesto from an environmental NGO. Our government policies are nowhere near as advanced as the policies in China. If there’s a hope in the world, that’s where it is.”

Despite the book’s gloomy forecasting, Mitchell is somewhat optimistic; for her, the election of Barack Obama seems to indicate a positive turn in the effort to protect the environment. “The key point will be at the climate talks in Copenhagen in December of this year—that’s when the world will have to decide what will happen after Kyoto. What the U.S. will agree to will be critical.”

According to Mitchell, the consequences of the conference will be staggering. “I honestly believe that the drop dead point is December 2009,” she asserts. “I think something dramatic has to have happened by the time those leaders come out of that conference. It has to be big, it has to be substantial, it has to be reachable, people have to actually believe it, and it’s going to have to be a lot more than what they’re talking about now for anything significant to happen.”

U of T plans to rake in profits from ancillary fees

U of T’s ancillary services are losing money, but the university has ambitious plans to turn a profit in three years’ time. The University Affairs Board met on Tuesday, March 17, to discuss the numbers for ancillary services, which cover residences, food and beverage services, parking, conference services, and Hart House.

With a forecasted net loss of $1.9 million for the 2008-09 budget, the university outlined plans to break even by 2011 and generate a net income of $1.5 million in 2012. Residences project a revenue growth of three to six per cent, with the exception of UTM, Innis College, and New College, according to the UAB report.

Ancillary services were once paid for by the university as part of its operating budget. In 1993, Governing Council approved the motion that these fees were non-academic and passed them on to students.

“It’s a bad idea because education is not supposed to be a commodity,” said UTSU president Sandy Hudson. “By downloading these costs onto students, they are saying that the university, and therefore, the government, no longer has the responsibility to pay for it. And by making a profit, they are saying that there is no expectation that the government should be giving them money.”

The UAB report says the planned 15 per cent revenue growth from 2010 to 2014 will be mainly due to revenue increases from residences and conference operations. Parking is expected to bring in $1.1 million, while Hart House has a projected net loss of $1.5 million.

APUS executive Joeita Gupta criticized the move to make ancillary services profitable. “You find there’s an increase in ancillary fees but a decrease in the amount of student space available for housing, because they took two floors of the [New College] residence and converted that to admin offices. So students pay more for less.” The 20 per cent rate increase at the New College residence bumped U of T’s 2009 revenue by $900,000.

The director of business services at New College, Ron Vander Kraats, said the conversion made residence more affordable. “If we hadn’t rented out that space, then students would have to absorb a higher fee increase for the financials of the residence to be the same. This is because the market value of downtown office space is higher than what we can charge our students for residence space.”

“Often profits of this nature go into general university revenue to benefit all of our students and not just those in residence,” added Vander Kraats, referring to the projected revenue.

Jason Marin, president of the New College Student Association said students should look to the province rather than U of T when it comes to fee increases. Hudson suggested a similar course of action, but said it will require a collaborative effort between students and the administration.

Free the music

Marketed as a film about the art of audio collage, RiP: a Remix Manifesto is a populist political documentary about the application of outmoded copyright models to new technologies. It’s a documentary that practically crackles with righteous anger, showing how the plight of the lowly copy criminal is quickly becoming a global struggle between human creativity and the conservative forces trying to stop it.

Brett Gaylor’s film is less a remix than a mashup, flirting with the many ideas and individuals wrapped up in the battle over restrictive copyright laws in the new millennium. The film takes a wide view of the “Copy Left” movement; it’s as much about remixes as filesharing, the corporatization of culture, and global poverty.

Gaylor is content to rage against many machines at once, and the results are largely eviscerating. He’s armed with a strong historical perspective on the issue—calling out The Rolling Stones, twentieth century blues musicians, and Walt Disney for their piracy of ideas (and subsequent attempts to stop others from doing the same thing).

The director’s roving camera follows Pittsburgh mashup DJ Girl Talk, Creative Commons inventor Lawrence Lessig, and even children in the slums of Sao Paulo to show how copyright law is inhibiting creative potential.

The film is at its best when it allows copy reform advocates to argue their case. One particularly affecting sequence involves Lessig giving a lecture on how copyright criminalizes nearly everyone with a computer. The consumption and production of art is changing, he argues, so why isn’t the world changing with it? It’s a difficult point to refute.

Yet while the film forwards an important idea, its director falls prey to familiar temptations faced by many recent popular documentaries. One scene in which Gaylor ambushes an older patent office employee to show her a Girl Talk video practically reeks of Michael Moore, though he fails to secure the same humiliating payoff.

Like too many left wing docs, the film presents a portrait of what’s wrong without allowing for a way forward. Sure, the business models of yesterday may not suit the current music industry, but what kind of industry will be created to replace it? Gaylor places too much faith in the Radiohead model of distribution, suggesting that free, open downloading marks a way forward for all artists, while record companies will have to accept their coming obsolesce as part of cultural evolution. This conclusion is far too idealistic, but an attempted prescription is at least welcome.

That said, RiP provides a searing depiction of how yesterday’s copyright laws are hindering today’s creativity. The point is vitally important, and it’s not given the political attention it’s due. Anyone concerned with the future of culture—let alone copyright—should at least consider the film’s thesis.

Flat fees proposed for Arts and Science faculty

All full-time first-year Arts and Science students will have to pay a set fee for five courses starting next September, regardless of their actual course load, if a proposal from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is passed. Current students will pay on a per-course basis for the next five years.

“This is the commoditization of education. It’s creating yet another barrier for students,” said Colum Grove-White, president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union.

The implementation of flat fees was first raised as an option a few weeks ago, when the Faculty of Arts and Science realized it won’t receive endowment payouts, and will be facing a $9 million deficit. Ten out of the 20 Ontario universities already have flat fees.

“We are trying to find ways to protect the quality of our undergraduate programs when budget cuts and loss of endowments pose a significant threat,” said Meric Gertler, dean of Arts and Science. “Many student union leaders don’t see how fixed tuition rates will benefit students.”

“The administration has always maintained that they want to better the student experience, but if you look at those students who are engaged in campus life, very few of them have a full course load,” said Sandy Hudson, president of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

When asked about other funding options, Gertler said the faculty has opted for flat fees because higher tuition rates generate more government funding.

The faculty has been researching flat fees since the summer. But in a March 6 memorandum where Gerlter addresses the faculty’s deficit, there is no mention of program fees.

Both student union presidents agreed the proposal is being rushed through.

“Other options need to be explored. We don’t know how these fees will affect students,” said Grove-White.

“Students take fewer courses for a variety of reasons. Many want to take three to four courses and work full-time so that they can pay for university without having to take any loans.”

Under the new program, students will now have to decide whether they want to drop down to part-time status with 2.5 courses or increase their course load and get more bang for their buck.

Gertler said U of T will be in a better position to hand out financial aid, with the university generating more revenue from tuition fees, and possibly getting a larger cut of provincial funding.

“We will certainly respond positively to students’ needs. As student tuition costs go up, the full program fee will be in a student’s cost structure, making them eligible for more financial assistance,” he said.

Expected benefits include smaller classroom sizes and more pay for teaching assistants. But no timeline is set as to when these benefits will come into play.

To be implemented, the proposal will have to pass at the Faculty of Arts and Science council on April 6. It will then head to the Governing Council Business Board, and finally the Governing Council at the end of May.

UTSU and ASSU are holding an information session for students at noon on Thursday, March 26, in the UTSU building at 12 Hart House Circle.